Archive for June 2nd, 2011

Oh, come on George!

George Lucas really needs to go back to his roots. He’s too far removed from the way he made Star Wars in 1977: that is, with a shoestring budget of $13 mil (about $50 mil in today’s money). He now says that he needs a “different technology” to make it economically feasible to shoot the Star Wars long-promised TV show at 1/10th of the cost. But he never explained what that new technology could be. If he means “let me think of a scene and as of magic let it materialize on a computer“, then I think that he (and I) will be long dead before such technology exists.

From what I understand from his mumblings, is that he wants to have the feature-film look & feel on TV. He wants to create worlds, not scenes in crummy rooms that try to hide their cheapness with dark lighting. He wants his characters go from one planet to another and experience these different planets exactly as they are in his mind. No murky/dark-ish/fake CGI as in most other shows, but rather crispy-clear views of how these worlds look like (example: Naboo vs Caprica). He wants to have CGI buildings, landscapes, characters, animals, and what not. While CGI alone do not make a good story (and his prequels are a good example of that), his vision as a fantasy filmmaker is sound. See, what George Lucas is selling is the escapism to a set of worlds in another galaxy, not necessarily the cheesiness that comes out of the Bad Empire vs the Good Jedi. And for that (very visual) vision, I estimate that he probably got a quote for about $25 million per episode. Which is of course too expensive for TV standards. And that scared him away.

What Lucas doesn’t get is that all that he wants to do can be done for $5mil per episode, tops. If he’s careful with budget it can even be done for $3 mil. But he has to change the way he thinks. He has to go grass-root. Here are some pointers:

– Instead of the 100 or 400 episodes he reportedly wants to make, he should only make 3 seasons with 12 or 16 episodes each. If he goes on and on and on with the series, his whole franchise will wear off in importance. Instead, 3 seasons is the right amount to keep the viewership at bay, and have a serialized premise that gets a real ending (rather than, “oops, we got canceled, we’ll have to end in a cliffhanger”). And of course, cast talented, but unknown actors.

– All shooting should be done in another country. He already used Morocco for Star Wars, and Australia, but China is the best place to shoot a TV version of his Star Wars vision. Not because it’s even cheaper there, but because of its bio-diversity. In China, Lucas would be able to emulate different planets for cheap: scorching hot deserts? Check. Jungles? Check. Crazy-looking mountains? Check. Snow? Check. Steppes? Check. Amazing lakes & rivers? Check. Rice land-fields? Check. Mist? Check. Ice? Check. All can be done using the same studio company that would make sure the cast, crew and equipment gets to the right places at the right time. Green screen work could be done on the spot, outdoors, and on a studio at a major city. Chinese know how to go big, by putting lots of labor into a given problem. And labor is ultra-cheap there. Props would be carved fast and cheap too. Lucas would only need to kiss some ass in the Chinese government to let him shoot there, as the Rebels vs the Empire theme is pretty political.

– Regarding FX, the biggest mistake Lucas can make is to ask his own San Francisco-based ILM company to do the job. ILM is a very expensive company to run, so even at wholesale prices they won’t be able to deliver the goods at a low-enough price. Instead, I’m thinking more of either China again, or better, South America. The software and render-farms are not prohibitively expensive anymore, and even off-the-shelf apps can do wonders in the right hands. Look at SGU’s FX for example, made by a small 3D software house in Vancouver. This is the best FX work done for TV so far, in my opinion. If you have Netflix, stream the SGU episode “The Greater Good” to experience the amazing CGI yourselves.

Consider that SGU cost $2.5mil per episode, which is cheaper than the US TV average of $3mil per primetime episode. “Mad Men”, with its ’60s decor, also costs $2.5mil per episode. SG-1 was between $1.1 and $1.6 mil. ST:Enterprise was at about $1mil per episode. And the ultimate sci-fi low cost per episode, that of Babylon 5, was shot for $850k per episode ($1.2mil in today’s money). If these guys can shoot shows at these low cost prices inside the US or Canada, then Lucas’ visually broader vision can be done for about $3-$5mil per episode. But only in China.

He just needs to give up most of his artistic control to others, since I don’t see him moving to China for 3 years…