From Dublin to Skywalker Ranch – entertaining the children of the digital age

11 Sep 2012

Colum Slevin, head of studio operations, Lucasfilm

Lucasfilm head of studio operations Colum Slevin talks to John Kennedy about his origins in the Dublin animation industry in the late 1980s to driving the animation operations of Hollywoood entertainment powerhouse Lucasfilm as the Star Wars franchise and other popular brands prepare to hit light speed in the digital age.

Growing up there were few of us who weren’t transported to magical new worlds via films like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, all products of the fertile imagination of George Lucas.

From the forests of Endor to the wastes of Tatooine, Dubliner Colum Slevin – listed this year among the ITLG Hollywood 50 – was as transfixed as any youngster by the Star Wars franchise that began with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Like many of his generation, he absorbed comic books like 2000 AD and watched movies like Blade Runner and always wanted to know more about the worlds portrayed there.

Little did he believe that decades later he would be one of the key people involved in once again firing the spark of imagination in new generations of fans of the various Lucasfilm franchises, most notably today through successes like Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

For Slevin and his colleagues, the landscape has changed significantly and the challenge is sating the thirsty imaginations of millions of new fans and ensuring a consistency of experience from the big-screen cinema or the 3D HD TV at home to the video game, the app and the small-screen experience of the smartphone. If ever, Slevin and creators in the new digital Hollywood are challenged to create even bigger, more immersive worlds than ever.

A good example of how the immersive worlds of imagination and sci-fi can power actual jobs in Slevin’s home country of Ireland can be seen through the generation of 200 new jobs in Galway by EA-owned Bioware to support the e-commerce potential of games like Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Adventures in animation – suspend your disbelief

Slevin’s adventures in the world of animation began in 1987 after he left school when he landed a job with Sullivan Bluth Studios. A whole generation of Irish animation professionals got their start at Bluth, creating a legacy that carries through to this day with firms like Cartoon Saloon, Monster and Brown Bag Films developing a global presence. The Secret of Kells from Cartoon Saloon won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2010, for example, and the same year Ballyfermot Art College graduate Richard Baneham won an Academy Award for his work on Avatar.

After Sullivan Bluth Studios closed in Dublin in 1994, Slevin went to work with Fox Animation Studios in Arizona, working on titles like Titan AE. “Around 1999 I ended up working with a team of guys from Industrial Light & Magic on visualization for our animated movie. We had a lot of fun and I learned a lot and after they finished up they offered me a job in the Bay area working for their technology department.”

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which is owned by Lucasfilm, provided the special effects for more than 300 blockbuster films, including the Star Wars saga, the Harry Potter films, the Back to the Future trilogy, The Abyss, Transformers, ET and many more.

“I was hired as a project manager for software R&D and at that time at ILM it was a very small team of people and we were working on projects and effects such as the giant waves in The Perfect Storm, the interactive smoke in Jurassic Park 3 and the rich dynamic techniques in Pearl Harbor – it was a team of super smart guys who solved physics problems and created the suspend-your-disbelief moments in movies to attach credibility. These guys would be solving very complex mathematical programming problems. My job was to act as an interpreter between them and the production professionals. With complex mathematical problems it is hard to attach deadlines and handle the kind of rigours that production expects.

“We were working on problems that hadn’t been solved before. But everyone was aiming for the same goal – putting the magic on the screen. I don’t use the word ‘interpreter’ lightly, the language of tech programming and filmmaking can be quite different, but those mediums have blended so much in recent years. The current generation of filmmakers is so conversant in technology, so it’s less of a challenge than it used to be.

“Storytelling is at the heart of it and there was a transition over the last 10 years where it used to be that the FX shots were a discrete group of shots in a movie. Now it is all so integrated into the production of movies that every shot is an FX shot. CGI (computer-generated imagery) and visual effects touch everything. The trick, or the magic, is you don’t know you’re looking at special effects.”

Living in San Rafael with his wife Marie and two children, Slevin has long ago shed his Dublin accent and as head of Studio Operations at Lucasfilm he oversees production operations and pipelines for both Lucasfilm Animation and Lucasfilm Singapore.

“In particular, what I’m focused on is our animation business and so we produce animated content for television and we have an unannounced animated feature in pre-production phase. The current show on the air is Star Wars: The Clone Wars and we’re about to start airing season 5.”

Keeping it epic

I mention to Slevin that I know families whose kids have grown up on the Clone Wars and how I think it echoes the magic that had been weaved since the late 1970s when Star Wars burst onto the big screen.

“That’s exactly it. The goal that the creative team and George Lucas have on the show is to capture that magic that people felt when they first saw the movies. That isn’t easy, especially when you’ve a 22-minute-long weekly show to deliver the thrill and the excitement of the movies. George has very high expectations in terms of the complexity, the sophistication and the overall epic quality of the visual.”

At the core of the magic behind Clone Wars is the commitment of the animation team. “When I grew up the only entry to Star Wars was the movies. I saw Episode 4 when I was eight, probably during the VHS vs Betamax format war, and I was hooked. And I’m proud to say the magic prevails because when we started Clone Wars the entire crew was made up of Star Wars nerds, just incredibly passionate fans. The entire crew are extremely respectful of the franchise and it’s important for them to get it right.

“Sometimes, we might break with canon but most of the show is incredibly true to canon. But we also like to throw in little Easter eggs just for the fans, like a squad of Republic Commandos, serving no other purpose other than the fans love Republic Commandos and they look bad ass.”

Getting it right is the trick and the complexity of connecting with other media, such as the games of LucasArts, involves a high degree of quality control. “George is very hands-on and reads every script, reviews every story reel. There is a very high quality bar on the show. Plus so many people grew up with Star Wars and they know instinctively what feels right. If it feels more like The Matrix than Star Wars then it’s wrong. It has to be true to the universe we’ve created.

“Another directive George has preached for years is the editing. As a filmmaker he really drives the creative process from the editing side of things and a lot of the time that comes down to what you cut. You just reduce, reduce, reduce until you have the essence of something.”

Hollywood in the digital age

It used to be so simple – bring out a movie to the cinemas, follow it up with a rental version and during all this the merchandising machine kicks in. But now things have changed with the arrival of the internet, smartphones, catch-up TV, Netflix, games consoles and more.

I ask Slevin how Lucasfilm is handling the challenges of the digital age. “Quality will ultimately help you rise above the noise. It’s important for creators to focus on making good stuff and putting it in a place where consumers can access it.

“The trick now is to be really nimble. A blockbuster-driven industry like Hollywood has traditionally operated on a different level to an industry that is catering people who want to consume stuff in bite-sized pieces on their smartphones.

“Both are really important and valid but present different challenges that require different skills and organisational capabilities.

“In effect we’re a 35-year-old-plus mom-and-pop store; we’ve a large cultural footprint but we still behave like we’re making things in the garage, even though we’re pretty large. We use that power to move into casual games and the development of online episodic experiences. There are 6bn people in the world today with mobile devices so you have to be realistic, this may be the primary way they’ll want to interact with your brand. But if they have a compromised, or crappy experience, then shame on you, they may never come back. Even if you produce a bite-sized component of something to be consumed on a mobile screen, it has to be as compelling and interesting as the epic, big-screen experience.”

While Slevin describes this as a challenge, he also believes we’re at the dawn of a golden age for entertainment. “Today you have creators who grew up enjoying classic 1970s cinema like Star Wars, Jaws, and The Godfather, but they are also children of the digital age and really understand how to consume media.

“Great creators like JJ Abrams understand creating both the epic experience on the big screen and the small intimate experience on your mobile device.

“I think we’re living in this golden age right now and if you can’t produce something that is representative of your IP across all platforms – don’t do it – because people will know right away if they’re being lied to.”

Ireland as a digital hub – casting a long shadow

Slevin believes that Ireland, for such a small country, makes a mighty roar on the global creative stage. “The Irish people are creative, have an incredible entrepreneurial spirit and are technologically savvy – they know they have to fight and scrap for their place when they go overseas and when they’re at home because they have to perform on a much smaller stage.

“In terms of Irish creatives, it’s pretty incredible when you look at people like Jim Sheridan or look back upon our literary tradition. The Irish are all over the entertainment industry at large – it’s incredible – from actors and writers to CGI people and set and costume designers.

“Also a lot of skilled and talented people are returning to Ireland. Greg Maguire (technical director on Avatar) is a visual effects genius and he has moved back to Belfast because of the things he saw happening back home, such as Game of Thrones being filmed in Northern Ireland and the support from the local government in terms of encouraging education in the skills of media and filmmaking.”

In conclusion, Slevin returns to the world that was opened up to him when he was a child in Dublin in the late 20th century.

“I bought all the comics, read the novels and always wanted to know more about the characters, their worlds and things like their vehicles, weapons and clothes. What the digital age affords us is the ability as creators to actually blow out those universes and tell new stories or allow fans to play games. The story we tell is often now just a thin membrane and you can pierce it and dive more deeply into that universe.

“Whether kids grow up loving Harry Potter or Star Wars, I think these movies speak to them in some way. Thanks to the digital tools and modern creative processes, storytelling has been enhanced to do a lot more than we ever imagined possible.”

The Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) will be hosting its annual Innovation in Entertainment event on 27 September at Sony Pictures Studios in Hollywood. Executives in attendance represent some of the world’s leading entertainment companies, including HBO, Warner Brothers, Lucasfilm, Sony and DreamWorks.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years