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Why Star Wars and Sci-Fi Actually Don't Suck

Yes, I read Kathy's anti-Star Wars, and sci-fi and computer games, piece in bemusement. Consider this my polite reply.

When Star Wars first came out in 1977, it stirred the chords of my then six-year-old heart like nothing ever had before. The buzz about the film went on for months, all through the year, and when I finally saw it in the theater in late 1977, it didn't disappoint. It was glorious -- fun, macho, funny, dazzling -- a ticket to another universe. The experience was incredible. The buzz continued straight through to The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and Return of the Jedi in 1983. It's fair to say that Lucas' arts dominated my childhood, but more importantly, the films he churned out in that period were actually good films. Empire's foreshadowing, defeats, pacing, and twists make it one of the greatest films of its decade, if not the 20th century.

But here's a little known fact about Star Wars: More than just being a series of two very good films, a pair of decent films and a pair of bad films, it bequeathed a whole industry. I'm not talking about the parallel marketing of the toys, many of which I used to own and now wish I still did because they would be worth a pile of money. I'm talking about Photoshop, and the broader digital imaging industry.

Photoshop was created by brothers John and Thomas Knoll. John Knoll was on the ILM team that breathed life into the Star Wars universe. He wanted to improve ILM's processes for flying TIE fighters around and creating light sabers and blaster bursts. His brother, Thomas, was a coder on early Apple computers. Thomas built the code for a program that allowed Apples to manipulate photos. John saw the program's true potential, and together they built Photoshop. Today it's one of the most useful and ubiquitous programs on the planet, a powerful tool for serious photographers, artists, editors and hobbyists alike. I owe much of my career at NASA and in blogging to Photoshop and After Effects, and thus to Thomas and John Knoll, and thus to Star Wars. Not because I go around dressing up like a storm trooper (I never have, don't, and never will) but because the team behind Star Wars helped advance and democratize the technology behind the film making industry. Photoshop led to Premiere, to Avid, to Final Cut, and back to Avid and Premiere and iMovie and Movie Maker and to editing video on your iPhone, and also to the broadening improvement of more advanced programs like Maya and Lightwave. Would Apple have become the preferred brand of digital artists if Photoshop hadn't existed? Or would it have died as many other early computer brands did? ILM and its competitors, and some of us in the digital arts industry who never worked for any of the big effects houses, have pushed relentlessly to expand what computers can do for film, which has in turn led to more powerful computers and cheaper digital video technology. This impact on our daily lives isn't as profound as the impact the space program has had on the technology we use every day in the first world, but it is far reaching and has enabled an awful lot of success for an awful lot of people.

I'll grant that the SW prequels until Revenge of the Sith are awful films (Revenge goes in the "decent" pile, along with Jedi, though the Darth Vader "Nooooo!" nearly kills the whole film and Lucas seems determined to ruin the good ones now). They're lifeless, predictable bores, not just because we know what that little boy turns into, but because the dialog is awful and, other than Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan and Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine, all of the performances are terrible. Lucas is a great vision man, but his directing skills just don't exist. He should hand the writing over to someone like R. A. Salvatore and the directing to, well, just about anyone. Go play with your spaceships, George.