With the opening of the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens
there’s been an outpouring of commentary about George
Lucas and his incredible film legacy and genius.
But there’s more to the man than even that. The creation of a
film is, in its way, no different than the creation of a business.
Both require strong leadership, a compelling vision, and the
ability to motivate and manage smart people so they can
effectively execute on that vision.
It turns out that George Lucas was exceptional in this regard as
Colleagues worked so closely together that they often
developed a melding of the minds.
The environment at Lucasfilm was intensely collaborative —
more so, it seems, than many of today’s digital workplaces,
even those that loudly tout their team-oriented cultures.
Groups at Lucasfilm sometimes collaborated across divisions.
The computer division might work with the division that
handled special effects or the division that developed games.
At Industrial Light and Magic, Lucasfilm’s VFX and animation
studio, employees didn’t even have job descriptions that would
relegate them to specific silos. Rather, they were assigned tasks
on various projects according to what was needed and who
was available, freeing them to move around and collaborate
with colleagues they might not have encountered otherwise.
Utilising people in this way often requires extreme flexibility, as
well as a willingness to relinquish a degree of control.
It requires boldness. And that was and is a hallmark of Lucas’s
George Lucas was driven to re-create the type of freewheeling,
creative, open environment he experienced at University of
Southern California’s film school. Visual effects artist Clint
Goldman, who worked at ILM for seven years in the early
1990’s, said, “George sort of created this thing which was like a
business art school that allowed all these people to kind of
learn from one another.”
Within groups at Skywalker Ranch — the bucolic Lucas
headquarters in Marin County, California — colleagues worked
so closely together that they often developed a melding of the
minds, a deeply intuitive sense of one another’s creativity.
Employees also developed personal relationships that
far surpassed those that usually exist between
As former Lucas employee and Academy Award winner Phil
Tippett recalled, “You develop a language that is almost
telepathic where your understanding of film history and your
references and the kinds of things that had inspired you in the
past kind of become a touchstone so in the context of any
particular discussion you can cut through hours and hours and
hours of description by saying, ‘Yeah, well, it’s gotta feel more
like the third act battle in The Wild Bunch’ and immediately you
know what that means.”
Rick McCallum, producer of The Young Indiana Jones
Chronicles, told Michael Rubin, author of Droidmaker, that in
the course of collaboration, Lucasfilm’s employees also
developed personal relationships that far surpassed those that
usually exist between colleagues — the kind of bonds that
persist throughout an entire career.
Skywalker Ranch “was a real place where people could work
together, party together, and try to write and come up with
things. We’d be [at the Ranch] for a month at a time. We’d get
drunk every night, and we’d be back in story meetings at eight
in the morning and wouldn’t leave until eight at night… it was
filmmaking camp,” McCallum said.
Keeping it simple
Collaboration wasn’t the only thing special about how Lucas
managed people. Ironically, his approach to technology seems
a throwback to a simpler time. But that “simple” approach to
creativity and technological innovation turned out to work
rather well, didn’t it? This is most evident when we compare
what happened at Skywalker Ranch to modern business today.
Many businesses, even those in so-called creative industries,
bring lots of science into the creative process. They deploy
insights from fields like cognitive science, neuroscience,
consumer behaviour, and behavioural economics to collect
untold reams of data to help with creative decisions. Software
is smarter than we are. Clicks and bits outweigh intuition and
It’s a trend that is rapidly intensifying. According to a 2015
report by researcher VB Insight, companies are poised to
increase their spending on marketing analytics — including
“audience insights,” “brand analytics”, and “advertising
effectiveness” — by more than 70% over the next few years.
At Lucasfilm, room existed for a purer and less
analytical creative process, leaving people freer to go
where their imaginations led them.
It’s hard to argue against the rise of Big Data and all that it
entails, at least until you start to think about what is lost. Are
modern, technology-driven management methods really the
best way to come up with the big ideas that we’ll all wind up
talking about? What would today’s tech-savvy companies say to
Albert Einstein, who after all was just a guy with an idea and
no data to back it up?
Exploring new frontiers
Lucas believed in technology and used it to create his films, but
he didn’t use it to shape the creative process inside Lucas films.
When I asked Ron Gilbert, who worked in the games division of
Lucasfilm during the late-1980s and 1990s, about the creative
process under Lucas, he noted that many video games today
are informed by consumer research, with game designers
bounded by their sophisticated understanding of consumer
tastes and habits.
At Lucasfilm, room existed for a purer and less analytical
creative process, leaving people freer to go where their
imaginations led them. Such a creative environment, in
Gilbert’s estimation, “just produces very interesting and
different ideas; it just kind of makes you feel that it is OK to
I get that exploration may be expensive, and it sure doesn’t
seem very efficient, but major breakthroughs — even in Silicon
Valley — don’t come from Big Data hyper-analytical processes.
Let’s not forget that companies like Facebook, Google, and
Apple may actively leverage Big Data today to grow their
businesses, but the spark that led to their creation was
personal, entrepreneurial and even idiosyncratic.
Collaboration and creative exploration were two of the keys to
what helped translate the vision of George Lucas into a series of
era-defining films, and technologies. As we sit down to watch
The Force Awakens this holiday season, let’s take a moment to
recall that the entire Star Wars franchise could not have come
to life without that most mundane of wizardry we call
Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management
and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of
Business at Dartmouth College. You can learn more about
George Lucas, and 17 other superboss leaders, in his new book
Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow
of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, February 2016