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March 21, 2006

Hennessy and Birgeneau join Star Wars creator Lucas in American Academy honor

By Dawn Levy

"I'd like to thank the Academy" is not a sentence most academics have cause to utter. That changed Saturday when Stanford President John Hennessy and University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau joined writer-director-producer George Lucas (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) in receiving Founders Awards from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. All three are Fellows of the Academy, whose members have included Mary Leakey, Duke Ellington, Winston Churchill, Ralph Bunche, Thomas Jefferson, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jonas Salk, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Einstein and Yo-Yo Ma.

The awards were presented in San Francisco's Presidio at the Letterman Digital Arts Center, a new facility housing many Lucasfilm divisions. The gala commemorated the 225th anniversary of the founding of the Academy, an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems in areas including science, global security, social policy, humanities, culture and education. Its 4,600 elected members from around the world are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business and public affairs. Stanford's current community of scholars includes 223 members of the Academy.

Law Professors Jesse Choper of UC-Berkeley and Kathleen Sullivan of Stanford kicked off the festivities before an audience of 300 with a dramatic reading of correspondence between the second U.S. president, John Adams, and his wife, Abigail. John Adams proposed the formation of the Academy in 1779.

The founders of the Academy were "thinkers and doers—leaders in their professions who embraced a commitment to public service for the good of society and the nation," said Academy President Patricia Meyer Spacks. "We are proud to honor three exemplary models of that tradition who have each, in his own way, made a distinctive and positive impact on this region and well beyond it."

Mayor Gavin Newsom made an appearance to proclaim "American Academy of Arts and Sciences Day" in San Francisco. The program also included a demonstration of the evolution of special effects in the Star Wars trilogies by Lucasfilm Animation Director Rob Coleman, whose talents helped transform Yoda and other characters from models and puppets into digital entities.

During a talk titled "Innovation: The Creative Blending of Art and Science," Lucas said he didn't see a dichotomy between the arts and sciences because he works in both fields. "From my point of view, technology and art have always run hand in hand," he said. "The definition of being human is to be able to transform things and to use devices to do your will. One of the first things that separated us from the apes is when man picked up some charcoal and started drawing on a wall. This piece of technology of drawing on a wall was quickly followed by the technology of putting in color."

Art has always been technical, he said, from the development of musical instruments to the production of the proscenium. "Every time we have a technological development in the arts, we can express ourselves with more freedom," he said. The ability to create, say, the large number of digital Wookiees needed for a battle scene in Revenge of the Sith has made epic moviemaking easier than ever.

During a conversation with Hennessy and a question-and-answer session with the audience, Lucas compared cinematic with digital moviemaking. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, Stanley Kubrick relied on slow, meticulous shots to create his realistic masterpiece. Lucas contrasted Kubrick's process with his own in creating Star Wars, released in 1977.

"He wanted to show you how boring space really is," Lucas said. "I wanted to do a fantasy, which is to show you how exciting space can really be. But is it real, this imaginary world? I wanted to do it cinematically—I wanted to be able to move the camera and do short shots of ships flying around and do dogfights—and I just couldn't do it right. So I set my sights on solving that technological problem, and that was solved by combining computers with cameras." Every episode brought new technological challenges, such as "how to make a 2-foot green guy act and be believable." Said Lucas: "Those technological ceilings determined how much I could image, and I was extremely frustrated as an artist because I had this idea of a much bigger world."

While episodes I, II and III (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) were in his mind first, Lucas said he couldn't begin with "the numbers of aliens, all those worlds" required for those films. So he started with the simpler sets—a desert planet, the Death Star—of episode IV.

Now, Lucas said, he shoots, manipulates and shows his films digitally. "We've been making digital films here in San Francisco for 10 years and they still don't do it in LA," he said. "One of the reasons I wanted this [Letterman] Digital Center was to say, 'Hey, this is where we started. This is where this whole art form began.'"

More at 'the other Academy Awards'

At the ensuing banquet, Spacks and Stanford Trustee Peter Bing, an Academy Fellow, presented a Founders Award to Hennessy. The Academy praised Stanford's 10th president for working "to create knowledge, stretch boundaries and broaden the educational enterprise." The citation lauded his roles in fathering RISC computer architecture and founding MIPS Computer Systems; serving as Stanford professor, director of the Computer System Laboratory, chair of the Computer Science Department, dean of the School of Engineering, provost and president; and leading a transformation in undergraduate education, supporting multidisciplinary research, revitalizing graduate education and advancing initiatives in environmental and life sciences, bioengineering and international affairs.

The Academy also commended UC-Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau, the world's most cited experimental physicist and the first in his family to graduate from high school, as a relentless advocate for equal access to higher education. He was lauded for his "deep commitment to teaching and research, firm determination to uphold excellence and long-standing dedication to the principles of justice." He helped Jewish physicists barred from participating in scientific conferences in the former Soviet Union and increased the number of women faculty members by 50 percent while dean of the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Finally, the Academy congratulated Lucas, whose films have been recognized with 44 Academy Award nominations, for pioneering the use of high-performance computer animation and digital cinematography to revolutionize the American filmscape. It paid tribute to the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses technology to promote innovative learning in schools nationwide. Especially, the Academy honored Lucas for his melding of art and science and for recognizing "the importance of uniting these two realms that are too often kept apart."

Editor Note:

Photos of Hennessy interviewing Lucas are available at



Dawn Levy, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944,

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