Is any project ever really finished?

Earlier this year, I came across Michael Rubin‘s book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolutionat my local St. Louis County Library branch. What an unbelievable find of a book. In some great stories, and lots of detail, Rubin tells the early history of what has become the LucasFilm empire, not to mention the birth of Pixar and the evolution of digital film-making that can be found on any new Apple Macintosh computer.

More to the point of this post, though, is that the book explains Lucas’ approach to making – and in the case of Star Wars, tinkering with – movies, exemplified by the following quote:

A movie is never finished, only abandoned.

Back in the spring of ’05, during spring break, my then 12 year old son made it a point to watch all of the Star Wars DVDs that were then available, including Episodes I (The Phantom Menace), II (Attack of the Clones), and the original trilogy. To make sure he was up to speed for the upcoming release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, he also bought and watched (several times!) the animated Clone Wars Vol. 1. Needless to say, when he was watching when I was home I sat down and watched with him.

As we watched some of the original trilogy, Ian asked what it was like to see the originals in the theater. In time, the conversation wound its way to the special editions of the movies in theaters, then the re-release on VHS. As we watched the DVDs, I would tell Ian where something was different, where things were added from the original to the Special Editions. Even I was caught by surprise at the end of Return of the Jedi; I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that the special edition was tweaked just a bit for the DVD version, so there are now 3 different versions of Return of the Jedi. (And yes, I have all three versions.)

Though it is written as, and meant to be, a history, Droidmaker is an excellent – if long – case study on how to bring your vision to life. The conventional wisdom about LucasFilm seems to be one of an easy road, things that just fell into place to create this great success. Would you be surprised to learn that The Empire Strikes Back almost didn’t happen? I sure was.

I think we have all at some point “abandoned” projects, not because we thought we were finished but because someone – maybe us, maybe someone else – said it was time to stop. Some deadlines are hard, and you don’t have any choice but to deliver what you have. For example:

Though Episode II was shot entirely digitally, it still had to be transferred to film for display in theaters. This meant that the “final” edit had to be complete about 2 weeks before release date for printing and distribution. It was printed and distributed, but Lucas wasn’t really finished with the film and continued to edit a final final cut right up until release, when the digital version was distributed to the few theaters in the country that have digital projection. The vast majority of people that saw the movie in theaters did not see the “final” version of the film (which, by the way, is the version that is on the DVD.)

I’m not sure what my point is, if there is one, in this rambling post. On the one hand, there is the desire to have your art (and if the result of our work is not art, what is the point) truly reflect your vision for it, to make it as complete as possible. On the other hand is the practical reality that dictates to us that at some point we have to stop, whether we want to or not. And right in the middle is that nagging question, “Is any project ever really finished?”

Just something to think about as this Monday comes to a close.

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