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The Lucasfilm Learning Division


Udvarnoky
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I thought about making this into an article but it somehow seemed like less work better as a thread.


The Lucasfilm learning division, particularly the early days of it, has always been a somewhat murky part of the company’s history. It wasn’t until the late 90s that the division emerged as the more recognized spinoff company “Lucas Learning,” which helped create the impression that it didn’t exist until then. But on Lucasfilm.com, the following entries appear in the company history timeline:

 

Quote

1986
• Lucasfilm establishes a partnership with National Geographic and Apple Computer to develop a CD-ROM education and entertainment system for the home
1987
• Lucasfilm enters a joint venture with The Walt Disney Company and creates the Star Tours attraction at Disneyland
• The Learning division is established to design multimedia educational products

 

The explanation for why the division was so invisible for ten years seems to be that they functioned more like an R&D laboratory than a game studio, and their main product in the early days was edutainment targeted at classrooms. They were making multimedia primarily for schools and organizations, not shelf-sold games for retail consumers. This software was of the then cutting-edge interactive CD-ROM/LaserDisc variety that anyone who grew up in the 90s was probably exposed to at some point. Most of what is publicly known about this era of the learning division comes from a series of contemporary articles that @Jenni helpfully collated here, and it comes across that the work done during this period could be pretty pioneering, experiment stuff.

 

This video montage of Paul Parkranger and the Case of the Disappearing Ducks, a collaboration between the division and the National Audubon Society circa 1991, probably gives a decent idea of the kind of products they were developing:

 

 

We know of a few recognizable LucasArts developers who served stints at the learning division. Husband-and-wife Jonathan Ackley and Casey Ackley did a spell there at the beginning of their careers. Most notably, Brian Moriarty hopped there to work on a Young Indiana Jones game between shipping Loom and his return for the ill-fated attempt at The Dig. The Young Indy game (putatively called Young Indiana Jones at the World’s Fair) was obviously a tie-in for the ABC television show, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and its planned existence explains the following reference at the end of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis:

 

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Indy seems to have been a pretty big part of George Lucas’s grand plans for the division. In this article, he even claims that Young Indy was an educational software idea first, but one he concluded he would never have gotten funded in that form. So he came up with a show, which would produce hours of story content (on a television network’s dime) that his interactive concept could ultimately exploit. What’s described is pretty ambitious, ahead-of-its-time stuff:
 

Quote

 

If Lucas can bring "Young Indiana" to the educational arena, the series episodes would most likely serve as tree trunks, in effect, that students could use to branch off to explore related subjects. The information is stored on software programs and laser discs linked to a personal computer.

 

Lucas cited one upcoming episode as a sample of what he has in mind. The fictional story takes place in 1909 British East Africa, when Indy and his family meet former President Theodore Roosevelt on safari.

 

During the 25-day shoot on the Masai Mara Reserve, a vast government-protected area of land in Kenya, producer Rick McCallum shot endless footage of Indy at age 10, played by Corey Carrier, and a Masai native boy with "virtually every animal that exists in Africa," McCallum said. They stroll past a herd of elephants, point to lounging hippopotamuses, abruptly encounter a pride of lions and nearly get caught in a stampede of hundreds of wildebeests.

 

If that episode were to become interactive, Lucas said, students could learn about ecology and wildlife. They could call up documentary footage on elephants narrated by young Indy, listen to elephants trumpet, flip through still photos, study maps of elephant habitats, read text about ivory poaching. The possibilities are limited only by the ability to pull all the source material together.

 

 

Ultimately, none of this software actually materialized, probably in part because the show got cancelled midway through its second season. In any case, the money dried up before Lucas could really take things as far as he envisioned.


Young Indy still ended up being something of a hotbed for emerging technology. It is said that the series was used as sort of an incubator for some of the post-production tools that Lucas would use to make the Star Wars prequels. Digital editing, set-extending CGI effects, and other tech that would eventually become institutional in the entertainment business used Young Indy as a proving ground. When he got around to putting the series on DVD, Lucas drastically recut the show into 22 features and revisited the idea of the series as an educational tool. This included preparing 90 supplemental documentaries and approving a pretty serious initiative to produce companion curriculum. You can check out the still-functional http://www.indyintheclassroom.com/ for more.

 

As for the learning division, it continued to exist in various forms, and was probably responsible for a few things sold under the LucasArts banner before “Lucas Learning” became a formal brand. For example, Mortimer and the Riddles of the Medallion seems like a shoo-in for a Lucas Learning title had the label existed at that time, and it would surprise me if Star Wars: Behind the Magic, an interactive encyclopedia for the franchise, wasn’t a product built in that building as well.

 

In the developer commentary for Full Throttle Remastered, Tim asks Casey Ackley about a “library archive project” she was involved with at the learning division that he cites for its innovative use of a pop-out interface similar to Full Throttle’s. Something along the lines of Behind the Magic isn’t the craziest interpretation of what that could be referring to. It could also refer to the Indiana Jones thing. It could also refer to one of the several projects that actually got released that I simply wouldn’t know anything about.

 

Anyway, there are still plenty of gaps, but it’s always fun to hear a bit more about this somewhat unsung arm of the Lucas empire. They were up to some wild stuff.

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