In 1965, the then 21-year-old George Lucas entered University of Southern California’s film program, taking courses on graphics and animation. Lucas worked hard, burning through two years of undergraduate film courses in just one year, and he had soon finished his first student film, Look at Life.
“The first class I had was an animation class. It wasn’t a production class. I had a history class and an animation class. And, in the animation class they gave us one minute of film to put onto the animation camera to operate it, to see how you could move left, move right, make it go up and down. It was a test. You had certain requirements that you had to do. You had to make it go up and had to make it go down, and then the teacher would look at it and say, ”Oh yes, you maneuvered this machine to do these things."
The assignment had been to use still photographs to convey the illusion of movement and feeling. For the resulting 32 feet 16-mm kinestasis, Look at Life, Lucas had leafed through back issues of LIFE magazine for the images, a broad mixture of war, peace, politics and social commentary, set to samba-like 69-second opening piece, A Felicidade - Batucada (The Happiness - Instrumental), from the Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Black Orpheus.
“It had quite a dramatic effect on the department at the time,” Lucas recalls. “Nobody there, including all the teachers, had ever seen anything like it.”[Chpt 3, 2]
"It made my mark in the department. That was when I suddenly developed a lot more friendships, and the instructors said, `Oh, we’ve got a live one here.’ When I did that film, I realized I was able to run circles around everybody else. That’s when I realized these crazy ideas I had might actually work. It was the melding of my San Francisco exposure to avant-garde shorts and my film school experience.”[Chpt 3, 2]
According to Derek Lamb, director of animation at the National Film Board of Canada, the USC animation class, headed up by animation teacher Herb Kossower, were crazy for Arthur Lipsett's work. It's possible Lucas had been exposed to Lipsett's work during his San Francisco adventures, but if not then, he would undoubtedly have seen them at USC — 21–87 was released in 1964, so it was in vogue right around the time Lucas arrived at USC.
That said, Lucas did push the boundaries of the assignment. These shorts traditionally didn’t have soundtracks; in fact most of them weren’t even movies, as much as a bare-minimum effort to pass the test of moving something, anything, left-right-up-down on the screen, so while it was perhaps less of a creative homerun, it was something of a technical achievement for the young freshman. And indeed it went on to tour the burgeoning film student festival scene, where it “won like, you know twenty or twenty-five awards in every film festival in the world and kind of changed the whole animation department.”, ensuring the young freshman’s reputation at USC.
After the reception of his first film, Lucas seemingly soon decided that he had found his calling; not only in that he wanted to make movies, but in how he would make them.
As an aside, there are two versions of the film available, the one shown in the Empire of Dreams documentary from the DVD box set, and another one (available at the Academy of Achievement interview). They’re identical, except for the opening. A guess is that the one above is a later, slightly more polished festival-focused version, whereas the alternative is the actual coursework film (given that it has the class name, number and instructor listed on it).
Another interesting aside is that Lucas's classmate Paul Golding, with whom Lucas would go on to collaborate on several subsequent student films, made a similar short called Wipeout (1965) using many of the same images, set to the The Surfaris tune Wipeout.