By John O'Callaghan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - "Star Wars" creator Lucasfilm formally expanded its creative universe on Thursday by launching its visual effects and animation hub in Singapore that works on Hollywood blockbusters and bolsters marketing efforts in fast-growing Asia.
"May the Force be with you," Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of the Southeast Asian city-state, said in a speech at the glass-enclosed and horseshoe-shaped "Sandcrawler" building.
Lucasfilm Ltd, bought by Walt Disney Co in 2012 for more than $4 billion, opened a small studio in 2005 in another part of Singapore but has built up the size and skills of the team into a staff of 400 at the new headquarters.
"This is a very robust operation that is comparable to exactly what we're doing in San Francisco or Vancouver," Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm and a producer of more than 60 films, told reporters before the launch.
"Many of the top-end movies that are being made in the next 18 months to two years, a vast variety of that work will head in this direction."
In Singapore, about 350 artists from some 40 countries are now working on a full-length animated feature and films that include "Hitman" and "Transformers 4".
More projects will be assigned as Lucasfilm's visual effects unit Industrial Light & Magic goes into its "busiest year ever", Kennedy said, including the next installments of the hugely successful "Star Wars" franchise.
George Lucas, the company's famous founder who has retired from making big-budget films to focus on smaller features, said quality-obsessed colleagues were very skeptical when he first suggested an expansion into Asia a decade ago.
"Everybody thought I was a little crazy," Lucas said in a speech, recalling how the early days of training local artists and giving the Singapore team small, basic tasks had evolved into a sophisticated operation and the Sandcrawler itself.
"This is a symbol of the people of Singapore and computer animation combining with Lucasfilm to create something that is world quality."
'INTERESTING AND CHALLENGING'
Named after a large vehicle in the original "Star Wars" film, the Sandcrawler teems with youthful staff in T-shirts, jeans, shorts and flip-flops. The corridors are adorned with movie posters and memorabilia.
Beyond digital studios, the building houses the Jedi Masters Program that runs six-month courses in the techniques and technology used by Industrial Light & Magic. Of the 182 apprentices trained to date, 125 have been hired as artists.
The Sandcrawler is also the new headquarters for Disney in Southeast Asia and its sports cable network ESPN in Asia.
David Anderman, Lucasfilm's general manager, would not disclose how much had been invested in Singapore but said its location, talent pool, protection of intellectual property and pro-business policies were major attractions.
"We have made a significant investment in the growth of the talent, in the growth of training programs," he said. "George Lucas himself has invested in building this facility as well."
With the seventh "Star Wars" film now in the works, Kennedy said Southeast Asia was an "interesting and challenging market" because the initial movies were not that widely seen, driving Lucasfilm to "educate an audience as to what has come before".
"We're beginning that process of communication and marketing right now, even though the movie doesn't come out until Christmas of 2015," she said.
Despite the roles played by visual effects and technology, film making always comes down to the basics, Kennedy said.
"Storytelling is the most important fundamental idea behind successful movies," she said. "The technology will follow."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)