Lester Novros; Documentary Filmmaker, USC Professor


Lester Novros, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker who pioneered large-format film technology, helped the world visualize outer space and worked on such innovative motion pictures as "2001: A Space Odyssey," has died at the age of 91.

Novros, a much-loved USC film professor whose students included George Lucas, died Sept. 10 in Sherman Oaks.

"The first time I truly understood the unique quality of film was when I took Les Novros' class," Lucas wrote in an introduction to the textbook that Novros fashioned from his lectures in the Filmic Expression class that he taught at USC from 1941 to 1984.

Lucas wrote that Novros' teaching "strongly influenced my work," but added that Novros was an excellent filmmaker as well as an influential academic, "a rare find, able to stand in both worlds."

While Lucas was making the original "Star Wars" trilogy and establishing his Industrial Light & Magic company, Novros was approaching films on outer space from a different perspective. Lucas, the student, put fantasy on film to entertain, but Novros, the teacher, hoped to educate and enlighten.

He wrote, directed and produced some of the earliest Imax/Omnimax Films for the Reuben H. Fleet Space Center in San Diego's Balboa Park--"Voyage to the Outer Planets," "Cosmos" and "Tomorrow in Space."

In 1972, Novros' "Universe" was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.

A decade earlier, Novros produced stunning specialty films for various government and commercial pavilions at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Among them were "Voyage to America" for the U.S. Pavilion, "Reaching for the Stars" for Lockheed Corp. and "Chemical Man" for Abbott Laboratories.

But it was Novros' 70mm film "To the Moon and Beyond" for Cinerama Corp. that caught Stanley Kubrick's eye. The director hired Novros and his special effects team to help create his 1968 masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Kubrick's film earned an Oscar for special effects.

Novros, a native of Passaic, N.J., wanted to become a painter, studying at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York and the Prado Museum in Madrid. But, intrigued by his studies of movement, he decided on motion pictures as the proper medium to explore kinetic art.

The future filmmaker came to Los Angeles in 1936 when Walt Disney Studios recruited him to work on feature animation projects. He helped with "Snow White" and earned a credit for art direction for the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Disney's landmark "Fantasia."

Five years later, the same year he began teaching at USC, Novros left Disney to form his own company, Graphic Films, with partner George Casey.

The new company quickly found work making training films for the military during World War II, including an instructive piece for the Army Air Corps on how to bail out of a P-38.

After the war, Novros and Graphic illustrated what might be expected and gained through space exploration, aiding NASA's efforts to persuade Congress and the public of the need for scientific forays to the moon and beyond.

Graphic Films created more than 350 films in its first 50 years, an associate producer at Graphic Films, Ammiel G. Najar, said Wednesday. It also became a training ground for such Hollywood special effects artists as John Dykstra, Doug Trumbull and Con Pederson.

In 1969, along with his partner Casey and Frank Capra Jr., Novros established Showsphere Corp. to develop 70mm film technology for museums and commercial venues such as San Diego's Fleet Theater and the IMAX theaters.

A Times writer in 1983 described Novros' Omnimax "Tomorrow in Space" for the Fleet as "a statement of hope instead of showing people being zapped in outer space." The writer described Novros' process as "film shot and projected through a fisheye lens onto a tilted dome . . . giving the audience an illusion of being suspended in space."

Lucas, in his introduction to Novros' textbook, counted himself "fortunate," along with thousands of film students who attended Novros' classes.

"Movies are a unique form of expression and require the understanding of graphics, light, color, movement and emotions to properly craft a story," Lucas said. "Les Novros is a master of his craft."

Novros was honored by the Large Format Cinema Assn., inducted into the Delta Kappa Alpha honorary cinema fraternity and active in the International Space Theatre Consortium, the Cartoonists Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Esther, and two sons, David and Paul.

The family has asked that any memorial contributions be sent to the Lester Novros Scholarship Fund at the USC School of Cinema-Television, University Park, Calif. 90089-2211.

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