Lucas was born and raised in Modesto, California, the son of Dorothy Ellinore Lucas (née Bomberger) and George Walton Lucas Sr., and is of German, Swiss-German, English, Scottish, and distant Dutch and French descent. His family attended Disneyland during its opening week in July 1955, and Lucas would remain enthusiastic about the park. He was interested in comics and science fiction, including television programs such as the Flash Gordon serials. Long before Lucas began making films, he yearned to be a racecar driver, and he spent most of his high school years racing on the underground circuit at fairgrounds and hanging out at garages. On June 12, 1962, a few days before his high school graduation, Lucas was driving his souped-up Autobianchi Bianchina when another driver broadsided him, flipping his car several times before it crashed into a tree; Lucas's seatbelt had snapped, ejecting him and thereby saving his life. However, his lungs were bruised from severe hemorrhaging and he required emergency medical treatment. This incident caused him to lose interest in racing as a career, but also inspired him to pursue his other interests.Lucas's father owned a stationery store, and had wanted George to work for him when he turned 18. Lucas had been planning to go to art school, and declared upon leaving home that he would be a millionaire by the age of 30. He attended Modesto Junior College, where he studied anthropology, sociology, and literature, amongst other subjects. He also began shooting with an 8 mm camera, including filming car races.
At this time, Lucas and his friend John Plummer became interested in Canyon Cinema: screenings of underground, avant-garde 16 mm filmmakers like Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, and Bruce Conner. Lucas and Plummer also saw classic European films of the time, including Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, and Federico Fellini's 8½. "That's when George really started exploring," Plummer said. Through his interest in autocross racing, Lucas met renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler, another race enthusiast. Wexler, later to work with Lucas on several occasions, was impressed by Lucas's talent. "George had a very good eye, and he thought visually," he recalled.At Plummer's recommendation, Lucas then transferred to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. USC was one of the earliest universities to have a school devoted to motion picture film. During the years at USC, Lucas shared a dorm room with Randal Kleiser. Along with classmates such as Walter Murch, Hal Barwood, and John Milius, they became a clique of film students known as The Dirty Dozen. He also became good friends with fellow acclaimed student filmmaker and future Indiana Jones collaborator, Steven Spielberg. Lucas was deeply influenced by the Filmic Expression course taught at the school by filmmaker Lester Novros which concentrated on the non-narrative elements of Film Form like color, light, movement, space, and time. Another inspiration was the Serbian montagist (and dean of the USC Film Department) Slavko Vorkapić, a film theoretician who made stunning montage sequences for Hollywood studio features at MGM, RKO, and Paramount. Vorkapich taught the autonomous nature of the cinematic art form, emphasizing the kinetic energy inherent in motion pictures.