George Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic to create the pioneering visual effects in the original Star Wars. In the ensuing four decades, ILM became synonomous with cinematic spectacle in the blockbuster era, creating some of the most memorable images from your childhood. They also made a lot of Transformers, so it’s a sacred/profane thing.
It’s impossible to underrate ILM’s importance to Hollywood circa now, and Wired just published an absolutely essential oral history of the company, including interviews with Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, young directors who badly want to be the next Lucas/Spielberg/Cameron, some of the great visual effects visionaries of the last half-century, and Michael Bay. Here are the nine key takeaways:
The original ILM warehouse was really, really hot. Says special effects guru John Dykstra: “The warehouse was probably 1300 square feet and smelled like a gym locker … if you lit a model with 6000 watts, you could get to 130 degrees.” To counterbalance the heat, someone filled a water tank with cold water; engineers would take a restorative dip during breaks. Some genius built a slip n’ side. They also purchased an oxygen tank. In short: The Seventies.
The first year of Industrial Light & Magic resulted in one single special-effects shot. At least that’s what George Lucas says. “We had 800 shots to get through,” he says, referring to the original Star Wars. “They’d spent a year and a million dollars and had one shot—a cannon going boom, boom, boom.” Hey, inventing entirely new cinematic technology is hard work.
A truly unthinkable amount of time was spent on Howard the Duck. After the success of Star Wars, Lucas moved ILM up to Northern California, not far away from the incipient techno-corporate utopia Silicon Valley. One of the core tenets of Silicon Valley culture is the idea that most of the greatest successes can only emerge from failure. In this context, Howard the Duck might be the most important movie Industrial Light & Magic ever made. Certainly, it was an undertaking: Creature and model maker Charlie Bailey recalls putting in more than 100 hours a week. “Each feather had to be carefully trimmed with surgical scissors—there are people credited as ‘featherers.'”
George Lucas knows how Marvel can make a good Howard the Duck movie. “A digital duck will make that thing work,” says George Lucas, in a moment of helplessly poignant self-parody.
The invention of PhotoShop took place, at least in part, as an after-hours ILM side project. New hires at ILM worked wild hours. “My shift was from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.,” says John Knoll, now the chief creative officer. “In my free time, I was working on an idea with my older brother.” His older brother was Thomas Knoll; that idea became PhotoShop.
Colin Trevorrow has a long history with Industrial LIght & Magic sequels. “When I was a kid, my dad brought me to Kerner Optical to be an extra in Ghostbusters 2,” says the Jurassic World director. (For most of ILM’s existence, Kerner Optical was the fake name they put on the sign outside to foil lookie loos.) Trevorrow continues, “I’m not sure if I recognized how special it was at the time,” which is one of the least qualified compliments anyone has ever given Ghostbusters 2.
The half-decade after Jurassic Park led to an insanely rapid expansion for ILM’s operations. According to VFX supervisor Ben Snow, the company had 100 staffers for Casper and Twister, and 200 staffers for the following year’s Dragonheart. The staff was up to 1,000 for Star Wars: Episode One—The Phantom Menace, thereby proving definitely that more is always better.
Industrial Light & Magic really wants you to get excited about Warcraft. “It’s the most amazing work we’ve done in the 20 years I’ve been here,” says R&D supervisor Cary Phillips.
Michael Bay is utterly Michael Bay. There is an entire chapter of the oral history devoted to Michael Bay, director of beloved films like Transformers and Transformerses: More Transformersand Trans4mers: I’M AN INVENTOR, BITCH. Every single line of this chapter is worth an entire oral history unto itself. (Quote sans context: “Nobody talks to Michael Bay like that.”) Still, the key portion for film snobs is definitely the part where ILM shows Bay a shot from Pearl Harbor, and Michael Bay can’t tell which planes are real and which planes are CGI.
For the full piece, head to Wired.