Spotlight : December 1996

The Magic of ILM
By Todd Vaziri

If you've visited the Effects Houses section of the VFX HQ, you have seen over a dozen of the biggest names in visual effects. Every house listed creates great images for today's feature films. Although parity of the industry exists, there is a definitive leader of the pack: Lucas Digital's Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

Effects technology has become much cheaper over the years, and the capital it takes to start a new company has slowly been shrinking. Software like Softimage is now available to the consumer market, and SGIs are becoming a bit more affordable. Also, the talent pool seems to be getting larger as universities train students on valuable animation software.

Amidst all of the competition, ILM remains on top. They have the experience, the creativity, the tools, the history and the power to work on high profile shows and consistently perform well. The folks who built ILM pioneered the use of many techniques that are commonplace today. Think of how important CG imagery is in today's films. Where did feature film's use of CG begin? The most significant step in CG, in my opinion, was 1982's STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, whose dramatic Genesis simulation was an entirely computer generated sequence, the first of its kind. The group that worked on the sequence at ILM later separated from LucasArts and became a company called Pixar, whose TOY STORY represented yet another huge step in CG animation.

The Pixar example is just one of many arms of ILM's far-extending reach. Nearly every respected effects veteran is or was connected to ILM. The president of Sony Pictures Imageworks, Ken Ralston, spent almost two decades at ILM. Richard Edlund, who was integral to the effects of STAR WARS founded his own company, Boss Film Studios. Phil Tippett, the go-motion innovator, did the same and is currently running Tippett Studios. Digital Domain was founded by three men, all of which had serious relationships with ILM; James Cameron worked with ILM on THE ABYSS and T2, Stan Winston collaborated with them on JURASSIC PARK and T2, and Scott Ross was ILM's general manager.

The past ten years have been extraordinary for ILM in terms of the shows on which they've worked. (Never mind the fact that ILM provided effects for such blockbusters as E.T., RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the STAR WARS trilogy, etc.) Since 1987, ILM has earned seven out of nine Academy Awards for visual effects. Just like other effects houses, ILM must prove its worth during the negotiations period--productions do not simply hand off their project to ILM blindly. Take TWISTER, for example. Director Jan DeBont and producer Steven Spielberg needed to be convinced that a CG tornado would work on film, or else the picture wouldn't have been made at all. The ILM test team was led by effects veteran Dennis Muren, and consisted of fx producer Kim Bromley, animator Dan Taylor, and CG artists Scott Frankel, Carol Hayden, Stewart Lew and Scott Frankel. The test was overwhelmingly successful--you may have even seen it. It was so fantastic, Warner Bros. attached it to the end of the teaser and trailer for the film.

The continuing power of ILM is also due to the snowball effect. ILM revolutionized effects in 1977, they get more high-profile, big-budget projects, ILM grows, the tools and resources expand, ILM gets more big-budget projects, ILM expands its talent, ILM gets another $80 million movie, etc.

ILM has brought about effects revolutions; techniques such as the morph and CG creation and animation were used effectively in their shows. They successfully graduated from the optical world to the digital world. Just look at the compositing in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and TWISTER. It is impeccable.

High profile, risky projects are nothing new to ILM. No matter what imagery is presented before them in a screenplay--not even if the technology isn't available yet--the effects house comes through with stunning results. A mysterious water tentacle? "We can do that (THE ABYSS)." Fully computer generated dinosaurs? "We can do that (JURASSIC PARK)." A chase scene with a virtual helicopter, a virtual train and a virtual tunnel? "We can do that (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE)." They are constantly given the impossible and achieve it.

Owner George Lucas has crafted the company into an image factory. Easily the largest of all the effects houses, ILM is sometimes criticized for its 'assembly line' attitude in creating visual effects. No matter how ILM runs its business, they are at the top of their game.

The effects industry should be very proud of itself right now. Fantastic images are being created by the big companies, like ILM and Digital Domain, as well as other companies like Boss Film and Rhythm & Hues. But ILM is the heart of the industry--they are the most consistent effects house in terms of quality and quantity of images. The company is synonymous with special effects because of its rich history and continually expanding resources and talent.

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