Read This: Wired's Extensive Look at the History of VFX House ILM
Celebrating 40 Years of Creating the Impossible! If you are a movie lover, you know ILM. Also known as Industrial Light & Magic, ILM was originally created by George Lucas as an effects house for the original Star Wars, and lead the industry for decades in special effects. They were the first to introduce computer-generated FX into movies in Young Sherlock Holmes (and The Abyss), and have since revolutionized (and blazed trails in) the CGI VFX industry. ILM is not only preparing for a new Star Wars franchise, but they're also the VFX house behind the new Warcraft movie as well as Michael Bay's Transformers and Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim. So, to celebrate, Wired has published a fascinating, extensive look at ILM's history.
To kick things off, the cover of the latest Wired features a third of this fantastic, epic ILM photo. Seen in the photo is the entirety of ILM history, past and present (from L to R): George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, Michael Bay, Ron Howard, T-1000, Guillermo del Toro, Lynwen Brennan, Iron Man, Gore Verbinski, Colin Trevorrow, Davy Jones, Duncan Jones. This is quite a line-up, pretty much all of modern science fiction cinema in one giant photo. It's kind of overwhelming, but it is just a photo shoot to honor the people who are a key part of this movie company.
As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes. What defines ILM, however, isn’t a signature look, feel, or tone—those change project by project. Rather, it’s the indefatigable spirit of innovation that each of the 43 subjects interviewed for this oral history mentioned time and again. It is the Force that sustains the place.
Their humble origins sound similar to those of Apple. "I wanted to set up shop in San Francisco, but there was no film processing lab, so John insisted we stay in Los Angeles. We found an industrial warehouse space in Van Nuys, next to the airport." They worked out of the warehouse with scrap they could find to build early cameras for shooting Star Wars. "Across the street was a military surplus store. We bought a lot of used, obsolete things there to use in our models because we were trying to stretch the dollar." ILM has since gone through many changes, and many eras, including the computer age and later the animation age (which eventually lead them to make Rango with Gore Verbinski). But they remain at the top, the best of the best.
For a quick recap on their history, here's a video celebrating ILM's 40 Years of Creating the Impossible:
There are so many interesting tidbits found in the article. "Pixar, as a new company [after originating inside ILM and splitting off on its own], bid against ILM to do the effects for The Abyss. But Cameron gave the job to ILM, probably wisely, because if it didn't work with the computer then he knew they could do it some other way, whereas we only had one way of approaching the problem." In regards to their development on Terminator 2: "The graphics department was small, and the spirit was pioneering. These days you can buy all this off-the-shelf software, but back then we invented everything as we went." For example: "When the T-1000 goes through the doors in the mental institution? Turns out that if you hold a can of dog food upside down, the sound of that cylinder slowly coming out of the can is the perfect combination of mud, metal, and suction. That sound effect cost 75 cents." There's so much more so just dive ride in and read the entire piece.
I have been a huge fan of ILM longer than I've been running this site. I used to be subscribed to Cinefex, and bought all the huge, technical behind-the-scenes books that were hard to get. They are, and have been, and likely will be, the pinnacle of visual effects excellence. Not many can truly compare with ILM (though that has changed recently with Weta, Digital Domain, Framestore) and they continue to stay on the cutting-edge by inventing, re-inventing, and creating new technology when necessary. A few years ago I had a fantastic time touring ILM and interviewing animator Hal Hickel for Pacific Rim. They know their stuff, and above all, they're movie fans through and through, and it shows. I'll wrap up with this quote from Rian Johnson.
"My friends were doing a Back to the Future parody, and I decided I was going to re-create the tire trails behind the DeLorean. Genius that I am, I soaked strips of paper towel in gasoline and laid them out in a line behind this big model car of the DeLorean that I'd built in my parents' garage. I don’t remember how I got the fire out, but I almost destroyed [our] house. And now I'm doing Star Wars. That's how you do it."