Documentary celebrates 35 years of ILM magic

Set to air in November, "Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible" highlights the visual effects house that has earned 15 Oscars for its work on nearly 300 movies.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
George Lucas and longtime ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren--seen here on camera crane--between takes for a scene from the Speederbike chase during the filming of 'Return of the Jedi.' Industrial Light & Magic

If you asked the average moviegoer to name George Lucas' biggest influence on the film industry, they'd probably say "Star Wars." But while there's no arguing with the massive cultural and artistic impact of that film and its five sequels, a better answer might well be Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.

To be sure, "Star Wars" and ILM are not unrelated--Lucas started ILM to create the visual effects for his groundbreaking movie. But the visual effects house has gone on to do a great deal more, and today is probably responsible for the look and feel of more movies than any other institution.

And while there are other prominent visual effects companies that frequently get top billing on movies like "Avatar," houses like Digital Domain, Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, Sony's Imageworks, and others, there's little doubt ILM has achieved more in its history than most of its competitors combined.

All told ILM has worked on almost 300 films including all six "Star Wars" movies, "Out of Africa," "Cocoon," "Ghost," "Forrest Gump," "The Mask," "Jurassic Park," "Saving Private Ryan," the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, "Wall-E," 2009's "Star Trek," and "Transformers," among many, many others. And along the way, it has earned 40 Oscar nominations, winning 15 times, for efforts that sometimes make its peers' jaws drop.

While ILM has been earning kudos for 35 years, it may be known by many for its recent work on the 'Iron Man' franchise, as well as on other hit franchises like the 'Star Trek,' 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' and 'Transformers' films. Industrial Light & Magic

For example, many in the industry were stunned by ILM's work on "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" in 2006, especially the computer graphics on that film's Davy Jones character, which to the naked eye looked entirely realistic.

"Davy Jones was 100 percent CGI," Aaron Muszalski, a Bay Area visual effects instructor and multimedia artist, said at the time of ILM's Oscar nomination for "Pirates." "True, the animations were derived, at least in part, from the tracked data of the actor's performance, but the resulting imagery was totally synthetic. It's simply amazing, really. "

This year, ILM turns 35 years old, and to celebrate, the Encore cable TV network commissioned Oscar- and Emmy-winning director Leslie Iwerks to make a 60-minute documentary, "Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible," which will air on November 14, about the VFX house.

Featuring plenty of archival material and interviews with Hollywood luminaries like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Robin Williams, John Lasseter, Samuel L. Jackson, and others, Iwerks said her film paints a picture of a group of people who have been brought in again and again to pull off visual effects no one had ever done before.

35 years of 'impossible' ILM visual effects (photos)

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"Every film...they've been offered, there's some impossible aspect [they've been asked to do] in creating a visual effect," Iwerks told CNET. "That's why people go to ILM...I tried to focus on all the amazing magic tricks that they've been able to pull off, and included comments from Spielberg, Ron Howard [and others who] just talk so passionately about how grateful they are about ILM being able to make their dreams come true" visually.

Tapped by Starz Entertainment--which owns Encore--to make the film based on her work on the documentary "The Pixar Story" about the famous animation studio, Iwerks said she got a great deal of cooperation from ILM during productions, including access to its private archives, video vault, and perhaps more importantly, to its people and to the company's everyday working environment.

Turning point
It's hard to imagine that any VFX house, let alone ILM, could have 35 years under its belt. But with a benefactor like Lucas and a reputation like it has developed over the decades, it's really no wonder that it keeps getting tapped to do the heavy lifting on the visual effects of films that more and more every day depend on them to wow audiences and justify their nine-figure budgets.

And today, with the state of the art in visual effects allowing filmmakers to count on digital creations like near photo-realistic explosions, car crashes, giant robots, and the like, it's easily forgotten that not all that long ago, ILM went through a painful turning point when it was forced to transition from analog modeling to mostly all-digital work.

As Iwerks learned during her time at ILM, and as she presents in the film, that transition, which happened during work on Spielberg's 1993 "Jurassic Park," put most of the house's modeling artists in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether they were up to the task of learning all-new digital skills. If they didn't, she suggested, their careers might well have been over.

"The art department had to adjust and learn computers, and it was a scary time" for them, Iwerks said. "They could see the writing on the wall if they were a model maker...That was an interesting time to document and talk to people about because it was scary and painful."

But many of those artists did successfully transition to the digital age, she said, largely because ILM recognized their artistic talent and offered computer classes that helped them learn the skills they'd need to compete in an industry that had no time for nostalgia. Digital "was where the industry was going and ILM was leading the charge," Iwerks said.

For Iwerks, the biggest challenges in making her documentary were its 60-minute length and budget constraints. That meant that she had to be highly disciplined in deciding where to focus her story, particularly given the incredible riches with which 35 years of ILM work must have presented her.

As a result, she explained, the film's narrative is about evenly split between the pre-Jurassic Park days and the years afterward. "There's so much to tell in 60 minutes," she said, "so you can't tell everything. But you can provide an overview of how far they've come in such a short period of time."

One thing Iwerks clearly hopes will come across in the film is what may have surprised her the most during her days spent inside the posh San Francisco digs ILM has called home for the last few years.

"The amount of energy and manpower that goes into every movie is amazing," Iwerks said. "You watch these films and you take for granted that you're seeing a computer-generated character on screen. But there's thousands of moving parts, and each individual frame is done by hand."

Since "Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible" won't air until November 14, the public will have to wait to see the treats included in Iwerks' movie. But talking to her, it's hard to avoid catching her enthusiasm for her subject. ILM is "the pre-eminent visual effects house in the motion picture industry," Iwerks said. "They pioneered [many of] the amazing visual effects seen in movies today and over the last 35 years. When you see a montage of ILM's work over the last 35 years, you're just blown away."