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ILM doc shows Lucas' focus on making 'great movies'

"Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible" showcases the 35-year history of the famous visual effects studio owned by George Lucas. And Lucas told CNET the studio's focus is on helping filmmakers, not on making money.

A new documentary about Industrial Light & Magic highlights the biggest accomplishments of its 35-year history. Among them are the digital effects seen in 'Terminator 2.' ILM

SAN FRANCISCO--When George Lucas talks about the raison d'etre of his award-winning visual effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic, his logic might strike some in the bottom line-obsessed world of Hollywood as heretical.

"I started ILM to help make great movies," Lucas told CNET recently. "That's what we're here for. We're not here as a big moneymaking organization. We're not here as a business. We're here to make great movies."

Of course, any filmmaker would probably want to say something like that, but Lucas may well be the one person for whom such a sentiment is legitimate.

"Obviously there are financial constraints that have to be adhered to" in working on a film, Lucas continued, "which are [difficult for outside filmmakers who hire ILM] because they have a real hard budget. When I do it, I'm in charge of the budget, so I can decide on a day-to-day basis what we're going to spend money on and what we're not...Nobody else can say that, because...I own the company, and I also am making the movie."

ILM and the process for creating award-winning visual effects it has developed over the last 35 years--whether profitable or not--is at the center of a new documentary by "The Pixar Story" director Leslie Iwerks. Titled "Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible," the new film premieres on the Encore cable TV network on November 12, and without a doubt, one of the best things about it is watching some of Hollywood's most prominent artists gush about how the famous visual effects studio has changed filmmaking forever.

It's no accident that the new film is packed with moments featuring the leading lights of the film industry. Iwerks was given access to countless hours of ILM archival materials, as well as to people like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, and many others who have hired or worked with George Lucas' effects house since its creation in 1975.

"I think ILM's biggest accomplishment isn't any one [film]," Abrams, who directed 2009's mega-hit "Star Trek," says in the film. "It's that they've managed to realize the dream that any filmmaker would have, which is the ability to do anything."

That, of course, is the sentiment that keeps ILM at or near the peak of the visual effects industry. But the Lucas-owned studio, which has worked on nearly 300 films, and which has won 15 Academy Awards, wasn't always a world-changing organization. Indeed, it was started for one focused purpose, and with one specific client.

The original ILM logo, as displayed at a special screening of a new documentary about the award-winning visual effects studio Daniel Terdiman/CNET

"With 'Star Wars,' I wanted to do an action picture," recalls Lucas in Iwerks' documentary. "I wanted to do something where I could pan with the spaceships, where there's a lot of really short cuts...a lot of rhythm, a lot of pace, a lot of movement on the screen. I wanted it to be very cinematic. And at that point in time, that was impossible. You just couldn't do that with special effects. So when the studio said, 'Well, how are you going to do that?' I said, Oh, well, we'll figure it out. But I had no idea what I was going to do."

What Lucas did, back in those heady days before "Star Wars" was perhaps the most successful film franchise of all time, was start a new outfit whose sole purpose was to design the effects he needed for his unlikely space opera.

Thanks to a vast and sudden shrinking of the special effects industry in Hollywood, Lucas was able to purchase a lot of the gear he needed for his fledgling operation at pennies on the dollar. And, setting himself up in a warehouse in Van Nuys, Calif., Lucas began what is now undeniably a march towards forever changing what the film industry sees as a realistic effect.

'Invent our way out'
Today, filmmakers like Spielberg take it as almost a given that effects houses like ILM can achieve even the most demanding goals. But back in 1975, when Lucas and his team of artists set out to begin work on "Star Wars," that was hardly true. Instead, as Iwerks illustrates in her documentary, the visual effects supervisors on the project found themselves in a constant battle against the limits of their art form. Yet rather than give in to those limits, they always looked for ways to break them down.

It would take hours, or days, to complete shots that would appear on screen for just seconds, and more often than not, Lucas and his ILM visual effects supervisors wouldn't have any precedent to turn to when trying to figure out how to complete a shot.

"We would paint our way into a corner," Richard Edlund, who worked on the film and later became an ILM visual effects supervisor, says in the documentary, "and have to invent our way out of it."

That meant innovations like the Dykstraflex, named after primary developer John Dykstra, an all-digital system that gave filmmakers a computer controlled system that allowed the programming of dynamic and repeatable elements and which facilitated combining multiple components into a single shot.

George Lucas poses for a picture with Leslie Iwerks, the director of the new documentary about ILM, 'Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible.' ILM

"It was like we were in Florence during the Renaissance," recalls Bill George, an ILM visual effects supervisor.

And yet, a big part of why ILM was able to take these leaps forward in the "Star Wars" days was because Lucas was both the owner of the studio, and its only client. In the documentary, Lucas recalls being in meetings with his effects supervisors and being told that they couldn't get something or other done.

But Lucas would hear none of it. Instead of accepting that answer, he would tell his team that, yes, they could do it, and they would do it. He wouldn't accept the alternative.

I had a chance to ask Lucas about that sense of pure confidence at a recent private screening of the documentary at LucasFilm's San Francisco headquarters, and his answer highlighted his very surprising notion that ILM is supposed to be about enabling artists to create great work rather than obsessing about every last dollar.

"I have enough knowledge of what needs to get done that I'm allowed to make the leap," Lucas explained, talking about his control of budgets on his own projects. "I had a movie ['Star Wars']. I wanted it to be a great movie. I needed visual effects to do that. But I wanted the best visual effects...So if I say we will get this done, there's many times when I said I don't care. I know it's going to cost more than we thought, but we're going to do it. So I can say that. Nobody else can say that, because again, I own the company, and I'm also making the movie."

To be sure, outside filmmakers like Spielberg who hire ILM almost certainly don't have that kind of financial freedom. But Lucas' philosophy of ensuring that ILM's artists help directors get what they want when they engage the visual effects house was reflected throughout Iwerks' film.

"It's wonderful to know that the tools are there to really begin to get what's [in my imagination] out there in the world," Howard says in the film, "and ILM has been leading the charge in that quest since it began."

The most famous movies, the most famous shots
You might not know it, but ILM's legacy extends to an incredibly wide selection of the most famous movies of the last 35 years. From Lucas' own "Star Wars" series to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Abyss," "Terminator" and "Terminator 2," "Jurassic Park," "Star Trek," the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, and the "Iron Man" films, it's nearly impossible to think of visual effects without considering ILM's influence.

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.' ILM

Even though there are several other leading VFX studios sharing the spotlight these days--such as Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, or Digital Domain, or Sony's Imageworks--most observers would still place ILM at the top of the pyramid.

And that's got a lot to do with the work it has achieved over the years and the ground it's broken. From the award-winning effects on "Star Wars" itself to innovations like the first-ever computer graphics sequence--in "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan"--to the first CG character--in "Young Sherlock Holmes"--to the first morphing shot ever done--in Howard's "Willow"--to its more recent work, ILM has continued to shape the state of the art of the visual effects industry.

To be sure, Iwerks' film looks almost entirely at ILM's ground-breaking accomplishments. But that's because the list of those achievements is so long. Yet, to those who pay attention to the visual effects industry, ILM's biggest contributions to the modern version of the art probably boil down to its work on two films: "Jurassic Park" and "Terminator 2."

In the documentary, Spielberg recalls the day when legendary ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren came to him and reported that it would be possible to create some of the crucial dinosaur scenes in "Jurassic Park" digitally, rather than relying on traditional analog methods.

"All the onus of stop motion photography was suddenly eradicated," Spielberg recalls.

And to Lucas, the one moment moved the visual effects industry forward forever.

"The major breakthrough was when [Spielberg] bought off on [Muren's] idea of making that leap from analog to digital," Lucas says in the film. "And that's really what changed everything. Once we did those dinosaurs, I saw that we had unlimited possibilities."

Before long, movies were getting studio support largely on the strength of the new ability of the visual effects teams' to craft what would previously have been impossible shots.

For example, Ian Bryce, the producer of 1996's "Twister," recalled that that movie was given the go-ahead after a roomful of decision makers saw a test of a digital tornado shot ILM created. We "sat in the screening room," Bryce said, "and everybody loved the shot so much, that that's when the film got green-lit."

New tools
It's been years since "Twister," of course, and the most recent visual effects Oscar belongs to Weta Digital for its work on James Cameron's "Avatar." But to those in the industry, ILM's influence on the field is impossible to ignore.

"Technology changes very quickly, and gets better and better," said Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of many hit movies including the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, "and so it gives the artists at ILM and their supervisors more fun to play with, and more things to play with, and more toys, and pushes the limits, which is exactly what we want to do."

Indeed, these days, ILM is so good at what it does that some filmmakers can no longer distinguish between the visual effects and real scenes.

In helping to make Jon Favreau's 2008 smash "Iron Man," ILM developed both digital and real versions of the famous exoskeleton worn by Robert Downey Jr.'s character, Tony Stark.

In the documentary, Favreau recalls giving notes to the ILM team about how he didn't like the reflections coming off the suit in what he thought was one of the digital sequences.

"And the supervisor said, 'That's the real suit,'" Favreau says. "And that's when I knew that it's crossed that line...It has passed the point where I could tell the difference. And then it became how best to design the shots to make full use of what it could do well and not to ask of those shots or the technology what it wasn't good at. So I think a lot of times now, when you see bad CGI, it's because of poor planning on behalf of the filmmaker, and not the artists who are working on it."

Iwerks' documentary chronicles the illustrious 35 year record of ILM, highlighting the early, "Star Wars," period, as well as the crucial "Jurassic Park" breakthroughs. But if one thing comes through in her film, it's that ILM is hardly resting on its laurels, or letting its rivals lead the pack.

Still, what really illustrates ILM's influence on the industry is the never-ending compliments paid to it by the likes of Spielberg, Howard, Bruckheimer, and so on.

In the film's final moments, Spielberg recalls how important it was to the industry when Lucas made the decision to open ILM's doors to outside filmmakers--essentially ensuring that all of Hollywood could benefit from the visual effects artistry that was going on in Lucas' until then private fiefdom.

"George made his company available to every studio and to every filmmaker," Spielberg says with a very warm smile. "That was the first time that had ever happened before, where a company was formed for all of us to achieve all of our impossible dreams. And George made that possible for all of us."