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Article © Darlene Arden. First published in OnSat.


The Magic of ILM

Thanks to George Lucas' California-based company, Industrial Light and Magic, special effects have taken on a whole new dimension.


Roxy, age 5 months. Photo courtesy of Steve Dale.

In 1976 ILM was created in Southern California when Lucas decided to make "Star Wars." According to Scott Ross, general manager of ILM, "George Lucas talked to people within the industry and said 'Listen, I have this project and this idea' and the people in the industry said that it really couldn't be done. So a bunch of renegades got together and started a company and said, 'No problem.'" When "Star Wars" was released in 1977 he public was spellbound. The company has grown and evolved into something quite special, creating effects for such films as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Poltergeist," and "*batteries not included" as well as the incredible "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?." ILM's remarkable special effects have been a part of more than 44 films with many more on the way. The company, which began with 25 people, now employs 250. Their work is diverse and unusual, from the cartoon animation of "Roger Rabbit" to the monsters and creatures of a film such as "Willow." In "Willow," amusingly, the incredible two-headed monster was named the Ebersisk, a humorous tip of the hat to those stalwarts of movie criticism, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

Most of "Roger Rabbit's" animation was done in England. "Then, it was really ILM's job to be able to take the animation, which is a 2-D format, and put it into the 3-D world of live action photography by adding color passes and shadow passes through an optical process to make it look 3-D," Ross explains.

"We do very little animation, per se, in the same way that one thinks of Disney animation, of cartoon animation, but we have a lot of shops," says Ross.

"We have a Stage Department which actually shoots the elements and a Camera Department as well -- we do Motion Control Photography which is computer controlled motion photography on a track using this division's 35mm cameras. We have an Animation Department which does various things like Rotoscoping as well as adding animation elements like Luke Skywalker's lightsword. There's the Optical Department which composites the material, the Editorial Department which places the material in the film, they have Computer Graphics, there's the Model Department which builds models like things in "Willow." There's the Creature Department, similar kind of thing, it builds creatures. There's the Matte Department, we do matte painting, and then there's Go Motion and Stop Motion Photography.


Charlie Brown is ready for his close up.
Photograph courtesy of Joanne Clevenger
"A lot of it's done with computer and a lot of it's not done with computer," he says of their special brand of movie magic. "A lot of it's done with typical techniques in terms of model making, creature making, matte painting, etc."

How long it takes to complete these special effects varies with the type of special project.

"Generally the steps are: to get into production and shoot stage elements or live action elements that are shot either on the stage, in motion control or in animation. And then, finally, it goes into Editorial and then the next process is through Optical Lineup.

"I think a lot of people can relate to it in terms of recording electronic material like audio tapes. What the process basically is is we record on film the various elements and then through -- I'll use the word an overdubbing process -- take those elements and continue to put them together so that we build up an image. There are various techniques in doing that. Some of it is animation, some of it is motion control photography, some of it is in matte paintings where you create an illusion that there is something there that isn't. But, the analog to that is "recording sound and constantly overdubbing sound like a multi-track facility so that when you start you might just start with vocals, but at the end you finish and you have a full orchestral arrangement, only we do that with images."

When "Star Wars" was done it was remarkably innovative, however, with each succeeding film the audiences have become more sophisticated which provides an ongoing challenge to ILM's creativity.

"I think if the layperson put "Star Wars" up again or saw it in a motion picture theater, the images that really wowed us twelve years ago would seem somewhat mundane."

Several films are now in production including "Ghostbusters II" and the sequel to "Back to the Future," both of which should be very exciting.

"We're also involved in 3-D technology and we're doing some things with Disney and with MCA-Universal for simulator rides similar to what we did with "Star Wars" at Disneyland."

Jammers the Basset Hound shows off her personal "special effect". Photo by Becky and Reed Pomeroy

Films are expensive to produce: "The filmmaker, the producer, and the studio are always looking to savings, they're looking at production costs, so while filmmaking has become more and more expensive all of the studios are looking to be able to save money. In some instances our shots are a cost-saving measure. For example, in "Indiana Jones" you'd have to find a cliff to shoot the sequence where Harrison Ford jumps off the cliff and lands in the river. You can do it with a matte painting and special effects which, while it might seem expensive is actually very cost effective," Ross relates.

ILM innovations are setting new standards in special effects.

"We were very instrumental in developing motion control photography and we were also very instrumental in go motion photography."

Stop motion was the old way of moving film creatures and monsters.

"Remember the old "Sinbad" films where they had the cyclops of whatever monsters of dinosaurs? Some of them were animated in such a way where you took a picture of a monster and then you moved its arm and you took another picture and then you moved its arm and you took another picture to give it a sense of movement." The problem was, "In real photography when something is moving and you're shooting it, you get a sense of blur. Well, you don't get that sense in stop motion photography.

"What developed was a process called go motion photography where the actual armatures, the inside of his little puppet or model, is moved by mechanical motors so while the shutter is open and you're exposing a frame there's actual movement. It creates blur which therefore creates a look that the animal or the creature or the model is really moving." He cites Ebersisk as an example and the whales in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" are a perfect example of go motion photography.

"The whales underwater were shot in a tank. The whales were large-scale miniatures, creatures that were built with motors inside of them and armatures that made them move. They were controlled by radio frequency. The best compliment we got on that film was a lot of people didn't realize there were "special effects" in that sequence, they thought they were real whales."

When asked what has been ILM's toughest challenge to date Ross responds, "That's a tough question because everything that we do is just somewhat of a really major challenge. Because we're in the field that we're in and because we are ILM, oftentimes producers and directors come to us and ask us to do something that's never been done before. Very often that's the reason why they come to us. I'd say most of the work we do is really challenging. Almost on every new project there's some sort of new innovative technique that's never been seen before. Our people push technology every chance they can get.

Of the size and scope of the work, recently, I would have to say it would be "Roger Rabbit." A lot of people don't really understand the complexity of what had to happen in that film. We've seen animation before in live action, "Mary Poppins" etc., but it's never been three-dimensional. Characters truly interact with the live-action photography and talent.

"I'd say the most technically difficult scene in "Roger Rabbit" probably would be the Toontown sequence where Bob Hoskins is absolutely in a make-believe world which means that Bob was shot against blue screens. He was acting where there was nothing there and then all of the animation cartoons were drawn in around him." And there were various mechanical devices that were built on the set to be able to do certain things like the sequence where Roger is in the handcuff underneath the water and then he sticks his head up and he spits water. Actually what happens is "Bob Hoskins is on the set and he does have handcuffs on and it's attached to an armature in the sink and every time the armature comes up it spurts water out of it. What Richard Williams needed to do in animation was his people then drew in the actual characters over the armatures to hide them."

"Willow" was "a huge challenge" for ILM. For example, the transformation sequence of the good Queen. Raziel goes from a goat to an ostrich, to a peacock, to a turtle, from a turtle to a tiger, and from a tiger to a woman.

"That was all done using digital computer graphics. That's a really new avenue for us and, frankly, we're the only people in the world that have done that, which is taking computer technology, manipulating imagery in the digital domain and then outputting it onto 35mm film.

"I'd say the real key growth that's been taking place at ILM right now in terms of the future would have to be continuation of digital technology and the use of computers in the film industry.

"Most of the ethereal creatures that have appeared in films are live action photography and then manipulated through animation. You know, standard film techniques only done in a very unique way."

The Brownie sequence in "Willow" was shot using oversized sets, "to give the illusion that these people were tiny. Other people shot against blue screens so that they were matted in, looking like they were little Brownies."

"Cocoon: The Return," like "Cocoon," had magical help from ILM.

"A lot of that was animation where the aliens peel off their skin and there's this glowing amorphous being underneath it. And sequences where they're flying around the room, most of that was animation."

In "Witches of Eastwick," "when Nicholson turns into the Devil was pretty unique," says Ross, also citing the tennis game, "all of the tennis balls were actually added into the sequence.

"I think that the name of the company sort of sums it up . . .I don't think we've come across anything yet that, given the time, we haven't really been able to do.

"The real kudos to us is when people are not saying, "God, look at those special effects!" The role that we need to play, and we really try hard to do so, is that we help define what the director is trying to get across on film. All we are really is an extension of the director, to have the audience believe in what the director's story is."