|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
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.
"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."
Charlie Brown is ready for his close up.
Photograph courtesy of Joanne Clevenger
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
"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
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
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
Stop motion was the old way of moving film creatures and
"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
"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
"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."