40 Years of ILM: 6 Unforgettable Moments

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) are synonymous with movie visual effects, having quickly become the market leader during the 1980s. Founded by George Lucas in 1975 (their first project was Star Wars, released two years later), ILM have provided thousands of effects work for the movies—ranging from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Innerspace in the ’80s, through to Forrest Gump and Mars Attacks! in the 1990s, and into the 21st-century with the Iron Man and Transformers films.

These days, there are more rivals snapping at ILM’s heels than ever before (like WETA Digital, who worked on the Lord of the Rings films), but they’re still the closest thing to a household name in the industry. The company’s been through some changes over the years—moving from Van Nuys, California to San Rafael in ’78, then to Presidio, San Francisco in 2005—and now find themselves own by The Walt Disney Company as part of the Mouse House’s takeover of Lucasfilm in 2012, but ILM have never been busier.

This year, they’re celebrating an incredible 40 years at the top of their game, and some of Frame Rated’s writers have compiled a short list of ILM-produced visual effects that most impressed them at the movies…

6. WILLOW (1988)

– Morphing Magic

When George Lucas came up with the idea for fantasy epic Willow in 1972, he had to wait over a decade before the technology existed to bring his vision to life. One of the trickiest scenes in the film was the gob-smacking moment in which Willow uses magic to restore Fin Raziel to her human form; a sorceress who’d spent half the film as a goat (don’t ask). Leave it to ILM to develop nifty digital morphing technology specifically for the film. As Raziel cycles through numerous animal forms (goat, ostrich, peacock, tortoise, tiger) before finally settling on human, we’re treated to a stunning transformation sequence that’s pure magic in motion. The effect was accomplished by ILM supervisor Dennis Muren, who shot the animals for real, then fed the images into a computer to generate the desired “morphing” effect—he got an Oscar nomination for his efforts. • JOSH WINNING

5. HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

– The Dark Overlord

There are some movies I loved as a child that I’ll gladly defend as actual good movies that stand the test of time. Howard the Duck is not one of those; that its many duck puns and intimations of a sexual relationship between the titular space duck and Lea Thompson still amuse me, is less a defence of the notorious George Lucas-produced bomb than an admission I’m a deeply-flawed human being. There is one element of Howard the Duck that I’ll go to bat for, however: the Dark Overlord of the Universe; the inter-dimensional bad guy that possesses Jeffrey Jones for much of the movie’s running time.

When we see the Dark Overlord’s true form in the movie’s final minutes, it’s a sincerely impressive Lovecraftian creation; all pincers and stingers and rows of razor-sharp teeth. The Dark Overlord was brought to life by Phil Tippett using his Go Motion technique. While traditional stop motion animation consists of photographing figures one small movement at a time, Tippett used computerised motion control to photograph subtle movements within every shot, resulting in more realistically blurry movement. The Dark Overlord, with its many fearsome moving parts, is one of the most memorable and effective examples of this technique, and is a fine reminder of ILM’s commitment to realising filmmakers’ visions, no matter how dubious they might be. • ANDREW BEMIS

https://youtu.be/xPZigWFyK2o

4. STAR WARS – RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

– Death Star Attack

It’s arguably weak from a storytelling perspective that the climax of Return of the Jedi, in part, boils down to the Rebels having to blow up the Death Star again. However, as an opportunity for ILM’s artists to outdo their already-iconic work on the first film, it works like gangbusters. While the effects for Star Wars were created in a warehouse by a group of relatively inexperienced young artists and technicians learning through trial and error, by the time of Jedi ILM was a well-oiled machine working with a bigger budget, a larger team (including future directors David Fincher and Joe Johnston) and several movies under their belt. This isn’t to say that the sequel was any easier to make—at one point, George Lucas made the decision to slash hundreds of already-completed effects shots, believing that ILM could do better (effects supervisor Ken Ralston responded, quite reasonably, by getting hammered). If Jedi was far from easy to create, however, the hard work paid off beautifully in the final product.

There are multiple shots in the Death Star battle sequence that are more complex than anything seen in Star Wars; with a single shot requiring as many as 60 different elements, carefully photographed and composited together. But while CGI would later enable the effects in the Star Wars prequels to often become visually dense to the point of incoherence, the painstaking process of photographing and choreographing multiple elements in a single shot results in a sequence that, no matter how frenetic the action becomes, it never sacrifices spatial continuity. My favourite shot is the one that tracks along the surface of the Death Star before suddenly plunging into one of its mind-bogglingly detailed tunnels; the sudden burst of colour and detail overwhelming my senses (in the best way) every time. Over 30 years later, Jedi holds up beautifully as a triumph of pre-CGI photochemical visual effects. • ANDREW BEMIS

3. THE ABYSS (1989)

– Pseudopod

The first time I saw The Abyss, the ‘Pseudopod’ scene—where one of the movie’s aquatic aliens manipulates a column of water to pay a visit to the movie’s human characters—was mind-blowing even when viewed on a 20″ TV, on HBO a year after the movie’s theatrical release. Over six months of work by seven FX teams (including Dream Quest Images, which supervised motion control) went into creating the sequence, which lasts just over a minute. ILM’s computer graphics department, then in its infancy, used the very first version of Photoshop to manipulate CG backgrounds digitally recreated from scans of every possible angle of the movie’s sets in order to plot the pseudopod’s course, as well as designing programs to convincingly simulate its watery texture.

For the moment when the pseudopod mimics leads Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, images of the actors’ facial expressions were used to create CG sculptures, which were then manipulated with the then-new process known as “morphing”. While The Abyss didn’t feature the first computer generated effects or even the first CGI character—that was the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes, also by ILM—it was the first real instance of a computer generated performance that wasn’t just technically impressive but also emotionally compelling. While James Cameron and ILM would apply the lessons learned on The Abyss on a much grander scale with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the pseudopod remains one of the company’s most endearing creations. • ANDREW BEMIS

2. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

– Liquid Metal Man

James Cameron was presumably so impressed by the pseudopod sequence in The Abyss that he wrote a villain for his Terminator sequel that would take advantage of ILM’s computer-generated liquid effect. The result was the famous T-1000; a future robot comprised of malleable metal, played with icy menace by Robert Patrick. Throughout the film, Patrick’s performance as the ultimate predator was augmented by a variety of effects that astonished audiences at the time. Whether it was rising from a chequered floor as an amorphous blob, lengthening his arm into a razor-sharp spear, or walking through the fiery debris of a crashed truck, the seemingly unstoppable T-1000 was a marvel of movies. It’s an effect that’s relatively easy to create nowadays (and had even become achievable on TV as early as 1993 on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), but a few decades later it’s worth mentioning how the T-1000 in 2015 sequel Terminator Genisys doesn’t look much better than what ILM created in 1991 with less-advanced computers. •
DAN OWEN

1. JURASSIC PARK (1993)

– Dinosaurs Rule the Box Office

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel was always going to be a ground-breaking project for ILM, but initially the company’s intention was to use Go Motion (the improved version of traditional stop-motion) to bring the prehistoric creatures to life. That was until Spielberg saw test footage of a computer generated dinosaur, which had photo-realistic textures and lifelike movements surpassing what anyone imagined was possible. CGI was still in its infancy in 1993, but remarkable leaps forward had been taken with Terminator 2 and The Abyss a few years before, which gave ILM the confidence to try and convince movie-goers its scaly creatures were living, breathing realities.

It was painstaking work back then: taking a whole hour to composite dinosaurs into live-action scenes, then around four hours per frame of animation, or six for the T-Rex attack in the pouring rain. There’s actually only 12-minutes of CGI dinosaurs in the completed 127-minute movie, as the project was still reliant on animatronic puppets for most of its sequences. But the combination of techniques is arguably what gives the infamous T-Rex attack its enduring appeal; as Stan Winston’s enormous hydraulic beast was seamlessly integrated with a digital equivalent. I distinctly remember being pressed back in my cinema seat, boggle-eyed with wonder when the enormous digital T-Rex is first seen from head-to-toe, before letting out a cinema-rumbling roar.

And what happened to Go Motion, which had become the standard for creating monsters and creatures throughout the 1980s? The last film to use that technique was Coneheads, released a few weeks after Jurassic Park, and filmmaker’s have favoured CGI ever since. • DAN OWEN

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