The Impact of Industrial Light and Magic on Film

         Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM, was created in May of 1975 by George Lucas, the founder of Lucasfilm, Ltd. Soon after Lucas got the approval to make Star Wars, the special effects department at Twentieth Century Fox was shut down. ILM was Lucas’s on the spot creation to fill the need for special effects in Star Wars. ILM began with just a few technicians and a few college students and grew over the past thirty years to become the best visual effects studio in the world.

         Beginning with Star Wars in 1977, ILM was the first to use a motion control camera. Motion control cameras are cameras rigged to a machine that can perform the exact same camera movement in multiple takes. This allowed Lucas to layer film shots together to create convincing space battles. In 1979, Lucas set up the Computer Division to look into new ways of using electronic editing and digital imaging. ILM’s Computer Division created the first completely computer-generated film sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In 1985, ILM created the first completely computer-generated character, the “stained glass man,” in Young Sherlock Holmes. In 1986 George Lucas sold the animation division of the Computer Division to Steve Jobs; it is now known as Pixar. In 1989, ILM created the first computer-generated three-dimensional character, the “pseudopod” in James Cameron’s The Abyss. This was a landmark because of the level of integration a digital creation had with the story line. The film makers furthered this integration in 1991 with the first computer-generated main character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In 1993 ILM won its 12th Academy Award for computer graphics for its work on Death Becomes Her, being the first use of computer-generated human skin texture.

         ILM made breakthroughs in 1994 and 95 with their work on Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump. In Jurassic Park, ILM created a living, breathing character with skin, muscles, and texture using digital technology. In Forrest Gump, ILM was recognized for manipulating archival footage and seamlessly blending it with film footage. ILM used a system called the Sabre System, named for the lightsabers of Star Wars. Using this system, they were able to place Forrest Gump into documentary footage of historical figures such as Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, along with create the opening credits scene of the feather flying through the air. More than that, in the film they used “invisible effects” such as digitally removing a character’s legs, along with computer-generated helicopters, jets, birds, crowds, and ping-pong balls. The use of these small, non-showy effects helps the filmmaker tell the story in a more real and effective way.

         ILM gave the greatest advances in film through breakthroughs that added to the storyline. In The Abyss, Terminator 2, Forrest Gump and many since, ILM has used computer graphics to advance the story. This use of motion capture in Terminator 2 paved the way for life-like animation in film and video games. Motion capture uses tracking points on a persons body, either magnetic, optical, or mechanical. These points are captured by cameras in a controlled environment and then fed into a computer where they can be manipulated and layered with muscles, skin, and clothes to create fully digital characters with the actions performed by actors. ILM also made a very helpful advancement in the late 80s and early 90s in the Back to the Future Trilogy and Stephen Spielberg’s Hook with the use of digitally removing wires. When characters need to fly in a film, they are attached to wires through a harness and are allowed to fly. The only problem is that the wires can be seen on film. ILM pioneered using simple digital effects to cover up the wires and add to the reality of the film. ILM’s work in Jurassic Park is well known as landmark in CGI. Their use of the Go-Motion system allowed them to use a computer to move rods to control creatures live on set. But the main achievement was with the Digital Input Device, or DID also known as the “Dinosaur Input Device.” This allowed animators to blend stop-motion animation with computer animation to allow for the creation of digital models of the dinosaurs that can be fully manipulated using joints and muscles to create accurate movements.

         In 1999, With George Lucas returning to the director’s chair for Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, ILM made huge jumps in the CGI field. More than 70 percent of the film was composited with CGI. There were over 60 computer-generated characters; one of which, Jar-Jar Binks, was in over 350 shots. This film definitely set in stone that the future of filmmaking is digital

.          ILM headed into the new millennium with the creation of digital waves and weather for The Perfect Storm. They continued with digital recreations of World War II era ships, airplanes, and vehicles, along with fire and smoke from bomb explosions in 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

         Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, released in 2002, was the first film to be completely shot on digital High Definition video. There were over 2200 visual effects shots in the film done by ILM that featured digital environments, along with synthetic human characters. In 2003, with the release of The Hulk, ILM successfully created a fully digital human character with muscles, skin, hair, clothes, and the most revolutionary, human emotions.

         ILM has worked on several large production and large profit pictures in the past thirty years including the entire Star Wars Saga, The Indiana Jones Trilogy, many Star Trek films, Back to the Future, and others. But there are also films not in the Sci-fi or action categories such as Forrest Gump, mentioned earlier, along with Field of Dreams, Schindler’s List, 101 Dalmatians, Titanic, and The Green Mile.

         ILM has undoubtedly led the change that Hollywood has seen in the past thirty years. The future is in digital filmmaking and ILM is coming up with new and fantastic ways to bring magic to the screen and will continue to as long as films exist.

Justin Wylie

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