This weekend, Encore will be screening a new documentary “Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible” which is narrated by Tom Cruise. It aims to capture the history and spirit of one of the greatest visual effects houses that has ever worked and which continues to this day to pioneer the field of visual effects. We spoke to the Academy Award nominated director Leslie Iwerks.
The film is a celebration of 35 years of ILM. An amazing 35 years and some 300 visual effects films. A record no other company can match, or even come close to. Dennis Muren alone has won six Oscars, been nominated for another six, and has been awarded a technical Oscar for the development of a Motion Picture Figure Mover for animation photography.
The hour-long special has interviews with filmmakers George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau, actors Samuel L. Jackson and Robin Williams, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. It also interviews many of the key visual effects supervisors of ILM, Dennis Muren, John Knoll, John Dykstra, Pablo Helman, Ben Snow and many more.
We asked director Leslie Iwerks if there was anyone she really wanted to interview but could not. “James Cameron,.. he would have been important not only for Abyss and Terminator 2 but for Avatar, but we just couldn’t make the schedule work,” she said.
To take nothing away from ILM or the documentary, because there are so many interviews, you may be lusting after the outtakes and uncut footage that were shot for this documentary as no one supervisor or director has time to be interviewed in any great depth. It also assumes a broader audience so technical complexity is limited and while there are some great before and after reels, you will find yourself watching more for the sense of what it was like to work at ILM and the spirit of the company than any great technical insights.
Film and television shows featured in the special include The Abyss, Avatar, Forrest Gump, Jumanji, Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek (2009), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Transformers, Twister, Young Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds (2005), which starred narrator Tom Cruise.
Cruise had been slated to appear in the documentary, but when scheduling made that complex, the idea surfaced to ask him to narrate instead. Cruise adds real gravitas to the narration and his willingness to do it is as much a comment on ILM and his respect for them as anything. “We approached him to be in it, for about four months we tried to figure out his schedule to get him as an interview, but it never worked out, then almost at the last minute, we asked ‘well how about narrating it?’ and he was thrilled to do it,” Iwerks explained.
The documentary uses extremely interesting historical footage, some of the most interesting scenes and discussions centers around the early days of ILM and especially Star Wars. ILM has one of the finest archives and Iwerks was not limited by availability of material, but the film did have a finite budget. Iwerks commented, “It’s something like US$11,000 for 30 seconds to use a shot from some major feature films,.. so you’ve got to be choosy. And then you have the SAG and Director’s guild fees, WGA, Stunt fees for every person in there… so there were times we used stills to get the ideas across.” But the film does not feel limited in access or material. There is a wealth of talent and footage packed into this documentary.
ILM was formed in 1975 to realize the complicated and unprecedented special effects shots for a new movie called The Star Wars. Led by visionary photographic effects expert, John Dykstra, who features in the film, a group of college students, artists, and engineers pushed the limits in artistry, craftsmanship, technology and time. Models, glass matte paintings, optical compositing, rubber masked creatures, and revolutionary camera systems pushed Star Wars to a level of believability all its own.
The historic success of Star Wars forever changed moviemaking and in 1977 allowed George Lucas to establish a filmmaking center outside of Hollywood. He relocated to Marin County in Northern California and built Skywalker Ranch. ILM set up shop in the nearby city of San Rafael, inhabiting a nondescript group of buildings and working under the guise of Kerner Optical Research Lab and immediately began work on the next Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back. From there, ILM opened its doors to the outside film community, becoming the first independent visual effects studio in the industry. The company’s first outside project was Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Throughout the 1980’s, ILM continued to push ahead with the photochemical effects of the day, but George Lucas could see the potential for an entirely new way of creating cinema magic. He formed the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Division, which soon developed texture mapping, motion blur, digital matte painting and compositing programs for motion pictures. The Genesis effect in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan incorporated the first visual effects shot made in the computer for a motion picture.
Since their earliest days of CGI experimentation, and nearly 300 films since, ILM now features the largest and most advanced digital effects system in the entertainment industry. From the earliest creations of wholly computer-generated characters in Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park to the startling breakthroughs in films such as Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, ILM is constantly expanding the possibilities of digital imagery.
The Pirates series made extensive use of motion capture technology, otherwise known as ‘mocap’ and then a derivation of that technology they pioneered called Imocap. This latest advancement eliminated the need for an elaborate array of sensors and cameras in a controlled environment and instead, only required the primary shooting camera on set to record the performance of actors as data that can be used to drive the action of digital characters. This was a major technological advancement which helped in bringing Davy Jones and his crew to life.
In 2005, ILM’s headquarters were moved from Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge to a 23-acre complex at the historic Presidio of San Francisco. From their humble beginnings in a Van Nuys warehouse to a state-of-the-art facility in the Presidio, ILM has transformed the photo chemical techniques of old into a new digital era, changing the industry one film at a time. Their innovation and artistry has been recognized with 15 Academy Awards® for Best Visual Effects and 23 Science and Technology Awards from the Academy. The company remains the only entertainment entity to ever be awarded the National Medal of Technology.
The film came about from a meeting at ILM with Starz Entertainment, which is a premium movie and original programming entertainment service provider operating in the United States. Starz contacted Iwerks to direct. Iwerks was well known to the network for her 2008 theatrical documentary, The Pixar Story (as producer, writer, director & co-editor), which chronicles the history, business, and artistic triumphs of Pixar Animation Studios and the computer animation they pioneered. That film was narrated by Stacy Keach and featured Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, George Lucas, Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Billy Crystal among others. The Pixar Story had its television premiere on Starz, in, 2008, and garnered record high ratings for the network. The film was also nominated for the 2008 Editors Guild ACE Award for best documentary editing, (against Michael Moore’s Sicko), and was also nominated for the 2008 Emmy for Outstanding Non-fiction Special. (The Pixar Story site )
Iwerks is not only an excellent choice for director due to her own previous documentaries but she comes from a family of great filmmakers and animators. If you want to have a director flag the key technological innovations of the last 35 years of VFX, then it helps if they really understand visual effects and are in a position to creatively and technically judge those milestones.
Iwerks had the perfect background for this task. Her grandfather was a special effects pioneer, starting out in the very early days (1923) with Walt Disney himself. A subject Leslie had previously tackled with her award-winning theatrical documentary for Walt Disney Pictures entitled The Hand Behind the Mouse – The Ub Iwerks Story which chronicled the life of Leslie’s grandfather, Ub Iwerks, the original designer and co-creator of Mickey Mouse. That film was narrated by Kelsey Grammer. In speaking to fxguide about her grandfather, she explained how “he was always pushing the envelope…”
After the earlier Mickey Mouse work, Ub Iwerks returned to Disney, “He was leading the technical engineering or process department for film (at Disney) – so it was the optical printer that he designed for Mary Poppins (Dir. Robert Stevenson, 1964) – for all that live-action and animation combination work in that film, the sodium traveling matte process that allowed for that,.. he invented the nodal point perspective lens,.. and then he did the effects forThe Birds (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), – so all the compositing and plate shots for The Birds – that was all his work… take ten birds shot in a room on a black background, and then reverse it and duplicate it and composite it and make it look like a flock of birds,.. so a lot of the work he did laid the foundation for what would become rudimentary in the digital era,” she explained. Her father Don Iwerks also worked at Disney for 35 years. “He started as a camera assistant on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , (Dir. Richard Fleischer, 1954)… and worked his way up,… and did all these amazing technical things,” including working on the original Tron (Dir. Steven Lisberger, 1982).
Iwerks decided to frame the story based on the technical innovations that ILM pioneered. This technical history provides the roadmap that works to navigate which of the 300 ILM films were featured. And while this does expose, for example the issues ILM had with moving to digital tools around the time of Jurassic Park, unfortunately it did not lead to some other aspects of ILM making it into the documentary. We saw no reference to the Singapore Expansion, a very proud and key extension of ILM, nor much discussion of Kerner Optical and the Presidio split that separated the old model shop team from the digital artists of ILM, which is a shame as so much of the rich history of ILM that was told showed the great work of the model shop team members.
“You look at 35 years and you say ‘What is the story?’. There were challenges on every movie, problems and politics on every film, and so I looked at the big picture, at the movies and asked … ‘what were the turning points for ILM?’ for example, one of the turning points was Jurassic Park and going over to CG, and how it affected the model shop, that was a really significant period for ILM, going over to digital and how that affected the old timers, a change always leads to some sort of concern for people,.. and I felt that was an important issue and a lot of people talked about that, but on other issues… there are a million things we could have focused on, Rango, for example, their next foray into animation, and all of this was discussed in the editing room, but something has to go.”
Certainly Iwerks got a nice balance of pop culture and history over the 35 year history, but it is not without its compromises. This decision of the filmmakers approach of following the technical innovations and the films that drove them, also fails to address the question of how ILM has been so well managed to stay profitable and creatively relevant for 35 years. This is not to say that the filmmakers avoided these issues, but with so much to cover the documentary focuses on just the main aspects of the technical innovation, screen time more than anything defines this. It would be great to see perhaps some other documentary address just how it is that ILM has grown and succeeded when so many other early pioneers were closed, merged or moved away. Triple I, Boss films, PDI, Secret Lab, Robert Abel and Associates, the list goes on and on.
“ILM is one of the most expensive, well at least they have that reputation of being one of the more expensive visual effects houses out there, but they are also the best, they come with 35 years of knowledge – so you get what you paid for!”
ILM has been unprecedented in its development of visual effects, but it has also consistently produced great effects without going out of business. It has clearly had to deal with all the crap of Hollywood – the overages, the difficult directors, the impossible schedules, union issues, staff changes, outsourcing and cost overages – and yet survived – more than survived, it has grown and remained one of the best places to work in the industry.
In the end this documentary does much to remind us of why ILM is so beloved and so significant, and yet leaves us wanting more. As we suggested to Iwerks it would be great to see a multiple disc behind-the-scenes making-of set of DVD extras, as each vfx supervisor and each director’s interview “alone were an hour long – at least, so it was tough,” explained Iwerks. “It could have easily been a 2 hour documentary or multi-part series!” she joked.
Encore airs the original documentary celebrating ILM: “Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible” on Sunday, November 14 at 8:00 p.m. (et/pt). Encore will also present five ILM-effects films starting at 2:00 p.m. with Jumanji, followed by Hook, Jurassic Park III, Twister and Starship Troopers.
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