In print: ILM’s artistry and the design of Star Wars

We take a look at two books, the soon to be released Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Innovation which showcases the incredible visual effects contributions made by ILM, and the limited edition Star Wars: The Blueprints featuring a behind the scenes look at the production design for each of the six Star Wars films.

Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Innovation

The cover contains images from ILM's long film list.

‘You will know them by the fruits of their labor,’ or so the expression goes, and the wonderful new book Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Innovation from author Pamela Glintenkamp provides a very visceral view of the fruits of the staff and especially the visual effects supervisors of ILM, mainly from 1995 to the present.

Much has been written about the early years of Star Wars and ILM, but this book provides both an extensive visual and oral history of the ILM that exists today. It allows the reader to get to know the people behind the films by examining the work they have done, but also from a wealth of personal accounts as to how this exceptional team of artists came to be at ILM and do the work they do.

The book is primarily a series of short case studies on every major film ILM has worked on since 1995 with behind the scenes images, crew shots and some individual accounts from the key staff who explain their personal road to ILM.

The primary focus of the new book is on the films these artists help make from Transformers to the Terminator movies, Pearl Harbor to Pirates of the Caribbean, A.I. to Avatar and beyond. Each film is given its own coverage explaining not only the extent of the work but insights into what it took to make.

A progression shot from 'Men In Black'.

It is easy to see The Art of Innovation as the third in a trilogy of books on ILM, all by different authors and publishers. The first book, Industrial Light and Magic : The Art of Special Effects, by Thomas G. Smith, covers ILM from its humble beginnings until the film Enemy Mine (1985), but it is the wonderful gatefold reproductions of matte painting from films like Star Wars, ET and Indiana Jones, amongst others, that made this first coffee table book a must have collectors item at post houses around the world.

Interestingly, the next book marked the move from such manual artistry to digital effects. Industrial Light + Magic: Into the Digital Realm, by Mark Cotta Vaz and Patricia Rose Duignan, carried the story up to 1996, overlapping with this new book with just two films – Casper and Jumanji. The Art of Innovation picks up the ILM story in 1995 and covers all the main films since then until the present.

Miniature ship from 'Curse of the Black Pearl'.
The final shot as seen in the film.

This latest book completes ILM’s transition from primarily special effects to visual effects. If you own these first two extremely collectable books, you will want this third edition. While not exactly the same dimensions, it is similar in size, allowing for wonderful reproductions showing the artistry of ILM’s team thanks to the very active support from ILM’s own publicity and archiving teams.

As ILM is such a special and visual effects giant, it has been at the center of the film industry since the 70s. The roster of Oscar-winning filmmakers and artists in The Art of Innovation reads like a who’s who of the effects industry. There are personal accounts from Ken Ralston, Dennis Muren, Roger Guyett, John Knoll, Pablo Helman, Scott Farrar, Kim Libreri, Hal Hickel, Ben Snow and many others.

The book covers the vast amount of work involved in modern filmmaking from the 60,000 different parts of a Transformer, or the three quarter of a billion polygons in the some 200,000 trees of Avatar, or the ninety unique characters in Rango; filmmaking at this level is hard work.

The author Pamela Glintenkamp is an award winning filmmaker in her own right but she approaches the subject matter not as a ‘fan boy’ but as a serious writer documenting one of the most significant contributors to cinema in the modern age.

If you love films, and want to examine the craft of a nuclear explosion or the matte painting of a boy wizard, study the detail of many an alien’s skin or just peek behind the digital curtain of almost every blockbuster you have seen since you were a kid, this book is a wonderful 359 pages of visual effects explosions, creatures and spaceships.

ILM visual effects supervisors 2011 - Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Russel Earl, Ben Snow, Graig Hammack, Lindy DeQuattro, Dennis Muren, Bill George, Tim Alexander, Jeff White, John Knoll, Pablo Helman, Scott Farrar and Kim Libreri.

The book cannot cover any one film in anything like the depth one would need to understand all that is involved in creating the visual effects. The book cannot replace the detailed coverage of say an in depth Cinefex issue on the same film, but what does come through, instead, is a genuinely dedicated and humble group of very bright people, all brought together with a common love and an exceptional ability to think outside the box.

The Art of Innovation is really a coffee table book of photography of some exceptionally wondrous fruit of years of hard labor and love.

The book is available from November 1st at

Star Wars: The Blueprints

A promotional image showing the book with gate-fold.

So much of the way the Star Wars films were brought to life has been documented in books, magazines and on video. But little information was available on the elaborate concept and set designs for each of the six movies. Enter J.W. Rinzler’s Star Wars: The Blueprints, a large-format book with reproductions of 250 design blueprints and interviews with the actual production designers, art directors and other artists involved. Limited to 5,000 copies, the book also features visual effects luminaries Dennis Muren, John Knoll and Lorne Peterson as panelists. We spoke to author J.W. Rinzler.

fxg: You often post some of your discoveries in the Lucasfilm archives on Twitter – what was this process of finding and researching the blueprints like?

Rinzler: This one was actually pretty easy in terms of research. It was intense, because we had to do it so quickly, but it was easier because at the time I was actually working on the Making of The Empire Strikes Back book. There was a project employee in the archives – he was doing the hard part which was going through all these blueprints from many, many decades ago and sorting them out by subject and flattening them because they’d been rolled up for 25 years. He kept calling me over and saying, ‘Look at this one I just found.’ And I thought it would make a good book. It did take a few weeks, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as the making of books which take months and months. I just went through all of the blueprints from the six films and chose the best ones that would be good to feature in a book. I also extracted a lot of information from the blueprints themselves to use for the text.

A double-page from 'Star Wars: The Blueprints'.

fxg: Apart from the actual detail in the blueprints and the interviews you did and the text, one of the big attractions of the book is its presentation in terms of being a limited edition and the general high quality of it – why was that method of presentation chosen?

Rinzler: Well, it did take me a while to sell people on the idea of the book. I’d say, ‘We could do a book on blueprints,’ and they would go, ‘Blueprints? That sounds really boring…’ and I would say, ‘No, no, they’re really beautiful – you’ve got to look at them. They’re incredible!’ It’s true that about 70% are pretty esoteric as they go from the big to the smaller and smallest – and soon you’re just doing hinges and things that are in the back and the corner of every part of the set, because everything has to be spec’d out. But the big views of the sets were often very beautiful to look at.

We got the publishers becker&mayer! interested, having done several books with them, and we thought they would be able to handle it because it wasn’t an easy book to publish. They had a new spin-off company called Epic Ink, who had just done their first oversized book on guitars. They came down and had a look at the Lucasfilm archive, and they saw the blueprints and flipped out. We immediately agreed that day that there was no point in showing these blueprints if they were going to be small, because you just can’t see them. So that meant we were going to have to do a big book which was going to be expensive.

Also, we didn’t think it was a mass market release – there’s not hundreds of thousands of people who care about the Star Wars blueprints to begin with. It’s really for people who are interested in the finer art and craftsmanship behind the films. Originally there were only going to be 2,000 copies, but then as we got going and they saw how beautiful it was going to come out, they up’d that to 5,000.

– Watch interviews with the author J.W. Rinzler, ILM’s Dennis Muren, model shop supervisor Lorne Peterson and Lucasfilm’s Howard Roffman.

fxg: You have visual effects practitioners Dennis Muren, John Knoll and Lorne Peterson as panelists – these guys are amazing in their field and have all worked on the Star Wars films, but why did you chose them for a blueprints book?

Rinzler: Well, basically we had a relatively limited budget and it would have been nice to fly in [art director and production designer] Norman Reynolds from England and [set decorator] Roger Christian from Canada and [art director] Les Dilley from Idaho – there just wasn’t the budget for that. And we thought the ILM people had, at least with the prequels, to connect their work with the sets so much. So we thought their point of view would be so interesting, and it was. I spent an afternoon with each of them going over the blueprints and they would say why they thought it was interesting because of X, Y and Z. They’re also Star Wars buffs, so I also wanted their ‘OK’ in terms of whether I got all the interesting stuff that we’ve ever seen.

fxg: As you were going through the material, what was most interesting to you about the way the sets were planned and built?

Rinzler: The most interesting thing was actually talking to the people – I did 17 or so interviews. Talking with Norman Reynolds and [production designer] Gavin Bocquet everyone else was interesting. I also got to know people’s work – Fred Hole, for instance – he became the one draftsman I could recognize in terms of his work instantly. Realizing the amount of craftsmanship and artistry that went to it, really from the ground up for a lot of them, particularly for the first Star Wars. Set designer John Barry and his crew really don’t get a lot of credit – they really did a lot of the sets from scratch. There was no concept art for any of Luke’s homestead stuff. That was all John Barry. The Rebel Blockade runner, as well. Ralph McQuarrie had done a painting but really these guys took it to a whole new level. The Death Star was actually John Barry’s design, even though McQuarrie did paintings, Barry talked to him about how to do it.

It was great hearing their stories and insights, particularly Norm Reynolds who took three or four mornings of his day out of his time to talk from England. They were so humble, which was very humbling to me. People would spent five or six years’ apprenticeships back then even before becoming a senior draftsman or art director. The very select few would become production designers. It’s an amazing craft these guys exercise, and a lot of them really are artists as well.

Another double page from the book, with the gate-fold closed.

fxg: Did the artists you spoke to have a view about how production design has changed, apart from the obvious which is the use of computers and CAD tools?

Rinzler: That question is addressed in some ways in the book, both in the introductions Norman and Gavin wrote and then in the discussion of the prequels. They do mention that some aspects have changed, but Gavin and Peter Russell, the supervising art director on Sith, really stress – and I felt this myself during Episode III – that most of it has really not changed. They still build a lot of sets, they just don’t have to build as much of them sometimes. It’s still cheaper to build a set sometimes than it is to build a digital set. For Episode 3, they built some incredible sets like the bridge of Grievous’ flagship and the Mustafar war room. They actually built more models at ILM for that film than the original trilogy combined, including the giant Mustafa volcano landscape.

One thing that has changed is that they don’t do as much of the blueprints by hand. They do use AutoCAD more and more, but only for 20 to 30 per cent. There’s a lot of things you can do by hand that you just can’t replicate doing with a computer program.

The gate-fold open.

fxg: Was there one particular blueprint or aspect of the research that surprised you?

Rinzler: There were a lot of little surprises like finding the manacles designed for Princess Leia and Chewbecca in A New Hope. I was with John Knoll and we were looking through and one of the blueprints said, ‘Star Destroyer interior’. John said, ‘That’s weird, you’re never inside a Star Destroyer in A New Hope.’ And we said, ‘Yes, you are – there’s one moment where they’re tracking the escape pod and you’re inside,’ and he was, like, ‘You’re right!’. So that was one little fun moment to find the blueprint for that very small set they built. We also found the blueprints of the orthographic drawings that Steve Gawley did at ILM, which I thought had been lost.

And I was really happy to get to know the style of Fred Hole who was almost like a conceptual draftsman and would write lots of ideas as he did his drawings. I spoke to him a couple of times, and he actually passed away while we were doing the book. The book is actually dedicated to him and the other people from the art departments who had passed away like John Barry and others. Reg Bream had also passed away – apparently he was the superlative draftsman, just drew and drew and drew and was so fast and precise. All the other draftsmen were in awe of this guy. He worked on all three of the original trilogy.

It was also great to learn about how important set decoration is – I had long talks with Roger Christian who went on to be art director with Les Dilley on Alien, and he really brought a lot to the table by convincing John Barry and George Lucas to use spare parts and jet engine parts, vacuum cleaner parts and using real guns and dressing the props, which really had a big effect on the first film.

The weird thing about the sets is that they only filmed on them for a day or two, maybe three, and occasionally a week – and afterwards they’re smashed to pieces. There’s no pity – they rip them to shreds and cart them away to the garbage. It’s like they’re zen mandalas, which cost an incredible amount of money, and then they’re just smashed to bits!

Interview by Ian Failes.

You can purchase Star Wars: The Blueprints at

5 thoughts on “In print: ILM’s artistry and the design of <em>Star Wars</em>”

  1. Pingback: The Architecture of Star Wars: A Fan's Favorite Buildings

  2. Pingback: حذفیات و قسمت های سانسور شده فیلم نسخه سحر امیز سیاره وحشت محصول 1985 کانادا

  3. Pingback: 8 Unsung Heroes Who Made All Of Your Favorite Movies – E-Commercial Angles

  4. Pingback: Star Wars: 10 Unsung Heroes Behind A New Hope | Den of Geek

  5. Pingback: Star Wars: 10 Unsung Heroes Behind A New Hope - ConSoup | The place for all your convention needs and information!

Comments are closed.