Special FX - Bow Down To Industrial Light & Magic (Part 1)

10/18/2012 3:36:35 PM

Wham! Ban! Boom! Sploosh! Ok, we’re not the greatest CGI wizards in the world but we’ve met the guys who are. Bow down to Industrial Light & Magic

Cinematic trickery has changed so much since it debuted In 1895 with the invention of stop-motion, that these days the phrase ‘special effects’ seems quaint and inadequate. Since the ’90s, CGI (computer generated imagery) has superseded older, mechanical techniques such as animatronics to become cinema’s immaculately rendered driving force. And leading the charge through recombinant DNA dinosaur-parks, tentacle squid pirates, Death Star dogfights or shape shifting robot assassins alike is San Francisco-based effects studio Industrial Light & Magic.

Description: Special FX

Special FX

Set up by George Lucas in 1975 to bring Star Wars to intergalactic life, ILM has pioneered CGI, conjuring gigantic spaceships out of a photo-realistic sea in Battleship, and emotive performances out of motion captured characters such as the Hulk in Avenger Assemble.

But how do these rendering wizards create the virtual worlds and characters we take for granted? And where can CGI and visual effects take us in the future? We sent intrepid Stuff explorer (and avowed film geek) Stephen Graves to a green screen at ILM HQ in San Francisco to find out…

ILM: A potted VFX timeline

Industrial Light & Magic has been writing the rulebook on SFX and VFX (that’s special and visual effects, for the non-film nerd) since it was founded. From cameras to Photoshop to motion-capture: in the history of visual effects, there’s very little they didn’t revolutionise…

1977 – First use of motion-controlled cameras

Star wars

ILM’s first pioneering effort was the digitally-controlled Dykstraflex camera. Created by ILM head John Dykstra, it could make complex passes around the X-Wing, TIE Fighter or Snowspeeder models, giving the illusion of flight – and crucially, it could repeat those passes for multiple takes.

1982 – First CGI sequence – genesis effect

Star trek II: The Wrath of khan

1985 – First CGI character – the stained glass knight

Young Sherlock Holmes

1986 – CGI gets its start

Pixar is born

Lucas film’s Graphics Group worked with ILM on early CGI effects. In 1986 the group was spun off into Pixar, with plenty of funding from Steve Jobs. But it wasn’t until 1995 that technology caught up with Pixar’s ambitions, and it was able to produce its first feature film – Toy Story. The rest is history,

1988 – First computer-generated morphing sequence


1989 – ILM invent Photoshop

The abyss

The ‘water snake’ effect from James Cameron’s undersea adventure was created with an early, as yet unreleased version of Photoshop. It was made by Thomas Knoll, brother of ILM employee John Knoll. Millions of memes await the future.

1991 – First CGI main character

Terminator 2

CGI characters had appeared in films before but the liquid metal T-1000 combined morphing effects, CG animation and chrome-skinned reflections to create the most advanced Cg character that had ever made it on to the big screen

1992 – CGI replicates human skin

Death becomes her

1993 – First photo-realistic CGI renditions of a living creature (or dinosaur)

Jurassic Park

1994 – Blue screening

Forrest Gump

A land mark film. From adding Tom Hanks to archive footage of JFK and John Lennon, to the digital removal of Gary Sinise’s legs, or the Cg ping pong ball, ILM’s CG work was pioneering. Pulp Fiction still should have won Best Picture, though.

1995 – First CG hair


The film’s lions and monkeys are the first CG characters with photo realistic fur.

1999 – Whoops

Star wars: The phantom menace

CGI is used in 95% of the film’s frames and Jar Jar Binks is a reminder that it can be used for evil as well as good

2006 – The debut of imocap

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead man’s chest

ILM refined motion capture tech into the iMoCap system for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The system meant that actors performing motion-captured roles could work opposite the other actors on-set allowing ILM to include more elements from Bill Nighy’s performance as the half-squid Davy Jones into the CG character who appeared on screen

Description: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead man’s chest

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead man’s chest

2011 – ILM’s first fully animated feature


Green parks, green screens

ILM doesn’t look like the chrome and glass future scape you might expect a high-end VFX company to occupy. It’s just a collection of slightly ’30s-style white buildings set in an immaculately groomed San Francisco public park. Look closely, though, and details reveal themselves. Scattered throughout are statues of cinema pioneers such as motion specialist Eadweard Muybridge, while the fountain out front is topped with a bronze Yoda. We’re in the right place, all right.

We’re ushered to a cavernous screening room that’s bigger than most cinemas – all plush seats and Art Deco flourishes – where we’re treated to Battleship’s Blu-ray Featurette, which expounds on the pioneering water effects created for the film. Once the lights go up we’re whisked down anonymous grey corridors enlivened by vintage movie posters (Dracula!, A Hard Day’s Night!) and concept artwork, props and matte paintings from Lucas film movies and LucasArts games. Is that the Scumm Bar from The Secret of Monkey Island? The Carousel from AI? The, er, sky from Dragonheart? Yup. “If they moved the artwork, we wouldn’t know where we were,” jokes our guide. A box of hard drives marked for destruction is temping – what if they contain the Star Wars Holiday Special? – but then suddenly, we’re in the green screen studio.

Yes, your correspondent is going to be a star for a day. The setup’s pretty simple – a pair of green sheets (blue was used until recently, but cameras pick up green better) and a railing to fill in for the deck of a battleship. We don’t Navy fatigues, and then we’re thrust in front of the camera, told to back away from an imaginary alien and deliver a punch line. And that’s sit – the tech wizards at ILM will do the rest, dropping us into a shot in place of the film’s star Taylor Kitsch. We reckon we were pretty good – Mr Demille, we’re ready for our mo-cap.

Description: Green parks, green screens

Green parks, green screens

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