Industrial Light & Magic: History

Email Archives
July 15, 1999
Founded by George Lucas in 1975 to create the special effects for Star Wars, Industrial Light & Magic quickly became internationally renowned for the quality and originality of its work. The history of ILM had yet to be written, but the small group of creative minds that had successfully transported excited audiences to the far reaches of space and back knew that they were standing at a turning point in the development of movie special effects. They were heirs to a long, proud tradition, and were building an important legacy for the generations to come.

Legend has it that the very first special effect was discovered completely by accident at the end of the 19th century. While French filmmaker Georges Méliès was shooting a street scene, his camera jammed for a few seconds before resuming its operation. Upon reviewing the footage, Méliès saw that since the street traffic had kept moving during the camera jam, the result on screen was the remarkable transformation of a man into a woman, and a bus into a hearse. Movie special effects were born. Recognizing the tremendous potential of these "camera tricks", Méliès never ceased to experiment with them and develop inventive techniques to bring the impossible to the silver screen.

Three quarters of a century later, George Lucas set out to bring to life his space-opera vision of a group of righteous rebels fighting the evil Galactic Empire. When it came time to tackle the extensive special effects essential to the story the young filmmaker wanted to tell, Lucas looked around for special effects workshops -- only to discover that they didn't exist anymore. During the previous fifteen years, special effects had almost completely disappeared from cinema, with a few exceptions such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thus no studio was equipped to produce the seemingly impossible visuals required for Star Wars, let alone handle the overwhelming number of effects required to sustain Lucas' wild imagination. So Lucas did the only thing he could do: build his own special effects house from scratch. John Dykstra, a young designer who had experimented with cameras controlled by a computer, was hired to put together the original ILM team, located in the San Fernando Valley, California, just north of Hollywood.

Lucas' vision for Star Wars included a large array of visuals that had never been attempted before, forcing the small group of wizards at ILM not only to refine existing special effects techniques, but also to create new ones. Starting with tricks taken right out of Méliès' repertoire, ILM perfected traditional tools like model construction, photography using matte paintings and blue screens, and optical compositing, and then went on to invent and develop brand new techniques such as motion control cameras (where the camera movements are controlled by a computer). Once work on Star Wars was completed, everybody expected ILM to be dissolved, joining in oblivion the "camera tricks" workshops of the past. But the unexpected success of Star Wars allowed Lucas to start work on The Empire Strikes Back, which, in turn, ensured the survival of the group of movie magicians who had made it all possible. In order to have his film editing and special effects facilities closer together, Industrial Light & Magic was relocated to San Rafael, in Northern California. That was in 1978.

Since then, ILM has thrived. Far from being disbanded, the ever-growing team has continued to push the envelope and pioneer new ways to bring effects no one dared imagine within the reach of filmmakers. Even before completing the Star Wars Trilogy, ILM was handed other projects: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, among others. Consistently breaking new ground, ILM has led the digital revolution that brought computer imaging into feature films. From the famous "morphing" effect in Willow to the revolutionary, lifelike dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the creative minds gathered in the San Rafael installations have never ceased to up the ante. To date, the company's innovative work has garnered 14 Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects and 14 Technical Achievement Awards. With Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, ILM went full circle and returned to the world that gave it birth, in a galaxy far, far away. And once again, the movie wizards broke through the barriers of conventional wisdom by creating the first completely computer-generated main characters, and by perfecting digital effects traditionally very difficult to master, such as cloth simulation, terrain generation (earth, grass, and so on).

At the dawn of a new millennium, ILM stands ready to conquer new digital realms and to continue pushing back the limits of an art that was born almost at the same time as cinema itself. From Georges Méliès (who was a magician before he became a filmmaker) to Industrial Light & Magic (whose original logo depicted a magician superimposed on a gear) the tradition of special effects has undergone quite an evolution. But its main goal remains the same: to surprise, to amaze, to make the impossible, quite simply, come true.

Keywords: ILM, George Lucas

Filed under: The Movies, Saga
Email Archives
0 ratings

Comments: 0 total     Close Comments Show All Comments

Newsletter sign up!
Enter your email here and receive exclusive Star Wars updates