How Star Wars Gave Birth to Industrial Light and Magic


We all know that the original Star Wars, which introduced audiences to a ragtag group of Rebel fighters pushing back against the strict regime of the Empire, changed movies and science fiction forever. But it’s easy to forget that the film itself gave birth to its own rebellious movement of upstart, starry-eyed dreamers: the artists of Industrial Light & Magic.

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In a new piece from Wired Magazine, we get to peek behind the curtain and travel back in time to the opening scene of the saga of ILM. Though the studio went on to pioneer effects work on more than 300 films, its history is inextricably linked to the Star Wars films, especially to the making of A New Hope.

The article is an oral history, meaning it’s basically a collection of quotes from the key figures in ILM’s history, from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to visual effects supervisor John Knoll and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy.

It really offers a picture of what it was like working on Star Wars in those early days. The engineers and designers were all in their 20s working in a hot warehouse, hoping they could put stuff together in time. Here’s a quote from Visual Effects Supervisor John Dykstra:

"“Our reputation wasn’t stellar, because we were breaking a lot of rules. But at the same time, we were there at 3 o’clock in the morning when those studio guys were asleep in their beds.”"

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have fun. They played golf and built a makeshift swimming pool, probably to Lucas’ chagrin when he came back and they only had one shot to show him after a year of work.

After A New Hope became an unprecedented success, the crew moved into a real office space in Northern California, where they began work on The Empire Strikes Back. According to Lucas, after mastering the spaceships, their biggest challenge was creating a life-like Yoda:

"“The big challenge on Empire was Yoda. We knew how to fly spaceships; the thing we didn’t know how to do was have a 2-foot creature make you believe that it was a real live thing and not just a Muppet.”"

With the advent of CGI in the 1990s, Lucas began enlisting ILM to help him realize his vision of the prequels. It was a completely new challenge for the ILM magicians, according to visual effects legend Dennis Muren:

"“For Phantom Menace, George wanted us to produce 2,200 shots in a year and a half. And you just think, there’s no way you can do it. And then he says, as he usually does, ‘Well, just think about it,’ and he walks out.”"

You can tell that these guys are immensely proud of the pioneering work they did and are nostalgic for their days of working on these classic movies. I strongly encourage you to read the entire oral history, which covers all the milestone movies in the evolution of visual effects, like Jurassic Park and T2. You won’t regret it.

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