Siggraph: 'Star Wars' VFX House ILM Looks Back on 40-Year History

Star Wars Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Star Wars Still - H 2015

Four decades ago, George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic created its first visual effects for Star Wars. During a 40th-anniversary session held Monday at CG confab Siggraph, the company thrilled an estimated 1,500 guests with 90 minutes of rare images, behind-the-scenes footage and clips from Star Wars and other iconic works. That included models and miniatures of the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star and early motion control sequences shot on blue screen.

At the event, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a group from the studio participated in the session, which also included looks at VFX imagery from films including The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. But highlighting the session was Dennis Muren, the studio's nine-time Oscar-winning VFX supervisor who has been with ILM since the start.

"It's been an amazing experience to go through something like this over 40 years," he said, admitting of some of the early Star Wars scenes, "I didn't know if it was going to work. I don't know if it looks real, but it looks confident. That film went a long way toward changing the industry. Now movies are filled with VFX, but before that point, that wasn't the case."

He recalled a shot from the sequence on the ice planet in The Empire Strikes Back that initially he just couldn't figure out how to accomplish. " 'Just think about it,' George said, and within 15 minutes I figured it out. I learned that there are so many ways to do this. The trick is a combination of things to put them together."

One of the big challenges to Return of the Jedi was the chase scenes. “I heard from George and he wanted to do this speed bike thing," Muren related. "Joe Johnston and I got together and shot an animatic. This gave us a guideline for how to do the shots."

In the end they filmed live footage, including with a Steadicam, and combined techniques. “I believe if you can shoot something real, you shoot it real. It was a hard shoot but it really helped the reality of the sequence.”

ILM VFX supervisor Scott Farrar (Oscar winner for Cocoon) recalled how VFX were becoming more and more sophisticated as they approached films such as Back to the Future 2 and 3. "That’s an example of working with a director — Bob Zemeckis — who loved to be innovative; he always came up with ideas to make it more complicated,” he said, adding that the hover board was particularly difficult.

“We used every kind of old and new trick," he said, showing clips of Michael J. Fox hanging from wires on location. "There were days that we barely got a single shot.”

The team next recalled how Lucas pushed ILM toward computers, based on the belief that this would be the future of visual effects. Among its most memorable early uses was the CG waterpod on James Cameron’s The Abyss in 1989. The entire film had just 17 shots that involved CG.

Cameron returned to ILM for 1991's T2, a film remembered for such techniques as the morph, but Muren clarified that Willow was actually the first feature to use a morph. “I don't think people realized what they were seeing in T2. That changed things,” he said, acknowledging that when the masses really began to understand the potential of digital after ILM's next film, 1993's Jurassic Park, “it was an incredible time.”

Jurassic Park had just six minutes of animation when it opened in 1993, but the business started to grow, fast. Casper, released in 1995, had 40 minutes of character animation.

Muren next remembered working on a test for Twister. “I don’t like to do anything twice,” he said, citing the twister in The Wizard of Oz. “Nobody had ever done an F5 [and that’s what we did]. Steven [Spielberg] says that [test] is what greenlit the movie. Steven’s got a great eye.”

Soon ILM was tackling demanded 2,000-plus VFX-shot films.

Also featured were 2006's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and the CG Davy Jones, based on the reference performance of Bill Nighy using ILM’s iMoCap process.

ILM continues to innovate. ILM’s vp new media Rob Bredow discussed the recently launched ILM Experience Lab, aimed at creating immersive entertainment such as virtual reality and augmented reality.

He showed a short test for an upcoming Star Wars-based VR experience that sets up the story of Stormtroopers beginning a search for rebels on Tatooine. Bredow added that the company also is working on navigational tools including the ability to tap on a character and watch the story from his or her perspective. In the demo, that was a Stormtrooper.

“It’s neither a game or a movie, it’s something else,” said Breddow of VR.

What’s next? Muren summed up that “we need the risk-taker filmmakers. We all want to do something that's new.”