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More Day Two Travels: ILM in SF’s Historic Presidio

Film history is a subject near and dear to the heart of George Lucas, which was evident in every aspect of ILM’s headquarters. The lobby itself can keep a film buff entertained for hours, with an extensive library of Star Wars books and magazines, life-size replicas of Darth Vader and Boba Fett, and an incredibly cool life-size statue of legendary special effects artist Willis O’Brien posing a model King Kong atop the Empire State Building.

By Andrew Farago

I met up with Ron Diamond and the AWN Oscar Showcase Tour ’10 on its second day, for a visit at the San Francisco-based Industrial Light & Magic in SF’s historic Presidio.

One of the interesting aspects of the area is that the Presidio was in continuous use as a military post from 1776 to 1994, spanning the Spanish, Mexican, and United States periods. The Presidio in its entirety was declared a National Historic Landmark District for its importance to Spanish colonial settlement and its prominent U.S. Army history, and, as a result, all of the buildings in the area adhere to very strict regulations as far as exterior design is concerned.  It’s hard to differentiate a hospital from The Walt Disney Family Museum from a bowling alley from ILM…but I managed to find “Building B” without much difficulty.  The prominent statue of Yoda atop a fountain at ILM’s entrance tipped me off.

Also on the grounds are statues of film pioneers Eadweard J. Muybridge and Philo T. Farnsworth.  Film history is a subject near and dear to the heart of ILM’s founder, George Lucas, which was evident in every aspect of ILM’s headquarters.

I entered the ILM lobby and was greeted by Ron Diamond, and was introduced in turn to ASIFA-SF’s Tara Beyhm, producers Raul Garcia and Enrique Posner, and Oscar-nominated director Javier Gracia.  The ILM daycare center was operating in full swing when we arrived, with kids being shuttled back and forth through the lobby, enjoying a rare sunny February day in San Francisco.

When Raul found out that I’m the curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, he lit up and we immediately fell into conversation about his favorite American comics and the original art collection that he’s amassed over the years, including pieces by Clifford Sterrett, Alex Raymond, and animation artwork by Tex Avery.  We probably could have gone on for a few hours discussing our favorite artists, but, as always, there was business to attend to, and Darth Vader statues to gawk at.

The lobby itself can keep a film buff entertained for hours, with an extensive library of Star Wars books and magazines from around the world, life-size replicas of Darth Vader and Boba Fett, and an incredibly cool life-size statue of legendary special effects artist Willis O’Brien posing a model King Kong atop the Empire State Building. 

I’m sure I missed at least a dozen other amazing things in the lobby every time I turned my head, but before we had time to take everything in, ILM’s Kate Shaw met us and directed us to the theater, where Ron Diamond and the projectionist hammered out the schedule of events.  There was a second screening scheduled to immediately follow the screening of this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts, which put us on a very tight schedule for the remainder of the morning.  Ultimately, it was determined that we would get an exactly 39-minute tour, re-enter the theater in time for Javier, Raul and Enrique to answer a few questions, then beat a hasty retreat to the lunchroom while the audience watched Nick Park’s A Matter of Loaf and Death.

The roughly 400-seat theater, as expected, has state-of-the-art digital projection capabilities and, like any private theater maintained by a billionaire film buff, was completely immaculate.  Unfortunately, I had to pass on watching the shorts so that I could tag along on the ILM tour, but that wasn't a big sacrifice, as I knew I’d have the opportunity to catch those later in the evening. Kate passed us off to Linda, who led us on a brief tour of the facilities.  There are movie posters everywhere, and the vast majority are foreign editions of classic movie posters from Hollywood’s golden age.  George Lucas, we’re told, has one of the largest and highest quality collections of movie poster in the world, and is happy to display them at his various studios for the benefit of his employees and visitors.  The posters are especially large because most were originally displayed in train stations and other public transit locales overseas, and the large size was a necessity to catch the eyes of passers-by.

After passing through one hallway after another loaded with vintage movie posters, we came upon some more ILM-specific items, including maquettes and models from productions ranging from Davy Jones’s head from Pirates of the Caribbean to the model Ford Explorer that gets trashed in Jurassic Park.  Another hallway is lined with posters from each of ILM’s films, and it begins to sink in just how completely and thoroughly they’ve transformed film over the past 30 years.  In addition to sci-fi and fantasy films like Terminator 2 and The Abyss, less obvious ILM films like Hudson Hawk, Die Hard and The Godfather Part III are also represented.  The studio works on roughly 20 films per year, so I guess their body of work really adds up quickly. 

Linda informs us that ILM has earned 22 sci/tech Academy Awards to date, and leads all other studios in that category.  We continue past several large-scale matte paintings, including a surprisingly lifelike background from E.T. (not long before we passed a surprisingly lifelike E.T.—this place has everything!) before crossing the skybridge back toward the theater.  More props, including the top of the Golden Gate Bridge from Ang Lee’s Hulk and character studies from an unproduced Curious George film, line the bridge. 

We learn that ILM occupies 23 acres, 17 of which are park and are off-limits for development, which is a similar setup to Skywalker Ranch, which is as much a nature preserve as it is a film studio headquarters.  The clear weather provides incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge, in some of the city’s most prime real estate.  Javier was particularly impressed by the view, and spent several minutes staring contemplatively across the San Francisco Bay.

By this point, we were running short on time, and headed back to the theater.  Along the way we passed a wonderful tribute to SFX pioneer Ray Harryhausen, whose bronze likeness greets you as he holds a skeleton from Jason and the Argonauts in the palm of his hand.  We briskly passed Javva The Hutt, ILM’s on-site coffee shop, some unused armatures from Jurassic Park (approved by Steven Spielberg, who was convinced by animators that it was time to attempt a movie featuring only CGI dinosaurs), the optical printer used for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, and a model ship used in 1999’s Galaxy Quest.  (Trivia Fact:  The ship’s designation is NTE-3120.  The “NTE” stands for “Not The Enterprise,” since the ship was supposed to be evocative of classic Star Trek spacecraft, but had to be distinctively “Not The Enterprise” at the same time.)

We arrived at the theater just as Javier’s short, The Lady and the Reaper, wrapped up.  Ron took the stage for a brief intro, then Javier, Raul and Enrique answered audience questions. The first, for Javier, was “Where did you get this idea?”  He revealed that his grandmother’s health was declining, and her reaction to her impending death fascinated him.  He wanted to put his thoughts into an animated film.  His grandmother was still alive at the start of the film’s production, but she didn’t live to see its completion.

The film’s finances were also discussed.  Raul and Enrique secured a larger-than-allotted budget for the film by diverting funding from a feature film.  They also applied for some risky, unsecured loans from banks, and ultimately spent 690,000 Euros (about one million dollars) on the film.

Another huge advantage the film had was that Antonio Banderas took an interest in the studio’s output, since it was based in Spain, and in his own region of Spain, Andalucia.  Once he joined the studio, it became much, much easier to secure financial support for the film.  Banderas hadn’t known much about animation, but his participation in the Shrek movies piqued his interest, and now he’s much more knowledgeable about the entire process.

The final question was about the differences between 2-D and 3-D for a director, and Javier mentioned that they hadn’t changed their approach too much.  This was an early foray into 3-D for the studio, so they approached it in a fairly linear, right-to-left manner.  Future attempts may be a little bit flashier.

Wallace and Gromit forced us off the stage, since the entire theater would need to be cleared following that last remaining short, so we made a hasty retreat to the dining commons.

The cafeteria selection is really thorough.  I’d been bracing myself for a microwave pizza with “Tauntaun Pepperoni” or some of those food-sticks that Luke carried around with him in Yoda’s swamp, but there were over a dozen freshly prepared daily specials available throughout the cafeteria, along with sizeable salad and sushi bars.  I ordered the chicken parmesan, which was cooked right in front of me in a wood stove, then joined the crew for lunch.

The view from the dining room is one of the best in the city, with clear views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts and the Transamerica Pyramid.  To call this prime real estate would be an understatement.  [Note to self:  make a dozen or so of the most financially successful movies of all time, buy half of San Francisco.]

The lunchtime conversation turned serious pretty quickly, as Kate Shaw’s questions about Spain led to a discussion about how badly the global recession has hit their country.  Spain’s unemployment is pushing 30% in some regions, and every aspect of their economy has been affected.  Still, artists know better than anyone about living through lean times, and the group was generally optimistic that Spain would continue to produce great artists and that this first Oscar nomination would lead to bigger and better things from their animation industry.

After lunch, we made a repeat visit to Javva the Hutt for cappuccino and a photo op for Javier.  On our way back to the lobby, we passed a non-functioning door that was attached to one of the walls, bearing the name “Kerner Optical Research Lab.”  Kate informed us that back when ILM wasn’t housed in its own private facility, there was a need to keep rabid Star Wars fans from tracking them down, so Kerner functioned as sort of a “secret identity” for ILM. 

We wrapped up for the afternoon, made plans for the evening’s screening at San Francisco’s Dolby Laboratories, then parted ways.  It’s always hard going back to reality after visiting a place like ILM, but I figured it was better to leave under my own power before any Stormtroopers had to escort me out.

Andrew Farago is the Curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum and the author of the forthcoming Looney Tunes Treasury from Insight Editions.