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Celebrating 35 Years of ILM Magic

Leslie Iwerks and Dennis Muren tell us about her Creating the Impossible doc about Industrial Light & Magic.

For Dennis Muren, the big CG breakthrough occurred with T2. Images courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

It isn't easy encapsulating the history of the George Lucas Empire in a one-hour documentary, but Leslie Iwerks succeeds on several levels with Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible, premiering tonight on Encore at 9:00 pm from Starz. Iwerks not only has the background to comprehend it but also make it understandable for mainstream viewers -- building on what she accomplished with her acclaimed The Pixar Story, the highest rated doc on Starz.

Narrated by Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds, the Mission: Impossible franchise), Creating the Impossible features nearly two dozen new interviews with ILM and Pixar vets along with key directors (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Jon Favreau and J.J. Abrams), elucidating the ILM touch and its legacy, from the early beginnings with Star Wars and such seminal benchmarks as the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) genesis explosion and the stained glass knight from Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) to the CG breakthroughs of Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993) right on through such recent innovations in Pirates of the Caribbean, War of the Worlds and Transformers.

"I found ILM to be similar to Pixar [which originated, of course, as the Lucas computer graphics division] in that it too has pulled artists and engineers together," Iwerks suggests. "It was cool to be able to go into that same creative collaboration. But I think ILM is a little different. They've done a lot more films [nearly 300] and helping with other people's content, but helping to make each film the best they can be in a visual effects way.

"I think for me it was really exciting to go into any film I was interested, peel away the layers and find out how they did it. They have content that shows that so we were able to incorporate a lot of that into the film, which is great.

The genesis particle effect was an early benchmark in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

"The overall impression that I came away with was how much effort goes into one little show with so many artists and so many layers -- how much detail, how much technology. I think it's very easy for audiences to go to a film like Jurassic Park or War of the Worlds or Transformers and say, 'That's just a CG character; it's believable, it's cool.' But until you get in there and realize how much work goes into each shot and how much R&D and detail, it just blows your mind. The teams, the organization, the support are really impressive. Not just shot management but also managing the directors' expectations. And yet do it in a way that is seamless. With my knowledge of what I see on screen, I can go in there and they can deconstruct it for me in a way that's really understandable, and then I can put that information on the screen and convey it to the audience in a more commercial way. When you see what they've invented and created for these effects from the early motion control rigs to Imocap, you begin to appreciate it more."

But the ILM culture more than just about the vfx; it's about the primacy of the image from the top down. "They really do get down to the core essence," Iwerks continues. "What is it? What do you need to focus on and not focus on? That really helps from a creative standpoint but also from a budgetary standpoint."

Iwerks got to explore this notion further at a USC panel discussion last week with Ed Catmull, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, John Knoll and Scott Farrar. "Dennis is very visionary when it comes to what is the core part of the frame, what is the core part of the scene," Iwerks offers. "There are so many more tools to learn today, but I asked the panel the other night how important it is to know the traditional aspects of film -- of art. Your basic knowledge of figure drawing and composition and lighting and shading. Dennis was the first to say that it is imperative. Without it, you don't have a good shot. It's like saying, you're going to be able to write a book and not know the alphabet."

John Lasseter and the computer graphics division were instrumental in pulling off the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes.

Iwerks says she had the most fun deconstructing Jurassic Park, which only embraced CG after Muren proved the dinosaurs could be realistically portrayed. "And I think Transformer s seems really impressive in the amount of detail of each Transformer. Every single one of those pieces has to be animated, lit, rendered -- it's crazy. You look at each image and the technology is so powerful that they could create those films."

Meanwhile, Muren only began to realize the significance of ILM's achievements when the company was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Bush a few years back. "It was pretty weird seeing [the documentary] from my point of view because every day is just a day of work," he suggests. "And it almost takes an outsider to see it and put it together. It's a lot of people doing some really amazing things with a deadline. I think that's one of the real reasons it's different from other industries. Whatever we want to try and innovate, if it doesn't get done in time, that's the end of it and it's over. It's not like a research lab. I think that has inspired people to work harder and smarter and constrain themselves within the confines of money and time but to actually accomplish something at the end of it.

"Being outside of LA has also helped because we're like this separator from the industry in some ways and people aren't hunting around for other jobs or giving secrets somewhere else. We're much more focused on two things: our job and our families. And the job perpetuates itself working with the same people year after year and the same toolset, modifying it. There's not a lot of relearning: everything is built off what we've done before. That's what I like about it.

Muren convinced Spielberg that CG dinos were ready for prime time in Jurassic Park.

"I always thought that the breakthrough film was Terminator 2 because we had to get so many things in place with the digital comp'ing and all the CG stuff and to be able to deliver it on time and on budget was unheard of. And that prepared us for Jurassic; and the audience could see it in Jurassic because they got dinosaurs, whereas in T2 it's kind of odd with this shape-changing mercury thing. But things were in place between those two movies and T2 was actually written for CG."

And what does Muren envision as the next breakthroughs? "I see incremental things that are happening and helping, getting closer to digital people and I am personally a fan of 3-D stereo, although I don't think Hollywood is really doing a good job with it at the moment. I hope it survives long enough to make really immersive movies. It has a much better opportunity of connecting the movie experience to the audience more than it does right now. And I'm also for the high frame rate. I'm knocked out about it. I have a Sony LCD at home and love the higher frame rate. In looking at a Blu-ray of something like Gone with the Wind, it's like being on the set and I like that."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.