Monday 4 September 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 9) - A brief history of ILM

When George Lucas met with Twentieth Century Fox executives in 1975 and described how he wanted the space sequences in Star Wars to look - “I want to do quick cuts, there’s a lot of rhythm, a lot of pace” - they couldn’t understand how he was going to achieve it.  Nor, at the time, could he though his vision led to the formation of a special effects company that would go on to revolutionise the industry.

So for the ninth entry in the Star Wars At 40 thread, I’m taking a look at the formation of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
The ILM crew, in front of a section of the Death Star, outside the Van Nuys buildings.  John Dykstra is lying down holding the dog
As Lucas and his producer Gary Kurtz began looking, it seemed that special effects had become something of a lost art in Hollywood, with few specialists left to turn to.  Kurtz had started his career supervising the cheap and cheerful effects in Roger Corman films and grasped what Lucas was after immediately.  “George wanted spaceships that operated like cars,” he told Dale Pollock in Skywalking.  “People turned them on, drove them somewhere and didn’t talk about what an unusual thing they were doing.”  Fox’s in-house effects department was no longer operational and production executives believed the effects couldn’t be done within the time (2 years) and budget ($2m) but Lucas approached Douglas Trumbull, famous at the time for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Trumbull was interested but declined, as he was committed to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but suggested his assistant John Dykstra.

In the early 70s, computer-controlled cameras had revolutionised the making of TV commercials but nobody had used them extensively in film before.  Dykstra, familiar with the technology, was keen to put together a young team of effects technicians to devise their own equipment and find new ways to utilise it.  Kurtz found him an empty warehouse on an industrial park next to the airport in Van Nuys, California and in July 1975, Industrial Light & Magic was created as a subsidiary of Lucasfilm Ltd.
6842, ILM's home in Van Nuys (and blowing up a bit of the Death Star)
The name “just popped into my head,” Lucas said.  “We were sitting in an industrial park and using light to create magic. That’s what they were going to do.” The company is called the “miniature and optical effects unit” in the credits.

Dysktra gathered together a group of industrial model makers and designers, architects and engineers who were, crucially, “a  lot of young kids, basically.  Very few of them had worked on a feature film before.”  This meant they didn’t know the rules, the same ones that led industry veterans to say ILM were crazy to try and accomplish the workload of 365 effects shots in less than two years.

The location wasn’t glamorous.  Model maker Steve Gawley told “there was no interior, our walls were two-by-fours [with] Visqueen stapled onto them. Every once in a while we’d get crazy with the music - the big record was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours - and you’d have to turn it down because the walls were plastic.”
Working in the model shop on the Blockade Runner.  Grant McCune is to the left of the picture, facing front with dungarees.  Steve Gawley is in the centre of the group at bottom right, with Joe Johnston to his left.
The warehouse was slowly transformed into a production facility, with an optical department, a rotoscope department, a model shop, two shooting stages, metal and woodwork shops and offices.  The animation, editing and art departments were upstairs along with a screening room.  “We did everything,” Dykstra said.  “We built and designed the models - from Ralph McQuarrie’s basic designs - and we built and designed the facility that was going to be used to photograph them and we built and designed the optical printers that were going to be used to composite them and built and designed the camera and built and designed the environments, all of the backgrounds and stuff and then did all the matte paintings and all that… It was pretty much a new facility.”

Dykstra’s plan was for a computer-controlled camera system that would give the illusion of ‘real’ screen movement and after six months of round-the-clock work, ILM had its first Dystraflex camera.  The motion-control system was programmed by the cameraman and allowed him to pan, tilt and track around a model while keeping it in focus, with the breakthrough being its repeatability.  To get the highest resolution image possible, it used old Vista-Vision cameras, which had been created by engineers at Paramount Pictures in 1954 but, by 1976, had fallen out of use due to their expense (meaning ILM could pick them up cheaply).  By linking the system to a computer, it could repeat identical movements as many times as necessary, allowing effects sequences to be built up layer by layer, like a music track.  The first pass might be the spaceship, the second the Death Star, the third pass a starfield, the fourth an oncoming TIE fighter and so on.  By using the Dykstraflex system, the illusion Lucas wanted was complete - none of the ships in Star Wars ever moved, only the camera did, but the sequences were more dynamic than had ever been seen on screen before.
The Dykstraflex system - the camera is mounted onto the arm, which is controlled by the chain and runs along the rails.  The computer remembers all of the motions and can replay them as many times as necessary.  Here, a shot featuring TIE fighters is built up.
To help convey the speed and movement needed, Lucas cut together a film reel of dogfight battles he’d culled from war movies like Battle Of Britain (1969) and The Bridges Of Toko-Ri (1954).  He gave this to Joe Johnston, who designed the storyboards, so that each shot could be duplicated by X-Wings, Y-Wings or TIE fighters.

The ILM staff grew to almost a hundred at its peak, with an average age of twenty-seven.  Among that original team were Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Joe Johnston, Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson and Paul Huston, all of whom would go on working for ILM for decades to come (Huston and Gawley are still there and Muren is now the overall Visual Effects Supervisor).  Grant McCune (who also came from Trumbull) continued to work with Dykstra.  The environment encouraged people to try disciplines outside of their training as Paul Huston said, in interview, “I joined in August 1975 after graduating from architecture school.  I designed and built the wings of the TIE fighters, the Death Star Cannon, and the end portal of the trench that Luke's torpedo goes in to blow up the Death Star, I worked on the Y-wing and X-wing fighters, the sandcrawler, the 3 foot white Star Destroyer, Luke's Landspeeder and the Death Star surface.”

ILM’s staff worked long and erratic hours, sometimes showing up at 10pm or 3pm and working through, dressing in shorts, t-shirts or less.  Part of this was because the building didn’t have air conditioning.  “It was sweltering in the daytime,” John Dykstra told Cinetropolis, “so we mostly shot at night when the temperature was cooler.”  When a model was lit, sometimes with 6,000 watts worth of lighting, temperatures inside the building could reach 130 degrees.  Across the car park was a surplus store and someone found an old escape slide from a 727 plane.  “You could put a little Wesson oil and water on there,” Dykstra said, “it made for a hell of a good Slip ‘N Slide!”  Lorne Peterson remembers “somebody found a big water tank, and we filled it with cold water. We’d dip in during break time.” The facility soon acquired the nickname ‘the Country Club’ because of its lack of dress code, time clock and organisation but the crew were firmly behind Dykstra and what they were doing.
In the model shop, with (from left) - unknown, Jon Erland, Dave Jones, Paul Huston
“We had a great crew of young unknowns,” Richard Edlund, who was lead cameraman and would go on to form Boss Films in the 80s, told Dale Pollock.  “They had good ideas and hadn’t had the opportunity to put them into practise.”

The ILM modelshop, led by Grant McCune, constructed more than seventy-five models, all of them with an astonishing level of detail and attention.  The blockade runner (which I wrote about here) even had a scaled-version Playboy pin-up in its hammerhead cockpit.  To aid the realism, Dykstra introduced the concept of kitbashing (which I wrote about here). “My job,” said Paul Huston, “was to add details to the basic form of the model to make it look as if it could be functional and be the correct scale for what it's size was in the film. It involved making things out of plastic that looked like plating, mechanical systems, plumbing, landing gear, laser blasters, vents, injectors, ducts, fuel tanks etc. Some of the parts were scratch built and some were scavenged from plastic model kits.”

As production continued in England, a stressed and under pressure Lucas was aghast to discover that ILM, having spent half their budget, only had three shots to show for it.  Dykstra was still experimenting with the system and the background footage that was sent through (for rear projection work) wasn’t up to standard.  “It was terrible,” Lucas told Dale Pollock.  “I knew it wasn’t going to work.  The ships looked like little cardboard cut outs and the lasers were big and fat and looked awful.  We couldn’t use any of it.”  The alternative - which actually became a positive - was to film live-action effects sequences against blue screen, wherein the background could be phased out by an optical printer to be replaced with a matte painting or effects shot.  The main downside was that the system required a lot of light and during the long hot summer of 1976, it made the sets very hot indeed - technicians fainted in the rafters and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) collapsed from heat exhaustion and dehydration.
John Dykstra
Once principal photography was completed in England, Lucas went to supervise the work at ILM though he hated the San Fernando Valley where it was located.  “I wanted to set up shop in San Francisco,” he said, “but there was no film processing lab facility nearby.”  Frustrated at the lack of pace, he was determined to get the unit back on track.  “I don’t want to build a lot of expensive equipment and not get any shots,” he told Dysktra.  “It’s not important how you do [them], it’s important what they look like.”

The two men didn’t see eye to eye on the progress (or lack thereof) and after one particular shouting match, Lucas suffered chest pains as he flew home to San Francisco.  Hospitalised briefly, suffering from hypertension and exhaustion (and questioning why he would ever put himself through directing a film again), he decided he would spend three days a week at ILM, the other four editing.
from left - Richard Edlund, Miki Hermann, John Dykstra, George Lucas, Joe Johnston
Dykstra appreciated that Lucas insulated the ILM team from the studio.  “George did a pretty good job of isolating us from the flack,” he said in interview.  “Gary Kurtz did, too, and I have to thank them for that.  They sent people in to try and straighten us out, but it didn’t really work.”  The studio, of course, was caught because while they didn’t necessarily think Dykstra could make it work, they weren’t sure anyone else could either.  “They spent quite a bit of money on the facility the way it was [and] we were the only people that knew how to do it.”  Relations between Dykstra and Lucas continued to deteriorate though, with John feeling that George didn’t understand the technical work involved.  “I was defensive as hell too,” he told Dale Pollock, “because I was scared shitless.”

Lucas personally supervised the special effects photography and set up a second camera unit.  The first, led by Richard Edlund, worked from 8am to 6pm, while Dennis Muren’s unit worked from 3pm to midnight and this sixteen-hour schedule lasted for almost six months.

Once the initial arguments were out of the way, the schedule began to recover.  Lucas found he enjoyed the camaraderie of the ILM as it reminded  him of his film student days at USC (as I wrote about here) and spirits raised as the effects footage improved.  “Some guy across the stage would say, ‘Oh, another first!’,” Richard Edlund told Dale Pollock.  “Some other new thing had been done that we knew hadn’t been done before.  This was going on every day and was very exciting.”  It was Edlund who shot the opening scene, of the Star Destroyer going over the camera and he grasped its importance.  “If somebody sat down in a theatre and saw this monstrous thing come over the screen and keep coming and coming and they were awed by that, then we had our audience just where we wanted them,” he said.  “But if they laughed, we were dead.”  Edlund shot the opening sequence five times until he was certain nobody would laugh.
The opening shot
Filming the opening shot
The Dysktraflex system turned out to be the saving grace for ILM, as John Dykstra had believed it would be.  “We built cameras using all kinds of weird technology,” he said.  “We built computers. We designed and built our own electronics from scratch.”  The Dykstraflex was designed, manufactured and implemented within four months and following two weeks of debugging worked on the production for eight months, eighteen hours a day, with only three days of downtime.  “It was totally a gamble,” Dystra said, “and it paid off.  It was nice of them to name the camera after me, but it was obvious that every one of those guys made some contribution to the system.”  Lucas also appreciated what they’d done for the film, realising what he’d got for the money spent.

In the end, ILM spent twenty-two months working on the special effects, including the six months required to design the equipment.  The total bill came in at about $2.5m, 25% over budget.

“We were very pleased with the final results,” Dykstra said.  “The guys who were working on it were really happy when they saw the final product because their work figured so seminally in the telling of the story. It was just great.”

At the 1978 Oscar ceremony, Star Wars won for Best Visual Effects and the statue was awarded to John Dysktra, John Stears, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune and Robert Blalack.

After Star Wars was released, George Lucas decided to relocate his effects company to San Rafael in Northern California.  Twenty of the original staff made the move, helping to set the new ILM up at a building on Kerner Street.  The original business sign, Kerner Optical, was left in place for years to come in an effort to dissuade memorabilia hunters - people went through the rubbish at night on the look-out for models and drawings.  The original ILM building - and its equipment - were taken over by Dykstra’s new company Apogee, who went straight into creating the effects for Battlestar Galactica.

From as early as 1978, Lucas decided that ILM would work for other filmmakers and not just him - he didn’t make enough films to cover the overhead and realised the R&D could be done on each job.  His friendship with Steven Spielberg meant that ILM had a strict policy to never turn away the director’s projects.
Since then, ILM has been involved in over 300 films and won 15 Oscars on the way - Dennis Muren has won 8 Oscars, from 15 nominations.  ILM, now fully digital, has been based at the Letterman Digital Arts Centre in the Presidio of San Francisco since 2005 and is part of The Walt Disney Company, following its purchase of Lucasfilm Ltd.

“I always thought that if ILM had run the space agency we’d have colonized Mars by now”
- Steven Spielberg
Joe Johnston works out angles for his storyboards
John Dykstra with an array of model ships
Richard Edlund programmes the Dykstraflex to film the opening crawl
Grant McCune masks an X-Wing prior to painting 
Lorne Peterson with the Millennium Falcon model
John Charles Dykstra was born on 3rd June 1947 in Long Beach, California and studied industrial design at California State University.  Douglas Trumbull, who gave him his first job on Silent Running (1972), then suggested him to George Lucas for Star Wars where Dykstra led ILM and helped design and create the Dykstraflex motion control system.  He then formed his own company, Apogee Inc., which has continued to provide effects for big Hollywood films.  Dykstra has won two Oscars (for Star Wars (1977) and Spider-Man 2 (2005)) and also an Academy Award for Technical Achievement (for the Dykstraflex) in 1978.  He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Visual Effects Society in 2014.

Richard Edlund was born on 6th December 1940 in Fargo, North Dakota.  He attended the USC school of Cinematic Arts (as did George Lucas) and John Dykstra, on the strength of two short films, recruited him as first cameraman at ILM.  Staying with ILM until 1983, he formed Boss Films which became one of the first effects companies to move from miniatures to CGI.  Edlund has won two Oscars (for Star Wars (1977) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)) and two Special Achievement Awards (for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return Of The Jedi (1983)).  He has served as governor for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, chaired the Scientific and Technical Awards Committee for eight years and chaired the Visual Effects Branch.  In 2007 he was awarded the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation for his outstanding service and dedication to the Academy.

Dennis Muren was born on 1st November 1946 in Glendale, California and developed an interest in films and special effects from an early age.  After studying business at Pasadena City College, he was recruited by John Dykstra to ILM as 2nd cameraman and he’s remained there ever since.  A keen pioneer of new technology, Muren led ILM’s move from models to computers with The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2 (1991) and his tests led to Steven Spielberg using CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993).  Muren has won six Oscars (for ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), Innerspace (1987), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993)) and two Special Achievement Awards (for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return Of The Jedi (1983)).  He is currently  the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Director of ILM and was the first visual effects artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame (in June 1999).

This home-movie (without sound) was filmed by David Berry at the ILM building in Van Nuys during 1976 and 1977.
5757 from David Berry on Vimeo.

Skywalking: The Life And Films Of George Lucas, by Dale Pollock
ILM History at
Cinetropolis article
John Dykstra ASC - VFX Now & Then
Inside ILM at
Paul Huston interview

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

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