When George Lucas released the first Star Wars film in 1977, he not only proved that big-budget science fiction could be successful, he also demonstrated that flying spaceships and a planet-pulverizing Death Star could be pulled off with the right special effects. But the technology required to create such groundbreaking effects had to be invented from scratch, which is why Lucas started Industrial Light & Magic, a visual-effects workshop-slash-playground which would eventually go from small and scrappy unit of twenty-something engineers to the incubator of Hollywood’s future.
This month’s issue of Wired dives deep into the history of ILM, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Featuring interviews with filmmakers such as Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Guillermo del Toro, as well as many of the genius engineers who helped build the place into the premiere effects shop in the world.
Here are six things we learned from the story, which is a must-read:
Howard the Duck was an incredibly difficult film to make — and Lucas hopes that Marvel eventually reboots it: Sure, the adaptation of the offbeat Marvel comic didn’t live up to its billing, but that doesn’t ILM didn’t work its tail off to make 1986′s Howard the Duck, a film that starred Lea Thompson and a duck from space. Finding the right feathers for the Howard costume was a painstaking process — and entire jobs were devoted carefully trimming them with surgical scissors — and so Lucas, who produced the original film, hopes that Marvel/Disney will eventually make a computerized quacker.
“You’ll see it could be a good movie,” he said. “A digital duck will make that thing work.”
And because Howard scored big laughs with a brief appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, we know it’s a real possibility.
Yoda had to be CGI in the Star Wars prequels: A lot of Star Wars fans were less-than-pleased that Yoda went from a puppet operated by Muppets legend Frank Oz in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to an entirely digital creation in the prequels, but Lucas isn’t second-guessing that decision.
“I never thought I’d do the Star Wars prequels, because there was no real way I could get Yoda to fight,” he said. “But once you had digital, there was no end to what you could do.”
As the little Jedi master says, “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Thanks to ILM, Twister was given the green light before a script was even written: It’s now remembered fondly for its groundbreaking visuals (including that flying cow), but the production on the 1996 blockbuster Twister was a stormy affair — in part because the script was always a mess, with many writers pitching in even throughout production.
“ILM did a proof-of-concept shot for Twister,” Kathleen Kennedy, a producer on the film (and now the head of Lucasfilm) remembered. “The minute we took that shot into the studio and they saw it, they said, ‘Done. We want to make it.’ We didn’t even have a script yet!”
Michael Bay’s tantrums are as epic as his movies: As it turns out, Michael Bay doesn’t do anything small — and that includes reacting angrily to anything that doesn’t live up to his lofty standards.
Wayne Billheimer, a VFX executive producer, remembered one outburst, which occurred when Bay showed producer Jerry Bruckheimer a cut with an unfinished third act: “I just saw a movie that I can’t f—-ing release!” he screamed.
“He’s a tyrant,” Cary Phillips, ILM’s research and development director, said. “He’s a nonstop string of obscenities. He’ll berate you and tell you you’re an idiot. But he always makes your shot better.”
Jurassic Park made history — by accident: Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park marked a major turning point in Hollywood, as it became clear that entire gigantic creatures could be created through computer graphics and look way more realistic than model-based motion. It almost didn’t happen, though, because the filmmakers originally had no idea what was technologically possible. Two ILM workers secretly made a demo, and it accidentally fell into Kennedy’s hands. She screened it for Spielberg, who was blown away by its potential.
“The fluidity of the running cycles was such that there was no comparison—even with go-motion,” he said, referring to the advanced stop-motion process ILM had previously mastered. “I just said, ‘Well, stop-motion as a process is extinct.’”
James Cameron has a fun name for the liquid tentacle that attacks the crew in The Abyss: Before they changed the game together with Terminator 2, Cameron and ILM worked on 1989′s The Abyss. One of the most impressive scenes that came out of their collaboration was the floating water tentacle that visits the sleeping crew — an effect that Cameron has given a fantastic nickname.
“There was one sequence in that film that I imagined but couldn’t figure out—the pseudopod sequence, the big water weenie that comes through the ship and makes faces,” Cameron said. “CG was completely unproven. We didn’t know how it could be integrated with film.”
Obviously, it worked — as did countless other designs created by ILM.