The Magic of Lucas and ILM

When Star Wars hit the theaters 30 years ago, it was kind of Hollywood's version of the Big Bang Theory.

George Lucas style!

"I'm a filmmaker, I like to make films," Lucas tells me with uncharacteristic modesty.

Star Wars explodes on the scene, and in the process, spawns Industrial Light & Magic's technology and special effects revolution. Just like a star exploding and giving birth to a solar system, Star Wars gave birth to the effects that have now appeared in more than 250 Hollywood blockbusters. Everything from Howard the Duck to Twister, Jurassic Park, Terminator, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

"Being from the Bay Area, close to the Silicon Valley, we were more aware of the possibliities and more open, I think. Which is more a San Francisco tradition," says Lucas from a perch atop his bucolic Letterman Digital Arts Center on San Francisco's Presidio, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It started out really as a way of bettering the process of doing cinema."

ILM's latest project: Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The company's top digital animators and engineers taking time from their excruciatingly busy schedule to give us exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to how these characters, and the movie itself, was created.

John Knoll, a two-time Oscar winner, walked me through how his team created the octopus-bearded Davey Jones.

"Bill Nighy referred to his suit as his deeply embarassing computer pajamas," says Knoll, referring to the "motion-capture" outfits actors had to wear during principle shooting.

And that's where the innovation really occurred. Knoll's team pioneered the concept of seemlessly blending a real actor's performance with computer generated animation; in many cases while the scene was being shot, instead of shooting the scene and adding in the computer aspects weeks later during post-production. The process gave director Gore Verbinski unprecedented creative control while the movie was still on location.

Knoll fired up his monitor and walked me through how Davey Jones' beard was created.

"We made a whole series of cylindrical segments," so each tentacle could move independently. And each was given "a sticky slimy quality to them." He compared it to the feeling of a piece of spaghetti thrown against a leather jacket. It sticks there, and you have to peel it off. Engineers wanted the same look and feel to that iconic beard.


As for those funny-looking "computer pajamas?"

"They trusted us that we wouldn't make them look silly," says Knoll with a smile.

Motion-capture is the key technology, with virtually every character wearing the suit and its trademark round markers that look like ping pong balls wrapped in a very reflective material.

To give me a better idea of the process, engineers wrapped me in one of the skin-tight suits on an ILM motion-capture soundstage.

High tech, but not high fashion.

"Of course," says Michael Sanders, ILM Digital Supervisor, whose claim to fame is creating all the little fake people on the fake deck of the movie Titanic, one of the first successful uses of motion capture.

Infrared cameras capture my every move, and the data is fed into computers that model and calibrate all my movements in the suit. I'm almost instantly transformed into some bizarre looking alien that electronically, and disturbingly mimics my every mannerism. (You have to see this to believe it!)

So weird.

It's almost as if you can't make a film, or even video game without this nifty technology. It's all about realism and this is the kind of technology that gets the job done.

"We're getting into a realm now where we can actually extract the 3-d performance from an actor's face and body and translate that into any character we want, human or not human, and have it subconciously believable," ILM's Sanders tells me.

Gone are the days of traditional model-building and miniatures, and even the innovative "Motion Control Camera" invented by ILM's John Dykstra. That was the device that gave those tiny toys used to produce the first Star Wars, the size and scope that thrilled movie-goers saw in that first film.

It's all being replaced today by massive computing power and the "render farms" buried beneath the Lucas buildings on the Presidio.

"There's just about no limit," says Sanders.

These same computers that create those spectacular characters also create entire worlds, backdrops, that look real, but aren't. So many of the scary island shots with deep crevices and endless cliffs in the latest Pirates, simply do not exist in nature. But they DO exist in the tiny screens at ILM, and now on the big screens of thousands of theaters.

"This is what we started from," says John Knoll, showing me a plate of the rope-bridge scene with rolling hills in the background. "But then, that's what we replaced the background with. You see we don't have much of the original plate," he says, showing me the finished product featuring those forbidding, menacing cliffs. You'd never know the difference, and that's the magic of ILM.

Whatever the director can imagine, ILM can create here, it seems to me.

"That's what we do, that's what we're paid to do," says Steve Sullivan, ILM R&D Director, himself a two-time Oscar winner for technical achievement.

So what's next for ILM?

"I like the idea of totally real simulations," Dennis Muren, ILM Senior Visual Effects Supervisor tells me.

He's an 8-time Academy Award winner, the most of any living filmmaker, and the guy Lucas turns to to turn his dreams into reality.

He tells me the next big thing in movie-making will be true 3D, a technology he seems to think represents the industry's best opportunity.

In fact, that's something Dreamworks' CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg echoed just this week, saying all his studio's features will be produced in 3D after 2009.

Can you see a day when 3-d is really gonna be the deal, I ask Muren?

"The projection problem has been solved, the problem of how to acquire the data has been solved and now you can review the dailies as you're shooting it, which means that you can learn how to really direct a movie in 3-d which you've never been able to do before," he says. "I think now you can really design for it."

In fact, THAT may be the true magic of ILM: always thinking about what's coming next. And how to make it possible.

Questions? Comments?