Industrial Light & Magic documentary shows the special in the effects

Nov. 18, 2010 | 10:21 a.m.

For fans and students of special-effects films, there was a name in the credits that always jumped off the screen — Industrial Light & Magic, a brand that just with its name evoked the sparkle of cinema imagination and the Hollywood heavy-machinery it requires. The esteemed visual-effects house is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year and it steps into the spotlight in a fascinating way with “Industrial Light and Magic: Creating the Impossible,” the new hour-long Encore original documentary that premiered last weekend but will be shown again Thursday night as well as Tuesday and Nov. 27.

Tom Cruise narrates the documentary, which was directed by Oscar- and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks, who also directed 2008′s “The Pixar Story.” This documentary focuses on the players whose innovations and advancements in the industry made it possible for some of the biggest films on the second-half of the 20th century to be realized. The onscreen interviews are a  parade of big names with Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Ron Howard, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, J.J. Abrams,  Jerry Bruckheimer and John Lasseter among them.

ilm1 Industrial Light & Magic documentary shows the special in the effects

George Lucas and ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren (center) on set of “Return of the Jedi” (ILM)

We caught up with Favreau after he watched the finished film, and he was impressed by how succinct the documentary managed to be in light of the sprawling accomplishments of ILM.

“They could have just as easily done a whole series on this place and [how] significant all the breakthroughs have been,” said the director of “Iron Man” and next year’s “Cowboys & Aliens.” “They could have done an hour just on what was created for ‘Star Wars’ and another that talks about how Pixar spun out of there or a look at the evolution of CG [character generation] there because, remember, it wasn’t a CG house when it started.”

george lucas in desert Industrial Light & Magic documentary shows the special in the effects

George Lucas, filmmaker (ILM)

Favreau added: “When it started, the mission was simply to take what was in someone’s imagination — something that had never been on film before — and find a way to get those images on the screen. The breakthroughs back then were in motion-control cameras, miniatures and being really innovative in compositing to allow a lot of different images to share the screen at the same time which, before the digital age, was very, very challenging.”

Known as “the house that ‘Star Wars built,” ILM began in a Van Nuys warehouse in 1975.  The powerhouse figure behind the company, of course, was George Lucas, who would later be described as “the Thomas Edison of Hollywood” by venerable producer and former studio chief Richard Zanuck.

ILM began as a method of tackling the complex visual effects that danced, clashed and swooped in the mind of Lucas. He assembled a rag-tag tribe of artists, college students and engineers which included John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Joe Johnston, Richard Englund, John Knoll and future Pixar foundersEd Catmull and Lasseter.

After the success of the first “Star Wars,” ILM relocated to San Rafael and now, since 2006, ILM has been headquartered at the Letterman Digital Arts Center, 23 acres on the former site of the Presidio in San Francisco. The have produced effects on nearly 300 films, winning 15 Academy Awards and 23 scientific and technical awards.

john dykstra star wars1 Industrial Light & Magic documentary shows the special in the effects

John Dykstra during "Star Wars" years. (John Dykstra)

“Fearlessness is a theme throughout their history,” Iwerks said. “They prefer to take on projects they have never done before that will stretch them.”

And then there’s that grand name, which is both mechanical and magical. As Favreau puts its:  “You have the image of the prestidigitator but most of the work was done in loud, dusty warehouses. The magic is on the screen for everyone to see though, and they will be seen for generations.”

– Liesl Bradner and Geoff Boucher

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