Inspiring ILM

by Graham Edwards

What drives people to work in the visual effects industry? The glamour? The technology? All those ravening monsters and exploding spaceships? Or is it just another job? In an ongoing series of articles, we ask a wide range of VFX professionals the simple question: “Who or what inspired you to get into visual effects?”

Here are the responses from the staff at Industrial Light & Magic.

Prehistoric Encounters

When asked what inspired him to get into visual effects, Michael DiComo, CG technology supervisor (ILM, San Francisco), was in no doubt, answering, “Simple: Jurassic Park. Seeing the effects in that movie made me realise that THAT was what I wanted to do for a living. The great thing is that, not only did I get hired by ILM only three years after Jurassic Park was released, but I also got to work on The Lost World: Jurassic Park as my second film project ever.”

Beverley Joy Ang, production engineer (ILM, Singapore), was also inspired by dinosaurs, but of a more cuddly kind.

“I remember stumbling upon this program called CorelMove during grade school,” Ang recalled. “I didn’t know how to do animations back then, but the CorelMove library had this pre-animated purple dinosaur that you could import into a scene. I had a lot of fun changing the backgrounds, adding shrubs and trees, and moving the dinosaur around. I think it’s that little purple dinosaur that kick-started my love for computer graphics.”

The prehistory of cinema has also had its influence today’s VFX professionals.

The Wonderful World of Disney

“Colouring characters in all day – who wouldn’t love that job?” Betsy Mueller, ILM

“Growing up, my family and I used to watch The Wonderful World of Disney movies on Sunday evenings,” commented Betsy Mueller, lighting technical director (ILM, Vancouver).

“One episode was introduced with an old black-and-white clip in which Walt Disney explained what some of the traditional animation departments did. The Ink and Paint department fascinated me! Colouring characters in all day – who wouldn’t love that job? That was when I became hooked on the magic of making movies.”

Mad About the ’80s

Many people currently working in visual effects have a soft spot for the films of the 1980s, that golden age of fantasy and adventure movies that marks the high point of optical and photochemical effects.

One such person is Danielle O’Hare, senior manager of technical training (ILM, San Francisco), who remarked, “The reason I started working in VFX was because of movies like Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”

Craig Hammack, visual effects supervisor (ILM, San Francisco) shared O’Hare’s love for this era, and also added a favourite from 1962 into the mix: “I loved the escapism and thrill of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and the absolute beauty of Lawrence of Arabia.”

Gremlins-Bar-jpg

“Gremlins” – actress Phoebe Cates serves her unusual clientele, while Chris Walas’s crew of puppeteers hunker down out of shot.

Kate Lee, layout artist (ILM, Vancouver), recalled a formative ‘80s moment with a little extra bite. “My earliest memory of a VFX movie scene was Gremlins – launching Mrs. Deagle out of the window in her wheelchair. I was too young to understand that the gremlins weren’t real, and so terrified that I couldn’t go anywhere on my own after dark for a while!”

You can’t ask a group of VFX professionals what inspires them without stumbling over at least one person who loves Star Wars.

“For me, it’s an insatiable appetite for watching movies, a love of the filmmaking process from conception to projection,” stated Daniel Cavey, production manager (ILM, San Francisco). “And of course my first movie theatre memory: my Mom taking me to see The Empire Strikes Back!”

Milestone Movies

Jurassic Park isn’t the only game-changing film that’s proved inspirational to the staff at ILM. Recalling a summer afternoon in 1992 in South Africa, Mike Jutan, animation/creature R&D engineer (ILM, San Francisco), said, “I was a 10 year-old, enthusiastically eating a snack and watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Somehow, I’d convinced my parents it was okay to watch it: ‘Don’t worry Mom, this version was edited for TV!’ The moment where the T-1000 melts up from the checkerboard floor cemented my life goals in a matter of seconds. I loved computers, I loved movies, and with this – the single-most awesome visual effect of all time – I loved ILM.

“From there, my career and education goals revolved around combining math, movies and computer science. Fifteen years later, an ILM recruiter called and asked if I’d ever ‘considered working at ILM’. Not attempting to hold back any glee, I laughed, ‘Yes – only since I was 10 years old!’”

Terminator-2-Checkerboard

“The moment where the T-1000 melts up from the checkerboard floor cemented my life goals in a matter of seconds” – Mike Jutan, ILM

Colette Mullenhoff, R&D engineer (ILM, San Francisco), was also seduced by James Cameron’s metallic assassin from the future: “I always had my sights set on computer graphics for entertainment, but watching the T-1000 liquid metal cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgment Day sealed the deal.”

Another seminal movie for many VFX professionals is The Matrix. “When The Matrix came out, it inspired my high school class to re-create the 360 degree bullet-time scene,” explained Kate Lee, layout artist (ILM, Vancouver). “But we could only improvise with one person holding a camcorder in a car that was spinning around another person, who was leaning back and ever-so-slowly throwing his arms in the air. Clearly there was much to be learned about the technical side of the amazing images!”

Outside the VFX Box

It isn’t always a love of visual effects that draws people into visual effects. Craig Hammack might be a Star Trek fan, but he’s also inspired by architecture. “I have a love for the kind of experience that can be evoked by the light and form of architectural spaces. Architects like Louis Khan, Le Corbusier and Carlos Scarpa capture my imagination through design. While searching for a way to create experiences myself – without the need for understanding civil engineering codes and electrical schematics – I discovered computer graphics, and then visual effects.”

For Johan Thorngren, CG supervisor (ILM, San Francisco), it was all triggered by a passion for military aircraft. “I grew up near a military airbase and loved watching the jets from afar,” he remembered. “I built the kit-models of military airplanes that were available at the time. Due to a random chance in my previous career, I got hold of a copy of 3DSMax and picked up model-building as a hobby again – this time digitally. This led me to explore rigging and the FX aspects related to the models, as well as propelling me into the rendering and shading side of things. So I very quickly started to get more interested in making synthetic things look real.”

An aptitude for computer science can help lead to a career in visual effects, but on its own it may not always be enough – as the experience of Wajid Raza, technical director (ILM, San Francisco) proves. “In the late 90’s, when I was in middle school, my parents got me a Pentium computer,” Wajid recalled. “I was instantly hooked on the graphics packages – including an early version of Adobe Photoshop. A few years later, still fascinated with computers, I enrolled in an undergraduate computer science program.

“But during my second year of college, I started to get bored – it was not as creatively satisfying as I had hoped it to be. That was when Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings came out. I was floored with the whole experience – the CG characters and epic battle scenes. I spent the next two years finding out everything about VFX, and eventually landed my dream job at Industrial Light & Magic.”

LOTR-Battle-Before-After

“The Lord of the Rings” – “I was floored with the whole experience – the CG characters and epic battle scenes” – Wajid Raza, ILM

However, the ultimate outside-the-box story comes from Jon Alexander, compositing supervisor (ILM, San Francisco), who puts it all down to, well, a higher power.

“I bounced around four universities, studying different sorts of engineering, but my heart was not in it,” commented Alexander. “My parents suggested I enrol at Mary Manse, the small Catholic college where my Mom was on the faculty, because tuition would be free. But I wanted to go to a film school. My Dad said, “Your Mom’s praying that you just get a degree.” I snottily replied, “I’m praying to go to film school.” But I enrolled anyway.

“A month or so later the Ursuline nuns who ran the school said that, after much prayer and because of the financial situation, that it was God’s will that the school was closing after 50 years. My Dad called me up and said, “Okay I guess its God’s will you go to film school, but you’ve really pissed off a bunch of nuns!”

The Final Effect

Whatever inspired these ILM-ers to get into the business in the first place, it’s clear that, years later, their passion remains strong.

“To this day, whenever we get a new Jurassic movie in house, I get all jazzed up by the artwork, dinosaur maquettes, motion and lighting tests,” remarked Michael diComo. “It makes me want to roll up my sleeves and be a shot-lighter again.”

“In 2003, ILM called me up and asked if I wanted to come and work on Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” recalled Johan Thorngren. “I was a bit hesitant, until I heard that ILM had a department that allowed people to work in many different areas at once. Now I get to jump into many different aspects of the work, and I find it really satisfying being part of a team responsible for a given shot or sequence of shots.”

Danielle O’Hare concluded, “The reason I’ve stayed at ILM is because of the incredibly talented and generous population of artists, producers, and engineers. These are people at the top of their game, who are more than happy to share what they know with their peers. It makes my job as a training manager very easy, and a whole lot of fun.”

For some, however, working in VFX poses one problem that can be insurmountable. As Kate Lee quipped: “The biggest challenge is to get my parents to understand what I do for living.”

ILM LogoIndustrial Light & Magic was founded by George Lucas in 1975. Since then, ILM has created visual effects for more than 250 feature films, notably the movie franchises Transformers, Iron Man, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, Star Wars. ILM has offices in San Francisco, Singapore, Vancouver and London. Thanks to all the staff from ILM who contributed to this article.

Special thanks to Greg Grusby. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” photograph copyright © 1991 by Carolco Pictures, Inc. “Gremlins” photograph copyright © 1984 by Warner Bros., Inc. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” photograph copyright © 2001 by New Line Cinema.

4 thoughts on “Inspiring ILM

  1. What a cool story to post. As a fulltime Associate Professor of Computer Graphics at Virginia Commonwealth University, these kinds of narratives are invaluable for students to hear.

    I worked at ILM from 1992 – 1999. When I was a kid my dad took me to see Star Wars and, like many in my generation, it changed my life. I began to collect every magazine and book I could find on the film as a seven/eight year old kid.

    Over time the magazines began to feature more “behind the scenes” stories on the production of the film and there were countless photos of Dennis Muren, Paul Huston, John Dykstra, Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson, Joe Johnston and the like working with, in my kid mind, what looked to be the coolest toys I’d ever seen. The real models and miniatures that were used for the film looked like real, lived in, craft with histories all their own. I began building models as a kid and blowing them up and photographing them as they burned. My parents were probably mortified.

    I kept following every story I could get my hands on and decided at age eighteen to attend San Francisco State University to study Cinema as an undergrad. It was the closest I could get geographically to Lucasfilm and ILM. While at SFSU, I applied to twice to be a student intern, having been rejected the first time, and after getting in and interning my last semester of school I was offered a job as the receptionist at ILM, committing to one year. While I wasn’t crazy about the idea of being a receptionist (I always felt like, hey..I’m a filmmaker) I did my job dutifully for about 15 months and eventually moved into a position as a Computer Graphics Resource Assistant and eventually a rotoscoper on The American President. The reception job was a great entree into the company. By the end of my time at the front desk, I knew everyone’s phone number, and everyone knew my name. I continued to study and learn all I could and during my many years at the company, I worked my way up to the position of Digital Compositor. I left of my own accord in 1999 to pursue a career in VFX at my own company in NYC, doing commercials and work for artists and musicians including, Matthew Barney, Keith Edmier, Madonna & Bjork.

    To this day, ILM was one of the greatest places I’ve ever had the privilege to work. I learned more there than I ever did in film school and the experiences still resonate to this day. Its a truly one of a kind place and the “can do” spirit that makes it possible to create the unimaginable is unparalleled.

    –Matt Wallin

    • Thanks, Matt – glad you enjoyed the article. And thanks for sharing your own inspirational ILM story. In my youth, I also spent many a happy hour building models and blowing them up in front of cameras. It didn’t lead to a career at ILM, but here I am writing about the place, so I call it a result.

      This article’s one of a series, by the way, with more to come from a range of other VFX companies – here’s the Framestore edition: http://cinefex.com/blog/inspiring-framestore/

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