As immense a pop cultural touchstone as Star Wars is, George Lucas’ greatest legacy is probably the founding of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), one of the most enduring and influential special effects houses in the history of film. On the occasion of ILM’s 40th anniversary, Wired has compiled a fascinating oral history of the landmark company, from its Wild West origins to its monolithic present.
What it reveals is a picture of an organization that prides itself on creativity and sweat, but also a sense of play and endless ambition. For example, model makers Steve Gawley and Lorne Peterson explain the culture of ILM that existed when working on the first Star Wars film:
GAWLEY: Sometimes in the afternoon we’d duck out with our bag lunch and three golf clubs. In an hour we could knock out six or seven holes, but we ran in between.
PETERSON: We also got an oxygen tank. I’d think, “God, it doesn’t seem to do anything, just kind of smells different.” But after, people in the hallway would ask me, “What are you smiling about all the time?”
GAWLEY: The studio finance people thought we should shut down. They called us the country club.
DYKSTRA: Our reputation wasn’t stellar, because we were breaking a lot of rules. But at the same time, we were there at 3 o’clock in the morning when those studio guys were asleep in their beds.
Later, VFX supervisor Steve Williams describes doing an unbidden end-run around stop-motion animator Phil Tippett by creating a CGI test for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and then “accidentally” showing it to Amblin Entertainment co-founder Kathleen Kennedy, “because we knew digital was capable of this shit.”
WILLIAMS: I was riding my bike and I ran into a guy from Tippett’s department. He says, “What are you working on?” I say, “I’m building the T. rex.” And he goes, “What the fuck are you talking about? We’re doing that!” He almost got physical with me.
The whole thing, which features reminiscences from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (as well as newer filmmakers currently playing in their universes, like Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow), is well worth the read. There’s even a brief apologia for the much-maligned Star Wars prequels, which ILM Chief John Knoll says “kept the industry alive.” Which, if believed, means Jar Jar Binks did some good after all.