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Light + Magic: How George Lucas Changed VFX Forever

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Light + Magic: How George Lucas Changed VFX Forever

Have you ever been watching a tv show or movie that has visual effects (surprise, most do!) and wondered….how do they do this?!

One name stands out as a pioneer and leader in not only visual effects, but filmmaking as well: Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Since its inception in the 1970s, ILM has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the world of filmmaking. 

From introducing groundbreaking techniques to creating unforgettable characters, ILM's contributions to filmmaking have shaped the industry we know today. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore some key milestones in ILM's journey of visual effects innovation during the 80s, 90s and beyond.

ILM: The Art of Innovation

1980— Go-Motion:

Phil Tippett adjusting an AT-AT Imperial Walker for the stop motion effects in Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back
Credit: ILM/StarWars.c

Back in 1980, ILM teamed up with the renowned VFX supervisor and producer, Phil Tippett, to unleash their revolutionary creation: "Go-Motion." Go-Motion introduced a whole new level of realism to the world of stop-motion animation.

How did it do that, you might ask? By incorporating realistic motion blur that seamlessly blended animated elements with the background. This breakthrough was a game-changer for films like "The Empire Strikes Back," where the VFX shots became more integrated and realistic than ever before. ILM's dedication to pushing the boundaries of visual effects truly took flight with the introduction of Go-Motion. It was a giant leap forward that left everyone in awe.

1985— The First Ever Fully CGI Character:

Picture this: you dedicated six months of your life to develop a character composed of 100 polygons only for it to be on screen for 30 seconds (we know, right?). John Lasseter and Dennis Muren sure can relate to that one. Together in 1985, they showcased their utter genius in the film “Young Sherlock Holmes” by bringing to life the FIRST ever fully CGI character dubbed “the stained-glass knight”, thus cementing themselves and ILM in filmmaking history.

Screenshot of the Stained Glass Knight - Young Sherlock Holmes [1985]
The Stained Glass Knight - Young Sherlock Holmes [1985]

1993— ViewPaint:

Viewport showing a wireframe representation of the 3D model of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park
Credit: https://vfxblog.com/viewpaint/

In 1993, ILM brought us yet another game-changer: ViewPaint. This technology made the creation of the awe-inspiring world of dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" a whole lot easier. Instead of relying on traditional painting methods for the models, ViewPaint allowed animators to directly apply textures to the 3D models.

Talk about a time-saver! With ViewPaint, the production team at ILM could complete these intricate models much faster, reducing production time and bringing those prehistoric creatures to life in all their glory. 

1994— First Photorealistic CGI Character:

In a span of just ten years after introducing the first fully CGI character, ILM pulled off yet another remarkable achievement. This time, they seamlessly integrated Jim Carrey's lively movements and expressive face into the realm of photorealistic CGI for "The Mask." What's even more impressive is that every single element of this character was hand-animated. ILM's dedication to delivering visually stunning results clearly shines through in their meticulous craftsmanship.

Screenshot: The Mask
The Mask - 1994

2006— IMocap:

ILM blew us away once again in 2006 when they introduced their groundbreaking IMocap (Image-Based Motion Capture) technology in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." This game-changing innovation brought live-action actors and digital characters together in perfect harmony. Just take a look at Bill Nighy's mesmerizing performance as Davy Jones, with every intricate facial movement and expression flawlessly translated onto the digital character. IMocap showcased the immense power and potential of bridging the real and virtual worlds, thanks ILM.

Before and After of iMocap in action during the creation of Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Carribean
https://beforesandafters.com/2019/09/10/computer-pajamas-the-history-of-ilms-imocap/

2011— Real-time Rendering:

ILM introduced real-time rendering technology, which had a profound impact on the world of filmmaking in 2011. This new technology provided filmmakers with the ability to generate high-quality renders of digital characters and environments in real-time during production. The instant feedback and visualization of results transformed the creative process on set, enabling faster decision-making and enhancing overall efficiency. The introduction of real-time rendering technology marked a significant milestone, revolutionizing the industry and empowering filmmakers with newfound creative possibilities.

2015— ILMxLAB:

ILM is always on the move, never content to rest on its accolades. In 2015, they took things to a whole new level by establishing ILMxLAB. This dynamic division was all about diving headfirst into the world of virtual reality, augmented reality, and immersive entertainment experiences. With projects like "Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine" and "Vader Immortal," ILMxLAB completely redefined interactive storytelling. They set the bar sky-high, delivering experiences that transported fans to the heart of their favourite universes. It's a testament to ILM's unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of technology and narrative, giving us immersive entertainment like never before.

ILMxLab Poster
ILMxLab

2018—2020 StageCraft:

ILM Stagecraft in action on the set of the Mandalorian - Showcasing the immersive LED Volume
Credit: ILM Stagecraft

Here we are, 40 years later and ILM is still pushing the boundaries in filmmaking, StageCraft being at the forefront. No one could foresee the level that StageCraft would push filmmaking though. With the release of “The Mandalorian”, everyone was in complete awe at what they just witnessed.



Imagine this: filmmakers could now shoot live-action scenes within mind-blowing photorealistic virtual environments. How? Well, they used massive LED screens as immersive backdrops, therefore transporting the actors to the actual “location” instead of just looking at a blank green screen. This innovative approach drastically reduced the need for location shooting and green screens. But wait, there's more! The magic didn't stop there. With real-time lighting and reflections, the final result was nothing short of astonishing. The production process became more authentic, efficient, and downright mesmerizing. With StageCraft, the world is truly at our fingertips.



ILM has never wavered from being absolute power house and innovator in the film world for over 40 years and there is no stopping in sight. As a matter of fact, filmmaking would not even be close to where it is today without George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic. Imagine where filmmaking will be 10, 20 years from now with them at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. We personally cannot even begin to fathom it.

We’ve got a challenge for you— The next time you head to the theatre, grab your pop corn, sit down and begin to enjoy that movie— don’t just think of the visual effects on screen as visual effects— think of the years of progress, and innovation that have gone into making that shot, what you’re seeing on screen, possible… and that ILM played a major part in that.

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