As the “Star Wars” universe continues to give us new stories, it’s important to remember George Lucas had a problem when it came to getting the original movie, “A New Hope,” made. The technology didn’t exist to make the film they wanted. So he decided to create a special effects division in his company Lucasfilm.
His decision turned into Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and has set the standard for special effects in cinema ever since.
As odd as it may seem, no one wanted “Star Wars” to be made at first. According to WIRED, production of the project, whose original title was “Adventures of Luke Starkiller,” as Taken From the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars, was only green-lit after Lucas was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for “American Graffiti.” Unfortunately, what 20th Century Fox studios didn’t have was a special effects department.
ILM’s first home was in an inhumanely hot warehouse in 1975 just behind the Van Nuys airport in San Fernando Valley, California. The team was made of about 45 college graduates and dropouts with an average age of 25 and 26. WIRED reports that they may have been inexperienced in the world of movie-making, but they were all either electrical engineers, industrial designers, or architects. They were also ambitious and ready to dig in.
Led by John Dykstra, now a legend in the SFX industry, they had to come up with everything as they went along. From the models themselves to the technology they needed to film those models. They were able to buy supplies for the models from a local military surplus store, which also saved them a lot of money in the long run, according to WIRED.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do the film using traditional techniques in the time they had,” Dykstra told LA Times’ Hero Complex. “So we built new cameras designed specifically for miniature photography.”
The result was a camera that allowed them to photograph the very tiny models they were building. They also used an old film format called VistaVision, because the image it gave them was of a higher quality than the format being used at the time.
“We needed a higher quality image because we were doing optical composites in optical printers that had to be custom built because of the VistaVision format,” Dykstra told Hero Complex.
They also found another way to light to their Blue Screen which allowed them enough light to properly shoot the miniatures. That and everything else they had made from scratch would have been for nothing if it weren’t for the motion control system. It allowed them to shoot continuous motion photography of the models with a freedom of motion that hadn’t been available before.
“The motion-control system also allowed us to shoot two or three shots a week on each stage as opposed to the traditional technique that would have required two weeks per shot on the same stage,” Dykstra told Hero Complex. “As you can see, there were lots of new concepts that were interdependent. If one of the links was too weak the entire system could fail.”
From building the camera to getting it up and running, it took about a year. Lucas wasn’t too thrilled when he got back from London to find out that only one shot had been completed: a cannon going boom three times.
“Those guys didn’t quite understand the critical nature of making a movie,” Lucas told WIRED. “You can’t be a day late; it just doesn’t work. It all fits together into a giant mosaic. All the pieces have to fall together.”
They had 800 shots to complete, and time wasn’t on their side. It was August 1976, and the movie was released in May of ’77.
They ended up naming the camera the Dykstraflex after Dykstra, but there’s no doubt in his mind that there were many hands involved in creating that system including Don Trumbull, Bill Short, and Dick Alexander.
“If you look at any of the written material on the original ILM, you’ll see the names of those people over and over again,” Dykstra told Den of Geek. “And it was because we didn’t build a company – we built a solution to a problem.”
After the success of “Star Wars” everyone wanted their big movies worked on by ILM. Lucas moved the shop to San Rafael in Northern California, according to WIRED. Twenty people made the move with him, but John Dykstra wasn’t one of them.
“I wasn’t interested in going to San Francisco,” Dykstra told WIRED. “I wasn’t invited.”
Dennis Muren ended up taking Dykstra’s spot, and according to IMDB has won nine Oscars for his special effects work. Looking back on his time at ILM he pointed to “The Empire Strikes Back” as the hardest film he’s ever had to work on, because they had to train people to do work that not even they were that familiar with.
“The big challenge on ‘Empire’ was Yoda,” Lucas told WIRED. “We knew how to fly spaceships; the thing we didn’t know how to was have a two-foot creature make you believe it was a real live thing and not just a Muppet.”
ILM went on to face many challenges in addition to making Yoda look real. They’ve taken on movies such as “Jurassic Park,” “Star Trek II” (the first time a visual computer called the Pixar was used), “Howard the Duck,” “Ghostbusters II,” “Willow,” “Terminator 2,” “Pearl Harbor,” and countless more. They even put the first digital starring character in a feature-length movie called “Casper.”
The company has gone through its own changes, too. One big change was when it came to the use of computer graphics (CG). WIRED reported that Lucas saw it as the way to create the Yoda sword-fight. But Ed Catmull and his computer division team wanted use the Pixar computer to make animated movies. They parted ways and ILM sold the computer to division to none other than Steve Jobs as a company called Pixar.
It seems every task that’s been handed to ILM has been a request for the impossible. Where most would fold under pressure ILM would again come up with the solution. It’s the reason the company was created in the first place.
“Every one we did there was a moment—whether it was the very first one or the very last one—there was a moment where they said, ‘This is impossible, we can’t do this,” Lucas told WIRED. “And I said, ‘That’s my job. My job is to make you do the impossible.”