7 things I learned from the Wired oral history of Industrial Light & Magic

Posted by · 9:50 am · May 19th, 2015

Industrial Light & Magic, the San Francisco-based visual effects house that has changed the course of cinema history countless times over the years, is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015. Wired Magazine has rounded up a who's who to discuss its impact and how the advances made there – first in a sweaty Van Nuys warehouse, and now in a swank Presidio complex – have morphed the film industry into what it is today. It's well worth your time.

If, however, you're the “tl;dr” type, I couldn't help but jot down a few takeaways as I read. Here are seven. But seriously, take some time to read through it if you can. It's a tight but detailed look back, full of the kind of stories – from “Star Wars” to “Transformers” – that make “movie magic” a thing.

George Lucas wants Marvel to make another “Howard the Duck” movie
I've actually always loved Willard Huyck's 1986 adaptation of the comic book property, terrible as it is. Lucas produced, and there's some fun discussion about trimming feathers to get everything just so in those practical effects days. But we could get another one. Marvel has already toe-dipped with that post-credits gag in “Guardians of the Galaxy” last year. “Someday, I hope, Marvel will make a new version of 'Howard the Duck,' and you'll see it could be a good movie,” Lucas says. “A digital duck will make that thing work.”

James Cameron calls the pseudopod sequence from “The Abyss” the “water weenie”
I don't know, that just cracks me up. “The Abyss” was a significant turning point for ILM, one of a handful of milestone productions that you can literally trace with a line throughout the company's 40-year history. Also notable was the fact that Pixar, an internal exploratory situation at ILM that was spun off as its own company and sold, bid against ILM for the film. They lost in the end because while Pixar was only dealing in CGI, ILM had other methods to their madness.

The sound of the T-1000 squeezing through bars was dog food
I had to smile at the random inclusion of a Gary Rydstrom anecdote regarding a sound effect in the middle of all this visual effects talk. There's literally nothing else about sound except that one bit, and as someone who's struggled with what to cut from an oral history and what to leave in, I have to assume it was one of those things the writers and editors loved too much to exclude. In a nutshell, the sound of the liquid-metal T-1000 squeezing through that Pescadero State Hospital door in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was dog food sliding out of a can. “That sound effect cost 75 cents,” Rydstrom says.

No “Jurassic Park,” no “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”
We all know “Jurassic Park” was the hybrid watershed moment for the transition from practical effects to digital effects. That production forced the extinction of stop-motion as a process, as Steven Spielberg says in the piece. But the world also owes “Jurassic Park” for the “Star Wars” prequels, development of which were announced a year after the 1993 dinosaur spectacle hit theaters. “I never thought I'd do the 'Star Wars' prequels, because there was no real way I could get Yoda to fight,” Lucas says. “There was no way I could go over Coruscant, this giant city-planet. But once you had digital, there was no end to what you could do.” It was “like a giant switch was thrown overnight,” Pixar's Ed Catmull says about “Jurassic Park's” impact.

“Twister” didn't even have a script before it was green-lit
Honestly, “Twister” is one of my favorite action movies. Soft spot, nostalgia, sure, but the effects work on that film was stunning at the time and there had been no cinematic experience like it. Turns out, the film was pretty much given the go ahead based on a single proof-of-concept shot. “The minute we took that shot into the studio and they saw it, they said, 'Done. We want to make it,'” producer Kathleen Kennedy says. “We didn”t even have a script yet!”

Rian Johnson nearly burned his house down trying to recreate a “Back to the Future” shot
The “Looper” director was apparently doing a parody of the film with friends once upon a time and he wanted to recreate the fiery tire trails left by the DeLorean after it shoots off through time. He soaked strips of paper towel in gasoline and laid them out in a line behind a big model DeLorean in his parents' garage, and you can probably guess how that turned out. “I don”t remember how I got the fire out, but I almost destroyed my family's house,” he says. “And now I'm doing 'Star Wars.' That's how you do it.” Mic drop on that last bit, Rian.

“Warcraft” will be a new watershed moment for ILM
“Star Wars,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Jurassic Park,” “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” and “Pearl Harbor” appear to be the big bar-raisers for ILM over the years. And apparently, Duncan Jones' upcoming “Warcraft” is the next. R&D supervisor Cary Phillips calls it the most amazing work they've done in his 20-year tenure with the company. The concept art alone was enough to make him soil himself, he jokes.

Go read more. Trust me.

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