How George Lucas Changed Special Effects in Filmmaking Forever

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When a young filmmaker named George Lucas pitched his idea for a space saga, FOX and most people were wondering how he was going to pull it off. The movie called for more cuts, action sequences and imaginative landscapes that had never been done before. When the studio asked him how he planed to do that, though Lucas had no clue he boldly told them he would figure it out.

“WIth Star Wars I want to do an action picture,” George Lucas said, repeating his original intentions for the iconic film in Creating the Impossible. The Encore documentary, which airs Nov. 12, focuses on the revolutionary special effects company ILM. “I want to do something where I can pan with the space ship. I want to do quick cuts. There’s a lot of rhythm, a lot of pace. There’s a lot of movement on the screen. I want it to be very cinematic, and at that point in time that was impossible.”

To complete this monumental task, Lucas founded his own special effects company to complete the difficult scenes needed in Star Wars. The company was named Industrial Light and Magic, better known as ILM. Over 300 films later, ILM has proven to be the industry leader in special effects, one of the first purveyors of computer generated imagery and the original parent company of animation giant Pixar. From Jurassic Park to Avatar, the company has put their stamp on some of the biggest films of all time.

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Oscar-nominated director Leslie Iwerks, whose works include The Pixar Story, went back to the early days of ILM to trace the evolution of the company and the special effects medium for the Encore documentary. Iwerks said she grew up reading Cinefex Magazine, and was personally interested in the subject because she grew up on the Disney backlot where her grandfather headed the animation company’s visual effects process lab. Lucas’ visionary role in special effects change things forever, she said, from digital editing to the computer graphics revolution. “He knew what was needed back in the 70s with film and where things could go,” she said to Techland.


“George was smart to make ILM a house that could serve other filmmakers and not just him,” Iwerks explained. “He hasn’t done as many films personally, so it makes sense that [the company should] make special effects for other filmmakers. The company gets better and better through the process of working on different films.”

For example, the pod race scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace required new techniques to figure out how to replicate the terrain of Tatooine. In the movie, the filmmakers would need gigantic miniatures if they wanted to shoot in a real location and make it look like the characters were moving really fast. Using matte paintings and models would make traveling through the desert look unrealistic. Instead they used a method that combined real photography and computer graphics, which was later utilized in Avatar to give Pandora its look.

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Before ILM most studios had their own in-house special effects teams. Lucas’ company was one of the first to open their doors to filmmakers. Since the company was willing to experiment with new techniques, ILM found itself in the forefront of many cutting-edge technologies. From the unheard of over 360 special effects shots needed for Star Wars to the first computer graphics visual effect in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, the company found new ways to solve their problems. “Those were massive tasks that no one was going to undertake,” said ILM’s John Knoll to Techland. The visual effects supervisor has worked on films including Captain Eo, Avatar, The Abyss and Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III.

“George always seemed pretty confident. He would always say, ‘Oh, you guys will figure it out!’” Knoll said.

Smaller films like Forrest Gump have also benefited from ILM’s expertise. The famous scene where Gump is playing ping pong is actually an ILM effect Recently, Knoll worked on Confessions of a Shopaholic. In one scene, the film has talking mannequins and Knoll said he jumped on the opportunity to test out some new techniques.

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Perhaps ILM’s greatest achievement lies in the realm of inspiring new inventions and companies. Pixar was formed out of ILM’s computer animation department. Knoll himself was inspired by photo editing software he saw at ILM. When his brother told Knoll about his PhD thesis regarding a photo editing program for home computers, the two worked together and co-created Photoshop. “ILM was the first place I went to that had a computer graphics department,” Knoll said. “So in a way, George had kind of fostered the creation of Photoshop.”

“His influence is huge because not only the technical contributions of ILM, but the people that have come through the company,” Iwerks said.

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“[Special Effects] is where the magic really unfolds, and you realize how impressive this group of people really are,” she added. “Breaking down every single frame, it’s all cared for. They’re all filmmakers there.”

See behind the scenes photos of George Lucas working with the ILM team by clicking on an image below: