ILM on creating movie craft magic

CR sat down with Industrial Light & Magic to find out why analogue craft is still alive, and how it’s coming together with digital methods to make movie magic

It’s no exaggeration to say that visual effects studio Industrial Light & Magic single-handedly changed the course of the film industry. Back in the late 70s, a fledgling incarnation of the company re-wrote the special effects rule book for A New Hope, designing and building their own electronics, and turning discount goods from a nearby military surplus store into models for the film.

And ILM continued to pioneer visual effects techniques with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and a long list of other blockbusters. So who better to ask about craft’s changing place on the film set?

In conversation with the studio’s Chief Creative Officer and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll – one of the original creators of PhotoShop – and Creative Director and Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Morris, CR found out why the old ways are making a comeback, and why digital visual effects are no less crafty than the ‘real’ thing.

Creative Review: What does craft mean to you as someone working in film?Ben Morris: I think the visual effects industry, for me, is the perfect collision of art and science, driven obviously by storytelling. People often think, now, that a lot of the toolset is digital, and the craft has been left behind, but I would say it’s equally as strong as it’s ever been. Certainly on a few of the films John and I have recently been involved with, there’s been a retro want to try and go back to the old techniques, but we’re reformatting them with new technology in ways you wouldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. It’s a great time now, and we haven’t left the craft behind.

John Knoll: I’d go even further and say the big evolution in tech in the last 40 years or so has been to shift the burden of the artist. When I started my career, I would argue 75 per cent of the effort that went into putting a shot together was consumed with mechanical assembly issues, and making sure the exposure was right. A lot of work went into just making sure things worked technically, and that left you 25 per cent of time to work on aesthetic issues. The reverse is true now. A lot of these tools have allowed you to take many of those mechanical assembly issues for granted. When you’re putting a composite together, it’s no longer the giant focus of attention and an achievement to get something that doesn’t have a visible matte line, and the colour is matched. You don’t have to let these kinds of issues occupy your cognitive load.