Industrial Light & Magic’s Greatest Hits

Some of the best individual moments from the special effects masters

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With Transformers: Age Of Extinction crashing on to our screens soon, we thought we’d take a look at the work of the people who make giant robots stomping around possible. After all, no matter how good, bad or indifferent the film, chances are that the stuff that Industrial Light And Magic did looks pretty cool. So here, in our opinion at least, are just some the best bits of ILM’s work…

***Why? ***The opening shot may be seared on our collective eyeballs, but the excitement of the Battle of Yavin takes some beating. Inspired by World War II dogfights, George Lucas called for sweeping shots of X-Wing craft dodging laser cannons and TIE-fighters for an epic battle sequence that had to be pulled off without the ease of modern CG techniques.

***How? ***What has since become a landmark in effects capability was, in actual fact, a combination of the company’s cutting-edge motion camera development and some extremely lo-fi creativity. The sequence was filmed with an innovative motion-controlled camera, its first use in cinema history. This meant that a computer was used to control a long, complex series of camera movements, where the Dykstraflex motion-control system (named after special-effects supervisor John Dykstra) issued a complicated series of movements to the camera, resulting in astounding shots that continue to look good. And the surface of the Death Star? Urethane foam and cardboard, shot on a high speed camera in the company’s car park…

***Why? ***After teasing the audience with glimpses in a clever psychological game, Steven Spielberg knew he had to deliver the goods. And he does: scientists Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Dr. Ellie Sattler and the rest are treated to the brain-boggling spectacle of Parasaurolophus mingling in the distance and a Brachiosaurus feeding from a tree like a prehistoric giraffe. Their reactions mirror what we felt as audience members seeing the creatures for the first time.

***How? ***After initially thinking that the majority of the dinosaur effects would be created via stop-motion, VFX guru Dennis Muren, impressed with the advances in CG, convinced Spielberg to watch a test of Gallimus skeletons running in sequence. Convinced, Spielberg asked Muren and the ILM team to switch techniques “We literally didn’t know from one day to another how stuff was going to look,” recalls Muren. “Watching the dailies, we’d never seen anything like this before.” Working in concert with Phil Tippet’s studio and Stan Winston’s impressive, life-size animatronic models, dinosaurs ruled the Earth once more.

***Why? ***The Terminator had delivered top-notch stop motion and animatronics for its original cyborg villain. But for the sequel, James Cameron wanted to really push the boundaries. So the creepy character played by Robert Patrick is a shape-shifting nightmare of fluid living metal that can impersonate people and even mimic linoleum. “I wanted to find someone who would be a good contrast to Arnold,” Cameron told Canal Plus. “If the 800 series is a kind of human Panzer tank, then the 1000 series had to be a Porsche." A Porsche with a penchant for stabbing people, anyway.

***How? ***Using morphing techniques originally created for Willow, Dennis Muren and the team took the technology to Oscar-winning levels to craft six of the 15 minutes that the T-1000 appears on screen (the other nine were the product of Stan Winston and some advanced puppetry, as well as Patrick's performance). But it was a tough project to start with. “This was pretty terrifying,” recalls Muren. “People were saying, ‘We can’t do this yet.’ I didn’t go into it relying on CG, I had a back up plan and was ready to get the model shop going…” Many of the shots had to be digitally “painted” to remove errors and the production was shooting background plates for effects sequences before the actual scenes themselves, so rigorous was the schedule of footage needed for the animation team.

***Why? ***The fight featuring all the superheroes – Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, The Hulk and Hawkeye – fighting in the streets of New York City is as much a grandstanding achievement for Marvel as it is for the movie itself. Making good on Kevin Feige and co.’s promise to unite the team on screen, it’s a dazzling, swirling shot that travels past them all as they face an alien army in and above Manhattan. And it’s enough to make you cheer…

***How? ***Combining shots from four different virtual New York sets (all filmed in New Mexico), the ILM team worked from a pre-vis sequence developed by The Third Floor. “From the day that we saw the pre-vis, we knew this would be a massive undertaking,” says associate visual effects supervisor Jason Smith. “It’s a very long shot, no cuts, going from hero to hero, flying around New York.” Even when there were established shots of the actors, some elements had to be created out of whole digital cloth. “We had a plate of Captain America, but we needed to show him fighting alongside Iron Man,” says Smith. “So we had to change his motions by creating an all-digital human. Fortunately, we’d taken the digital double to the point where that could be done.”

***Why? ***After the first film, the Pirates franchise had already become famed for its spectacle and clever use of effects (those skeletons moving through beams of moonlight), but Davy Jones is the most impressive creation that followed, and one regularly cited by other VFX specialists as a pinnacle of the art. A new take on a classic maritime legend, he was first brought to life on screen by Bill Nighy, but it required a lot of digital trickery to make his look work…

***How? ***“As much as we don’t want audience members to think about this while they’re watching him, Davy’s 100 percent computer generated – we had Bill Nighy on set acting, and everything we did built on top of that,” says ILM animation director Hal Hickle. “The combination of live action and digital tentacles is really challenging to do.” With Davy planned as a character often delivering dialogue in tight close-ups, a lot of the attention was paid to the fine detail of his face. The result is one of the most complicated and convincing CG characters ever created.

***Why? ***Michael Bay’s first time bringing Optimus Prime and the rest of the Transformers to the screen is notable for how small-scale it now seems compared to the later films. Yet there are still some standout sequences, most notably the scene where Bumblebee rescues his owner / friend Sam Witwicky from Decepticon Barricade in a stand-up, knock-down, transform-into-a-car-and-back-again battle that rages across an industrial park.

***How? ***“Michael wanted the action to be fast, so he shot reference of stunt guys  doing the spins, kicks and the martial arts actions he wanted,” animation lead Paul Kavanagh told Creative Bloq. “We got that footage and knew exactly what he required. But the action Michael wanted was performed by a 160-pound martial arts guy, and we were animating 6,000-pound robots!” Some sequences were more challenging than others, and the team switched the robots’ speed from slow motion to real time within one shot. As for the transformations, forget science… “There’s not a  lot of logic in how the parts function in the robots,” says modeller Dave Fogler. “Trying to reconcile  the robot artwork to the car was pretty much  impossible because the robots were so abstract in  their  shapes. We left it to the animators to work out the transformations. It was a leap  of  faith,  but it worked.”

***Why? ***The brutal, memorable opening sequence for Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama features one of the most realistic depictions of warfare in modern cinema. As Allied forces storm the beaches of Normandy, bullets whip into the ground – and soldiers – explosions tear through the scene and troops cry out as they’re cut down.

***How? ***Spielberg marshalled an army of his own to craft the practical side of the sequence, with a huge group of extras, real-world blood spray and even amputee stuntmen. But some shots needed ILM’s assistance, including one startling moment when a soldier’s helmet deflects a bullet, he removes it to marvel at the dent, and is immediately cut down. "That was one of our big shots," VFX supervisor Roger Guyett told the American Society of Cinematographers. "Gonzalo Escudero did a great job making it believable. That was difficult because we were trying to create this bloody spray, which has to have organic, very physical properties, with digital techniques.”

***Why? ***For his third outing with those robots in disguise, Michael Bay predictably wanted to go bigger. With a huge battle laying waste to chunks of Chicago as its final act, Dark Of The Moon features some of the biggest set pieces of the franchise. And the demands of beating their own previous work also presented fresh challenges for the ILM team when given a Transformer that worked in a rather different, more sinuous way.

***How? ***One of the most difficult robot creatures to bring to life was one the team dubbed Colossus (AKA Driller), a massive snake-like beast that destroys everything in his path. He was a monster in more ways than one. “The hard part in rigging him is allowing the rings on his body and tentacles to spin as he moves across the ground or through a building,” says VFX supervisor Scott Farrar. “His animation and position on the building is done first, then we destroy the sections of the building where he is placed. That involves many computer-simulations: breaking glass, metal, cables, beams, smoke, fire, sparks, concrete, dust and liquid". The render times for the ‘bot entwined with the tilted building were the highest in ILM’s history: "288 hours per frame! To compare, the longest render on Revenge On The Fallen was 36 hours for an IMAX frame. Over 50 different specialists worked on this shot.”

***Why? ***Famous for boasting the first, and certainly the most impressive, photorealistic CG creation on screen at the time, Young Sherlock Holmes is often overlooked as a turning point for effects. But the short sequence where a stained glass knight jumps from his frame to scare the living cassocks out of a poor vicar is one that stands the test of time.

***How? ***The knight is a product of the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Division, the unit famously sold a year after the film came out to Steve Jobs, whereupon it became known as Pixar…. One of the company’s leading lights (now the boss of both the Emeryville studio and Disney Feature Animation), John Lasseter was the main animator for the knight. “My main worry,” says Dennis Muren, “was that I had never seen computer imagery that looked real.” Giving the team enough time to work on the design and animation was key. Still, they completed everything within six months, in the first sign that these guys would go on to do great things.

***Why? ***For all its OTT bombast and undercooked romantic triangle, Michael Bay’s World War II pic is mostly notable for the astonishing work done on the battle sequences. As the Japanese planes attack the docked ships and their crews, we’re treated to some amazing POV shots and great sequences that drag you into the battle itself. And then someone opens their mouths again and you kinda lose interest.

***How? ***"Looking at the plans for the sequence, we knew there would be elaborate camera moves, so we started by improving our links between CG and motion control, and then we looked at what we would have to do in CG," says associate visual effects supervisor Ben Snow. “The team identified four main areas of computer graphics research for the scenes in Pearl Harbor: lighting the digital planes, ships, and small complex objects in daylight environments; choreographing and animating the complex air battle scenes; creating realistic, large smoke simulations; and developing complicated crashing tools.” Their talents even extended to creating digital humans to crew the ill-fated ships, but the result was breathtakingly real.

***Why? ***One of Guillermo del Toro’s favourite film dragons, Vermithrax is the big bad of the film. Huge and terrifying, it manages to survive stabbing, lightning strikes and burial under a destroyed mountain. It took a magical amulet to finally destroy the creature. Magical amulets, eh? Tricksy things.

***How? ***If the residents of Urland thought the dragon was something to worry about, the filmmakers had an even bigger challenge, because Vermithrax ended up consuming 25% of the film’s budget. ILM used various methods to make the beast a reality, including Phil Tippet’s “Go-Motion” variant on stop-motion originally created for The Empire Strikes Back. “We were very, very committed to the idea that it would not all be people staring past the lens reacting to something over your shoulder — that eventually we would run up against it,” says director Matthew Robbins. “And I think that had it not been for our association with ILM, we never would have undertaken it. It’s too terrifying to think of spending all this time on a movie and then coming up with a rubber ducky that’s going to flap and squawk.”

***Why? ***Other effects shots might be more spectacular, but the original Trek sequel’s climactic battle is atmospheric, eerie and features the best use of submarine-style tactics in space science fiction onscreen. As James T. Kirk battles nemesis Khan in a cloudy, dangerous, unstable nebula, the Enterprise and Reliant trade shots in a moody, tense scrap amid a weird, brightly-coloured space-scape.

***How? ***“The Mutara Nebula was a really nifty challenge,” says VFX supervisor Ken Ralston. “I wanted to come up with some bizarre sculptural look to this whole thing. We essentially poured saltwater into a tank, laid a plastic sheet on it and filled the rest of the way with clear water, when we pulled the plastic away, it gave us a layer between the two that started to create these shapes. We lit it, and the thing was moving and changing all the time and as soon as anything started to come together, I’d roll.” Sauce for the goose, Mr. Saavik…

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