By BARBARA ROBERTSON
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By BARBARA ROBERTSON
The venerable visual effects studio Industrial Light & Magic began 2017, its 41st year, with its artists receiving 16 VES Awards nominations, three VES Awards, four Annie Award nominations, two BAFTA nominations, and three Oscar® nominations for work accomplished last year.
The nominations and awards include those for best achievement in visual effects, outstanding effects simulations, compositing, animated effects, character animation, environments, virtual cinematography, modeling – just about every area in visual effects for which there is an award. In addition, four developers at ILM received an Academy Technical Achievement Award for the studio’s facial performance-capture solving system.
So what’s ILM up to now?
“The short answer is that we’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing for 40 years,” says John Knoll, Chief Creative Officer and Visual Effects Supervisor. “Trying to generate and make startling and memorable imagery for clients. Trying to help create great stories.”
All the shows we’re working on have something interesting,” he continues. “That’s how we choose these projects. We ask what potential they have for being the source of striking and memorable imagery, and what can they do to help drive the technology forward. There’s always something creatively cool about the projects we pursue.”
Already, the studio has worked on eight films, so far (Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, Kong: Skull Island, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Life and Spider-Man: Homecoming).
Currently in production are visual effects for another 14 films so far: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Thor Ragnarok, Mother!, Downsizing and Only the Brave for release this year. Those underway for 2018 include Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Ready Player One, Aquaman, AWrinkle in Time, Monster Hunt 2, Cloverfield Movie, and an untitled “Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film.”
How many films can ILM handle at one time?
“Rather than the number of shows, we think about the number of shots we’re doing,” Knoll says. “It’s all about managing capacity. We could have fewer shows with a large number of shots. I did an estimate probably two years ago and came up with a number – we are probably something like a 4,000 to 6,000 shot facility. ILM type of shots.”
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Working on these shots are approximately 1,700 artists and support staff spread nearly equally among four studios: The home base in San Francisco plus Vancouver, London, and Singapore.
“We have talented supervisors and creative directors in all four studios,” Knoll says. “In the same way I keep an eye on San Francisco, Eric Barba does that in Vancouver, Nigel Sumner in Singapore, and Ben Morris and David Vickery in London.”
“We have a commonality of mission. Each year we get together at DISGRAPH where we share technical development and general information about how we work in a way that can be somewhat more open than we can be at SIGGRAPH. We can be explicit. We share code. If we have something one of the other studios likes, they can have it and vice versa.” —John Knoll, Chief Creative Officer & Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM
Any combination of studios might work on any film – one, two, three or all four – and in addition to work centered in San Francisco, the other three studios often act as the hub for one or more films. For example, Vancouver hubbed Valerian and is the hub for Only the Brave scheduled for release later this year. London has Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Episode VIII), which will release in December, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, scheduled for 2018. Singapore is hubbing a regional production, Monster Hunt 2, directed by Raman Hui of Shrek fame.
Each of the four studios has artists on staff working in ILM’s global art department to provide concept art and design for films with ILM effects and for other films. And, ILM is moving technical artists – R&D engineers – into all the studios, as well.
“For a long time, the R&D was all in San Francisco,” Knoll says. “But there are good reasons to have engineering capacity in all the studios. R&D is easier to manage if we can say particular aspects are concentrated in different studios.”
Knoll estimates that a group of about 40 people do R&D, but notes the number is difficult to pin down because artists on production teams also do R&D and vice versa. The goal is two-fold: improving day-to-day efficiency and creating new tools for the artists.
“I think there’s plenty of room for improving the number of man-hours it takes to do a task, to make the workflow smoother and slicker so we can produce the same quality with fewer man hours,” he says. That’s true inside the facilities and out, as well. Lucasfilm and ILM recently announced an open-source release of the MaterialX library developed by Lucasfilm’s Advanced Development Group and ILM engineers. MaterialX, for which both Autodesk and Foundry have voiced support, facilitates the transfer of rich materials and look-development content between applications and renderers.
“But equally important is focusing on enabling technology,” Knoll says, “on tools allowing us to do things we couldn’t before.”
ILM’s long list of Technical Academy Awards attests to that effort. Today, Knoll cites tools for facial animation, for better compositing, and for effects simulation as ones he’s looking at in particular.
“There are always more projects you want to do than you have engineering man hours to do,” Knoll says.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, ILM gained some partners in that effort. Helping the studio expand their R&D talent pool are Disney’s Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation.
“We have a commonality of mission,” Knoll says. “Each year we get together at DISGRAPH where we share technical development and general information about how we work in away that can be somewhat more open than we can be at SIGGRAPH. We can be explicit. We share code. If we have something one of the other studios likes, they can have it and vice versa.”
ILM developers can also tap into work being carried on in the labs at Disney Research. “We meet with them every week,” Knoll says. “They’re interested in making sure that what they do has application, and we suggest things we would like to see. We’re in constant communication about the state of development of some of their tools. They have all kinds of really cool things we can apply directly.”
All these departments plus Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound feed talent and expertise into the studio’s ILMxLab in San Francisco where visual artists, sound artists, researchers and interactive storytellers create immersive entertainment.
“Rather than wait for other people to figure out what the rules (of VR storytelling) are, we’re learning them ourselves. We have people very excited about the possibilities of VR who are driving that forward… .” —John Knoll, Chief Creative Officer & Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM
Knoll is intrigued by VR and AR, but personally hasn’t jumped feet first into the virtual world. “I went to the installation for the border-crossing project we did and I think it’s really good, one of the best uses of VR I’ve seen yet,” he says, referring to Iñárritu’s ‘Carne y Arena’ hybrid of art exhibition, virtual reality simulation, and historical re-enactment that sends participants on a terrifying run across the US-Mexico border. The project debuted at the Prada Foundation in Milan in June and is now at the LA County Museum of Art.
“I’ve got 37 years of experience doing storytelling where we control what you’re looking at, and where we can compress time through edits and so forth,” Knoll says. “So I don’t know exactly how storytelling works when you subtract those things, you can look anywhere and navigate anywhere, and where you can’t hide time jumps in a cut, or maybe you can. Rather than wait for other people to figure out what the rules are, we’re learning them ourselves. We have people very excited about the possibilities of VR who are driving that forward, and I’m curious. But I’m staying more focused on traditional ILM. That’s an important business to us.”
GROWING THE BUSINESS
In the past, ILM tended to look primarily for senior talent to help the studio grow and change, and the studio’s recruiters still are, but they also consider more junior artists now. All four studios are hiring.
“We’re always looking for talented artists and engineers who I think of as artists as well,” Knoll says. “But sometimes you just cannot find experienced people in some disciplines. You just have to make them. We’ve experimented with hiring junior people right out of college and taking them through a training period, and it was successful. Some of that is just away of thinking and problem solving. You don’t have to have a lot of experience to be a good problem solver. You just have to have the potential. What we need is talent.”
From a small company in San Rafael, ILM has grown into an enviable global enterprise with 1,700 employees and walls filled with awards for creative and technical accomplishments over the years.
“Physically, we’ve changed pretty dramatically,” Knoll says. “And the industry has matured. But our general philosophy of always trying to question the status quo and ask if there is a better way hasn’t changed. The collegial spirit of openness and sharing and helping each other is the same.”
Lucasfilm opened its first international studio in Singapore in 2006, with 15 artists working in three branches, animation, LucasArts and ILM. Now, solely an ILM studio, approximately 300 artists – 400 people total – work in the ILM’s Sandcrawler building located in Singapore’s Fusionopolis. Nigel Sumner, Creative Director, who has traveled back and forth between Singapore and San Francisco since 2007, manages the group.
“For me, the great strength of the global ILM is that we can move shots freely between the studios, which means shots can be completed at any one of our four locations,” he says. “And our geographical location allows us to reach into Asia to make connections with regional filmmakers.”
In addition to working with the other studios, ILM Singapore hubbed the Chinese co-production of The Great Wall, and is currently hubbing the regional production, Monster Hunt 2.
ILM first opened a studio in Vancouver in 2013 and within a year had expanded into a 30,000-square-foot space in Gastown. In 2017, the company opened a second studio, expanding into another 60,000 square feet. Today, approximately 425 people work at ILM Vancouver.
“A lot of our technology is San Francisco based,” says Creative Director Eric Barba. “We remotely connect to the machines in San Francisco.”
Although bidding for projects also goes through San Francisco, the goal is to have studios and directors come directly to Vancouver for their projects. And that has begun.
“Valerian was the first show we hubbed,” Barba says, “that we had full creative ownership. We’re doing all the work for Only the Brave in Vancouver and we have more in the works. We’re building a team of great visual effects supervisors.
“Of course, we also have teams running with a good amount of shot work – as spokes on shows that hub elsewhere,” he adds. “ILM is much more collaborative than what I’ve been used to. It’s a different culture. I’m in constant communication with the creative directors in each facility. I can walk through shots with Dennis Muren – and the other supervisors. That’s one of the big positive things about ILM.”
ILM opened its London studio in 2014 with Creative Director Ben Morris. The location is perfect for ILM’s work on Star Wars, which is filmed in part at nearby Pinewood Studios. ILM London is currently the hub for Star Wars, The Last Jedi.
“We’re also hubbing Jurassic World and working on Ready Player One, the Han Solo spin-off, and the next Avengers movie, says Executive-in-Charge Sue Lyster.
Currently approximately 500 people work in three buildings in central London, but work has started on a new building in Holborn – also central London – to house everyone. London ILM’ers share the same pipeline as those in the other three studios.
“There is an enormous depth of experienced talent in London, and I think we have attracted some of the best into our studio,” Lyster says. “We also have a graduate program to bring the best emerging talent into the studio.”
With several other award-winning studios already located in London, why would the local talent choose ILM?
“I think people join ILM to be part of ILM,” Lyster says, “to join the legacy of a great and long-standing company. ILM has a reputation, which is what brought me here, for treating people well and respecting people. There is an ethos of sharing, of reaching out for an opinion, and what’s happening is that people don’t only reach to San Francisco for help, opinions and feedback, they also reach to the other three studios. We’ve all gotten a little bit used to the time zones.”
ILM’S GLOBAL ART DEPARTMENT
ILM’s art department traces back to the first Star Wars and artists Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie.
It’s different now that we use a lot of 3D tools,” says Jennifer Coronado, Senior Manager of ILM’s Art Department. “You don’t need orthos if you can do a sculpt and spin it around, but other than that, it’s still very much the same. We’ve grown and taken on more work, but even though we’re in four countries now, we try to make sure the team feels like a team.”
Twenty-two artists work in San Francisco, 14 in London, three “and growing” in Vancouver and two in Singapore. In addition to work on films, the artists have done video game design, marketing materials, and even provided Star Wars- based designs for prosthetics for children.
“We pursue our own work,” Coronado says. “For film, we can take a show from blue sky to pragmatic builds and if the film gets awarded, continue through production. We’d love to work on the visual effects for every film we design, but sometimes that doesn’t work out.”
Recently, to find new artists, ILM held a Star Wars-based competition. Three thousand people entered. After phase one and two – ship and character design – only 250 were left. After phase three, only eight.
“People post great concept art on the web, but taking that to a final design is different,” Coronado says. “Phase three was most important. We had them create key frames for a fake movie with fake characters and a fake brief. We gave people two weeks and in the middle, changed it on them completely. Because that’s what a director would do.”
They hired the third place winner, who now works as an art director in Vancouver.
“Talented art directors are a finite resource,” Coronado says. “It’s amazing what these folks do, the way their brains work. They’re not just executing. They’re inventing under pressure. I applaud them every day.”