Thursday, October 3, 2013

ILM visual effects before 1987

Back in 1987, it wasn’t so easy to find out how special effects were accomplished. You had to hunt down specialty magazines like Starlog, Cinefantastique, or Fangoria, or you had to know someone in the industry. 
But a book came out that year called “Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects”, which lifted the veil on the mysterious methods developed by Industrial Light and Magic, the company that rocked the world with the original Star Wars movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dragonslayer, and E.T.

I didn’t own the book, but to show you what a geek I was, I borrowed it from a friend, and read the entire text into cassette tapes. That way I could listen to the words, and imagine the pictures, while painting at my easel. I shared the tapes with my friends in the Golden Palm Tape Network, a small fellowship of artists who exchanged shop talk via audio cassettes.
Rancor puppet from Jedi and Phil Tippett
Revisiting the tapes again recently brought me back to the spirit of innovation that was in the air during that era of visual effects. Many of the methods were groundbreaking in their day. They are still amazing accomplishments by today’s standards, such as:

  • Extremely high frame rate cameras for shooting miniatures in slow-mo explosions and implosions
  • The model shop of Lorne Peterson and Jon Berg, where I learned the terms “kit-bashing” “greeblies,” and discovered the techniques of fiber optic lights and motion control cameras.
  • Blue screen wizardry, traveling mattes, and optical printing techniques 
  • “Go motion,” the stop motion wizardry of Phil Tippett performed with the assistance of computer controlled movements to add motion blur
  • Water tank effects used for the clouds in the finale of Raiders
  • The use of Vistavision equipment reconfigured from an earlier era
The last section of the book explores the pioneering steps toward “digitized movies,” and “The Pixar,” which at the time was a research and development arm of ILM, before it split off to be an animation studio. Jurassic Park was still five years off, but the basic concept of digital VFX was already understood, and the main problem was storing and processing the vast amount of data needed to render images at a photo-real level.

I’ve taken a look again at some of the science fiction classics from before 1987, especially Blade Runner, (which was more the work of Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra), and Alien (which was the work of Brian Johnson, Martin Bower, Carlo Rambaldi and others). I can’t help but be impressed anew with the impact and integrity of the in-camera methods from 30 years ago. Far from being quaint or nostalgic, many of the films are incredibly convincing and compelling. The grounding in the physical world gives all those films a bracing energy.

Of course, the breakthrough films of the digital revolution, such as Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and Toy Story, were equally astonishing in their day, and each new year brings new wonders, but I notice that leading directors are looking for ways to get as much shot in-camera and on film as possible.

And there’s a whole generation of DIY YouTube innovators like Freddie Wong who are using a combination of digital and practical tools in a new synthesis that’s smart and cheap and witty and light on its feet.

The book is still available on Amazon: Industrial Light & Magic:  The Art of Special Effects


T. Arispe said...

Awesome post! That was ingenious of you to record the entire book on tape. The history of visual effects is such a fascinating field, and I'm always astounded at the creativity and ingenuity of those who figured out how to do amazing things with little or no digital assistance.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

In many ways, that technology from the last century worked very well - I remember being wowed by the effects in "Alien" and "Blade Runner." Today, much of the CGI stuff I see in films doesn't quite cut it. For example, many critters - especially large ones - just don't have seem to the mass of a real object. That is, they don't seem to have enough inertia or momentum to move in a totally realistic way. In the LOTR movies, for example, the way the cave trolls move from stop to start to stop again isn't quite right. They move a little too...nimbly. Hard to describe, but you can see it, I think.

James Gurney said...

Jon, definitely. I saw my job as a fantasy illustrator as a sort of amalgam of all the separate jobs in the movie director/ ILM pipeline. And with Dinotopia I was setting out to paint the images that couldn't be done in live action, like cities on waterfalls and people flying on pterosaurs.

Michael, I totally agree. It's as if the director is saying "amp up the action!" when they plan the timing in the animatic stage of big creature action scenes. But if there's no understanding of how weight and momentum scales up, the scenes just aren't convincing.

krystal said...

I've worked with a few of these guys you mentioned (at an earlier stage in my life; including one who is a giant pain in the butt but brilliant) and they all had an INCREDIBLY great eye and strong vision. I did a shoot once with Richard Tayl0r from Tr0n, and I was so green at the time, and in utter AWE of the guy (I didn't know who he was at first but there was a small crowd around him during breaks while he told stories). I've worked with quite a few cinematographers (the mellow, the screamers, the incompetent, etc), and was struck by how he (Taylor) knew EXACTLY what he wanted on set; from shot to shot. I don't see that much anymore, and it was amazing. His influence and knowledge of post and being on set just made his vision an incredibly fluid process that he was able to easily communicate. Today I find that there is not much 'talk back' (people on set talk about post like it is magic and people in post talk about on set like it's separate 'they're taking our jobs' etc). These guys at the forefront are absolute PERFECTIONISTS who enjoyed and felt challenged by the problem solving process, and not sloppy with their work; incredibly innovative; they demanded the best of themselves and constantly pushed the limits of the industry. I feel like that is HUGE today.Technology is supposed to make things easier but it's also supposed to inspire; creation comes from us; the human element. A lot of the mentality is 'churn 'em out', which I disdain because I love love love cinema and art with my entire being.
Also, thanks for the heads up on the new Star Trek (my head hurts now)!

Patrick said...

I saw this book on the shelf a the Tattered Cover book store in Denver in 1990. I begged my parents for it and they told me it was too expensive ($60 for the hardcover at the time), but that Christmas it was my one and only present and I was ecstatic. I still have it, although it's pretty beat up now it is one of my favorite possessions.

Joel Fletcher said...

Special Effects aren't so special anymore.

Keith Parker said...

The most interesting thing about this to me is the bit about recording yourself reading the book on audio cassette. Serves as a nice reminder how hard it was to get a book if the local bookstore didn't carry it before the Internet.

Andy said...

I borrowed that book from the library several times. I wanted to buy it but it was over $100 as I recall - that's like a gazillion dollars in today's money I think.

Robin Cave said...

Yeah, I obsessed over that book too and eventually my parents bought it for me for Xmas. It was like $125 in Australia at the time and I never heard of anyone else having it. I eventually worked in VFX, but it wasn't like in the book with all the model making and great illustration.
I regret to say I recently sold it to a comic shop for about 10-15 bucks. Depressing, but now days you can find all those images and info and so much more online and you dont have to lug it from one rental property to another.