Storage Wars: ILM’s Birth In A Warehouse, Far, Far Away

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John Dykstra. Denis Muren. Phil Tippett. Richard Edlund. These men, and the young guys and gals who toiled with them, were the corner stone of the modern age of movie effects, from inauspicious beginnings in an empty California warehouse, to the “go to” Skywalker Ranch magic maker of today.

It all started with a little film called Star Wars (or The Star Wars, as it was for a long time). George Lucas struggled against a seeming wall of indifference to get his space fantasy fable made – only 20th Century Fox head Alan Ladd Jnr seemed to have his back. To realise his vision, he needed to shake up the moribund special effects industry, practically dead on its feet in the 1970’s.

He created his own special effects house to make the specialised equipment needed, and so he could keep an eye on progress. 2001 A Space Odyssey’s Douglas Trumbull was approached first to head it up, but he was busy prepping his own directorial debut, Silent Running. John Dykstra, who had assisted Trumbull on 2001, took on the job of supervisor instead. Dykstra had always wanted to build a motion-control camera, which ideally suited George Lucas’s vision for the fluid, dynamic space ship shots – no more locked-down cameras. The innovative camera would go on to bear its inventors name – the Dykstraflex.

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Dykstra talked a reluctant Lucas into basing the effects house in an empty warehouse in Van Nuys, an industrial suburb just outside LA. His reasoning was they needed to be close to the expertise of the Hollywood film development and colour correction houses (Lucas originally wanted it in San Francisco, away from studio snoops).

Right off the bat, the clock was ticking. 350 shots were required in under two years – 2001 achieved 205 in three.The greenhorn Lucas was not to be indulged as Kubrick was, however. Before it was all over, he would be admitted to hospital with chest pains, such was the pressure and expectations he placed on himself and his crew. Lucas had put up half a million dollars of his own money to get the effects crew started. All it needed now was a name.

“It just popped into my head,” Lucas recalled. “We were sitting in an industrial park and using light to create magic. That’s what they were going to do.” Industrial Light And Magic they became.

The Van Nuys warehouse was transformed, with the blessing of an accommodating landlord. Tape on the floor marked out what became: an optical department, a rotoscope department, two model shooting stages, a model making shop, metal and woodwork shops, and offices.  Upstairs were the animation, editing and art departments, and a screening room. Dykstra and his merry band of outlaws were really striking out on new territory. “It was really overwhelming, because I sat at a little desk and figured out how to spend $1.28 million.” 

In a recent interview at celebrating his legacy and his thoughts on the future, Dykstra wryly recalls:

“When it came to unconventional, he (Lucas) may have gotten more than he bargained for.

There may have been a disconnect between us. I don’t think George realised I would invent a system. He didn’t expect an entire facility to be designed. I think he wanted us to be ingenious with existing technology. He was in London shooting while we were developing what ended up being some groundbreaking technologies. We were designing and building optical printers, cameras, and miniatures; as a result, the process didn’t produce a lot of film at first. I can understand him being nervous about it; he was helming the show — and the studio was nervous. A lot of people questioned whether this machine we were creating was even feasible.

When he came back from England, we hadn’t produced enough stuff. I admit that we were too involved in the process. The good news is that he had a bunch of people who ate, slept, and dreamed the movie. The crew that was working on the film was completely engaged and worked incredibly long hours. But we weren’t working conventional hours. We had a non-air conditioned building in Van Nuys. It was sweltering in the daytime, so we mostly shot at night when the temperature was cooler. Studio executives would come by in the daytime and nobody was on stage shooting. I’m told that certain studios execs referred to ILM as The Country Club.” 

John Dykstra was presented with the Visual Effects Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award on February 12, 2014. His effects Director of Photography on Star Wars, Richard Edlund, echoed his enthusiasm and vision:

I thought that at some point, things have got to change – the people who have ideas to do things should be allowed to do them. It was providential to me that Star Wars came along, because it was the response to that dream. We all got together, in a highly unorthodox way, in this little warehouse out in Van Nuys.”


Originally posted 2014-03-16 13:25:55. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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