ILM effects wizard on how Star Wars changed his life

Chief creative officer of the visual effects studio John Knoll looks back on 29 years of movie magic.

Tomorrowland still

John Knoll is senior visual effects supervisor on Tomorrowland

This year, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) is celebrating 40 years of VFX goodness. So we decided to catch up with some of the studio's veterans, to find out their thoughts on the last few decades, and discover what they're up to know.

In the first in a series of interviews, we meet ILM's Chief Creative Officer John Knoll, who looks back on 29 years with the company.

(By the way, these posts are just the tip of the iceberg: for full coverage of ILM in its anniversary year, check out the latest issue of 3D World, on sale now – details at the bottom of this post.)

"Star Wars was an amazing experience"

John Knoll

Chief creative officer John Knoll has spent 29 years at ILM

In May 1978, while Dennis Muren was at ILM working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, John Knoll, an Ann Arbor, Michigan high school sophomore, travelled with his father and brothers to Anaheim, California.

Inspired by having seen Star Wars, young Knoll picked up a phone book, found a listing for Industrial Light & Magic, and called the studio. "Star Wars was such an amazing experience, I thought maybe visual effects was a viable career."

When he told the person who answered he was a model maker and interested in working in the industry, he received an invitation to visit.

"It was a life-changing experience," Knoll recalls. "The next day my dad drove me to Van Nuys at 8:30 in the morning, and I spent the whole day at ILM. Model maker Lorne Peterson toured me around. I went to dailies.

"I saw them building models. I saw them shooting on a motion control stage. I walked out of there and said, 'This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to work at ILM some day'."

Model apprentice

He reached that goal eight years later. After graduating high school, Knoll attended USC, a George Lucas alma mater, and during summer vacations built a resume by working as a model maker.

When he was 23, right after graduation, he applied to ILM. Hanging on Knoll's door at ILM is the rejection letter he received. "That letter has had its 30th anniversary."

Will the new Star Wars movie recapture that old excitement?

Almost exactly a year later, an ex-instructor told him ILM was looking for a motion control assistant. Knoll sent the same resume with a few additions and the instructor’s endorsement. And ILM hired him. He was employee 105.

"I started working one month after George Lucas made the deal to sell the Lucasfilm computer pision and make Pixar," he explains. Three years later, Knoll had moved from operating cameras to working with computer graphics for The Abyss. Then in the early 90s Knoll and his brother Thomas invented Photoshop. (Yes, really!)

John Knoll has since been awarded five Oscar nominations and he received an Oscar in 2007 for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. In 2013, he became ILM's first chief creative officer.

As well as working on Tomorrowland, he's senior visual effects supervisor on Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and writer/producer on Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One. He's certainly living that Star Wars dream!

ILM in 3D World magazine

Check out this great issue today!

For issue 196, the 3D World magazine team were were invited by ILM to The Ranch to look behind the curtain and celebrate the studio’s incredible life – an offer we couldn’t refuse.

In this bumper issue, you’ll hear from the ILM veterans behind Star Wars, Indiana Jones and more, as well as a closer look at ILM’s recent work on Avengers: Age of Ultron. You'll find full details of this excellent issue, in stores now, here.

Buy the issue today!

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