First sneak peek inside London’s Star Wars factory

Lucasfilm's ILM has just opened its first UK studio, to produce special effects for Episode 7 and more. Take a look inside…

When it comes to visual effects, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) is the undisputed leader of the pack. Founded in 1975 by George Lucas to work on the first Star Wars movie, it's spent the last four decades setting the gold standard on movies like ET, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Terminator 2, Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter.

Last year ILM got snapped up by Disney as part of its billion dollar deal for Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise. And now that filming on Star Wars: Episode 7 has begun at London's Pinewood Studios, it's not surprising that ILM has extended its operations to the UK capital.

Its new studio officially opened last night at Hend House, 233 Shaftesbury Avenue. As Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey were keen to point out at the opening event, one of the big draws for ILM to the UK has been the recent extension of movie tax breaks to the VFX and animation industries.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne welcomes ILM to the capital

But Osbourne also accepted there was another big reason: the huge amount of artist talent in London right now, a point echoed at the ceremony by ILM's President Lynwen Brennan and Lucasfilm's President Kathleen Kennedy.

Disney, Marvel and beyond

The new facility, ILM's first in Europe, will be a full service studio, including an art department, previz, and an entire end-to-end visual effects and computer graphics pipeline. This pipeline will allow it to share work with the other ILM offices in San Francisco, Singapore and Vancouver, as well as at its strategic partner, Base FX in Beijing.

ILM's first VFX work in London will be on the forthcoming Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron; while work on shots from Star Wars Episode 7 is expected to start around November. That said, the studio won't just be working on Lucasfilm, Disney and Marvel projects, but will compete for work on other films too.

In the meantime, here's a brief glimpse of where the Star Wars magic is about to happen...

Around 80 artists are hired so far; that will climb to 200 once work on Episode 7 begins

Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, sends a text

Red Skull, archenemy of Captain America, watches over the artists

"What are these people doing in our office?"

Screens everywhere show clips from ILM's glorious history

A hidden R2-D2 around every corner

The lobby features the obligatory street art

"Security! There are journalists in the building..."

Marvel figurines everywhere

Dailies will be scrutinised in the basement cinema

Even the men's toilets are Star Wars themed...

... as are the ladies

"No, it's not a scene from Episode 7 - honest!"

One thing we should point out, though, is that there's something very misleading about these pics... the brightness. In general, we were told, the artists here will work in very low light, as do their counterparts in San Francisco, Vancouver and Singapore. (On this occasion, ILM kindly turned up the lights just so we could take some pictures.)

Also note the blackout blinds, which are installed across every window in the facility. That's partly to keep the light levels down, but also for security: a must given the insane levels of interest in the new Star Wars movies. Oh, and to top it all, NBC/Univeral are right across the street...

With all the security, media intrusion and deadline pressure, you wouldn't want to work here, really... Oh, you would? Well good news: ILM is hiring! So if you have the skills, head here and upload your CV. Good luck!

For all the latest news, rumours and gossip about Star Wars Episode 7, head here.


Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and technology. He was previously associate editor at Creative Bloq and deputy editor at net magazine, the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers. Over two decades in journalism he’s worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella. Follow him on Twitter @tom_may.