ILM veterans look back on 40 years of VFX magic

This year marks leading visual effects studio Industrial Light & Magic's 40th year in the business. Here, some of its veteran magic-makers share some of their fondest memories from the past four decades.

(By the way, this is 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.)

26 Years At ILM: John Goodson,Model Maker

John Goodson, Model Maker, has spent 26 Years at ILM

John Goodson, Model Maker, has spent 26 Years at ILM

John Goodson joined Industrial Light & Magic's model shop in August, 1988, and stayed there for 16 years.

"I was hired to be there for a week. On my first day, someone took me to the wood shop. Steve Gawley gave me a drawing and left. I didn't know what to do, so I went into the hall and saw Dennis Muren. He took me into the model shop and introduced me to Bill George. For three days, I built a miniaturisation platform for the Star Tours ride. And, they kept giving me projects."

Next he built vehicles for Back to the Future 2 and by 1991, was working on models for Star Trek VI. He became a model supervisor with Star Trek Generations, and a model of the Enterprise hangs in his office today.

New technology

In 2005, Goodson began using computer graphics to create concept art for Star Wars: Episode III. He left the model shop and became a digital artist. He has four VES nominations for his work on models for Transformers: Age of Extinction, Star Trek into Darkness, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and Iron Man 2.

"When I came to ILM, there were maybe 275 people and only a handful used computer graphics. We've completely flip-flopped. Seventy-five percent of the people working here grew up with computers, and for them the interface is transparent. They do things we would never have thought of. They think out of a box that the rest of us were never in."

It’s rare for Goodson to step away from the computer these days, but occasionally he still gets his hands dirty.

"Paul Huston and I needed to create airplanes for TV show Agent Carter, so we bought airplane model kits. We built one with the landing gear down, put it on Masonite on a table, dusted the table with baking soda for snow and ground foam for vegetation, and shot it. We started laughing. We were actually shooting a model again. It was especially fun doing that with Paul who has been here the entire 40 years."

Oscar-winner Dennis Muren

Dennis Muren, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, has spent 40 years at ILM

Dennis Muren, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, has spent 40 years at ILM

Dennis Muren joined ILM in April, 1976, when the studio was still in Van Nuys, California and is credited as second cameraman (miniature and optical effects unit) on the 1977 film Star Wars. He received his first Academy Award, a special achievement award, in 1981 for Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

He went on to win Oscars for E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (another special achievement award), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Innerspace, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park.

As visual effects supervisor for Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Willow (1988), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Jurassic Park (1997), Dennis Muren ushered in the use of computer graphics in filmmaking. He's currently listed as working on Jurassic World, but he consults on most films underway at ILM.

"I’m working on upcoming technologies and the aesthetics we want to bring into new shows," Muren tells us. "I kinda miss having my head the entire way into doing a show, but it's better for me to pass on what I know and step back."

"The tools are still stupifyingly difficult to work with"

Scott Farrar, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, has spent 34 years At ILM

Scott Farrar, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, has spent 34 years At ILM

Visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar joined ILM in 1981, two years after the studio moved from Van Nuys north to San Rafael, California. From 1981 to 1988, he was an effects cameraman. Farrar photographed the famous 'Genesis sequence' in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the first CG sequence presented in a motion picture.

Most recently, Farrar was senior visual effects supervisor and second unit director for Transformers: The Age of Extinction, his fourth Transformers film. He received an Oscar for Cocoon, and has six Oscar nominations. In 2002 he and Dennis Muren were nominated for an AFI Digital Artist of the Year award for A. I. Artificial Intelligence.

Farrar hasn’t yet signed on to his next film. Instead, he’s working on a technical problem... "I don’t think our tools light correctly based on real world lighting, and the tools are still stupifyingly difficult to work with,". My goal is to make it easy and quick for an artist to achieve the lack of perfection in real world motion picture lighting."

"Star Wars was such an amazing experience"

John Knoll, Chief Creative Officer, has spent 29 years at ILM

John Knoll, Chief Creative Officer, 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.

A life-changing experience

"It was a life-changing experience. 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'."

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."

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."

Three years later, Knoll had moved from operating cameras to working with computer graphics for The Abyss. In the early 90s Knoll and his brother Thomas invented PhotoShop.

He has five Oscar nominations to his credit and he received an Oscar in 2007 for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. In 2013, Knoll became ILM's first Chief Creative Officer. In addition, he's listed as senior visual effects supervisor for Tomorrowland and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and as writer/producer on Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One.

"Everyone was so focused on creating a perfect image"

Grady Cofer, Visual Effects Supervisor, has spent 16 Years at ILM

Grady Cofer, Visual Effects Supervisor, has spent 16 Years at ILM

"The one thing that brought me to ILM was art. It was 1977. I lived in a small town, Stone Mountain, Georgia. My dad came home with something rolled up under his arm. I have it on my wall here at ILM. It's the original poster art for Star Wars by the Hildebrandt Brothers.

"When I unrolled that poster, I was transported by the escapism it promised. When I finally saw the movie, it was the greatest highlight of my life. Someone made those spaceships real.

"From that moment on, my childhood was punctuated by striking visual moments in film. E.T.'s ship taking off. The Arc of the Covenant opening at the end of Raiders. The terrifying dragon crawling through caves in Dragonslayer. The link was ILM. How could I not be compelled to work there ultimately? Artistic greatness has a gravitational pull.”

Cofer attended UCLA, and once out of college, did graphic design for commercials, and then segued into working as a compositor on films at Digiscope.

Intimdating but exciting

"At the time, you needed five years of film experience before ILM would look at your resume." His first credit at ILM was as a Sabre artist on the 1999 film Wild Wild West.

"It was exciting and intimidating at the same time. What astounded me was the effort and passion I felt in the screening room. We would go to dailies, sit in chairs in the dark, and hours would go by as we talked about shots. Any idea was a good idea. It amazed me how focused everyone was on creating a perfect image."

Cofer became an associate visual effects supervisor on Munich, and a visual effects supervisor on Will There Be Blood, managing the supporting visual effects in those films. With Noah and Battleship, both of which brought Cofer VES nominations, he moved into the realm of supervising ILM's work in visual effects-driven films.

"I’m learning from the best! One of the strengths of ILM is the creative brain trust. I talk to Dennis Muren all the time. He looks at everything. When I get back from dailies, I’ll have a message from Dennis on my phone. He always comes up with really interesting ideas."

This article first appeared in 3D World Magazine.

ILM in 3D World magazine

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