One of the benefits of being a powerful and highly important blogger is constantly being showered with gifts: fancy cruises, dinners in the finest restaurants, the occasional late model German automobile. At least that’s what I heard you get. I’m not at that point yet, but I figure at my current pace I should qualify for a fresh donut and a small coffee sometime before the next Summer Olympics.
Until then, I will just have to satisfy myself with interesting conversations with talented film artists. A few weeks ago, I interviewed digital effects artist Michelle Dean about her career. Dean works at Industrial Light & Magic, the legendary visual effects house founded by George Lucas in San Francisco.
It was a fascinating interview that I recommend you all read. But it also led to an invitation by Michelle to come visit her offices. First of all, what is Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)? Simply put, it is the most successful visual effects house ever.
Globally, ILM employs more than 1000 individuals across its four offices. The company has received 15 Oscars and another 30 Science and Technical awards, making a total of 45 Academy Awards for its visual effects. The affiliated sound facility on Skywalker Ranch just north of San Francisco has hauled in another 16 Academy Awards for sound, having been nominated for awards in the sound categories every year since 1977.
Its founding is the perfect example of industrious do-it-yourself attitude. Back in 1975, early in his preparations to make the original Star Wars (1977) at 20th Century Fox’s huge lot in the Century City section of Los Angeles, director George Lucas got a bit of a setback. The visual effects department at Fox was closed. This was particularly distressing because Lucas wanted the film to feature visual effects that moviegoers had never seen.
First he tried to hire visual effects wizard Douglas Turnbull, who had done the visual effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Turnbull, however, was already working on a project for Steven Spielberg—Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He suggested Lucas consider hiring his 28 year-old assistant, John Dykstra, as a possible hire instead.
Lucas did, and he and Dykstra founded a new company that would be responsible for visual effects. They rented an empty warehouse in the not-so-fashionable Van Nuys section of Los Angeles and hired a bunch of college student artists and engineers. The new company was called Industrial Light & Magic.
Three years later, Lucas moved the company up to the sleepy San Francisco suburb of San Rafael in Marin County. Over the ensuing 40 years, ILM has produced visual effects on more than 300 films, including all the Star Wars movies and many other sci-fi blockbusters, as well as more subtle work digitally amplifying images—doing things like widening streets, adding extras into a shot, and other understated but necessary changes. ILM has worked with directors as diverse as Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle in Time, 2018), Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim, 2013), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, 2018), Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, 1994) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, 1999).
The operation in San Rafael was based out of a storefront on the town’s main drag, behind a door with a sign that read: “The Kerner Company, Optical Research Lab.” And that’s how the company was known to the residents of San Rafael for many years.
In 2005, Lucas moved the company again, this time to a spectacular and fully-renovated facility in the Presidio in San Francisco. The Presidio was a major West Coast US Army fort until it was closed in 1994 when the land and buildings were turned over to the National Park Service. Located on some of the most beautiful and valuable land in California, the Presidio and its buildings have become a stunning campus for a variety of (mainly tech) businesses in the Bay Area.
The complex of four buildings (plainly named A, B, C, and D) where Lucasfilm and ILM have their offices are called the Letterman Digital Arts Center. Building B, which is where ILM has most of its offices, was a former Army hospital. It was named for Major Jonathan Letterman, an Army doctor during the Civil War who introduced a number of innovative techniques in treatment of wounded soldiers. So no, the complex is not named for David Letterman.
The four buildings have nearly 900,000 square feet of space, and Lucasfilm and its related companies use the space well to promote a creative vision.
There are models and artwork and paintings from dozens of films ILM has worked on. There is barely a foot of wall space anywhere in the building, including right next to restrooms.
One of my favorite examples of this was a long hallway with model cars and trucks hanging on it.
“What are all those cars?” I asked Michelle.
“Oh, those are models of cars that were crushed in Men in Black,” she said.
Okay, I’m sure many of you work for some pretty cool companies with interesting artwork hanging on your walls. Any of you working for a company that has 20 smashed cars hanging on its walls?
Everywhere you turn there are moments of recognition. Oh, there’s a model for Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean. Oh, there’s a schematic of how Kenny Baker would fit inside R2D2. Oh, and there’s R2D2 itself! There’s a model for a slimer from Ghostbusters. There’s a model for the melting mummy from The Mummy. There’s “one of the Yodas”—a Yoda model used in Star Wars. And that blue arm over there? It’s identified merely as “Alien Arm.” Always good to have a random Alien Arm sitting around, just in case.
It all gets a bit dizzying, to be honest.
Here are my three favorite items in this remarkable building.
First was a set of two characters frozen in carbonite. The first is Han Solo. This full-scale model has Harrison Ford’s head, but the hands and feet are from model makers at ILM.
Next to it is a laugh-out-loud life-sized model of Jar Jar Binks in carbonite. Jar Jar Binks is unquestionably one of the most disliked characters Lucas ever created. Two fans created the model in Kentucky and drove it out to California to give it to Lucas. Lucas found the item charming enough to keep and placed next to the Han Solo model, thereby proving he is a good sport about these things.
For me, however, the item that took my breath away was a very simple one—Elliot’s bicycle with the milk carton basket that holds E.T. from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982),, simply hanging in one of the open stairways. Everyone I have told about seeing this has had the exact same reaction: ‘Oh, wow. That makes me want to watch that movie again.’
The most stunning feature of the facility, however, may be its views. The Presidio is at the top of the San Francisco peninsula. From the dining hall, there are sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, including views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands in the distance, Alcatraz and the cities of the East Bay, as well as a breathtaking view of the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco itself.
Well, that was fun, I thought to myself as I waited for my bus ride back to the Embarcadero to catch my BART ride home. I should probably figure out some way of getting a job in that building. Small problem: I have no experience as a digital film artist, nor do I have any discernible talent in that area either. I asked, but it turns out they don’t need an extremely powerful and highly important blogger on their staff either. I did get lunch, however. So I have that going for me.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.