Gearing Up for the New Star Wars

A conversation with the head of Industrial Light & Magic

There's something karmically correct about San Francisco carrying the creative heartbeat for the new age of digital special effects. In 1967, the psychedelic scene had everyone from rock musicians to rabble-rousers proselytizing for higher forms of consciousness. Thirty years later, artists and techies stoke the ongoing yen for transformation with images that bend the human shape, bring never-before-seen hybrids to life, or reveal through mimicry and caricature quickening undercurrents of the observable world.

Marin's George Lucas ignited the special-effects explosion with his Star Wars movies and brought it to the Bay Area with him. His San Rafael-based Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), a digital trailblazer, has never stopped expanding the moviemaking universe, from inventing fabulous dreamscapes for the second Star Wars trilogy all the way down to digital fixes for non-special-effects movies (say, erasing a sound wire from Woody Allen's back in Manhattan Murder Mystery).

Jim Morris, the president of Lucas Digital (parent company to ILM and Skywalker Sound), vows that ILM will not lose any of its spunk. Thanksgiving brings ILM's latest plasmatic blow-out, Flubber (the Disney-John Hughes remake of The Absent Minded Professor). With ILM even lending a hand for Titanic, its artisans appear more dominant than ever in the multiples-of-three-ring circus that is '90s movie magic.

In jeans and sport jacket, Morris sat down in a conference room outside his office recently and insisted that his business as well as the industry at large hasn't lost its knockabout experimental spirit: "There's been a renaissance of grass-roots energy. If anything, we've got a rebirth of the garage aesthetic." Morris vows that the impact of digital effects will ultimately dwarf even that of color and sound -- and delicately suggests that there's no turning back. The following are highlights from an hourlong interview.

Sragow: There's a feeling after some of the summer movies, like Spawn, that digital effects have already become decadent.

Morris: [laughing] I think what we're seeing in digital cinema right now is that it's moving out of its infancy into its adolescence. We've gotten past this original spurt of "Wow, look what you can do!" that characterized films ranging from The Abyss and Terminator 2 to Jurassic Park -- big ones that made people feel "Hey, you can do some interesting stuff here." It's like any other point in cinema history; when sound and color started happening filmmakers kind of overdid it for a certain novelty sideshow effect.

One of the trends that's exciting for our company is "Characters, characters, characters." In the not-too-distant past, maybe 10 years ago, to be able to get any character you could imagine credibly on the screen was impossible; puppets or animatronics, or suits or prosthetics, had limitations that you can go beyond now. I think Spielberg has accomplished that to some extent in something like Jurassic Park or The Lost World, although that's obviously a dinosaur, a photo-realistic type of character. I think he's becoming a little more effortless in using them as characters and for story points; that's a separate issue from how you choose to view a Spielberg film.

Sragow: But is the digital revolution comparable, in artistic terms, to the introduction of color or sound?

Morris: Truthfully, the digital tools available are a much bigger thing. The capabilities are so fantastic -- to help create characters that range from the photo-realistic to the whimsical. Even the strange obsession people seem to have with trying to get a digital human on the screen: Maybe you can put James Dean in a movie at some point and have that be a smart thing to do, rather than just a novel thing to do.

Sragow: Isn't there a danger that digital can destroy older traditions? Isn't there a beauty in puppet animation that's different from what you can get with computers?

Morris: Digital can combine with the older traditions, but as I sit here thinking honestly about it, new technologies do tend to supplant the old ones. People did stop making silent films, and they did stop making black-and-white films -- making black-and-white films now is practically a novelty in its own right. It's not as if cinema ever settled back down into its old ways. But what happened in those cases is that it [eventually] settled down into a mature version of the new arena, which I don't think we've gotten to yet [with special effects].

Sragow: Is it a mistake for digital effects people to use "making it real" as their primary goal?

Morris: I wouldn't say that "making it real" is the goal, except for certain types of materials; I would imagine it more as trying to transport audiences in a new way. The stuff may look great and better than it ever did, but the audience still goes along with it because they want to suspend their disbelief, and it will have its own oddness or crudeness at some future point in time. I'd like to think that artists in digital effects think of a new way to use them that will be transporting to audiences and tell stories better and make characters better. Right now, we're kind of figuring out what the alphabet even is, in a way. I don't think of this period we're in now as the final step.

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