Gearing Up for the New Star Wars

A conversation with the head of Industrial Light & Magic

Sragow: So what letter of the alphabet are we at?
Morris: I'd like to think that we're about L, with M being going for maturity. All the stuff we do ultimately should be to serve the director's and writer's vision of what's on the screen. In any big effects picture today you can find moments that do that, other moments that the effects overpower the rest; I think we'll reach maturity when a director on the set is thinking about effects -- whether it's virtual sets or characters or props -- in the same way he'd think about, well, let's put a 35mm lens on now or let's bring the light down in the background here because it's sort of a sad moment now.

Sragow: What would you point to as an effects breakthrough that changed how people looked at movies?

Morris: I may not have the appropriate distance because I was involved in the creation of The Abyss, but there's about 90 seconds of that pseudo-pod character on-screen. You've got this water thing acting in a unique way and I had never seen anything like that in a show before. That was a testament to Jim Cameron's imagination as a director, to come up with an idea like that, and a testament to the computer graphics people here to figure a way to pull that off in a reasonably convincing way. I saw that film with just a regular audience; they were so quiet when that thing popped on the screen. The sense I just got all around me was that awe of "What is that?" I sat there and thought "Wow, there's something really neat here." I felt similar moments in other films after that, Terminator 2, Death Becomes Her, certainly Jurassic Park, Twister. When I go into dailies and I see something that makes me go, "Whoa, what is this?" -- typically when I've had that reaction the audience has it, too.

I kind of think it's okay for there to be cool moments that excite people, that are maybe an end in themselves to some extent.

Sragow: What do you get out of your collaborations with people who come out of traditional arts and crafts, like Phil Tippett?

Morris: The value of all the good practitioners of the old arts is that they do bring a sense of characters and of story and of composition and of good filmmaking skills. Whether Phil Tippett's making scary characters in a RoboCop or whether he's making scary aliens in Starship Troopers, it's got this gritty, gnarly edge to it. Directors that are characters and curmudgeons instill that in their films, and abuse all of us who are in blast radius of them, but nonetheless kind of get that in there.

Sragow: How much of an influence is Lucas himself on what you do?
Morris: He is the chairman of the board of Lucas Digital. He has ideas about directions he wants to see this company go; the day-to-day, month-to-month decisions that get made he's less involved in. But as a client, he has a huge shaping effect on us, as any strong client does.

For the the Special Edition Star Wars work he was an active client; now he's become a large client with the Star Wars prequel work, which has taken up between 25 and 35 percent of the facility base here.

So as a client he's been an innovator in the ways of using effects, unlike many other people; he's very unintimidated about doing big effects pictures, he doesn't give it a thought. If he decides he wants a marching army of aliens, he'll just say, "I want a marching army of aliens here. Figure it out."

Sragow: What are the next films that you feel will have a distinctive ILM signature on them?

Morris: A small-scale thing that I was quite impressed with was the work on Flubber. It being a remake [of The Absent Minded Professor] it didn't seem to have the potential for innovation, but some of our creatives here have taken the Flubber character and done some work on it, particularly a dance sequence that's in the film. I read it in the script and thought "Eh," and one of our animation directors, Tom Bertino, said, "This is great, this could be wonderful," and I thought, "Okay, I'll trust Tom." And he went way beyond anything I could have guessed.

Of course, the Big One on the horizon for us is the Star Wars prequel. It has such a range, it touches on all the big digital areas -- character animation development, creating digital sets and environments, digital props -- to serve what's really a solid story that has a different edge from the earlier Star Wars films. It's got a real neat look and design, mature, interesting, elegant.

Sragow: Is there one key misconception about special effects you'd like to clear up?

Morris: I certainly think that people who [think] effects people see effects as ends in themselves are wrong. What people really live for here is the opportunity to contribute to a really good film, to build those little pieces that serve the whole; the big moments that don't [serve the whole] are not what the people here seek. When things get a little overblown, we're not the ones pushing that, it's the filmmakers; we'll be the ones who are the happiest when it settles into a more mature use of all those tools. People who end up here by and large are people who studied film in school or college and are film people, not just [into] making gizmos to make splashier effects and stuff. They want to help set that stone in the corner of the cathedral at Chartres, not try to blow up that cathedral.

-- Matt Smith

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