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.

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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