October 18, 2011


To promote the upcoming Blu-Ray release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, hitting stores on October 18, Disney invited myself and a few other journalists up to the Bay Area to visit the Industrial Light and Magic campus and see how the film was made.

During my visit, I got to tour ILM, see concept art, some of which differs wildly from the finished product, and interview visual effects supervisor Ben Snow and visual effects director Aaron McBride. We’ll have write ups on the disc’s unique iPad-based interactive features as well as the interviews everyday this week, but today I just want to tell you about what it’s like to walk through the halls of ILM.  Hit the jump for the full story.

Holy shit. I generally try to avoid cursing in my articles because it is unprofessional, but sometimes there are just no other words. Holy. Shit.

I’m not usually one to geek out over sci-fi and fantasy materials. I don’t collect toys, or scale replicas and given the choice, I would much rather sit down with David Mamet or Todd Solondz than Joss Whedon or William Shatner, but even I found myself giddy as I explored the offices of Industrial Light and Magic.

ILM is like a high security military research lab by way of a theme park with just a dash of childhood wonder thrown in for good measure.

Outside the front door is a large fountain with a sculpture of Yoda. The front lobby contains original costumes for Darth Vader and Boba Fett on either side of a massive case full of Oscars, Emmys, and other awards. All the walls along the first floor are lined with massive, foreign language posters for monster movies and film noir classics. And as you venture deeper, you can scarcely walk ten feet without running into a major piece of cinema history. Even private rooms, like the projection booth, are filled with stunning matte paintings.

Walking through the halls of ILM is the visual equivalent of a Girl Talk record. You recognize every single thing as it passes, even if you can’t quite figure out where it came from. And as all the pieces come together, they create an entirely new emotion.

ilm-industrial-light-and-magic-screening-room-01Periodically, you will find yourself flashing back to forgotten memories from your childhood. Seeing the original animatronic Slimer from Ghostbusters, E.T. curled up in Elliot’s flying bicycle, Han Solo frozen in carbonite (right next to a fan made statue of Jar Jar Binks frozen in carbonite), scale models of the space cruisers from Starship Troopers and the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you remember exactly how and why you fell in love with cinema.

And while goofy, nerd-centric costumes and props abound, the building is also home to some significant pieces of cinematic technology. Behind a glass case in a central stairway is the Dykstraflex camera, which Lucas used for the complex special effects sequences in the original Star Wars films.

The device began life as a VistaVision 35mm camera, developed by Paramount in the 1950s as a response to the growing popularity of television. The camera’s unique system of exposing film horizontally rather than vertically allowed for a significantly larger frame and thus a finer grain structure. As film stock technology evolved, the camera was made obsolete and abandoned after less then a decade. However, because of the larger frame size, it was an ideal tool for complex composite shots that required multiple elements to be added on top of one another. With the smaller frame of a traditional 35mm camera, the multiple passes required to achieve these shots, such as the Speeder Bike chase in Return of the Jedi, would leave the image murky and distorted. So, members of what would later become ILM modified the camera by adding in digital controls, (see, Lucas was adding digital gizmos, even back in the 70s!) and repurposed the old technology into something completely new.

ilm-industrial-light-and-magic-campus-04This may not mean much to you unless you went to film school. But if you’re like me and you find yourself fascinated by the behind the scenes technicals of filmmaking, seeing a device like the Dykstraflex is like standing in front of the Wright Brother’s airplane, holding the Constitution in your hands, or seeing NASA images of the center of the universe. This is a machine that literally reinvented filmmaking.

And ILM is still reinventing filmmaking. We just weren’t allowed to watch them do it. Tucked all along these brightly-lit, high-ceilinged hallways are rooms full of hundreds of men and women, all working to invent the next Davey Jones, Bullet Time, or T1000.

Check back tomorrow to hear about what they invented for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and learn why you didn’t see most of it in theaters.


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