How Industrial Light and Magic Used Practical Effects to Create the Impossible
Check out this behind-the-scenes look at the legendary studio's VFX work on Star Wars and Indiana Jones in the '80s.
Today is the 39th anniversary of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In order to fully realize how long ago that was, just take a look at this episode of the long-running BBC show Horizon, which highlights the groundbreaking work of a young company called Industrial Lights and Magic. Back then, the name couldn't ring any more true: they really were creating magic.
The innovative ways in which ILM created some of these now-iconic scenes are still amazing today. The ingenuity on display here pales in comparison to modern CGI.
Take the mine chase in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, for example, which was a blend of live action and miniature models. The models (and accompanying puppets) were shot frame by frame with a small handheld Nikon camera that was tricked out to include a magazine that could hold 50 feet of film. This process took a week; the result was a shot that lasts less than two seconds.
Another interesting reveal is the extent to which ILM made use of painting as scenery. They would take a painting, cut dark holes into it, and project the live footage into those holes to match the perspective of the painting. This provided the illusion that the players actually exist in the world. Examples of this method can be seen in the final Ewok celebration from Return of the Jedi, multiple docking bay scenes through the original Star Wars trilogy, and even the famous warehouse scene which concludes Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This technique led to some of the first uses of compositing. Later, ILM would layer foreground objects (like spaceships) in order to animate them in front of blue screens, which would then be replaced by matte background painting. It's sort of like modern-day Photoshop, but back then it required a printer the size of an entire room.
If you're interested in creating practical effects in your next film, start by studying ILM. These guys were truly masters of their craft.