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.

It's hard to believe, but Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope turned 40 this past May. 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.

The mine chase model from 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
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.

Notice the holes in this matte painting from 'Return of the Jedi'. Film would be projected through to match the painting's perspective.
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.     

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I recently watched the making of documentary for the film Aliens (available on YouTube). There are some really impressive practical effects in that movie as well.

Also be sure to check out Jamie Benning's "filmumentaries"

May 25, 2016 at 12:30PM

Nathan Taylor
Jack of all trades, master of none

"The ingenuity on display here pales in comparison to modern CGI."

What you just wrote, Jon, is that the ingenuity is not as good as modern CGI.

Is that really what you meant ?


May 26, 2016 at 3:13PM


It's tough to compare the ingenuity between the two feilds, so I think he was wrong to try and compare it in the first place. Modern CGI requires a different sort of ingenuity, which shouldn't be ignored, but the creative solutions they used in practical effects still leaves me in awe.

June 13, 2016 at 5:16AM