‘Star Wars' and Industrial Light & Magic: 40 Years of ‘Magic' Moments

"Star Wars" mania gripped Comic-Con Friday as 7,000 fans waited patiently in line (some for 24 hours) for the Lucasfilm panel featuring "The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, writer Lawrence Kasdan and original castmembers Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford.

A few hours earlier, in a far smaller venue upstairs at the San Diego Convention Center, around 500 just as dedicated fans waited in a far smaller line for the Industrial Light & Magic 40th Anniversary panel. ILM, set up by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, is the technical know-how unit behind almost all of the major blockbusters that have ruled the box office (and our imaginations) since the first glimpse of an Imperial Star Destroyer roared in from the top of the top of the screen in the opening moments of almost everyone's favorite space opera.

What Lucas founded was a company that would change the course of the movie business.

Though ILM will be forever associated primarily with Lucasfilm and "Star Wars" – the company was launched in May 1975 as Lucas began production on the first film of the franchise – it is the award-winning force behind many of the indelible movie moments that have shaped cinematic popular culture. ILM created effects for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "E.T. The Extraterrestrial," "The Goonies," "Coccoon," "Back to the Future," "The Abyss," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Jurassic Park," "Twister," "Men in Black," "Titanic," "The Perfect Storm," "Minority Report," the "Harry Potter" films, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, Abrams' "Star Trek" reboots, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," the "Transformers" movies, "The Avengers," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Jurassic World" and the upcoming "Spectre," "Star Trek Beyond," and of course, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

While the ILM panel at Comic-Con was sadly canceled at the last minute due to scheduling issues (a request for information from ILM regarding the no-show was not immediately returned), those gathered in the room – while disappointed – continued to sing the praises of the often-unsung heroes who create the onscreen magic that moves us.

"These are the guys that make it happen," said Jordan Gravis, who had traveled from Portland, Oregon for the convention. "What the director dreams up they create."

Ahead of the convention Dennis Muren, ILM's creative director, spoke with NBC about his time at the company and revealed what it's like to turn ideas into cinematic visions that capture the imaginations of audiences around the globe. 

Eight-time Academy Award winner Muren remains the only visual effects practitioner to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and as creative director he collaborates with all of ILM’s supervisors on each of the films that the company contributes to. "Force Awakens" director Abrams recently told Wired that "working with Dennis is like playing guitar with Paul McCartney."

Muren joined ILM in 1976 and went straight to work on "Star Wars."

Of the time, Muren recalls being in awe of Lucas' vision but skeptical it could be created in the time allowed. It was a period when stop-motion miniatures ruled and CGI was not yet even a dream. "I remember reading the script and thinking, 'My God, there's a space battle at the end of it, and how can you do some many shots?' And that was a year and half before the film was done. We just barely made it."

He admits his general impatience helped push the use of computer graphics in filmmaking. Muren is credited as one of the pioneers of CGI and his work on "Terminator 2" and "Jurassic Park" is viewed as watershed moments in the adoption of computer graphics in film. "I was one of the guys who was pushing for computer graphics to either succeed or fail, but not to have this carrot that was always sitting out there like a promise that was going to happen."

Muren recalls seeing early shots for "Jurassic Park" and realizing they were on to something new. "We had these dinosaurs that were out in the sunlight and they were moving fluidly. They had skin on them and they weren't stop-motion. ... Suddenly the compositing looked a lot better and the whole thing looked brand new. And that was really exciting."

Of working on major blockbusters now and the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants early years at ILM, Muren says the pressure is the same, but "there is less time to think about the projects. We're doing far, far more shots than ever before. Back then it was more difficult physically."

Muren lists "The Empire Strikes Back," for which he was awarded the best visual effects Academy Award, as not only the hardest film he has ever worked on, but also the one he remembers most fondly.

"I had a real revelation moment on 'Empire Strikes Back' when at the beginning of the film we were flying over Hoth, the ice planet, and the camera sort of looks in on this big flat ice plane. You see a little thing running along and you sort of move in and you see it's someone riding a Tauntaun on the ice field. And the shot is in the film," Muren recalls.

"When George approached me about doing it there was this background scene we had shot. At the time the Tauntaun creature was a little stop-motion figure about a foot tall and the actor was a little puppet and [Lucas wanted] to put that into the shot, even with all this camera movement. And I said, 'No, there is no way to do that. The movement is too complicated.' George said, 'Well, just think about it.' And he walked out.

"I started thinking about it and in about 15 minutes I figured out how to do it with the gear we had. Just arranging it in a different way that hadn't been done before. And it taught me to never stop thinking about something. Even if I had stopped five seconds earlier I probably wouldn't have figured it out and the shot probably wouldn't have been in the film. It ended up being a template for a lot of shots we did later on, especially in 'Return of the Jedi.'"

Today, on projects such as "The Force Awakens," Muren says the concern is how to make the effects look new and fresh while being mindful of a franchise's DNA.

"There's a lot of discussions that go on: How much of it do we want to do practical? How much of it do we want to do CG? ... How fast do the ships move when they are flying? Should they be faster because everyone's attention span is faster nowadays?" The outcome, he says, should not look old but still look like one in the series of the films. "Just newer."

After almost four decades at the company, Muren still gets a thrill out of getting the scene just right. Even if the method used to achieve it doesn't always take the expected route.

"I love it when you cheat on things," he says. "When you don't do things that are right, necessarily. You do the scene and the rendering is wrong or the scale in the foreground is wrong and you're running out of time. My solution might be, 'Hey, if you zoom in a little bit and frame that foreground out of the shot no one will ever know.' Within an hour you've got a final. I love that cheating and I think that's where George got the idea for the 'magic' in Industrial Light & Magic. Because it's not just industry, and it's not just putting light on and shooting, but there is an alchemy involved in it also."

Contact Us