Industrial Light & Magic has created pure movie wizardry for four decades — and we look back at some of the
best animated moments from its vast archive of achievements.
The creation of the all-digital water pseudopod required ILM to extensively up its R&D efforts, advancing the world of 3D computer graphics while demonstrating to Hollywood the potential of CG effects. Every natural element seems to need its own movie to develop convincing digital versions, and that’s exactly what this film did for fire effects. The groundbreaking all-digital effects on the T-1000 (and the buckets of cash the movie made at the box office) made this film and its tech the envy of every filmmaker on the planet. Another digital milestone, this time for creating the first all-digital animated creatures for a feature. A creative groundbreaker for its imaginative use of effects to interact convincingly with historical events and people. Building on Roger Rabbit, ILM brought 2D animation in the style of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones to convincing and hilarious digital life. As Backdraft to storms. While Casper featured the first CG-animated lead character in a feature, Dragonheart made a much bigger impact. By tracking CG elements into crisp live-action footage, ILM’s work contributed greatly to the scope and emotional impact of the opening D-Day invasion sequence. This is one was all about the hair, as ILM matched an actor in a gorilla suit with digital fur on an animated gorilla to create a convincing character. Motion-capture makes a grand debut for the digital mummies, while the sandstorm work also set new boundaries. A huge VFX achievement that established new milestones of quality and quantity with more than 2,000 effects shots featuring all-digital characters, high-speed races through virtual environments and motion-captured armies of combatants. ILM brought its Episode I experience to a historical event, creating realistic and accurate hard-body simulations to capture the infamous event. ILM used previs for the first time and created the Motion and Structure Recovery System tracking solution to matchmove the effects that created half-human, half-robot characters. The first all-digital feature, ILM convincingly animated the movie’s huge battles as well as the all-digital version of Jedi Master Yoda, who previously was a puppet. Matchmove software enabled more free-flowing camera work and digital costuming took a huge leap, but the sequence that had everyone agape was the stunning image of pirates turning into skeletons when hit by moonlight — a seamless and impressive visual effects transition.
Bringing Marvel’s green goliath to life was a difficult challenge, getting the mass and scale correct and incorporating motion capture into the movie’s CG star. Kicking off with an effects-laden battle shot that’s the longest in any Star Wars movie, ILM delivered a compelling animated villain in General Grievous on top of an increasingly complex series of virtual environments. Steven Spielberg’s invasion tale featured some very long effects shots and impressive first uses of virtual cinematography, as well as seamlessly combining digital invaders with miniatures for some great destructive moments. Ladies and gentlemen: Davy Jones. Bill Nighy’s mo-capped character was the first to benefit from Imocap tech that allowed unfettered on-set interaction between actors. It also implemented the new Zeno pipeline and earned an Oscar. The unprecedented, head-exploding amount of detail ILM brought to the robots and their metamorphoses drove fans wild. Building Tony Stark’s suit of armor was a highly detail-oriented task for ILM that involved mo-cap and some special new tools to give it depth. The studio also created and animated the innovative HUD display Stark sees inside the armor. The subtle, multipronged evolution of VFX was evident in the work ILM did on this reboot, from creating tools that replicated director J.J. Abrams’ style of photography to using advanced simulation software in the destruction of Vulcan. ILM came aboard this movie to help Weta meet the deadline for the movie and did about 250 shots, mainly air battles and CG explosions that seamlessly matched the extensive work already completed.
ILM finally makes its first full animated feature and it looks like nothing else — which is saying something given how Pixar originated as part of ILM. Of course, it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. After several attempts, the Hulk finally turned out right in this massive superhero epic. ILM created this version of the character from mo-cap of actor Mark Ruffalo and key-frame animation. It also created the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, then the largest model the company had created, and a digital New York City for the Chitauri and Avengers to fight in. Guillermo del Toro’s mecha vs. Kaiju epic required every trick in the book to create convincing giant robots, creatures, water battles and city destructions — all deliciously rendered. Returning to Marvel’s ultimate superteam meant bringing to life Ultron, which ILM did thanks to extensive mocap and discussion with actor James Spader. It also topped itself in creating an entire foreign city to lift into the sky and then drop. If you thought the dinos in Jurassic Park were impressive, then hold on for the updated version complete with accurate and complete skeletal and muscular structures for each prehistoric predator. The circle is now complete: ILM recaptures the spirit of its first, most iconic success with flying colors. And it does it all with a modern flair that uses digital tools to create a timeless look. [
It’s really a standard workflow. We capture the motion, do a little processing, sync up the takes and send them to the VFX houses that use animation layers to enhance the acting. They also keyframe the lip sync and a lot of other stuff. For our post-vis, we use a slightly older method, where we use a multi-skeleton rig that blends the mocap and keyframe. The only thing we’re doing different is we’re being very mobile about the capture set-up, doing it on location when possible, and the actor in the suit is also the director. That makes a huge difference and it’s an unusual situation. Seth (MacFarlane) is very specific about what he wants and is using the tech to ensure the performance comes out how he envisioned. Some of the locations were extremely challenging, and rough on the gear. We had some bad weather in Boston and cramped conditions, shooting in tight spaces - tiny bars, the diner, Tom Brady’s bedroom. We had the dedicated BOXX that runs the mocap system in a protective case, but it can only shield so much from heat, dust, dampness, and bumps. And every day, it was on-and-off the truck. For those tight shooting spaces, we would have to take it out of the protective cart and set it up free-standing on the floor of a location. Well our VFX supervisor, Blair Clark, was adamant that we not do anything “too different” that would result in a change in the character, so we took incremental steps. We improved the look of the real-time hardware rendered Ted (which is what the crew sees on-set) and the post-vis Ted model, and we redesigned the way we use the suit so that application time was cut way down. Every second counts on a live action set, after all. In the middle of our Ted 2 production schedule, however, Xsens, the makers of our mocap suit, released a radically better version of their system which uses much smaller sensors with great improvements in their software. So we used that suit for a big musical number featuring Ted and a huge cast of dancers. For that one sequence, four different dancers wore the new Xsens suit, each of them playing Ted in different sections of the sequence. That was really challenging, fun, and a real test of Xsens’ new system. It worked really well. The BOXX unit that we purchased in 2011 on Ted has been in and out of my professional life for four years now. Because Seth MacFarlane’s team produced the new Cosmos, I ended up working on the same machine doing pre-vis for the series. And when Seth was doing a promotional commercial that was a tie-in between his film A Million Ways to Die in the West and Ted, we did a couple of mocap sessions for that. During production on that commercial, the system was being unloaded from a truck (I wasn’t there) and was dropped off the back and onto the sidewalk. The monitors shattered, but the BOXX made it through just fine with one little scar from the event. We’ve never had it serviced and it has been working in all sorts of terrible locations since 2011. I’m just amazed by its durability!