And they’ve done it all through creativity, innovation, and willingness to attempt things no one thought were possible. All of it was done in spirit of creative collaboration and a desire to tell the best stories they possibly could. As special effects pioneer and one of the founders of ILM, John Dykstra, once said, “We would paint ourselves into a corner and have to invent our way out of it.”
John Dykstra and the ILM team. © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd.
And so they did! Every single one of ILM’s movies has done something no one thought was possible, often using techniques or technology that had previously been thought of as impossible, not worthwhile, or simply insane. But the cumulative effect (no pun intended) has inspired a love of storytelling, and a deep interest in science and technology in people all over the world. The release of the seventh installment in the Star Wars saga this week seems like as good a time as any to look back at just a few of the game-changing effects pioneered by ILM.
“STAY ON TARGET!”
The biggest, seemingly insurmountable challenge that Lucas faced was his desire for scenes that included special effects to be both realistic and dynamic. In 1977, special effects were mostly achieved using stationary cameras that could film a scene multiple times (actors, models, etc) from the same angle. Even then, the effect wasn’t very convincing. Because camera movement could not be precisely controlled, the special effects were relegated to shots created from a single vantage point.
For Episode IV: A New Hope George Lucas wanted a way to follow spaceships into battle. He felt that to be engaging, the film needed to create a sense of the speed and movement involved in shooting lasers out of a ship hurtling through the stars. It was seen as widely impossible, but Lucas was emphatic: ILM had to find a way to make it work.
At that time in 1977, computers were anything but common, so when ILM initially proposed using them to control camera movements, many shrugged it off. Undeterred, John Dykstra and a team of engineers created the Dykstraflex, the first computer controlled camera capable of duplicating camera paths and angles multiple times with incredible precision.
The Dykstraflex on the set of Episode IV: A New Hope © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd.
It was unlike any battle scene that had come before. Here were the X-Wing fighters in exactly the epic battle Lucas had envisioned. They flew through the trenches at incredible speeds and the camera flew with them it would have been impossible without the ability of the Dykstraflex to record the same scene over and over with miniatures and models, but also live actors, and with little to no errors.
Go-Motion™ technology was developed three years later to solve a similar problem facing the crew of The Empire Strikes Back. ILM needed a way to film the AT-AT walkers during the famous battle scene on the ice planet Hoth without having their motions seem clunky or unrealistic. Effects of this sort has always been done using stop motion animation, but that wouldn’t do for Lucas’ vision.