Movie books

Industrial Light & Magic: Into The Digital Realm by Mark Cotta Vaz and Patricia Rose Duignan (book review).

I hadn’t previously come across ‘Industrial Light & Magic: Into the Digital Realm’ by Mark Cotta Vaz and Patricia Rose Duignan, but I considered it a follow-up to ‘Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects’ as we follow the effects house development. The opening, which demonstrates the decommissioning of their Anderson optical printer in 1993 and its subsequent display in working order, holds significant importance. They were taking advantage of the developing technology.

However, the book does focus on ILM’s model films. The inclusion of ‘The Hunt for Red October’ and ‘Star Trek’ films, which utilize pre-existing models to resolve special effects scenes, is quite intriguing. With the Enterprise, a previous company had cut all the wires to the lights and did not have an extra port to get inside the spacecraft. I know from my own model experience that this isn’t possible with small kits, but there are really big models that require common sense when it comes to repairs.

We also see ILM’s output in rides for parks such as Disney, where they apply their expertise in everything from Matt painters to model work.

This is a heavy book in more ways than one; it’s a weighty tome, and digesting all the text and photographs is easier a few chapters at a time. Special effects work on many levels. It’s a job that delivers an illusion that you believe is there; it’s often done at scale, so you don’t see the joins. Any book on special effects exposes you to the intricate details and the immense effort required to achieve them. I believe this is what draws us genre fans to these books, and I’m even more amazed that I hadn’t come across this book before.

I did raise my eyebrow because, at the time, George Lucas wasn’t keen on computer technology and didn’t really allocate many resources or people towards it. Given that ILM was supposed to be at the forefront of technology and constantly strive to surpass its previous work, this seems somewhat contradictory. However, the initial use of digital effects in a film dates back to ILM’s Genesis Project scene in the second ‘Star Trek’ film. It’s not surprising that we didn’t enter the digital era until a third of the way through this book, even though its primary purpose was to eliminate wires and other elements from the physical effects.

Up until 1987, ILM would deliver anything up to 300 special effects to a movie. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ raised it to 1500, much of which improved the animation. It was with ‘Hook’ and ‘Willow’ that they transitioned to purely digital.

Everyone tends to remember that it was ‘The Abyss’ and ‘Terminator II’ that put digital on the film map, but, as this book points out, ‘Death Becomes Her’ contributed significantly in a non-SF medium. Obviously, ‘Jurassic Park’ has a large entry, although only 6½ minutes were CGI. ILM worked on 96 films and projects from 1976 to 1996, earning many awards at the back of the book.

I believe it is crucial to read these books to gain a comprehensive understanding of the development of special effects. This is because, as a professional in the industry, you may have the opportunity to influence future developments. History is important for identifying weaknesses, strengths, and understanding in any subject, including special effects.

Without a doubt, this is a substantial book, easily readable in bed and packed with numerous behind-the-scenes photos. It also charts ILM’s transition to digital, allowing us to observe the process. Denis Murren argues that they switched from camera-savvy to computer-savvy employees. It’s hardly surprising. 28 years later, the move from film to digital has happened. While the transition from film to digital eliminates the issue of celluloid deterioration, as observed in the original ‘Star Wars’ film, I suggest that alterations in computer software could complicate the reading of old files if the formats shift. Hopefully, we also preserve old software and computers for viewing and transfer purposes.

GF Willmetts

May 2024

(pub: Virgin, 1996. 330 page illustrated indexed very large hardback. Price: varies but they are still out there. ISBN: 1-85227-606-1)


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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