Movie books

Industrial Light & Magic: The Art Of Special Effects by Thomas G. Smith (book review).

I won ‘Industrial Light & Magic: The Art Of Special Effects’ by Thomas G. Smith on the auction website earlier in the year and surprised no one recognised its significance because there were few bidding. There are other copies out there. Author Tom Smith was also IL&M’s general manager for 4 of its first 10 years so you are getting things from the inside. Looking up his career since, he turned producer with a line of credits in IMdB.

Just in case you didn’t know, when George Lucas started up a film called ‘Star Wars’, there wasn’t a studio special effects department around that could do what he needed so he formulated his own, starting with John Dykstra who revolutionised with a computer controlled camera enabling repeat motion for adding special effects to film. Back in the 1970s, this was revolutionary. Most of what we take for granted now really started from that point. Special effects were seen under a new light, although at the time, it was just seen as another film, time to take a holiday and then look for new work. That changed drastically.

There several pages that open up with large art pages, not only from ‘Star Wars’ but also the opening ‘Star Trek’ film and ‘E.T’.

Each chapter falls into a pattern of a history of a certain department of IL&M followed by extended bios of particular workers there. I’ve often commented that the early books of many subjects are the source material for books released much later. As such, this book falls into that category. You’ve also got the art here to back that up.

I think one of my favourites is on page 35 showing four different ways to interpret a scene of a spaceship approaching a planet. The straight on is how a non-artist might see it but the fourth is the artist’s way to give dimension to the scene. This is often where the artist has to interpret a failing in the non-artist description.

The policy of letting people go between films isn’t unusual in the industry and with the various bios given, it doesn’t take long to work out the core group and those who continually returned. The range of tasks IL&M did from vehicles to creatures is fascinating to see here. Although not covered here, the move to ensure there was a steady stream of work for other directors and companies slowly removed the lay-offs as IL&M wanted to keep their experts busy.

There’s been a lot of changes in special effects since IL&M started out but a lot of it was foundations for what is currently used in digital effects. Take Slow-Mo where there was an observation of life in motion wasn’t quite right in animating models and resolved.

Seeing the original role of matt painters here shows that the painters themselves aren’t precious about their work and, especially on glass, when finished with, happily scrap it off. Looking at what we have today digitally, it does look like a lost craft now. However, the technique is still valid today in understanding colour and how much detail you should add to make it effective.

The final chapter looks at a new thing using computer graphics. I wonder where that went? Although Disney puts a claim to being the first with ‘Tron’ (1982), IL&M’s first was in ‘Star Trek II: The Wraith Of Khan’ (1982) creating the Genesis planet. Seeing the amount of computer time, a Cray was included, and storage it was a massive undertaking. 40 years later, so much of what we take for granted was really expensive back then. Digital has come a long way, taking advantage of every innovation that has come along. Seeing the nascent developments here, if you weren’t born at the time, will show how much work was done for a few seconds of screentime.

Looking back now, I suspect many of you will think how far we’ve come in film special effects but its barely 40 years, Considering, short of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, how primitive other SF films were at the time, this really was the turning point. I still think it would have happened if there hadn’t been a ‘Star Wars’ film but things could have turned out quite differently had it not been the right film at the right time. As a history of film special effects that you might not own, you might want to add to your collection.

GF Willmetts

June 2023

(pub: Columbus Books, 1986. 279 page illustrated large hardback. Price: varies. ISBN: 0-86287-142-5)


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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