Industrial Light and 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.
It’s been a banner year for visual effects as an art form and for Industrial Light and Magic, the iconic company that pioneered modern visual effects 40 years ago when George Lucas founded it to work on a little movie called Star Wars.
And ILM is still pushing the envelope for visual effects. Not only has it come full circle to recapture the look and feel of its very first project in a new way for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it also delivered most of the effects for the global smash Jurassic World. It’s surely no coincidence that those movies are poised to be not just the most successful movies of the year, but also among the top-grossing films of all time.
To celebrate its 40 years of amazing work, Animation Magazine has picked out 40 great animation moments from ILM’s illustrious history.
It’s not an easy job — the studio has credits on literally hundreds of movies — but it’s also a fascinating look at how far visual effects have come as well as how important ILM has been in pushing forward visual effects as a storytelling tool.
And while we don’t have room to share extensive quotes or anecdotes, we owe a debt to ILM’s Paul Kavanagh, Glen McIntosh and Hal Hickel for being our virtual animation tour guides. So, happy birthday, ILM! Here’s our top 40 ILM animation moments, presented in chronological order.
(★ Indicates VFX Oscar nominee; ✪ Indicates VFX Oscar winner; ¤ Indicates Best Animated Feature Oscar winner.)
1. Star Wars (1977) ✪
Before it was subtitled A New Hope, the first Star Wars movie broke every mold in the book by inventing motion control technology that allowed its spaceships to swoop, swerve and make audiences swoon with excitement.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ✪
A mere three years later, ILM upped its game considerably as master Phil Tippett integrated stop-motion techniques into its arsenal to create the iconic Tauntauns and the AT-AT battle on Hoth.
3. Dragonslayer (1981) ★
Ken Ralston’s flying dragon was done the old fashioned way — with models and optical composting — but achieved a realism that shocked audiences at the time and pointed the way toward the more complex digital creatures of today.
4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
In addition to fantastic model work, ILM created the first animated sequence for a feature created completely within the computer with the demonstration of the Genesis effect.
5. Poltergeist (1982) ★
ILM takes its creature work into the horror realm, helping scare the pants off audiences and making this one of the most successful horror films ever.
6. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) ✪
Heartstrings were tugged in unprecedented ways thanks to ILM’s use of Go-Motion technology to seamlessly integrate effects into such iconic shots as the bike ride in front of the moon.
7. Return of the Jedi (1983) ✪
Lucasfilm’s computer division animated the wire-frame graphic of the Rebels’ attack plan for the Death Star, while advances in motion-controlled cameras took the space battles to a new level.
8. Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) ★
ILM’s “stained glass knight” is the first all-digital 3D animated character in a feature film.
9. Star Tours (1987)
This ride brought the Star Wars experience to Disneyland and proved visual effects had uses far beyond movies and television.
10. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) ✪
ILM animated all the 2D characters — requiring more than 82,000 hand-drawn frames of animation — but it also for the first time seamlessly integrated animated characters with live-action.
11. The Abyss (1989) ✪
The creation of the all-digital water pseudopod required ILM to extensively up its R&D efforts, advancing the world of the 3D computer graphics while demonstrating to Hollywood the potential of CG effects.
12. Backdraft (1991) ★
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.
13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) ✪
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.
14. Jurassic Park (1993) ✪
Another digital milestone, this time for creating the first all-digital animated creatures for a feature.
15. Forrest Gump (1994) ✪
A creative groundbreaker for its imaginative use of effects to interact convincingly with historical events and people.
16. The Mask (1994) ★
Building on Roger Rabbit, ILM brought 2D animation in the style of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones to convincing and hilarious digital life.
17. Twister (1996) ★
As Backdraft was to fire, so Twister is to storms.
18. Dragonheart (1996) ★
While Casper featured the first CG-animated lead character in a feature, Dragonheart made a much bigger impact.
19. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
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.
20. Mighty Joe Young (1998) ★
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.
21. The Mummy (1999)
Motion-capture makes a grand debut for the digital mummies, while the sandstorm work also set new boundaries.
22. Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999) ★
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.
23. Pearl Harbor (2001) ★
ILM brought its Episode I experience to a historical event, creating realistic and accurate hard-body simulations to capture the infamous event.
24. A.I. (2001) ★
ILM uses previs for the first time and creates the Motion and Structure Recovery System tracking system to matchmove the effects that created half-human, half-robot characters.
25. Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002) ★
The first all-digital feature, ILM convincingly animated the movie’s huge battles as well as a convincing all-digital version of Yoda, who previously was a puppet.
26. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) ★
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.
27. Hulk (2003)
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.
28. Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (2005)
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.
29. War of the Worlds (2005) ★
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.
30. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) ✪
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.
31. Transformers (2007) ★
The unprecedented, head-exploding amount of detail ILM brought to the robots and their metamorphoses drove fans wild.
32. Iron Man (2008) ★
Building Tony Stark’s suit of armor was a highly detail-oriented task for ILM that involved mocap and some special new tools to give it depth. The studio also created and animated the innovative HUD display Stark sees inside the armor.
33. Star Trek (2009) ★
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.
34. Avatar (2009) ✪
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.
35. Rango (2011) ¤
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.
36. Marvel’s Avengers (2012) ★
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 Marc 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.
37. Pacific Rim (2013)
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.
38. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Returning to Marvel’s ultimate superteam meant bringing to life Ultron, which ILM did thanks to extensive mo-cap and discussion with actor James Spader. It also topped itself in creating an entire foreign city to lift into the sky and then drop.
39. Jurassic World (2015)
If you thought the dinos in Jurassic World were impressive, then hold on for the updated version complete with accurate and complete skeletal and muscular structures for each prehistoric predator.
40. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
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.