ILM at center of visual effects storm

F/x house tackles four summer tentpoles

If a movie star were to topline four summer tentpoles for four different studios, all opening within a couple of months of each other, the industry would be both amazed and aghast.

But that’s pretty much the situation in which f/x house Industrial Light & Magic finds itself this season.

ILM is lead shop or a major contributor to four of the summer’s biggest tentpoles, all opening between Memorial Day and late July: Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” Universal’s “Evan Almighty,” DreamWorks’ “Transformers” and Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” The effort has to be one of the most prodigious technical accomplishments in the history of the biz.

On “Pirates 3,” ILM was tasked with 757 of the most difficult of the film’s 2,000-odd vfx shots, including more shots of Davy Jones than in “Pirates 2,” complex water simulations and a massive maelstrom sequence.

Modern-day Noah tale “Evan Almighty” is split between ILM and Culver City-based Rhythm & Hues. ILM has 182 shots, including the CG ark and water. R&H has nearly the same number of shots and is animating the animals.

“Transformers” finds ILM with 425 shots, but the eponymous shape-shifting robots are extremely complicated. Each is unique, and Optimus Prime alone has 10,000 parts to be manipulated. ILM had to develop a new technique, dubbed “dynamic animation,” to handle the robots.

Warner Bros.’ policy is to spread its f/x work around, so it gave much of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” to shops in London to harness U.K. financial incentives, but ILM has some 95 shots. Among them are the new Thestral creatures, as well as new and improved cloth simulations for the Dementors and matte paintings of London.

It would have been impossible for ILM to get its summer tentpole work done without the company’s new high-tech HQ, the Letterman Digital Arts Center. There, in the basement, 11 racks of 66 blade servers dubbed “the Death Star” — render the complex images.

That translates to 4,300 processors just rendering, with the number rising to 5,500 at night, when desktop workstations all over the building are shifted to the task.

Even so, there is only so much computing power to go around.

“We were booked to just over 100% of capacity,” says ILM topper Chrissie England of the push to get the quartet of summer films done.

ILM had to turn down some “Pirates 3” shots, and warned all clients that the f/x house didn’t have excess capacity for any large, late additions.

Even so, John Knoll had a crew of 300 artists on “Pirates 3” working six-day weeks starting at Christmas, with long hours each day, then went to seven-day weeks for the last six weeks before delivery.

He had as many as 430 artists working on “Pirates 2,” he says, but this time around, “we had to share available crews with ‘Transformers,’ ‘Evan Almighty’ and ‘Harry Potter.’  I think I got my fair share on ‘Pirates,’ ” he adds.

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