ILM, SGI form alliance against sky-high sci-fi

Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’ special effects arm, has forged a unique alliance with that market’s leading computer-maker, Silicon Graphics Inc.

By joining with SGI, the leading manufacturer of 3-D and animation computer hardware, Lucas once again was able to show himself as a pioneer in the digital revolution.

The deal gives ILM access to SGI’s latest software and computers. Dubbed JEDI — for Joint Environment for Digital Imaging (and, not incidentally, an echo of Lucas’ “Star Wars” knights) — it teams the leading special effects creator with its biggest supplier. The pairing is designed to reap lower costs and greater productivity.

That, said Lucas the filmmaker, will also move him closer to doing the next installment of his highly successful “Star Wars” saga, which is still a few years away.

But the immediate goal, said Jim Morris, ILM VP and general manager, is to create tools that “push the envelope of technology. Software that was developed on ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,’ and ‘Death Becomes Her’ were literally years ahead of anything available. Right now, we can do things 40% cheaper” than “T2” two years ago.

In return, SGI chief executive officer Ed McCracken said, his company will get immediate response to new computer processors. Since the effects business makes up 10% of SGI’s $ 867 million revenues, there are obvious benefits. For one, the company may end up with new products.

The ability to wrap textures around a computer-generated character — such as the shimmering skin on the water pod in “The Abyss”– is being used to conjure up reflections in automobile ads. Whatever is learned from the experience, McCracken and Lucas said, will be shared with the industry.

Alliances like these inevitably make ILM’s rivals wary. The announcement, said several Lucas executives, was not in response to Jim Cameron’s recent deal with IBM to create Digital Domain, a special effects company.

“This is great,” said Carl Rosendahl, president of Pacific Data Images, a leading computer effects house, “but it would be unfortunate if SGI is doing this for only one company.”

SGI, however, is quick to insist that similar arrangements can be made with others. Much of the deal will revolve around tweaking ILM’s proprietary software and hardware for maximum benefits.

“I’m excited SGI is giving this attention to the entertainment industry,” said Scott Ross, president of Digital Domain. “I’ve been told by SGI that other effects facilities will be enjoying similar relationships.”

There’s clearly an incentive. Indeed, since formalizing the arrangement last summer, the SGI/ILM pairing has already yielded results.

JEDI’s first step is a software management system for ILM’s 70 high-powered SGI workstations, organizing and parceling out the enormous calculations needed to create complex computer images. In this respect, the system, has increased ILM’s efficiency more than threefold, according to Morris.

“JEDI will allow us to quadruple our throughput”– the amount of information that can be processed– Morris said.

Some of that horsepower was needed to generate the computer-animated dinosaurs in this summer’s anticipated blockbuster “Jurassic Park.”

As a result, ILM may correct a perception that it is the costliest of the special effects houses.

“We’re putting in low bids,” said Gordon Radley, president of Lucasfilms, the TV and feature film group. But, he noted, that was a function of the technology. “The next generation of computer graphics requires this. George wants to do things at an affordable price, too.”

In fact, the move, said Lucas, is another “cornerstone” toward building a digital production facility. It is also adding to the tools that will make possible the next installment of “Star Wars”– the tremendously successful science-fiction trilogy.

“Everything has been geared to do the next ‘Star Wars’ with a reasonable amount of money,” Lucas said.

SGI’s alliance, he noted, is just one of several that will be formed in the next few years.

Lucas indicated that in making his hourlong TV series, “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” he is using a tremendous array of digital techniques that will serve as a template for feature films.

On that show, Lucas said, he could make motion picture-quality films “for a tenth of the cost” of typical productions.

Lucas figures that since ILM was founded 18 years ago, the company has spent $ 16 million developing new technology. Pointing to the 12 Oscars his group has won, most recently for ‘Death Becomes Her,” he added, “we changed the face of special effects, working for six years on a completely digital production facility.”