‘Star Wars’ Films ‘A Gift for a VFX Company’ as Industrial Light & Magic Opens London Studio

Kathleen Kennedy George Osborne
Douglas Fry/ILM

LONDON — There was no chance of gate-crashers at the launch party for Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) new London studio on Wednesday, with a pair of Stormtroopers patrolling the lobby of the building on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. Once cleared, attendees found a warm reception upstairs with C-3PO and R2-D2 on hand to greet them.

The event marked the official opening of the new studio, whose artisans are already working on titles including Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: Episode VII” and Marvel Studios’ “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Ant-Man.”

ILM’s British-born prexy Lynwen Brennan said it was good to be home, having started her VFX career around the corner in London’s Soho. She praised London’s film industry, stating that the “breathtaking” work of London’s VFX community “has propelled the whole industry, including ILM, to raise the bar.”

A galaxy far, far away was central to the celebration. Brennan explained the commitment for six “Star Wars” films to come over a 10-year period had provided a rare security and made her dream of expanding into London possible: “That’s a gift for a VFX company.” She added that the new studio would be its own operation. “It was important to me it was a London studio not a California studio with a London office. London DNA is at its core.”

“We are standing here within three weeks of finishing ‘Episode VII,’” said Lucasfilm prexy Kathleen Kennedy. “This continues a long tradition of filming ‘Star Wars’ in London, going back to 1976. It is remarkable this all came together in less than two years. ‘Star Wars’ is filmmaking that inspires technical excellence.”

The studio, and the continued presence of “Star Wars” in the U.K., might never have been. Kennedy and U.K. Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey recalled a meeting with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in February 2013 to discuss the possibility of “Episode VII” shooting in the country. Kennedy and her colleagues found themselves trapped in a van outside the gates of Downing Street when guards wouldn’t let them through. “It was an inauspicious start,” said Vaizey, joking about the famous British hospitality but saying since the UK had still landed the film, it had spawned a new government approach: “even now there are key inward investors stuck in vans outside Downing Street.”

Kennedy then presented “the key to ILM London” to Osborne and Vaizey.

Accepting his R2-shaped key Osborne reflected on the iconic franchise. “That movie was seminal to our childhoods,” he said. “A couple of months ago I visited the sets in Pinewood and when you see characters from your childhood reinvented for a new generation it’s really spine-tingling. It’s part of our cultural heritage.”

Vaizey was also in his element. “I’ve just come from a very hip music company in Shoreditch where I didn’t know what the hell was going on, so thank God I can come here and talk about ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel Comics.”

Osborne admitted his first meeting with Kennedy had driven the government’s changes in U.K. tax credits, focused on benefits for the VFX industry, announced last December. “It opened doors about new tax support we could give the VFX industry and helped me understand what was going on in British VFX.”

As the speeches ended and attendees enjoyed the drinks and canapes, many of ILM London’s new staff of dedicated VFX artists headed back upstairs to continue work bringing the heroes of Osborne and Vaizey’s childhoods to a new generation.