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Assured by ‘Star Wars,’ ILM’s Future Is The Franchise That Launched the Legendary VFX Studio Now Lets Pic Plan Its Future

Industrial Light & Magic began as a motley band of tinkerers trying to create impossible shots a scrappy low-budget picture called “Star Wars.”

“It was just, ‘Thank God we’re going to get this done, and we’ll see what happens,’” remembers Dennis Muren, then an f/x technician, now ILM’s executive creative director.

Some 40 years later, “Star Wars” is one of the most valuable franchises in entertainment and ILM is a beloved institution with locations in four cities on three continents, a prized asset of the Walt Disney Co. and one of the few visual-effects studios most movie fans have heard of.

“Always in motion is the future,” Master Yoda once said, but it appears that “Star Wars” has secured ILM’s future, at least for a while. The two have grown up together and are moving forward hand in hand.

ILM’s future hasn’t always been so assured. It has endured financial stress and stretches when its work no longer seemed exciting. There have been worries in the visual-effects business that Disney, which acquired ILM along with the rest of Lucasfilm in 2012, would lose interest in owning a vfx studio and shut it down, as it did with Dream Quest Images in the 1990s.

Yet two major factors suggest ILM is on solid ground. First, there is “Star Wars” itself. “ILM will absolutely work on all the ‘Star Wars’ movies,” declares Lucasfilm general manager Lynwen Brennan. That gives ILM a rare luxury for a vfx studio: about a decade of guaranteed work and the ability to plan ahead.

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Second, Disney doesn’t view ILM as just a visual-effects studio, but as a technology asset. Pixar’s Ed Catmull has assembled a technology group within Disney spanning ILM, Pixar, Imagineering, Walt Disney Animation, the Disney Research Lab in Zurich and other divisions. They share information freely and collaborate on problem-solving. That has made ILM not just a visual effects studio for films, but an important innovator for Disney theme parks, television and more.

That lets ILM plan a more entrepreneurial future than most visual effects studios. Lucasfilm topper Kathleen Kennedy says the company’s internal discussions include the theater of the future, virtual reality and other initiatives soon to be announced.

“There’s absolutely nothing about ILM that is anything other than on fire right now,” Kennedy says. “Every time I turn around they’re pushing those boundaries in ways that are really exceptional.”

The company is eyeing television as high-quality vfx come to the small screen, and exploring VR and immersive experiences through its xLab.

ILM’s history means more to the company than a boatload of awards and a bottomless well of great. Top artists flock to ILM to work on ILM’s franchises. Among the “Star Wars” fans who became key players at ILM are chief creative officer John Knoll and head of new media Rob Bredow.

“We always are trying to hook people up with projects that they’re very excited about,” Knoll says. “Life’s too short to be spending all your waking hours doing something you’re not excited about. And when people are that excited, you can see it in the work.”

That applies to budding franchises as well as the established ones. Director Duncan Jones found that his “Warcraft” team loved the same videogames and had the same geeky pop-culture sensibility. “It really did feel like getting together with a bunch of buddies.”

Helmer Colin Trevorrow of “Jurassic World,” felt the passion as well among his 150-strong ILM crew. But he was impressed by more than his team’s dedication to dinosaurs. “I think that in this world of very corporatized, global entertainment, it’s easy to forget the need to innovate,” Trevorrow says. “No one at ILM forgets that at any point. They’re there to push the boundaries as far as possible.”

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