A Tour of ILM

by Manuel Alducin

In 2002, I had the honor and pleasure of going to ILM on a tour of the facilities. While much has been said and written about ILM, it still remains a place of wonder and mystery. I was able to see many of the their most guarded secrets.


The Campus and Art Department

One of the things you might notice if you ever went inside ILM is how convoluted it is. It's almost as if it was done on purpose as to confuse any potential intruders. Also with so many people and so many mementos inside you can start feeling that it's getting a bit cramped in there. At the moment ILM is still looking to move into the Presidio area where new and bigger facilities will be erected. Time will tell when, as Rob Coleman told me that he has heard many times before that they were going to move, so he is not packing up yet.

One of the ways to appreciate ILM's history is to walk around the campus filled with too many mementos to mention. Not far from the reception area we moved into an aisle which contains high quality prints of shots from many of ILM's movie projects. A door nearby had a sign which reads "MIB 2 crew only", as that project is in the last stages of completion (and out of bounds for our tour). With so many people at ILM, and like other big companies, you need to bring some comforts and facilities inside. On one corner there is an ATM machine, while near a juncture of aisles there is a kitchen. Besides the prints, much of the corridors inside ILM are adorned with posters from most ILM projects and even a few concept art pieces, maquettes and several other knick knacks.

Probably what most catches the attention are the actual miniatures and maquettes that are sprinkled through out. Near a set of offices there are several display cases. One of them is the actual puppet from the Rocketeer with one of its armatures. This would be among the last puppets of its kind at ILM since at that time ILM was moving into the digital realm. Terminator 2 came out that same year and it was the first box office extravaganza with a CG character. Another display contained one of the original bikes from E.T., used when the kids are flying. The special edition used real bicycles and body doubles for a couple of shots. But the highlight of this part was seeing the immense matte painting seen in the finale of Die Hard 2. The enormous painting by Yusei Uesugi, which was the first one to be digitally manipulated, covers a whole wall. The detail is simply amazing in particular in the central region. The "holes" where the live action plates would have been composited in were covered by still photographs so as to give the painting an impression of being complete. Suzy explained how matte paintings were done in glass long before, but those days are now over.

Rocketeer model and armature
The Rocketeer and its armature.
Showcase of ILM projects
A wall with high quality prints from some of the most memorable ILM shots.
Anubis maquette from The Mummy
An Anubis maquette from The Mummy.
Rhino maquette from Jumanji
Duane poses with a rhino sculpture from Jumanji.
E.T. miniatures
One of the bicycle models, plus heads, from the original E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Posters of some ILM projects
Rachel, Steve and Duane admire posters from the numerous ILM film projects.
Die Hard 2 matte painting from Yusei Yesugi
Steve examines the huge Yusei Uesugi matte painting from Die Hard 2, the first matte painting to ever be digitally manipulated.
Another The Mummy maquette
Another sculpture from The Mummy.

After a few twists and turns we got to one of the areas where the CG artists do their work. In this case it was an area where TDs (Technical Directors) are located but was somewhat empty as the lunch hour approached. While there were several offices and cubicles around, this part was also organized around some large rooms. The large rooms are organized like a sort of common area with several desks and partitions where the TDs work. Each TD station also contains a mixture of toys and art. A few would have some Star Wars toys, while other had pictures of their favorite music bands among a stack of CDs. After passing to another door we entered another area of cubicles but the high ceiling permitted the hanging of several models from the ceiling.

The TD section was even more of a maze than the first part of our trip. As we walked outside Suzy remarked that ILM consists of 13 buildings and 13 bungalows at the moment. The "bungalows" are small offices or prefabricated buildings, about the size of a trailer or RV, and constructed from wood and/or prefabricated material, to accommodate the large number of people at the campus. As we turned around a corner, we saw a building with a satellite dish on top and where the main stage is located. If I'm not mistaken also this area is the same one where George Lucas himself was locked out in one of the pre-release web documentaries. Suzy remarked how not only the buildings but even sections inside the buildings contained numerous electronic locks to protect ILM's secrets.

Concorde miniature
A Concorde hangs from the ceiling.
Jet fighter miniature
A jet fighter also hangs from the ceiling.

Our trip then took us to one of the most secretive and sensitive areas at ILM, the Art Department. Suzy explained how the Art Department operates almost as an independent unit from ILM. There have been times when clients bring projects to ILM to help design the look. The Art Dept. is also one of the key places to bring in new projects to ILM. Case in point was The Mummy. Originally Stephen Sommers and Universal Studios brought the project to several studios, including ILM, to not only get bids but to see the different design ideas and what could be accomplished with the VFX. Art Director Alex Laurant created a painting of Imhotep, proudly displayed in the small lobby of the Art Department, which eventually convinced Sommers that not only ILM would design the look but also do the VFX. One of the advantages of the Art Dept. is that the concept artists are in contact with the CG artists and technicians so they know what can be accomplished and in that way better express that in the art. The bidding process is very sensitive. At times the client will just fly in with the script to show to ILM and then fly back with it. In some extreme cases, like potential big budget pictures, the client will request that someone from ILM fly down to Los Angeles, for example, to read the script and give feedback there at the client's location. With so many million dollars to be invested, movie studios can't be careful enough. In no small measure the Art Department is a key element of the bidding process.

The entrance to the Art Dept. has a small lobby which has numerous examples of concept art. The aforementioned Mummy painting by Alex Laurant was there. There were numerous other paintings, many from recent films like MIB, A.I., Jurassic Park 3, Pearl Harbor and several others. Some of them I had seen at last years SIGGRAPH booth. Also there were displays of the Episode 1 patches which were given to the crew as the Art Dept. not only designs for the projects, but also the website, crew gear and company identity. We then stepped into this long room. In the middle of the Art Dept. is a series of locked cages which contain thousands of magazines (I even spotted a few Cinefexes) and books undoubtedly used for reference material. On each side the desks or easels of the artists are located. There are not enough words to describe the Art Dept., but it almost gives a feel of an art bazaar. The desks are covered with countless illustrations and all the walls are covered with art. Most of the major pieces I saw in the walls actually seemed like personal projects from the artists. I couldn't recognize any of what could be any future projects, except perhaps Planet of the Apes. Even if I did I would be unable to describe them because of the security provisions. Piled against one side was the disassembled SIGGRAPH booth, which the Art Dept designed. The Art Dept. is a truly inspiring place and it's a real shame we barely ever see the amazing concept art for many of the ILM projects (except for the Star Wars saga).

The Mummy concept art by Alex Laurant
The concept art painting from Alex Laurant for The Mummy, which convinced Stephen Sommers and the studio to give the project to ILM.
Concept art outside the Art Department
Duane, Suzy and Steve in front of the wall of concept art just outside the Art Department.