Mastering mammoth effects

Burbank native Leslie Iwerks took on the daunting task of compacting 35 years of history on George Lucas' visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, into her documentary on the company's evolution that will be seen this weekend on Encore.

In the hour-long piece, "Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible," several of the visionaries who created some of the most mind-blowing scenes in film are interviewed, including Lucas. Narrated by Tom Cruise, the documentary features clips from "The Abyss," "Jurassic Park," "Twister" and "Transformers," and behind-the-scenes footage illustrating how techniques were invented and perfected over the years. The company has done effects for nearly 300 film projects.

Lucas started the division in 1975 to create visual effects for "Star Wars" in a warehouse in Van Nuys, but moved to San Rafael to work on "The Empire Strikes Back." The company is now headquartered at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio of San Francisco and has a sister studio in Singapore.

The group of artists, computer scientists and engineers aims to create such realistic work that viewers don't believe it's a special effect, Iwerks said.

"They believe in creating detail in such perfection that it makes the audience believe that what they are seeing is real," she said.

All the top filmmakers look to it for their projects, Iwerks said.

"ILM is so special because it has this collective brain trust of artists and engineers who truly understand everything about the filmmaking process to where the top directors go to ILM to fulfill their impossible visions," she said.

The documentary includes interviews with some of those directors, including Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau, along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Walt Disney Co. and Pixar Animation Studios.

Actors Robin Williams and Samuel L. Jackson are also interviewed about their experiences talking to a puppet or an X where the star will be computer generated into the scene.

Iwerks was asked to direct the project by Starz Entertainment LLC, said Stephan Shelanski, executive vice president of programming for Starz. She had directed "The Pixar Story," which was nominated for an Emmy.

"Seeing what a great job she did on Pixar, we knew she would be the perfect person to helm the project on ILM," he said. "I think she captured how ILM was born out of an idea just to make a single movie, and that movie was 'Star Wars,' but grew into a company that helped change modern day cinema. And that's the big story behind the project."

Showing how the effects were achieved on screen was challenging, Shelanski added.

"She did an excellent job to reveal the effects and all the work that goes into creating the effects," he said. "In a film, the viewer only sees the end result, and she was able to show those effects from the beginning to the end."

And some special effects aren't as obvious like in "Iron Man," "Transformers" and "War of the Worlds."

"What most people don't realize is that an effects company like ILM touches almost all movies, and I think that was illuminated on the section that dealt with 'Forrest Gump,'" he said.

One scene depicts the film's main character playing ping pong at superhuman speed, and the filmmakers explain how that was accomplished.

Iwerks comes from a family of film and visual effects pioneers. Her grandfather, Ub Iwerks, was the original designer/co-creator of Mickey Mouse and the Academy Award-winning visual effects innovator for "The Birds" and "Mary Poppins."



What: "Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible"

When: 9 p.m. Friday, noon and 10 p.m. Saturday and 8 and 10:50 p.m. Sunday. Sunday also includes five ILM-effects films starting at 2 p.m. with "Jumanji," "Hook," "Jurassic Park III," "Twister" and "Starship Troopers"

Where: Encore

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