What is Industrial Light and Magic?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Industrial Light and Magic, more commonly known as ILM, is a motion picture visual effects studio based out of San Francisco, California. Created by George Lucas in the 1970s, the company has a long history of innovation and success. Today, the company is considered one of the best effects studios in the world, and has won 16 American Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, and 20 more technical Academy Awards.

Stephen Spielberg and other famed filmmakers are known for using Industrial Light and Magic studio's effects.
Stephen Spielberg and other famed filmmakers are known for using Industrial Light and Magic studio's effects.

In the early 1970s, filmmaker George Lucas was thrilled to have his movie Star Wars chosen for production by 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately, the production company had just closed down their in-house effects production, leaving Lucas to search out another effects studio. Lucas contacted John Dykstra, who had assisted with effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey. The effects Lucas wanted for Star Wars were completely unsuited for traditional techniques and Industrial Light and Magic was formed to rebuild the effects industry almost entirely.

The first milestone that Industrial Light and Magic set was through its use of a motion control camera. This innovative camera, called the Dysktraflex after John Dykstra, allowed precise and repeatable camera movements around stationary models. On film, this gives the appearance that the model, rather than the camera, is in motion. The Dykstraflex allowed for the fantastic spaceship photography and battles in Star Wars, and would bring the studio its first Academy Award.

In 1979, ILM began pioneering work on computer generated images (CGI) under the direction of computer genius Ed Catmull. CGI allows the digital creation of characters, locations and effects entirely on computers, vastly cutting down on actual filming needs. Computer generated images also allow creation of the physically impossible. In 1982, the first completely computer generated sequence appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, created by ILM.

George Lucas has long collaborated with fellow filmmaker Stephen Spielberg, who began using ILM for his own films. In 1993, the visual effects world was stunned by the ILM created CGI dinosaurs in Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park. Enormous breakthroughs were made by ILM in this film, allowing the creation of animals that had photorealistic muscle, skin, expression and movement. This film gave Industrial Light and Magic its 13th Academy Award.

The ripple-effect of Industrial Light and Magic’s tremendous innovations has created much of the technical world of modern film. In the early 1980s, Lucas chose to sell a section of the company that dealt mainly with computer rendering programs. Within a few years, a department member named John Lasseter, would change the world of animation with the tremendous success of Toy Story the feature length, computer generated film from Lasseter’s company, Pixar. Lucas has also mentored Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings about the future of Jackson’s acclaimed effects studio, Weta Digital. With over thirty years of experience and dozens of awards to their name, Industrial Light and Magic looks to continue the constant flow of innovation and invention that first made them the greatest effects studio in the world.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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They were also the ones who provided all that ridiculous background stuff when they re-did the original Star Wars films.

My sister and I love those films as they used to be. Now whenever there's a great moment, a big alien dinosaur seems to be running around in the background. Sometimes films should be less about the special effects and more about the storyline and the characters.


@croydon - I think that might just be because Weta has a better promotional team or something. IDL is involved in a lot of films, including some of the biggest to hit the screens recently. They provided a lot of stuff for Avatar for example, and the Harry Potter movies and the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

They were even the ones who did all the subtle effects they used on Forrest Gump.

And they made that film Rango, which is entirely computer animated, just like the Pixar films.


I didn't know there was a link between Weta Digital and Industrial Light and Magic. And they are also responsible for Pixar. That's an enormous legacy for a single company. I wonder if there is a single major film made today that doesn't use some kind of effect created by ILM. And I haven't heard anything about them recently, although of course I hear about Pixar and Weta all the time.

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