For more than 40 years, the hardworking talents behind the curtain at Industrial Light & Magic have been conjuring worlds and rewriting the rules of cinematic storytelling. During Sunday’s Star Wars Celebration Chicago panel, host David W. Collins was joined by legendary modelmaker Lorne Peterson, model makers Bill George, Jean Bolte, and John Goodson, and visual effects supervisor John Knoll as they recounted their decades of experience helping to forge the Lucasfilm legacy. Here are some of the most exciting moments from their discussion.

1. Many of the folks who pioneered the modern visual effects industry got the job out of sheer luck. “I was the right person in the right place at the right time,” Peterson recalled. One day in 1975, he ran into a friend from school while he was working various jobs — he once worked at an auto-body shop — and his old pal asked him to come help out with a project called Star Wars. In the early eighties, model maker Bill George got a job working on films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist, and he begged for the chance to be part of Return of the Jedi. ILM still has old photos of George dug up a few photos taken during his teenage years, when he and a small group of friends who go Dumpster diving at the ILM lot, hoping to recover bits of exploded spaceship models used on Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica. John Goodson began sending letters to ILM at the age of 14, to the point where they politely asked him to stop. He was hired by the studio about a week after his college graduation.

2. Training and information related to VFX was once incredibly scarce.Star Wars altered all of our lives,” said model and creature artist Jean Bolte. “It was so real.” Due to the sense of mystery surrounding how practical effects shots were achieved, would-be artists and filmmakers like Bolte sought out every bit of information they could find — in magazines like CinefexCinefantastique and Starlog — in the hopes of breaking into the industry. “I wanna work there,” Bolte thought, “because they can do anything.” Bill George agreed that his knowledge and skill was not something he learned in a class or in a book, but rather through hands-on experience. “I am who I am today because of the people I worked with,” he said. When you work alongside people like Lorne Peterson, he added, “you can’t help but get better.”

Cheif Modelmaker Michael Lynch and Alex Jaeger on the Utapau 1/90th scale set.

3. ILM models contain some hilarious Easter eggs. The practical model of the Naboo capital, Theed, was a massive 40-by-60-foot affair with lots of artificial grass; as a joke, Goodson snuck a model lawn mower and gas can into the miniature set. Likewise, Bill George thought the Death Star hangar bay in Return of the Jedi resembled a basketball court — so, naturally, he installed a basketball hoop on the wall. “Unfortunately,” he said, “it never showed up on film.” Peterson said he put a micro-sized pin-up calendar in the interior of the Millennium Falcon.

4. Mustafar was a trial by fire for the ILM Model Shop. Slightly larger than half a tennis court, according to Peterson, the main miniature used for Mustafar could be tilted to direct the flow of “lava” along its many rivers of flame. The model was used for about 400 shots during photography on Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, requiring several large crews to manage things like the pumps that generated the lava effect. Theed and the Boonta Eve podracing track were comparable in size, Knoll noted, if not complexity. 

5. Visual effects is a great avenue for anyone to enter the film industry. “To the girls out there: visual effects is a level playing field, so take advantage of that,” Bolte said. “It’s not a boys’ club.”

Modelmaker John Goodson with miniature Tatooine Hanger Set.

6. Some CGI shots have surprisingly humble beginnings. Those thousands of spectators at the Boonta Eve podrace in The Phantom Menace? Those are all Q-tips; they’ve just had their white tips painted various colors to create the illusion of crowded stands brimming with life. Some shots have a bit of light digital editing to hide anything that might give the trick away, but there are wide shots of the track where the audience is looking at the original Q-tips themselves. ILM achieved the waterfall shots in The Phantom Menace using granular sugar and salt. (They switched to salt because ants took a liking to the sugar!)

7. According to Knoll, the feature-length documentary The Beginning is perhaps the most authentic window behind the scenes at ILM and Lucasfilm. George Lucas wanted a film crew present at almost every major Episode I meeting, Knoll said, so cameras were a frequent sight. ILM got so used to them being around, they eventually stopped noticing; the result is an incredibly authentic look at the magic of moviemaking. The Beginning “tells a very truthful story,” Knoll added.

8. The advent of computer graphics caused the Model Shop a lot of anxiety in the ’90s. Bolte recalled being one of the first of ILM’s model makers to make the leap to the realm of CGI, and as a result, she feels the best visual-effects artists are typically the ones who understand the strengths and limitations of both methodologies. The best CGI artists, Knoll agreed, are generally ones who started with some form of practical effects.

9. How does it feel blowing up models they’ve spent untold hours making for the sake of a single, quick shot? “That was the best part,” according to Goodson. Bolte agreed. “We love that.”

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Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Fangoria, Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.

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