How Industrial Light and Magic Works

The Film Process
Everything in this image is computer generated by the ILM team!
Everything in this image is computer generated by the ILM team!
Photo courtesy of ILM

The first thing that happens in the creation of any new film is the studio's decision and announcement that it is starting the film. The studio chooses a director for the film, and he or she begins to look for companies to handle the various components of the film.

In almost any film today, computer-generated (CG) effects play an important role, even though you may not even detect them when you watch the film. For example, in 90 shots in "The Perfect Storm," everything is computer generated -- the water, the boats and even the actors -- and everything looks totally real. ILM bids on work for a variety of films, and pitches the company's ability to provide the effects to the director.

The director, in this case "The Perfect Storm’s" Wolfgang Petersen, met with the team, and agreed to farm out the visual effects to ILM.

A film typically follows a standard pattern of steps as it is developed. The steps go something like this:

  • The story and/or the script gets created.
  • From the script, the team creates a set of storyboards. A storyboard is a collection of still drawings, words and technical instructions that describe each shot. A shot is a piece of the movie from a single camera angle. For example, if two people are talking to each other in a scene, and the camera switches 10 times back and forth to show the two actors' heads while they are talking, that single scene contains 10 shots. A typical film might have 2,000 shots in it, and they get spliced together one after the other to create the whole film.
One of the storyboard images from The Perfect Storm.
  • Then the film team splits into several groups: One group works on designing and constructing any sets needed in the film. Another group scouts out and prepares for on-location shots. One group starts the research and development process on the elements for all of the different CG shots. Another group works on preparing for all the shots involving stunts. Another group works on any physical special effects, such as animatronics -- for example, the robotic shark in "Jaws" was an animated model. Another group works on wardrobe. The filming group prepares the cameras, lights, sound equipment, etc. for the different shots. In "The Perfect Storm," ILM had three roles on the team. First, ILM developed the 3-D animated storyboard for the film. Second, ILM created all of the 90 pure CG shots. Third, ILM integrated water and other effects into 250 shots that contained live actors or ships shot on a blue screen (see How Blue Screen Effects Work for details).
  • The process of filming all of the live-action shots is called production. Production involves actors and stunt people working on location, or on sets, to get all of the footage for the film.
  • Once the production phase finishes, the film enters post-production. In post-production, many different things happen: The parts of the film in which digital effects need to be added are digitized. Shots are built in which CG elements and live action elements combine together in a single shot. Shots are built which contain miniature models that may also incorporate live action or CG elements. All the CG shots are rendered. Stunt shots get touched up to remove wires, safety harnesses, etc. The shots get cleaned and color-corrected.
  • The entire film gets assembled from all of the shots.
  • The musical score and any sound effects get added.
  • The film gets mastered, duplicated and sent to theaters (see How Movie Distribution Works for details).
Part of a scene, shot in a wave pool with a blue screen. ILM later added the rest of the scene using computer-generated water, sky, helicopter and diver.
Photo courtesy of ILM