Behind the scenes of movie magic
The first thing you know as you approach the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) studio is that this isn’t your average office building. A giant grey fountain is placed before an unassuming door, a statue of Yoda sitting peacefully near the spigot. A tiny door leads into the building itself, which immediately turns into a large front room. There you can see a whole wall shelved with gleaming awards that the company has received for their work in films. They’re guarded by two life-size statues of Star Wars figures, Darth Vader glancing beadily through his plastic eye sockets as if to give anybody who dares to think about touching the glittering awards the evil eye.
My dad and I came to ILM to tour the studio and meet one of the animators who worked on the movie Rango, which is ILM’s first fully-animated film. Our guide was named Brooke, and the first thing she does is take me into the screening room.
“Do you want to sit where George Lucas usually sits?” she asks me, referring to the creator of the Star Wars movies. I nod in a slow trace- surprised at the fact that Brooke even knew where George Lucas sat much less remembered. I couldn’t help but think she must have been a die-hard fan.
I think she saw the confusion in my face. She smiled and tells me the reason she remembers where he sits is because they have attached a small laser-like light to the ceiling of the theater, and its thin beam is right above the seat of the director himself. She offers me the seat and the lights start to dim.
After watching a highlight reel of the various films ILM has worked on, Brooke leads me up the elevator to another set of rooms. I should mention that along the way she stops and pauses at multiple movie posters and props, full of interesting facts and secrets. She leads me into a small workroom where a whole wall is devoted to a giant screen. There I see the familiar, unforgettable face of Rango peering at me with a blank expression. I also notice a man surrounded by laptops and projectors.
He introduces himself as Kevin Martel, part of the animation department. He explains to me a little bit about the animation process and then he does the unthinkable — he actually lets me animate Rango! Okay, maybe it’s more like me moving the mouse to his careful directions. It turns out that you have to make 24 frames of animation for a single second of footage.
That’s second, not minute. Just imagine how many frames it takes for just an hour-long movie. (That’s 86,400 for those of you who don’t feel like doing the math!)
In the end I excruciatingly chug my way through about 24 frames, pretending not to notice when Kevin helpfully edits some parts of Rango that look a little bit funky. In the end, I get him in one second to jump up and down while holding his arm in a Michael Jackson-esque pose. I am proud of myself.
Next, Kevin takes me down to where he actually works. It turns out that associate animation supervisors don’t get any bigger space then the other guys, and the room we were in is generally used for presentations. The cubicles down where the animation actually gets done look a lot more like a normal office. But the similarities end when I see the toys. Well, action figures. They litter the walls and are painstakingly categorized. A whole shelf full of Transformers on one side. Kevin has a nice array of muscle men.
My dad mentions to Kevin and the other animators in close range that I went to Pixar for Cars 2. This scares me a little when he says this because I’m afraid that the animators won’t be too happy about that. I thought Pixar and ILM are competitors. But the animators’ response is surprising. They nod their heads, and one says “Pixar? I bet it was like living in a treehouse.”
He doesn’t say it in an offensive way, and it’s kind of true. Pixar is a very clean, sterile, and pretty place with their own little restaurant and coffee shop. But somehow the charm of ILM is more endearing and real.
Check out my story about how ILM made Rango on the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps website!
Photo: Director/Producer Gore Verbinski (standing) behind the scenes on Rango, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. (Credit: Greg Grusby / Industrial Light & Magic © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)