ILM: Pushing the FX envelope

We talk to Tim Alexander of Industrial Light & Magic

It's obviously not to save money, so why do you use Linux tools?

TA: Linux has traditionally been more scalable for the type of work that we do. We've always been Linux-based back to the SGI days, and we've kept with that.

How are you using dark fibre?

TA: Internally, we use dark fibre to communicate externally. We have dark fibre going up to the Skywalker Ranch and Big Rock, which is the other facility there. So it's used for communicating between the companies that aren't right next door to each other. We use a very similar pipeline to some of the work that they're doing up at the Ranch and so we're able to share files as if they are on our same server.

We also have a facility over in Singapore and we're able to access their disk as if it's local. It's really great. It's kind of slow and there's a lot of latency involved, but we're able to change over into their shop directories and see movies and that type of thing.

Looking back 30 years, what do you think ILM's contribution has been to movie making?

TA: Huge [laughter]. Obviously, I'm biased because I work here, but even when I was working down at Disney, we would take field trips to go see the work that ILM was doing. There have been so many moments in ILM's history where there's some sort of breakthrough. The big one for me was Jurassic Park. I wasn't working for ILM at that time.

We all went to see Jurassic Park and we were like, 'oh man, I don't know what we're doing, but they're doing something completely different'. And it still holds up today. You see those dinosaurs and you still buy them. It's that kind of thing that I think ILM has made huge contributions to. We aspire to try and recreate that Jurassic Park moment in movies that we're working on today, so that 30 years from now it still looks awe-inspiring.

That's an interesting point. I talked to the CTO at Disney and he was talking about the scene in National Treasure where Nicolas Cage jumps off the bridge. He said it was a combination of a model and digital effects. Do you do things like that too, or are you moving more towards all digital all the time?

TA: It's both. We still look at a shot and say 'it's way better to do the miniature'. There are a lot of situations that are better done that way – you get a more realistic effect. So we definitely keep our eye on those. As the technology's progressing, we find that we can do more and more of those types of effects on the computer.

Sometimes, it isn't just the technology factor. On Star Wars: Episode Three, we had to use miniatures because we didn't have enough time or people to build everything on the computer. It was better to spread out the work so that it would look good and hold up. So you have to look at what's going to look best, but you also look at what resources are available.

Give me a picture of what it's like to work at ILM. What's a typical day like for you?

TA: It's an exciting environment and every show runs a little bit differently, but typically I come in in the morning, get together with the artists and look at their shots – what ran the night before. This is where our processing power comes into play: we can run a large number of hi-res shots overnight and see the results in the morning.