The Untold Story of Industrial Light & Magic

A great piece in Wired this month on Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company founded by George Lucas in 1975.

Industrial Light & Magic was born in a sweltering warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in the summer of 1975. Its first employees were recent college graduates (and dropouts) with rich imaginations and nimble fingers. They were tasked with building Star Wars’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras. It didn’t go smoothly or even on schedule, but the masterful work of ILM’s fledgling artists, technicians, and engineers transported audiences into galaxies far, far away

As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes. What defines ILM, however, isn’t a signature look, feel, or tone—those change project by project. Rather, it’s the indefatigable spirit of innovation that each of the 43 subjects interviewed for this oral history mentioned time and again. It is the Force that sustains the place.

Interview with George Lucas has the origin for the name:

LUCAS: We were working on the articles of incorporation and we said, “What are we going to call this thing?” We were in an industrial park. They were building these giant Dykstraflex machines to photograph stuff, so that’s where the “Light” came from. In the end I said, “Forget the Industrial and the Light—this is going to have to be Magic. Otherwise we’re doomed, making a movie nobody wants.”

And there are gems about how computer graphics were introduced for Jurassic Park.

Read the whole piece here.

Science Has Just Made Jurassic Park Impossible

If you’ve ever wondered whether Jurassic Park can ever become a reality, rest assured: it can’t. According to a new study, the half-life of DNA is less than a thousand years old, so finding a perfectly preserved DNA sample that’s millions of years old is, by probabilistic measures, quite negligible.

Palaeogeneticists led by Morten Allentoft at the University of Copenhagen and Michael Bunce at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, examined 158 DNA-containing leg bones belonging to three species of extinct giant birds called moa. The bones, which were between 600 and 8,000 years old, had been recovered from three sites within 5 kilometres of each other, with nearly identical preservation conditions including a temperature of 13.1 ºC. The findings are published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

By comparing the specimens’ ages and degrees of DNA degradation, the researchers calculated that DNA has a half-life of 521 years. That means that after 521 years, half of the bonds between nucleotides in the backbone of a sample would have broken; after another 521 years half of the remaining bonds would have gone; and so on.

You can read more here.

The Cult of Jurassic Park

From the middle 1990s to the mid 2000s, my favourite movie was Jurassic Park. I’m not kidding. I must have watched it at least two dozen times in my life, more than any other movie.

In celebration of the release of Jurassic Park (trilogy) on Blu-ray, Bryan Curtis wrote a good piece about the cult associated with this movie.

On the origin of Jurassic Park (I’ve read Michael Crichton’s novel, and was thoroughly mesmerized by it):

When was Jurassic Park hatched? We could start in 1924, when the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote about an “alert, swift-moving carnivorous dinosaur” — Velociraptor mongoliensis. We could start in 1970, when Steven, a young movie director, and Michael, a young novelist, had a chance meeting on the lot at Universal Studios. But I’m thinking we should probably start in 1983.

Entomologist George O. Poinar and his wife, Roberta, had begun taking DNA from insects trapped in prehistoric amber. They’d published an article about it in Science. One afternoon, a stranger dropped by their office in Berkeley, Calif. “Tall, pleasant guy,” Poinar recalls now. “Really lanky.” The man quizzed the Poinars about their work. He asked about amber mines in the Dominican Republic. Then, with his notebook filled, the man left. He never mentioned anything about a dinosaur novel.

Michael Crichton, in fact, was already trying to bring dinosaurs back to life. But he’d gotten stuck. “It is always a problem for me to believe in the stories that I am writing,” Crichton later wrote to Poinar, “and a dinosaur story especially strains my own credence.” When Crichton discovered the Poinars and their bugs-in-amber, he stumbled onto the foundation of a billion-dollar enterprise. It was a beautiful premise for a thriller, in that it both contained cutting-edge science and was ridiculously easy to understand.

I agree with the below assessment entirely. I love the original film. I tolerate The Lost World. I’ve only seen Jurassic Park III in theaters, and I loathed it:

There’s some stuff you ought to know about serious Jurassic Park fans. On balance, they love the first movie; they’re OK with The Lost World; and they absolutely hate Jurassic Park III. (The proprietor of the Jurassic Cast podcast calls it “the abomination.”) Moreover, Jurassic fans have a moment that is their version of Greedo shooting first. “The big numero uno,” Terry says. It occurs in the third movie, when the Spinosaurus and the tyrannosaur get locked in a Hell in a Cell match.JPers hate this scene because it ends with the tyrannosaur getting killed.

I don’t really care for the feminist comparisons in the piece, but I did like the neat trivia. I loved this line: “As Alan Grant might say: I bet you’ll never look at blockbusters the same way again.”

In other news: it’s my birthday tomorrow, and this would make an awesome gift. Hint hint.