Star Wars Alum Series: Stewart Lew

Remembering ILM's "hybrid moment"

Last modification: 22 Feb, 2018
Duration
75 mins

Joining Industrial Light & Magic post the industry-redefining Jurassic Park, Stewart Lew bore witness to a special, unrepeatable "hybrid moment" in the company's evolution: Its CG department of 45 exploded to 1000, legends worked alongside juniors, and copious miniatures and models still commonly supported digital effects.


When did you first see Star Wars?

I grew up in Los Angeles, so I went to see it at the Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. That was, of course, the summer of ’77. I remember there were long lines, a lot of marketing material everywhere.

Is it safe to say you came out a big fan?

It’s very safe to say. It impacted everyone. It stayed in theatres for six months or so, so it was not unusual for people to go to the theatre multiple times to see it or to hear kids say they’d gone 10, 12, or 14 times.

Why do you think it impacted people so strongly?

America is a young country. Other cultures, ancient cultures, have a tradition of their own mythology, and I think this is America’s answer to a mythology.


“It was a western with sword fighting, influenced by Akira Kurosawa. There were dogfights like you saw in the World War II combat films. In many ways, Star Wars took a lot of old ideas and repackaged them.”


Did Star Wars inspire you to get into your line of work?

For sure. It was a visual feast. I’ve been a fan of fantasy and sci-fi forever, and comic books, too. I definitely remember reading Star Wars comics. I’m a fan of all cinema and Star Wars combined a lot of genres. It was a western with sword fighting, influenced by Akira Kurosawa. There were dogfights like you saw in the World War II combat films. In many ways, Star Wars took a lot of old ideas and repackaged them. It was an interesting idea and an interesting execution of a movie.

Where were visual effects at when you entered the industry?

I got into the industry in 1993, just as Jurassic Park was finished. That was already 10 years after Return of the Jedi. There was a huge revolution happening in computer graphics. A lot of films came out in that era that pushed the boundaries. Even before Jurassic Park, there was Terminator 2 and Abyss, and those also had a tremendous impact. George Lucas was always paying close attention to what other filmmakers were doing with technology, and I think it was films like those that inspired him to go on to use computer graphics in his projects.


The whole department was about 45 people… it was a hybrid moment where it was still a miniature model shop and a lot of the legends...were still there, like Lorne Peterson, Steve Gawley and Dennis Muren.”

How did you first get your foot in the door?

I worked at Boss Film Studios in Marina Del Rey, formed by ILM co-founder, Richard Edlund. He’s a legend in the business and was the visual effects designer and supervisor that worked on the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. He has a deep history with both Lucas and Spielberg and it was an amazing experience to work with him. He invented a number of cameras and a lot of Optical Printer technology came from him. While at Boss, I had a friend tell me that there were opportunities at ILM, so I submitted my demo reel and visited the campus for an interview. I was hired as a Technical Director in the Computer Graphics department.

How big was the CG department at that time?

The whole department was about 45 people, so it was pretty small. It was a tight-knit group. Believe it or not; ILM’s CG department was once the smallest department. Today ILM is entirely a digital unit, but when I got there, it was a hybrid moment where it was still a miniature model shop and a lot of the legends that worked on the original Star Wars were still there, like Lorne Peterson, Steve GawleyandDennis Muren. At the same time, there were huge changes stemming from the technological innovations that were happening. It was very interesting to have these older, more accomplished artists mixing with the younger artists. To have so much experience and a mindset focused on pushing new boundaries, made the company a very special place. I also got to work with Ken Ralston on Forest Gump and he’s another legend who worked on the original trilogy. He’s an amazing artist and an accomplished illustrator.


We were doing something exciting, coming up with new ideas literally every day. There was a mentality that anything was possible, we just had to figure it out.”


It sounds like you entered the industry at just the right time. Do you feel that’s the case?

I do. I feel blessed by the experience. We were doing something exciting, coming up with new ideas literally every day. There was a mentality that anything was possible, we just had to figure it out. I loved working with the model shop and blending CG with miniature work. It was great to have that collaboration between practical, physical effects and digital effects. There really wasn’t a guide on how to do digital effects yet, it was all experimentation, so we were essentially writing the book ourselves.

What was the big buzz at ILM at that time?

There was an awareness that George wanted to get back into Star Wars – it wasn’t a secret. He got the whole company together to tell them that he’d be making The Phantom Menace. He had very specific ideas about how he’d handle the visual effects. Everyone was excited. By the time the project came into play, the company grew to 1000 people, which was an unprecedented number. We were definitely entering a new era.


“I got to see a ton of R2D2 props and the original painting that was used in Raiders, in the final sequence of the film. That was a pretty rare privilege that I enjoyed very much.”


Share a highlight from that era.

I was the first digital artist to create assets for the Special Edition of Star Wars. I built the CG model of Luke’s Landspeeder. Very few people, ILM employees included, have been to the archives of Skywalker Ranch. Because I needed the reference to build it, and it was stored there, I was allowed to go and take pictures. They have a large elevator there that is big enough to fit it, by the way. My boss, Alex Seiden, begged me to come, too. Don Bies was an archivist at that point and showed us around. I got to see a ton of R2D2 props and the original painting that was used in Raiders, in the final sequence of the film. That was a pretty rare privilege that I enjoyed very much.

What can you share about the prequels that might surprise us?

There’s a popular belief that everything was digital in those films but that’s not the case. There were lots and lots of miniature models in all of the prequels. There were physical effects. There were a stage and sets. The model shop was busy and there was always work to be done. It was a combination of practical and digital effects, definitely.




What do you think of the response to the prequels?

People like the movies they like, and it’s not always about the effects. It’s a combination of a lot of factors and ultimately comes down to what’s at the heart of the film. The original Star Wars set a very high bar, and some loved The Empire Strikes Back even more. It’s hard for anything that comes after.


With the prequels, we all knew Anakin was going to meet a tragic end and become Darth Vader, but this is different. It’s new territory and a blank canvas. It’s a new start.


What are your expectations for The Force Awakens?

I have pretty high expectations. Knowing J.J., he’ll make it familiar but different. He knows what the audience loves and I think he’ll succeed in having it reach a new generation. Visually, from what I’ve seen so far, it looks very impressive. It will also be interesting to meet new characters. With the prequels, we all knew Anakin was going to meet a tragic end and become Darth Vader, but this is different. It’s new territory and a blank canvas. It’s a new start.

Will you be among the first to go see it?

I’ll be seeing it with some friends at Skywalker Ranch, so I’ll actually get to see it before it’s officially out. Sometimes though, an industry crowd isn’t exactly neutral because we’ve worked closely with the projects, so I‘ll probably also see it with a public audience to see their reaction.

Will you be able to enjoy it as a fan, do you think?

I think so. I’m a cinema geek, so I want to try and enjoy it as an audience member and try not to look too closely at the technical aspects. I don’t want to think too much about how it was made, I’d rather be entertained.



Stewart Lew worked on the Special Editions of “A New Hope” and “Return of the Jedi” as well as Star Wars’ Episode One – The Phantom Menace and Episode Two – Attack of the Clones. Currently, he is a Professor, School of Animation and Visual Effects at the Academy of Art University, the Chief Creative Officer at Maverick Entertainment, and has served as the Chairman, Member Board of Directors/Moderator for the Visual Effects Society for the past six years.

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