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BTTF Series #6: Industrial Light & Magic (ILM aka Star Wars Special Effects Studio) 6842 Valjean Ave Van Nuys CA 91406

Welcome aboard the Delorean! Marty McFly here to take you on a journey to a very hidden and unknown location. The Delorean has the required plutonium plus some random garbage in the Mr. Fusion reactor ready for this trip. The time circuits are set to 1975 (actual date unknown) and the flux capciator is.........fluxxing. The engine is running (not stalled this time) so we need to hurry. Hang on, as the ride can be a little bumpy as we travel back in time to 6842 Valjean Avenue Van Nuys CA 91406 near the Van Nuys Airport. This address was the location for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

For those that dont know (and if you dont know, you must be living on another planet), this site was founded by George Lucas as a special effects studio to create the one and only Star Wars film. The rest is as they say.....history. The picture at the top-left depicts the rugged and ordinary industrial complex where the ILM crew designed, created, and shot various special effects scenes for the Star Wars film. The picture appears to be the filming of Luke Skywalker and his team attempting to destroy Darth Vader and the Death Star (picture and info courtesy of Star Wars Locations).

Below are more pics from Van Nuys, if you are interested you can view an album of pics at the Star Wars Locations website and also here.

According to the SFV Business Journal (May 2007; cached link):
In an industrial building on Valjean Avenue in Van Nuys a motley band of cameramen, model makers, animators, artists, students, engineers and even a nuclear physicist came together to create not only the stunning visuals for a classic American film celebrating its 30th anniversary this month but they also launched the most famous of visual effects companies and in the process reinvigorated a stagnant segment of the entertainment industry.
Industrial Light & Magic is closely identified with the northern California backyard of its founder George Lucas yet its roots are in the San Fernando Valley. While Lucas directed the live action portions of "Star Wars" in Tunisia and London, a warehouse near the Van Nuys Airport became the birthplace of the Millennium Falcon, the X-wing fighter and that deadliest of Imperial weapons, the Death Star.
The first home of ILM can best be described as part film studio, part laboratory, part fraternity house and all oven especially during the summer months when the temperature determined the work schedule. First cameraman Richard Edlund recalled that in 1975 he walked into a building containing only a card table with a telephone.
Over the next two years, the space would house a model shop, machine shop, electronic shop, animation department, editing room, the shooting stage with the 40-foot long track for a camera, and a screening room that may or may not have had a piano used to provide the score for screening dailies.
Inhabiting this space was a crew of about 100, both men and women, in their late teens to late 20s, many with award-winning careers ahead of them but at that moment spending their days and nights charting unknown visual effects waters all on the dime of 20th Century Fox.
"It was a miracle in a sense that the collection of these folks produced a kind of alchemy that was responsible for changing how the effects in motion pictures were going to be made thereafter," said Jon Erland, one of the model makers.
ILM has been a revolutionary workhorse in the special effects department having worked on over 300 films during its 35 year history including all the Star Wars films, Forrest Gump, Indiana Jones films, Back To the Future films, Star Trek films, E.T., CaddyShack II, Pirates of the Caribbean films, Avatar, and on and on. Basically, if a film has special effects, the folks at ILM worked on it. They essentially have a monopoly on this industry and rightfully so for being the first to use motion control camera, computer generated 3D, and various firsts in computer generated stuff.  A documentary on the entire history of the ILM company was completed in 2010 entitled Industrial Light and Magic: Creating the Impossible which can be viewed on Youtube. Below is a trailer and you can also find the entire documentary searching on Youtube.

So what truly amazes me is that this ground breaking company had its roots in the San Fernando Valley. ILM has become such an influential force, that if it wasnt around today, who knows how many films requiring special effects today would be able to tell its story or even be entertaining. One of the main figures at ILM was John Dykstra.

According to Wikipedia:
When George Lucas was recruiting people for the special effects work on Star Wars, he approached Trumbull who pointed him towards Dykstra. Dykstra led the development at Industrial Light & Magic of the Dykstraflex motion-controlled camera, which was responsible for many of the film's groundbreaking effects. The system was made possible by the availability of off-the-shelf integrated-circuit RAMs at relatively low cost and secondhand VistaVision cameras.
However, there was tension between Dykstra and Lucas who later complained that too much of the special effects budget was spent on developing the camera systems and that the effects team did not deliver all the shots that he had wanted. These tensions would reportedly culminate with Dykstra's firing from ILM following Lucas' return from principal photography in Tunisia. Regardless, following the release of Star Wars, Dykstra secured his status in the industry with Academy Awards for best special effects and special technical achievement.
And from the SFV Business Journal article:
After "Star Wars," ILM abandoned Van Nuys for San Rafael up north. Dykstra, however, operated his Apogee, Inc. from the Valjean address for another 16 years.
I dont blame Dykstra and the others for not leaving the Valley to join ILM up North. Everything you possibly need is in the San Fernando Valley.

If you made this far into the article, there is a special treat that captures the essence of the work done at ILM in Van Nuys. As the SFV Business Journal described, this place was like a frat house with fresh college graduates and young professionals toying and experimenting with new approaches to film making and at the same time establishing a standard without realizing it. This environment was filled with a youthful and energetic crowd that probably didnt have to adhere to rules, time clocks, HR policies, 401ks, performance reviews, etc.

With that said, watch the video "5757" at the link below created by David Berry who was an employee at the ILM Van Nuys site. This video sums up the work atmosphere and shows how the ILM artists were able to create Star Wars let alone revolutionize film making. Some random notes from the film, you will see key employees of the ILM team, various Star Wars models, the Van Nuys golf course which is across the street, and the crew cooling down on a makeshift water slide on a hot summer day. Almost forgot one other thing, you will get the whole "70's Boogie Nights" vibe from this film. After all, Star Wars was created in the 70's. 

5757 from David Berry on Vimeo.

Another video that David Berry put together was the making of Battlestar Galactica in 1978 at the Valjean site, see below.
Scenes from Galactica from David Berry on Vimeo.

So its time to get back in the Delorean and go Back To The Future to check out the ILM site in its present form:

Not much has changed as you can see with the facade looking the same. I did not venture inside the warehouse but I imagine it has changed some from its original form. Today, its the home of Neiman & Company Architectural Design.

One last thing before I go, the Lucasfilm company which is the parent company of ILM was originally headquartered at 3900/3855 Lankershim directly across from Universal Studios in what is now the Metro Red Line parking lot. This building later became the Egg Factory Office building which I believed was owned by Jodie Foster before shutting down to make way for the Red Line. "The Star Wars office moved across the road from Universal to a small office on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood." (Info courtesy Star Wars Locations)

Big thanks to "admin" at Star Wars Locations for assisting with this blogpost. Also thanks to David Berry for creating the "home made" movies of the original ILM site, without them, we would have no idea how fun it is to play on a water slide in an industrial parking lot. 

Dont forget if you havent done so, check out the following links, all are excellent pieces to the ILM Van Nuys story:
 Hope you enjoyed it.
Check out the other Back To The Future Series by clicking on the Back To The Future Series tab above or links provided below:

5. BTTF Series #5: The Promenade Mall at Woodland Hills
Star Wars Wikia - ILM Article

Star Wars Blog - ILM Early Years Article

Star Wars Locations - Van Nuys Album

Star Wars Locations - All Los Angeles Sites Article

Star Pics

Wikipedia - ILM Article

Geek News MTV - ILM Article

Star Wars Official Site - ILM Article

SFV Business Journal - 'Star Wars,' Lucas Firm Born in Van Nuys Warehouse Article (May 2007, cached)

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Marty Mcfly

Anything and everything about the San Fernando Valley. This blog will take you back in time when the valley was covered with dirt and orange groves to a leader in the space race to its current status as America's suburb. Come along and join me on this adventure, I guarantee you have been influenced/impacted by the San Fernando Valley in one form or another even if you have never visited or heard of the SFV.

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