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Published: April 1, 1997

 
 

How to Manage Creative People: The Case of Industrial Light and Magic

The person in charge of I.L.M. is Jim Morris, a former producer, with The Abyss and other effects-driven films to his credit. He joined I.L.M. in 1987, was named general manager in 1991 and president of Lucas Digital in 1993. Mr. Morris said Industrial Light and Magic has been challenged to create a working set of business processes in an industry where many practices are defined by the client.

"The effects business has been a bit of a red-haired stepchild to the movie business, and most studio people, even most directors, never took it upon themselves to understand it,'' Mr. Morris said in an interview at his office in San Rafael. Studio people distrusted effects houses, and some of that distrust was probably warranted, he said.

"There was never the fiscal and production rigor applied to it that we see in other businesses,'' Mr. Morris said. In contrast, "this company assigns producers to each project that comes in the door. At the same time, we implemented profit-and-loss responsibility at a department level.''

Feature film projects typically begin with a script submitted by a producer. I.L.M.'s innovative practices begin here as well. Although there is no financial commitment at this point, the company often does substantial development work on a script prospectively, particularly with repeat clients. This process allows I.L.M. to deliver a firm proposal, with suggestions for which scenes can best benefit from special effects, and often a demonstration of what those effects will look like.

"The interesting thing is it's usually without a director attached,'' said Frank Marshall, a partner in the Kennedy/Marshall Company and co-producer of Jurassic Park, the megahit directed by Steven Spielberg. "They can come up with their own concepts, and because they have the experience, I know the effects will work.''

Jurassic Park itself is a good example. Mr. Marshall and Mr. Spielberg had envisioned using puppets and animatronics -- robotic animals -- for the dinosaurs, but Dennis Muren, I.L.M.'s senior visual effects supervisor, took it upon himself to create them using computer-generated images. This made possible velociraptors in far greater numbers than could be managed with puppets, and a tyrannosaurus rex with much more detail and movement than a robot could handle.

"Special effects changed forever when we saw the skeleton of a dinosaur running on a screen,'' Mr. Marshall said. "That was something we didn't even know about. They had spent their own money developing that capability. My sense is they're doing that all the time.''

Currently, Kennedy/Marshall is working with I.L.M. on a script for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the C.S. Lewis novel, which will require unprecedented visual effects, including a giant lion carrying child actors across a field of snow and herds of centaurs. "Basically they are up there developing for us for free,'' Mr. Marshall said.

But this kind of seeming pro bono work is really possible only because of I.L.M.'s confidence that it will win the job. "They are bidding on a different level,'' said Larry Franco, who produced Jumanji and Mars Attacks with special effects from I.L.M. "They are bidding to deliver, where the other shops are bidding to win the show,'' he said. "They also have been doing this such a long time that they can almost 'read' a director in the first meeting, and know whether he will stick to a schedule, and how the studio regards that director.''

For each film it commits to, Industrial Light and Magic assigns a dedicated project team. Each team has its own visual effects producer, budget director, effects supervisor, animation director and art director. As the film takes shape on story boards, the budget director breaks each scene down into elements and comes up with a cost for every element in each shot.

 
 
 
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