ILM Vancouver opens permanent studio

Special effects studio plans to hire 70 more artists to work on such films as Star Wars, Warcraft, Jurassic World and Tomorrowland

You won’t recognize Vancouver in any of the scenes, but the city will have a front-row seat in the creation of the upcoming Star Wars, Warcraft, Jurassic World and Tomorrowland movies.

On Monday afternoon, Industrial Light & Magic officially opened its 30,000 sq. ft. permanent studio at 21 Water Street in Gastown. What started in 2011 as an experiment with 60 staff now employs 133 people with plans to hire about 70 more special effects artists by summer.

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“We couldn’t be happier,” said Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilms, which will be working with ILM Vancouver on the seventh Star Wars movie. “It’s really exciting to see what you’ve created up here.”

“Traditionally, ILM has always looked for talent around the world and we’d bring them to San Francisco. Now we can go to where the talent is,” ILM’s president and general manager Lynwen Brennan told a group of journalists in the company’s screening room Monday afternoon.

And that talent is definitely in Vancouver.

“This community has built up a great amount of talent and because there’s a large pool here, it’s a treat for us,” she said.

John Knoll, the chief creative officer and senior visual effects supervisor, oversaw the Vancouver team that worked on The Lone Ranger and said “the talent is definitely right up there.”

The talent level was so high that many movie goers didn’t realize there were so many special effects until The Lone Ranger was nominated for an Academy award in that category. (During a tour, one of the artists showed how the final scene of a child throwing a silver bullet to the Lone Ranger was created. The director liked the actor’s facial expression as he caught the bullet in one take but preferred the actor’s hand motion in another take; the Vancouver team wove the two together seamlessly.)

“This from the beginning has been so incredibly exciting,” Vicki Dobbs Beck, the executive in charge of strategic planning said. The studio’s mood is a reflection of the city’s — “Vancouver is so friendly and warm and inspired by nature. It feels so good to see it come together.”

ILM, which is a division of Lucasfilms, was able to make the move into Pixar’s abandoned space — the companies are all owned by Walt Disney — in part because it knows it has a solid 10 years’ worth of work already booked. “It’s as close as a crucible as you can get so we can make long-term plans,” Knoll said. “It’s a real gift.”

Although there might be lulls, those slow periods will be brief, giving ILM more stability, and more ability to plan for the long-term, than other studios.

While ILM keeps an eye on such things as the exchange rate and tax credits, what really makes Vancouver attractive is the city’s and province’s investment in the industry, providing a critical mass of infrastructure and talented workers that are necessary to pull off such large projects.

“It’s a pretty robust eco-system of work here,” Dobbs Beck said.

Supervising producer Randal Shore hopes to be working with local schools to let them know what studios such as his need from graduates. “There’s room for improvement,” he said of the current areas of training. “It’s not only the schools’ responsibility; it’s up to us to work collaboratively with the schools to work on the skill sets we need now and in the future.”

All the executives who spoke at the press conference are long-time employees who hope that new staff will also want to become “lifers.”

“It’s a great place to work,” Knoll says. “I love the culture of the company.”

Instead of having one person work on one aspect of a project, ILM fosters a sense of community where everyone wants to help each other. Creative ideas are always welcome. “A good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from,” Knoll says.

Hobbs Beck says, “Historically, because of how the technology works, we have deeply specialized disciplines who pass the work down the pipeline.” Now there’s a class of work that can be done by generalists, people who can see the pixels and the end image.

ILM also is working on the idea of centres of excellence, wanting each site to develop higher levels of supervision “to give each location the ability to run the show.”

As to the new staff they’ll be hiring in the next few months, Knoll says “it’s a mix of everything.”

To apply for a job at ILM, go to jobs.lucasfilm.com.

A green office in a green city

During a tour of ILM’s Gastown studios, there were all the prerequisite stops — the sleekly modern cafeteria, lushly carpeted lounge with fireplace, fitness room and even a bar with velvet wallpaper and hammered tin ceilings. But what really thrills human resources manager Hanna Price are the two outdoor boxed gardens which will soon be producing fresh vegetables.

ILM is going green. The compost that goes into the garden will be generated in house. Its top-storey patio, with its sweeping views of rail lines and shipyards and North Shore mountains, will include a green wall for plants such as basil. There are 50 bike stalls in the basement and a goal of having 20 per cent of staff bike to work. And in a workplae of 130 people there are only three garbage cans, a reminder not only to recycle but a good incentive to have to get up from your work station every now and again.

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