When I arrived at ILM it was in an industrial area of San Rafael in a concrete tilt-up building. At that time, we didn’t inhabit the whole building, perhaps two-thirds and part of that was two story. There was a reception area with a few offices with windows up front at street level. Then there was the hallway downstairs that ran the length of the building. To the right was the screening room and editorial. To the left was the optical department. Then through a door and there were two long motion motion control stages, the D-flex and the Vista Cruiser on the right, on the other side of that hallway was the model shop, a wood shop, a set fabrication area and camera engineering. At the rear of the building was the matte camera and matte painting areas to the left and animation effects camera to the right. Upstairs at the front of the building was the art department, camera engineering, a creature shop and more of the model shop. This was all contained within about one-third of the two story space we had in the building. All the rest of the building was two story open to the roof for building, shooting and camera engineering.
We were fortunate that there was no building on the side of us, just our parking lot and a big dirt field. That was our back lot and we used it as that for shooting every day. This was called the “D” building and there were about 80 people working there in many capacities in a variety of films prior to Return of the Jedi. We built everything including cameras, shooting rigs, motion control tracks and camera rigs, internally lit blue screens, spaceships, creatures, miniature sets, camera engineering gear, and animated effects camera shots. We then composited all of the plates and elements in the optical department on custom built and modified printers to accommodate a perfect Vista Vision format. The glass front door to the building said “Optical Research Lab” and that original door is mounted on the wall at ILM in the Presidio as a tribute to those times.
A couple of years later, George built the “C” building out of a need to expand to the influx of a variety of projects and in anticipation of Return of the Jedi, which he was writing. It had offices up front and an amazing theatre with 120 seats and a foley pit up front and a sound mixing console. The upstairs and part of the downstairs housed the beginnings of the computer graphics group and what was to be spun off to create Pixar and what stayed became ILM’s CG department. There was no off the shelf software. All of it had to be proprietary and built. The lion’s share of that building was our new main stage. It was wide open and huge and had a beautiful three story high walk around grid to hang lights and gear and lots of power to run stage lights. This building also allowed us to close off our parking area between the building for a more private shooting space and back lot.
Over the years, as more projects came before and after Return of the Jedi, it was like urban sprawl as we took over the adjacent buildings around us until our square footage was close to 400,000 square feet in 10 buildings with nearly 2,000 employees. The projects became more and more in number and complexity and ILM always rose to it with obsessive problem solving.
It is said that those early days at Kerner Boulevard seeded the visual effects and animation industry to what it is today.