Lynwen Brennan’s introduction to the visual effects industry came, literally, by accident. Raised in the coastal town Tenby, Wales, as the daughter of two school teachers, the now executive vice president and general manager of Lucasfilm grew up loving music and movies, but could not have fathomed she’d find a path into the film industry half a world away in California.
Then tragedy — which would lead to opportunity — arrived. Brennan had just graduated from the University of London with a degree in geography and biology, when she fell off a bobsled-style rollercoaster. She was so badly injured that the doctors anticipated amputating her foot; hearing the dire prognosis, her mother took action. “My mother spent 12 hours straight massaging my leg, determined to get a pulse in my foot,” Brennan tells Lucasfilm.com. When the physicians arrived to wheel Brennan to the operating room, her mother begged them to perform another ultrasound and check again. “And they heard a very, very faint pulse,” Brennan says. Those same doctors were able to save the limb, but the story would have ended quite differently if not for her mother’s insistence and proactive problem solving. “I think that was a great example of not taking ‘no’ for an answer and just so much determination and strength of will,” Brennan says. The ordeal “definitely built resilience in me and taught me that sometimes bad situations can lead to something unexpectedly good. I also recognize how lucky I have been.”
Brennan comes from a long line of determined Welsh women, including her grandmother. “We’re not from money. My grandmother was a scullery maid in a big house and she was determined that her only child, my mum, would get to go to the grammar school, which up until then had really been focused on boys,” she says. “So, my mum ended up being the very first person in our family to go on to further education.”
Had the accident not-upended her life, Brennan was on-track to follow her mother’s path to a more typical vocation, perhaps in education or law. However, in the year it took for her to relearn how to walk, her brother was serendipitously launching his own special effects software start up.
Fear, love, excitement
Brennan grew up in awe of the movie industry. She can still recall going to see her first movie in theaters, the blockbuster hit Jaws, in her Brownie uniform. The film left her both terrified and entranced by the power of the screen. “It definitely was an awakening of how all-encompassing those stories can be, and how they can really make you feel something, whether that be fear or love or excitement,” Brennan says. “It began a lifelong fascination with film and storytelling but never occurred to me that it was something I could be a part of.”
While Brennan recovered from her accident, her brother was creating a company called Parallax and a digital paint software called Matador, and asked her to join him. Brennan intended for it to be a detour; instead, it was a launching pad, and she’s now spent nearly 25 years with ILM and Lucasfilm. “I fell in love with it almost immediately,” she says. “In a startup, you’re a part of a really small, scrappy team, and you’re doing something that seems impossible and you’re working on something that has never been done before.”
And one of the small firm’s first clients was George Lucas’ own Industrial Light & Magic, which was working on Jurassic Park, the groundbreaking film that would bring dinosaurs back from extinction and change the future of visual effects with computer-generated imagery. For Brennan, watching a brachiosaurus lumber onto screen reaffirmed her decision. “I remember just knowing from that moment, ‘Oh, I’m not going back to university. I am staying in this industry. I have no idea how, but I’m going to work at ILM one day.’”