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Star Wars Celebration Honors the ILM Model Shop 

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Visual Effects Masters Come Together Live Onstage

To many at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the ILM Model Shop was hallowed ground. This unique assemblage of creative minds turned out countless marvels for iconic films. The Model Shop’s legacy continues today at ILM, as former model makers have taken on diverse roles, sharing their experience and knowledge with the rest of the company.

At Star Wars Celebration 2019 in Chicago, a panel of Model Shop crew members – all but one still active at ILM – gathered to share stories and wisdom from across the years.

Lorne Peterson – the only retired member of the panel – was hired at ILM the year it was founded in 1975. Over the years, he possessed an ingenious ability to adapt everyday items into unique tools. The Academy Award winner’s career spanned over three decades.

“It was a building full of confidence,” remembered Peterson. “People had skills in so many different varieties of areas. If you had a problem with chemistry there was someone who had a degree in the subject, or anything like that.”

Bill George was hired by Lorne Peterson in 1981. “I am who I am today because of the people I’ve worked with,” commented George. “You observe and you see how they work. It builds on itself. I compare it to being a professional athlete. When you start building models every day with the best of the best you can’t help but get better.”

“We all knew about Star Wars,” explained Jean Bolte, who was recruited to ILM’s Model Shop in the late 1980s after working in London. “It completely altered all of our lives. When I saw The Empire Strikes Back, I’ll never forget the moment when I saw Yoda on the screen…That’s when I went, ‘I want to work there because they can do anything.’”

“The Model Shop to me always seemed like a machine,” John Goodson noted. He began his ILM tenure in 1988. “The coolest thing about the job was the problem solving.”

“There was always this sense that we were a family,” added Jean Bolte. “Nobody was ever going to let anyone get caught in the gears. If I had a problem there was someone else who was there.”

Far from unusual in the Model Shop was the prospect of blowing up their creations. When an audience member inquired if this was ever a cause for concern, Bill George responded, “That was the best part! We had to be professional about what we were building. At the time they weren’t these amazing icons, they were something for the camera guys to bounce light off of, and that was it. So when something blew up it was performing for the camera.”

John Goodson and John Knoll recalled that Queen Amidala’s Royal Starship from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was among the toughest building challenges. “The ship was 11 feet long,” Goodson explained, “But how do you chrome a surface that big?” A foam model was cast to fiberglass and combined with aluminum engine parts. Mylar and bare metal foil finished off the surface. “It was a nail biter until we figured it out,” Goodson added.

Of course the Model Shop crew knew how to have fun. On the same film, the model for Theed City comprised “something like 40×60 feet,” as Goodson recalled. Noticing all the miniature grass lawns across the city, Goodson thought that “someone must be out there mowing the grass every day.” So an accurate-scale lawn mower was hidden within the city!

Though the traditional ILM Model Shop is no more, both Goodson and John Knoll hinted their excitement at reviving some old school techniques for their current work on the upcoming series, The Mandalorian. It’s “literally a garage operation,” Knoll joked.

Jean Bolte helped conclude the discussion with an encouraging note to those young women aspiring to a career in visual effects, telling them, “Visual effects is a level playing field. Take advantage of it. There is no reason why you can’t be working here. This is not a boys club. In 31 years at ILM, I never felt that I was prevented from doing anything I wanted to do, and if I had I would have ignored them. I would like to see more women in our industry.”

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