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ILM: a Veveysanne tells us what the Disney documentary omits

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Industrial Light & MagicA Veveysanne tells us what the Disney documentary omits

On Disney+, “Light & Magic” retraces the history of the special effects company. Natasha Devaud worked there for more than 20 years. Interview,

Real magicians, that’s what the visual effects masters of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the famous special effects company created by George Lucas at the time of the first “Star Wars”, were. Today, through an exciting 6-part documentary, “Light & Magic” (to be seen from Wednesday July 27), Disney+ looks back on the creation of this company which made millions of spectators dream.

Veteran director and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has been able to access the archival treasures of “Star Wars” dad and the series is full of fascinating anecdotes and documents. James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and of course George Lucas come to give their testimonies but they are not the stars of the show. Rather those who have found a way to bring to life the visions of these filmmakers: the Dennis Murens, John Dykstra, Phil Tippett and other John Knolls, who have not stopped pushing the limits of the possible, with films like “Terminator 2 “, “Abyss”, “Jurassic Park”…

Veveysanne Natasha Devaud, 52, worked with them for 21 years, on films like “Men in Black”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and even “Iron Man”. A specialist in textures and lighting in computer-generated images, she tells us about her own ILM, or the underside of the documentary, including what it seeks to ignore.

How was ILM when you arrived in 1995?

At the time, the company was based in San Rafael, north of San Francisco Bay. In 1979, to tackle the special effects of “Star Wars – The empire strikes back”, they had started by renting a large dilapidated building, on a campus, then to expand gradually by renting the adjoining buildings . There were rooms in the cellars, others in the attic, with cables dangling in the corridors… The main entrance didn’t even mention ILM. Just “Optical Company”. When I arrived on the first day, I didn’t even know if I was in the right place. They wanted to keep things a little low key because fans were showing up hoping to give George (Lucas) a script…

The documentary lingers precisely on one of these workshops stashed in the basement, The Pit, described as a “den of Bad Boys”, where crazy parties were organized, with music groups, beer galore …

It’s exactly that (she laughs). They were a whole team led by Steve Williams, a strong personality (Editor’s note: the one who designed the first digital dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park”). I didn’t go to their parties but I know they were pretty loose on some Friday nights. ILM had a lot of musicians who got together to play together in the evening, or who kept their guitar handy in their office… It’s always been a haven for very creative people. The Halloween parties were phenomenal too. Some spent months building their costume.

Natasha Devaud, 52, worked 21 years with ILM.

DR

“Light & Magic” describes ILM as a real family, where the employees were close to each other, where there was a real camaraderie… Was it really that?

Absolutely! We formed very close groups of friends and we saw each other a lot outside of work. George was giving a gigantic picnic on his ranch on the 4th of July, we were organizing fundraisers where people were dressing up… When I arrived, they were looking for qualified people for the computer graphics department. Most of them came from their demo department and had to retrain because digital effects were really starting to take precedence over physical effects and there wasn’t enough work on the demo side. But many others came from many different backgrounds: from NASA, from architecture… What has always impressed me is their humility despite their talent. Nobody had a gigantic ego there and we sometimes learned 3 years later that so and so had developed such a fabulous tool… There were also a lot of expatriates, like me, from completely different backgrounds and who brought a really interesting dynamic. But all this rather magical atmosphere did not last.

That, the documentary does not mention it…

I think there was a split when we moved to more modern premises in Presidio Park, north of San Francisco, in 2005. The layout and infographic departments found themselves separated when we were so far mixed. There was a real connection between these two entities. I remember that for “Van Helsing” I had to animate a burning horse-drawn carriage that was rolling along a cliff. There were live shots, others in mock-ups, and mine in digital. And they had made a whole model of the forest where the scene was taking place and I could go and see it to see the environment. It was so mesmerizing to watch them make little fingertip-high lampposts with foam at their base… For “AI” they had built the underwater world with tiny little details… And when they needed extras, they solicited us. They gave us different costumes, filmed us on a blue or green screen and then added us to the film. In one, I am a soldier, in another a prostitute, in one of the “Harry Potters”, during a game of quidditch, we are a whole team of computer graphics among the public and we can see ourselves very well . Fortunately, we were able to save a few models to decorate our offices during the move. The bosses wanted to destroy them. And without that, our offices would have been sad, with only our computers… In one room, there were lots of planes above our heads, from different films, like “Always”… At the entrance there was an animatronic – those robotic creatures – from “Ghostbusters”, AND on his bike, dinosaurs…

It seems that there were rivalries between the two departments. That of the mockups even called the infographic service “The Dark Side”, the dark side of ILM…

I was part of the “Dark Side” so I wasn’t really aware of it. But I understand their resentment because somewhere their work has been taken away from them. And even if they could retrain and switch to computers, they lost a huge amount of knowledge: their knowledge of materials, tools, textures…

With the second “Star Wars” trilogy, George Lucas began to push the entire industry to switch to all-digital, by creating digital cameras, film and projectors… An approach that was not well received by the profession. How did you experience it, internally?

Even with us, its position was not always well regarded because like any new technology, it was supposed to replace an old one, thus involving job losses. Here too, people have been forced to retrain… But digital technology has greatly simplified our task, if only all the work of visual effects. Afterwards, there are things that can be reproduced, others not. But ILM’s great advantage over other digital effects companies has always been this immense know-how for live effects, with models.

Ironically, it was the takeover of ILM by Disney in 2012 that turned the company upside down the most. And that, Disney + hides completely in this documentary. How did you experience this change of ownership?

We absolutely did not see it coming. One day at noon I went to get a sandwich from the cafeteria. I went back up and people were making funny faces. We had just been notified by email that we had been bought out. 10 minutes later, my father called me to ask me what that meant… The whole world had learned the news at the same time as us!

What changed from there?

The company has increasingly given in to the pure race for profit. Days off were disappearing, we had less and less time to polish our work, salaries weren’t increasing anymore… George was really generous. Sometimes we had summers when there wasn’t a lot of work and he managed to keep people there even if they had nothing to do. But from the moment he left, Disney kept tightening the screws. It is for this reason that I left. Like many others elsewhere.

The documentary features a couple who met at ILM. Is this also your case?

They found one, really (she laughs)? No, there are a ton of them that formed on the spot. Normal, we sometimes worked 60 hours a week… My husband and I met outside, but during a day organized with colleagues. He was one of their friends. So we met a bit in the context of work anyway…

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