Why Visual Effects Look the Way They Do

Julie Turnock


Paris Marx is joined by Julie Turnock to discuss the history of the visual effects industry, the role that George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic played in setting industry standards, and what its current form dominated by Disney means for visual effects workers.


Julie Turnock is an associate professor of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the author of The Empire of Effects: Industrial Light and Magic and the Rendering of Realism. Follow Julie on Twitter at @JulieTurnock.

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Paris Marx: Julie, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Julie Turnock: Thanks for inviting me.

PM: Absolutely. You have this fantastic new book, “The Empire of Effects,” that really digs into the history of Industrial Light Magic, but also the visual effects industry more broadly. And so I’m really excited to explore that with you especially as, I think, these conversations about visual effects and what this whole industry is about has been becoming more relevant in recent years. Certainly more people have been paying attention to it. And now there’s a growing discussion about labor practices in the industry and what has been going on there. And so I want to get to a whole ton of those things. But I think to get us started, to properly set up this conversation, it’s best to start by talking about the 1970s New Hollywood auteurist movement. So, what was that? What defined the films of that period? And who are some of the key figures that are important to the conversation that we’ll be having?

JT: What’s interesting is when many scholars and critics talk about the 60s and 70s and into the 80s, they often draw a hard line between the films that were made, we’ll say, before 1975 when Jaws came out, instigating the kind of blockbuster era that we’re kind of more familiar with today, and the movies that came before. Part of what I argue is that there’s not as much of a break between these two periods, as many critics and scholars argue, and in fact that since George Lucas is the kind of main character of my book, as the person who bankrolled Industrial Light and Magic, in order to make “Star Wars.” He’s an interesting hinge figure between these two eras. And so, I guess to answer your question, as far as the American New Hollywood auteur movement was a kind of outgrowth of filmmaking movements that tend to be most closely associated with the French New Wave, which is also most closely associated with filmmakers like John Luc Godard, and Agnès Varda and Francois Truffaut, and that this was a style of filmmaking that was meant to be a response to Hollywood filmmaking. And the response was mostly to be something that was contradicting the style of Hollywood filmmaking which tended to be stereotyped as really slick, focused on glamour, focused on story and narrative, above all. It also tended to be criticized as being fairly juvenile or simplistic in its style of storytelling.

And so the filmmakers of the New Wave, they wanted to have a less controlled look. They wanted filmmaking to look spontaneous. They wanted it to look caught on the fly. And a lot of that was taking techniques from documentary filmmaking, specifically cinéma vérité. And so the French New Wave, which was made up largely of filmmakers who are also critics and writers. Some of them were writers first, and then filmmakers — some of them were doing it simultaneously. And so they were disseminating their ideas through manifestos, and Le Cahier Du Cinéma, a journal that a lot of them were publishing in. And so we have New Waves from all over the world. It looked like something new; it looked like something fresh and youthful. And so the American system came to this new style of filmmaking considerably later than the rest of the world. And that had a lot to do with access to the means of production, essentially. And it wasn’t really until the studios realized that what they had been doing wasn’t working, and they needed to reach young people in a new way. And so some underground films like your Roger Corman type films were exploitation films, were making a lot of money, drive-ins and things.

And so they wanted to bring in, again, a youthful flavor to try to capture the youth market again. And so I’m mostly talking about the late 60s at this point. And so a movie like “Easy Rider” was an in-between independent and studio picture as far as the way it was financed. And it made a lot of money. And its style was widely admired as an American version of this more kind of spontaneous style. Some of the American filmmakers that were associated with that are people like Monte Hellman, and people like Robert Altman, and more New York style filmmakers, eventually Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma. But in that group as well, were our future blockbuster filmmakers like George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, who were all in the same peer group. And they watched each other’s movies; they commented on each other’s movies. And both Spielberg and Lucas — even though we think of them now more as moguls than as filmmakers — were very much part of that group. And they saw themselves in that same lineage. They also saw themselves as kind of part of a Hollywood lineage as well, because the French New Wave as much as they wanted to counter Hollywood, they wanted to be a counter cinema to Hollywood, they also really admired it. And in a lot of ways, they hated how much they loved it, basically.

PM: I think that’s probably a good place to start to talk about Industrial Light Magic. Because you mentioned that George Lucas is part of this group is one of these filmmakers who was using this style. And then he goes on to make Star Wars as, I believe, his third film. So when does George Lucas form Industrial Light Magic and what is its mandate? What does he really want it to do?

JT: In 1975, in the production of making Star Wars, they realized that in order to make a film full of effects that he wanted — this space opera — his big image that he had in his mind is to have dogfights in space, so like World War Two dogfight sequences, but in space. And that was the thing that he had really, in his mind, most strongly that he wanted to get on to the screen. And so he knew that in order to do this, it was going to be difficult because the studios had mostly closed down their effects departments and so most effects for studio films were being done by independent effects companies. And there weren’t that many of them. And they were fairly busy with what they were doing. And so it is true that he largely hired a few people who were had been in the had been in the effects industry for some period of time, but on what we would consider on the margins. And so, people like Dennis Mirren had been working for this company called Cascade, which was famous for stop motion animation. And so they made a lot of stop motion animation commercials — the Pillsbury Doughboy is one that always comes up. So people like him, Richard Edlund had been working also for a major opticals company, a small special effects company, but he hadn’t been working at the studios or anything like that.

And so they had a bunch of people who were countercultural figures, a number of them had gone to film school at Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts). Adam Beckett, who was the head of animation for Star Wars was a pretty prominent experimental filmmaker. This is in the core group of ILM. And John Dykstra was the supervisor, the effects supervisor. He came through Douglas Trumbull, who did the effects on “2001: A Space Odyssey” among other people, but he was the one who both took and got most of the credit for that, much to Stanley Kubrick’s chagrin. And so they have this kind of motley crew of people with a lot of really different backgrounds, some that are a little more sciency, some that are a little more artsy, and some that are a little more, what we might call nerdy, the kind of stop motion type engagement. And so in 1975, they really had to build the effects from scratch. And the legend, from what I understand it, there’s a lot of embroidery that goes on but but what I understand that is largely true is that they spent most of their money and most of their time just setting up ILM. The story always goes, and I don’t have any reason to believe that this isn’t true, that they had been working, working, working, working for months and months just to buy the equipment and get the equipment going, that when George Lucas came back from Tunisia and London, where they had been doing most of the principal photography, they had only completed two shots. And that appears to be largely true.

And so they had to really move it along to kind of finish the movie in time. And the reason this is important, and the reason that the legend is worth repeating is that nobody who made “Star Wars,” most famously, George Lucas was happy with how the effects turned out because they had to rush to the end, they had to do everything kind of last minute there. You know, there were a lot of compromises. And this is what led to the special edition in the late 90s When the effects were redone with CGI. And so, ILM as a corporate entity, at this point in Van Nuys, California, moved up north to be closer to George Lucas’s own production company and also further away from Hollywood where interference happens. And they kind of regrouped for “Empire Strikes Back.” And so when when I think about the style, the ideal ILM historical style, I don’t think of “Star Wars,” I think of the “Empire Strikes Back,” because they had more time to develop an aesthetic, not just kind of throw together a kind of hodgepodge of things, which they did surprisingly well given the time that they had.

But if you think about something like the Battle of the Ice Planet Hoth with the Imperial walkers, that’s extremely complicated and sophisticated. And it also involves a lot of aesthetic choices that they stick to today. In fact, when it comes to “Empire Strikes Back,” a lot of that is what Dennis Muren likes to characterize as kind of perfect imperfection. And so you don’t want everything as sharp as possible, because the style that they’re looking for that they were trying to do in “Star Wars,” but I think achieved especially well in “Empire Strikes Back,” was to look like new Hollywood cinematography that was prevalent in the day, in the 70s, that people were used to. So it looks like natural light. It’s very much not natural light, but it looks like natural light. And the camera work is what’s really important here. It looks like everything was captured on the fly by a documentary camera operator. This documentary camera operator is always a beat behind the action and is trying to catch up with what’s happening.

PM: I wanted to ask about that and pick up on it. Because, as you say, they really get into this style, really establish it with “Empire Strikes Back.” So then how does that then grow to influence other visual effects companies? And as they make the move from practical effects, as they’re doing back then, into computer generated imaging, how does it bridge into that new medium as well?

JT: And one thing that’s important to realize is that ILM is the only effects company that existed in the late 70s, early 80s that still exists today. They’re first of all the longest lasting effects company and a lot of that has to do with the fact that until 2012, they were completely bankrolled by George Lucas’s Lucasfilm. And then in 2012, Disney bought the whole Lucasfilm holdings, but they’re still being bankrolled by a large company. And so, in 1980, it was when they opened to outside business, even though “Dragon Slayer,” I think was the name of the movie — it’s got a title with dragon in it anyway. And that was the first one. But mostly Steven Spielberg movies in the early 80s, your “ETs” and “Indiana Jones” and such got them off the ground as a an effects house to hire. And because all these movies are so successful, that breeds thinking like: Well, we want to go to the company that has given us the most successful movies. And so that’s what we’ll call a kind of economic determinism — that success breeds success. However, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Not only is it the one that has lasted the longest, and that’s my one of my chapters is called “ILM Versus Everybody Else.” And that’s how it has been in the effects business since 1980, where companies rise up to challenge ILM, and usually go out of business because they don’t have the same kind of financial security. Effects companies don’t make any money. And as important as they are to the industry, to creating blockbusters, they are every single company on a razor’s edge of bankruptcy at any moment. And so one movie goes bad for you, and there goes a 20-year-old company. And so ILM has always been there. It’s always been, as far as like the memory of the industry goes. And it’s always been the beacon around which all the other companies would look to. And so even Digital Domain came in in the early 90s. And that was a James Cameron spearheaded company that wanted to have as good a technology as ILM. And so basically, James Cameron didn’t want to be buying his effects from George Lucas; he wanted to be able to have his own company that had his own vision. And he wasn’t the only guy who was involved with it. It was bankrolled by IBM. And so he’s wanting to kind of create technology to support his kind of auteurist projects. And that’s also similar to the way that Peter Jackson approached Weta when it was kind of going into the big time with the “Lord of the Rings” movies a decade later, in the late 1990s, early aughts.

And then some of the other companies wanted to have the kind of aspect of ILM, that kind of countercultural cachet of ILM. And so Rhythm and Hues was a company that wanted to be both kind of technologically innovative — they did a lot of CGI experimentation. There’s Coca-Cola polar bears, if you remember those from the 90s, the early 90s. And they also did Babe. And so they were specialists in animals. But they also had a kind of hippie countercultural as part of their corporate culture, we’ll call it. And then there’s people like Sony Pictures Imageworks who was bankrolled by Sony, and they’re kind of a little bit of an outlier, because they were always bankrolled by Sony, and they’ve never really had much of a specific profile, because they tend to be very corporate. And so all of these companies, they want to be ILM. But they kind of can’t put all the pieces together in order to make that happen. And then most of them kind of overspend and go bankrupt at a certain point if they don’t have big pockets behind them.

And so the other thing is the PR aspect, and we’ll talk about the problems of the PR aspect. But ILM and Lucasfilm have always had, besides their own PR that they generate back in the day, if you remember, they used to have primetime specials. Before “Return of the Jedi” came out and you would have James Earl Jones narrating: Here’s how these wizards at ILM are doing the effects on on the movie. And say, when Jurassic Park came out, there’s a lot of videos that they produce. And most recently on the Disney+ Channel they had something like four or five episodes, maybe even six episodes called “Light And Magic,” which was entirely a hagiography. It’s a very recent production with a lot of footage, telling their story in the way that makes them look the best. And that’s what PR does — PR is about making the company look as good as possible.

And on top of all that, whenever a new, big-budget movie comes out, big mainstream news publications, your AP wire stories, Time Magazine, Newsweek, the most mainstream news publications would do feature stories about the wizards at ILM. And again, it was mostly the people at ILM, giving them PR that they then turn into a feature piece. And so for 40 plus years, if you’ve heard of an effects company, it’s ILM. That’s not by happenstance, and it’s not simply because they’re the best. They’ve worked hard at presenting that image of not just being the best but being the best place to work for always being the most innovative and also being behind a great innovative leader. George Lucas is always touted as this great visionary, who they all admire and look up to and is the kind of reason for the success. It’s one person’s vision and very much this auteur connection to 60s and 70s authentic filmmaking.

And then if that weren’t enough, there’s more. As far as, they have a style that is been so successful at mimicking a kind of notion of what the eye sees in real life, that most people don’t recognize it as a style. And the last thing is that there are various software and hardware initiatives that ILM has been behind. I guess this simple version is in the turn of the CGI era, in the digital era, ILM collaborated in the mid 90s, with Silicon Graphics, which was then the maker of graphics hardware, and to certain degree, software, but mostly the actual physical hardware that everybody had to buy, to get into the digital era of the effects business. ILM helped to develop that because they collaborated with Silicon Graphics. Silicon Graphics wanted to get into the effects business, and so they’re like: Okay, what do you at ILM need? And then everybody else adopted those same machines. And then they’ve also had a number of software initiatives, these open source software initiatives that they encourage their collaborators, because now something like 20 effects companies work on the same Marvel film these days. And everybody needs to have the same look. And so they are mostly working with the architecture, the software architecture that ILM developed. I didn’t really expect to write about ILM for this book. I thought it was going to be a broader based story about the effects industry. And it turns out that ILM had their fingers in everything. And so I pivoted the research to reflect that, because I suddenly realized, upon doing the research, the extent to which not only that they’ve influenced the effects industry, but what realism in the media is supposed to look like. And most of that comes from a particular aesthetic that ILM has developed since the 80s. And then kind of doubled down on in the digital era.

PM: It’s so fascinating to hear you describe it. Because as you’re saying, there are many ways that the company has successfully, because it has had the funding, because it has had access to really good PR and had a really good PR operation, it had this style that it established, and then everyone else wanted to emulate, and other reasons that helped it to achieve the dominant position that it has had within the industry. And in really having other companies kind of chase after it want to emulate it to show that they can live up to the standard that exists there. You talked about Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012. So ILM has this style that it’s established. And this has been adopted by other visual effects companies. So maybe you can talk a bit about what that style looks like when we’re talking about computer effects. And how many of these blockbuster films are using it? And then as Disney buys the company and really pushes to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how does that alter that style? How does it change it to fit within the kind of production model for the Marvel films?

JT: And one thing just to get back to the previous thing that I don’t want to downplay. I don’t want to downplay the impact of artists, ILM has been able to hire basically the best people in the business who aspire to work for the best company in the business. And so I don’t want to downplay that part of it. The artists are often kind of shunted to the side in these discussions, and I want to make sure that I don’t downplay their role.

PM: No, it’s a very important point and one that we’ll certainly return to.

JT: Absolutely. And so it’s funny, because sometimes, whenever I give talks about this, people will be like: Well, what about the prequels? It’s like they are the exception that proves the rule. And so what I think is interesting, and maybe funny is the word, is that George Lucas has been told for decades and decades about what an visionary he is. And so when he went to make the prequels, I think he really wanted to make a look that was markedly different from that of the original trilogy. On top of that, he wanted it to look really high tech and like: This is going to be cutting edge and I’m going to use all these great digital technologies. Everybody’s going to be on a blue screen set. And everybody hated it. Two, it was a too animated look, is largely how I characterize it. I have found that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having an animated look to your effects work, but it tends to not be received well by the public.

PM: It feels like you kind of see something similar as well with the “Lord of the Rings.” The original film is really noted for having its kind of realistic look, despite having the visual effects technology of the early 2000s, late 90s. And then when “The Hobbit” films come along, it’s like, everything just doesn’t look right. It looks too animated, like these are some of the critiques that are made of it.

JT: Another argument that I make is that live action is an industry heuristic. It’s a convenient category that doesn’t really have a close relation to the actual production. And so something like “The Phantom Menace” or “Gravity,” or even the Lord of the Rings, the original “Lord of the Rings” film are very much made in a way that is not so different from making feature animation. You just have the actors heads — like in “Gravity,” the actors’ heads in a helmet — and everything else is digitally generated around them. And that’s true for the vast majority of blockbuster films. Extremely large portions of them are digitally generated, whether they look like it or not. The prequels were financially very successful, but they weren’t received very positively. And then sometime thereafter, when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, in fact, there was many rumors that they were going to spin off ilm, because effects are so expensive, and they don’t make any money and, but they realized that they probably need them in order to kind of realize the next set of blockbuster films, not just the next “Star Wars” films that they immediately started planning, but also things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe that they had recently started working on with the Iron Man film in 2008.

And so even though Disney didn’t acquire them until 2012, ILM had already been working with the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the director Jon Favreau, who had a very specific idea as to what he wanted. And what he wanted was the look of the “Empire Strikes Back,” even though he learned pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to be able to do things physically. He wanted that look. Unlike Christopher Nolan, Christopher Nolan wants things to be physical, and he wants them to be achieved that way, as much as possible. Jon Favreau didn’t care how it was done. He’s not a purist as far as that goes, but he wanted the look of the early ILM look, and so as if we could recreate the “Empire Strikes Back” in digital form. But have it look exactly like the “Empire Strikes Back.” And it turns out that he hit on something that I think nobody knew they wanted so much. And so by this time, there was a certain amount of digital fatigue, and you’ll still hear people talking about like, oh, that movie looked so digital. And I didn’t like that. It’s like it should be more physical. And there’s a lot of PR from not just ILM, but from productions.

And so, yes, they hit on this. “Iron Man” was such a big hit. And people really liked the look, and it has a very kind of physical look to it. They had some metal suits, and they had some digital suits, but you can’t really tell the difference between them. And people really liked the way it hearkened back to this — especially for someone John Favreau’s age, is roughly my age. So growing up in an era where movies were magical meant the look of the 80s and the late 70s and early 80s. And this goes really well with Disney’s commitment to this nostalgic IP and giving people new versions of stuff that they already love. It’s a disappointingly uncreative approach to filmmaking, to Blockbuster filmmaking and even though blockbuster filmmaking, it is always made to recoup its considerable cost. And so there’s always a need, or they feel like there’s a need for there to be certain familiar elements so that it’s like: Oh, you already like this, and so we are repackaging it for you. All that is to be expected, but you can do things that are different. If you’re Guillermo del Toro, for example, he can put together a big Kaiju battle that looks actually pretty unusual and striking and not like it was done by committee, we’ll say.

So on the positive side, Disney’s various acquisitions in the early teens of this century do something positive for the effects business to a certain degree. It’s not positive in the moral sense, but it is positive in the economic sense, in that all of these companies were going bankrupt around 2010. And Digital Domain, the second biggest effects company, went bankrupt. And Rhythm and Hues, probably the third or fourth biggest effects company, also went bankrupt at the same time. And when Disney acquired ILM, it had the benefit of stabilizing the industry to a certain degree because they’re making three to four Marvel films a year. Each one of those takes 20 companies minimum and part of it is them hedging their bets they don’t want to put their eggs in, I guess I’ll mix my metaphors and say, they didn’t want to put all their eggs in one basket and then have that company not be able to deliver the shots, and so they are splitting up the job amongst as many companies as possible. But that means that everybody’s got a lot of work. That the downside of that is very much that you have to do it in the way that Marvel and Disney want you to do it.

And so part of what I find disappointing about the homogenizing of the ILM style, which ILM is still the kind of ideal, but it is a stereotype now of the ILM style, where they’ve kind of boiled it down to a couple of formulas, in order to make it modular, essentially. And again, not so unexpected, that a big company wants to save money, simplify things, whatever. But it is also, as I say, somewhat disappointing from the creative side that the very creative people who work in the industry rarely get to show you something new and different. And so even something like if you watch light magic, one of the newest innovations that ILM touts. By the way, they didn’t really invent but they did probably wise but also developed, because of their greater money and their resources, they can take someone else’s invention and then turn it into something bigger. So what they call stage craft, which is the giant LED screens that are substituting for blue screen. So everybody has seen probably the images from, say “Phantom Menace,” where you’ve got Obi Wan Kenobi on a blue screen, shaking his lightsaber at nothing, with a rock and blue screen. Well, actually, the sets are these days, pretty much exactly the same. There is basically very little on the actual set, but they have these giant LED screens behind them that fill in the background.

So when you watch “The Mandalorian,” when you watch the most recent “Batman” film with Robert Pattinson also was using this technology, you really cannot see from the camera’s point of view, and from the point of view of the viewer. You cannot see that it’s not a real location. And so, what’s nice about this for Disney, is that it is not a spectacular form of effects technology. It’s very effective, and it gives you that “Empire Strikes Back” feeling very effectively. And so I think that’s one of the things that people responded to so strongly when they saw “The Mandalorian;” they felt like they were really in the Star Wars universe. Again, after quite a bit of criticism over the third trilogy, it’s a win-win for Disney, because they can tout their innovation and effects technology. But what they’re giving you is what you already know that you love. And again, I like that look, too. I respond to it as well — I’m that age; I’m exactly the right age for that. But I also want to see someone doing, even in big blockbusters, even in the most mainstream of blockbusters, I want to see something new and different.

PM: Absolutely. And you talk there about the model of the Marvel films, how there are a certain number of films and TV shows that they have to produce every year. They split the effects up between a bunch of different companies; there’s expectations that the effects will arrive at a certain time, and so that the film can be put out on time. Sometimes there will be last minute changes frequently, as I hear, there will be last minute changes to those effects. And because a lot of that work is done on the effect side, rather than on the set, there can be changes up to the last minute. They’re not always sure of how things are going to look until really late in the production process. So how does this model, we’ve been talking about on the industry side, what does this mean for the workers who are doing the work of making these effects that go into all of these films?

JT: One thing that is unusual about the effects industry, and even though it has a long history, the vast majority of people are working on a Hollywood filmmaking production, whether that be television, or movies are protected by unions, and also guilds. And so they’ve got a number of larger organizations that are looking out for them. And people bring lawsuits all the time. So it’s evident that not everything goes the way it’s supposed to, even when protected by a union or a guild. But the effects industry has no union. It has a guild, but it’s not a labor advocacy group, the Visual Effects Society. And part of that has to do with the fact that in the olden days before digital effects, if you are a camera person, you were in the camera union. But once things went to computers, there weren’t established unions for artists working primarily with computers. And so the industry blew up around digital technology, but didn’t organize around these new workers, which is, in part because there’s a kind of idea of kind of like the video game industry in this way, where people are like: Oh, I like video games; I like “Star Wars,” that will be fun; it’ll be fun to work in an effects industry job; I’ll get to work on “Star Wars” or these new “Star Wars’s,” and George Lucas, what a great artist and I want to I want to eventually work for him.

But then they realized, and that’s when they’re 22, and then they wake up one day, and they’re 40. And they don’t have medical insurance; they’ve never had paid leave. And then everything is being offshored, because the effects industry used to be largely in California, and now are chasing tech subsidies around the world. And so Canada has a lot — Vancouver and Montreal are the two centers in Canada. England has a lot of subsidies. And so a lot of companies have, if they’re not centered there, branches in the UK. And then also lower wage countries, like India for example, where thousands of names that you see at the end of blockbuster movies, once the effects credits finally start to roll – all of those people need to get paid something. And so the production companies, they want to save as much money as possible. And so all of this is leading to people having to migrate a lot to where the jobs are. And there’s nothing wrong with living in Vancouver, but if you are in California, and your family’s there, and your kids are in school, you don’t love going from Vancouver to Wellington to London to wherever every couple of years where the jobs are.

And so these days, it’s more possible to not have to physically go anymore, because cloud computing is much more powerful than it was a couple years ago. But it is still a problem for the labor of the industry. Like I say, there’s very little labor protections. There’s all these crunches at the end. And this is one of the reasons that these companies go bankrupt. Marvel often, and not just Marvel, but the production wants, as you say, changes at the very last minute. And they’ve been locked into a certain price. And so they can’t say: Sure, we’ll give you that if you give us more money. They’ve already contracted for a set amount. And so they have to do these changes basically for free at the end. And so needless to say that’s not to the benefit of the effects company —it’s very much to the benefit of the production company. And so there’s other people, other scholars who have written quite a bit about the kind of migratory patterns of affects people, and also the razor’s edge profit margins of the business. And there’s actually quite a few effects artists have become labor advocates for the rest of the industry. But the fact that it is so dispersed across the world makes it really difficult for labor actions to go anywhere, since it’s so dispersed.

PM: I think it’s a really good point. And certainly, it’s a topic that I feel like is getting more attention recently, as these workers have been speaking out more about these conditions. I was wondering, because you talked about how, whether it’s with the prequels, or with “The Hobbit” films, or more recently, with more than Marvel stuff, occasionally there is this backlash that people have to the quality of the effects in the films. They say that, you know, it should look better than this, or there’s a general kind of criticism of Marvel films, that they’re really dark in order to hide some of the issues that they might have with effects sometimes. And I wonder, part of this could be how they don’t align with the kind of realist approach that they’ve normalized over this period of time. But I wonder if part of it as well is because they have this production model, where they’re working these workers really hard. There’s a lot of crunch near the end. So they don’t always get the quality of the effect that they are hoping for. And so it was part of that response from viewers that these effects aren’t what they’re expecting, in part because of the production model and the way that labor is treated within the industry that they can’t always deliver the effects that Marvel was expecting.

JT: I think that’s exactly right. And most of the time, you don’t even have to be the top-tier of the industry that the effects company can deliver. Whatever anybody wants, ost effects companies can do that — the artists are skillful enough. And so when you see something that is wonky in the final product, I’m gonna say 99% of the time, it’s because the production wasn’t willing to put the money and the time to make it happen. Because there’s some things that are still hard to do; animals are still really hard; digital humans with any detail are still hard. But the vast majority of things, like a car flying through the air in a “Fast and Furious” movie, anybody could do that, with a decent background. The vast majority of companies can deliver that. And so when you see something that doesn’t work, you pretty much almost never blame the artists. It is pretty much entirely the production’s fault that they didn’t plan for it well enough. They didn’t give the artists what they needed to make it happen. And there are a few occasions where in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return,” I am convinced some people were criticizing the effects in that series for looking bad. And no, I’m pretty sure they’re the way that David Lynch wanted them to look. He wanted them to look kind of handmade. And the company who was behind it is a French company who’ve done any number of mainstream blockbusters with no issues. And so I am convinced that that looks exactly the way that David Lynch wanted it to look. And but that’s pretty rare for there even to be some ambiguity about it.

So these days, when something looks too animated, it’s either someone wanted it to look that way. I think that does happen, like when “Aquaman” came out, I thought: Oh, are we kind of moving back towards having a more animated look in effects that is an accepted alternative to the ILM look? And that didn’t seem to kind of hang on. But I do think that the DC Universe, generally speaking, is a little looser in their aesthetic expectations. It’s not to say that they have lower expectations — they just have different expectations. And I talked about this in the book, too, but there are whole industries around the world who are not making movies for international audiences, who have no interest in making everything look super photo-real. I use the example of Steven Chow, the Hong Kong filmmaker in “The Mermaid” where large portions of that look like a Tex Avery cartoon. And that’s the look he’s going for. And that was made for Chinese audiences, and it was the biggest movie of all time, at the time. And so everyone was happy with the look of that film. No one watched “The Mermaid,” as best I know, and said: This doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. It looked exactly the way it was supposed to — a kind of live action cartoon hybrid that had purpose and meaning. So, sure, there’s all these franchises, these “Monkey King” movies — Donnie Yen stars in a number of them – where it is a very animated universe that has, again, no desire to look like “Iron Man” or a Marvel film. It’s meant to look like a kind of fantasy universe. And so that’s an alternative that Hollywood could do. But as I say, it tends to not be received very well. And so it’s considered too big of a risk for a blockbuster to go off of the expectations, the kind of the international style of effects realism that audiences have been conditioned to expect.

PM: I think it makes perfect sense. And I appreciate you giving me your time to discuss all this, to dig into this history. I have a two part question to close the conversation picking up on some of the things we’ve been talking about there. First of all, there’s more discussion of the labor practices in the industry, what is going on there? Do you think there’s a prospect of that changing of some sort of norms to, you know, create a better environment for workers to come along? And then the second part of that, this kind of ILM style has been dominant now for several decades, certainly altered slightly by Marvel and what Marvel has been doing with it. But do you think as there are more kind of different approaches to visual effects? Do you think that the dominance of that style is starting to be questioned or starting to fail a little bit? And Are there alternative approaches to visual effects that are becoming more common?

JT: I wish I could say that things will get better for effects workers in the future. But I don’t see any movement towards that happening anytime soon. Unfortunately, like I say, there are people in the effects industry who are advocates for labor, and everyone seems to agree that the system is bad. In the industry, in the effects industry, however, it is stacked very much in the favor of the productions. And so they want thousands and thousands of effects shots per movie for as cheap as possible. And so these production companies, and these big studio entities have worked as their business magic, so to speak, to set the effects companies against each other. Because if your company doesn’t produce on time for this Marvel movie, they will blacklist you and then you don’t get to work on the next eight Marvel movies. And that’s a huge part of your revenue — somebody else can replace you immediately.

PM: And I guess that becomes a bigger a bigger threat as Disney becomes larger and larger and controls more IP and properties.

JT: I think — I have this in the book someplace, but now I can’t remember the exact number — but Disney controls something like 80% of the pre-COVID box office. I don’t think it was maybe that high; maybe it was like 70%. But it was a very high number — that Disney, of the top 100 movies in the American box office or something. It was an outrageous number, and certainly the ones towards the top end. And so, as you say, as Disney becomes more and more powerful, there’s less of a chance to work against them. And as far as alternative styles, I don’t think on the blockbuster level that’s very true. But we know that Hollywood’s favorite game is to absorb alternative styles. And so something like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a movie that was a big, unexpected hit. And even though its effects aesthetic wasn’t so unusual, but kind of maximalist and to a certain degree, less bound by Earth’s physics and Earth’s logic. And so there’s a taste for maybe something a bit more fanciful, that isn’t necessarily from a fantasy, pre-existing fantasy property.

And so my fingers are crossed that this will encourage other kinds of unusual [styles]. Even though the Baz Luhrmann style is a pretty well-established one, and people know what to expect from him, the fact that “Elvis” was such a big hit this year. And that has a very, again, fanciful, maximalist style as well, that I’m hoping that this will encourage more unusual styles. I came out of “Elvis” being like: I like the Baz Luhrmann thing — not everybody does. But at least it’s not bland. I think that there is a certain fatigue, and I don’t think people necessarily register it in terms of styles of effects or anything like that. But the current cycle that we’re on more or less started in 2008, with “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight,” in this grounded realism cycle. And so it seems like we’re due for a new cycle. I would like to go to a movie and be wowed by the effects again. I feel like it doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, it’s very pleasurable.

PM: Maybe “Avatar 2?”

JT: Maybe! He surprised us before, so don’t count out Cameron. And I’ll say that for one last thing is that “Batman,” the most recent Matt Reeves/Robert Pattinson Batman, is interesting as a kind of new style of realism that is based less on the Christopher Nolan version of sharp edges and high definition and instead, a realism that’s based closer to iPhone filming. And it’s not totally new for that to be a cue for authenticity. But the way that movie plays with the expectations of live streaming, I think it’s not a whole new way of doing things. But it is at least an interesting change to what has been considered the expectations for Nolanesque realism.

PM: I enjoyed that film as well. So it’s really interesting to hear. But Julie, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me to dig into this history of the visual effects industry, what is going on now. Hopefully, it’s been informative for the audience who don’t think too much about this industry, possibly. But thank you so much for taking the time. Thanks for writing such a great book. I really appreciate it!

JT: Thanks for inviting me.