Janet Lewin is Managing Director of Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s legendary in-house visual effects department. According to Lucasfilm’s official website, she “oversees all aspects of visual effects and animation” for the company.
This week I had the wonderful opportunity to interact with Janet Lewin during a fascinating panel interview promoting the new Disney+ documentary series Light & Magicwhich tells the turbulent history of ILM.
“Light & Magic isn’t just about Star Wars,” says Lewin. “This is the wide range of projects that ILM has contributed to over the past 47 years. We continue to get involved in any project that inspires us creatively. We are currently working on 40 different shows including feature animation projects, episodes [television], live action movies, immersive entertainment and everything in between. And when we look at our past, we can see that we have these incredibly talented creative individuals who enjoy solving problems and taking risks and leaps of faith to realize new visions. What’s cool about ILM’s relationship with Lucasfilm is that we have transparency with that studio. We’re one company, but it’s a symbiotic relationship. ILM and our innovation roadmap, as well as some of the breakthroughs we achieve, can help influence the storytelling of Lucasfilm, and likewise.
When asked how it feels to have been responsible for so much of the movie magic that audiences have fallen in love with over the years, Lewin replied, “It’s awesome. It’s not all up to me. We have [an] incredible team of seasoned leaders in all aspects of the organization – creative leadership, production leadership, technology leadership. I am so proud of the work that is showcased and celebrated in the documentary, and I feel truly honored to be part of the company that inspires so many others to get into the industry. I always talk about the intersection of production, creativity and innovation – [and] art is also a guideline of all this. I actually started as a temp in the purchasing department 28 years ago, and worked my way up through the organization, but I really found my passion in visual effects production. I consider myself creative, but that’s not my forte. I’m really more on the business side of the house, but I love this partnership with creation – providing the structure, support and environment for people to do their best work.
“We still employ people who got their start as miniature modelers, traditional matte painters, and even motion control operators. We have many people who learned their trade of painting on glass shower doors and then had to learn a new way of working in computer graphics. But I will say that one of the really fun things about being involved with Star Wars movies and episodic shows is that there’s a desire to honor our heritage with these kinds of hand-crafted visual effects. In fact, we build a lot of miniatures for The Mandalorian, for example. The razor crest we built in miniature form, some of the environments that we then photographed and put in our volume – the “loads”, as we call them, the live images on the LED screens – come from miniatures that we built. So we absolutely love leveraging all of these legacy tools to have that layered approach that you can feel is more artisanal than what you might get with traditional infographics.
I asked how Lewin and the other powers that be at ILM helped director Lawrence Kasdan portray the company as accurately as possible in Light & Magic. “Kasdan is a longtime collaborator for Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic,” Lewin replied. “When he got involved in Solo: [A Star Wars Story] with Ron Howard, he had that brain to want to honor the legacy of all those visual effects contributions to some of the most memorable movies of all time. We gave him unlimited access to everything he wanted to explore for his documentary. It was really his vision, though. It achieved this from the perspective of a seasoned filmmaker and writer, wanting to tell a story that you didn’t have to be steeped in visual effects — or even really into the film industry — to appreciate. He interviewed many people who have been in the business for a long, long time and were able to tell some interesting stories about how they did their job. It’s really about celebrating the fact that we are filmmakers, through and through, and that no challenge is too difficult – it’s part of our DNA. We love to achieve the impossible and be in the fabric of these incredible films that inspire so many people around the world. It continues into the future – it’s not like it was just “back then” that there was a certain methodology or a certain way of working. We have continued to evolve and adapt and it is important for people to know that we have the same spirit and DNA of our heritage, but we continue to invent and innovate every day of the year.
Light & Magic is now available to stream in its entirety, exclusively on Disney+.