“I tell young people who ask me how to get into filmmaking: ‘Start making some movies.’ And it’s not an unreasonable request. If I said that 40 years ago to someone, that person would have asked: ‘Well, where am I going to get the $5,000 to make even make a short one?’ But nowadays, if you have a computer and a video camera, you can do it.”
This plain-dealing advice came from Thomas G. Smith, someone who knows about making and whose long career in film is anything but plain.
Renowned for his special effects work on such films as George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Steven Spielberg’s E.T., Smith, a Canton, IL, native, recently treated students, faculty, and staff to an in-person account of his career in filmmaking and visual effects production. During his two-day tour of Western Illinois University last week, Smith gave students an insider’s insight into filmmaking and the use of visual effects in feature films in his presentations in a couple of introduction to film courses. He also presented “Movie Magic—My Thirty Years in Visual Effects” (on Oct. 17), a University-wide lecture replete with compelling still and video images that illustrated Smith’s long career in both educational and commercial moviemaking.
Smith also took time during his visit to Macomb to visit University Relations, where I had the opportunity to talk to him about his fascinating time working in “big” feature film production, a career that many creative types would consider to be a series of “dream” jobs.
The Move to Making Movie Magic in Marin
Smith’s work as manager of the creative team at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)—a visual effects production house located in Marin County in northern California—began in 1980. Under his direction, ILM created the innumerably breathtaking visual effects on some of the most beloved movies in the American cinema, including: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, E.T., Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Dragonslayer, and two Star Trek films. But before he got to ILM, Smith “paid his dues,” so to speak, working for several years on educational films for Encyclopedia Britannica.
One of his productions for EB, The Solar System, a 1977 film narrated by Richard Basehart, provided the necessary platform for him to step into the visual effects realm of Hollywood feature filmmaking.
Smith: At the time, I had worked in film for Encyclopedia Britannica [near Chicago] making educational films for about 15 to 20 years. And then I was assigned to make a film about the solar system, and since I couldn’t go on location to film it, I had to manufacture it. That’s what got me into that. It was so difficult, so prone to error—you had to do things over again. When I finished that film I told my wife, “I never want to do a visual effects film again.”
But that film was my opening, and George Lucas hired me a few years later to run his Industrial Light and Magic, which is where they make visual effects for his films.
TK: What was it like being interviewed by George Lucas?
Smith:It was a person who worked at ILM who had seen The Solar System who recommended me. I went through six interviews, and then the last interview was with George Lucas himself. The president of the company talked to me before I met George, and he said, “George is kind of an introvert. He doesn’t talk a lot. Don’t worry if he isn’t very conversational. He’s a very quiet guy.” So I was ready for that, and the day I interviewed, he came in and started talking, and I never got a chance to tell him anything.
During the interview, I remember him telling me, “If you go bankrupt, I’m not going to bail you out. You gotta stand on your own legs.”
I guess he knew I was already hired. We actually got along very well, I think because of my experience with film—he knew I had done a lot of things he had done. So I knew 16-millimeter film and all the cameras used and the sound equipment, and all the problems you can have. So we had sort of a similar background, in that regard. Of course, his background—I mean, he went right to the top with his films, American Graffiti… and Star Wars was a spectacular success.
When I got to ILM, they had already made Star Wars, and they were working on The Empire Strikes Back. There had been a gap between those two films, where they had shut the place down. George [Lucas] said, “I don’t want to do that anymore, I want to continue it as a service to the industry. So when my next Star Wars film comes [which turned out to be Return of the Jedi], we’ll have something going and the continuity of the people.”
So I took over as manager of ILM, and that was the first time that company became an independent service company, rather than just an arm of a production. There we did some very interesting films—E.T., Poltergeist, Star Trek, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then we came along to Return of the Jedi. And then the second Indiana Jones movie…
About that time, I was getting a little tired of just doing visual effects and I told George [Lucas], “Nothing against you guys, but I want to make movies.” So he gave me an assignment, because he didn’t want me to leave, and I made two, two-hour long ABC special movies on the Ewoks [The Ewok Adventure and Caravan of Courage]. We did those in northern California.
People often think that ILM must be in Hollywood, but it’s not. It’s north of San Francisco. When I arrived, it had about 100 people working there, all of them very creative, energetic and independent, rebellious… I’m still just amazed when I think of what talent we had there. And many of them have gone to become film directors and to win many Academy Awards in visual effects.
TK: How did your background in educational film prepare you for that?
Smith: Because I had worked so much in film, I really understood all of it. I have worked in every area except the developing of the film. I’ve worked as a cameraman, director… everything.
But the trick was—when we started doing work for people on the outside, and for Lucas, too—to stay on budget. That was the main challenge, because creative people tend to want to keep doing it and doing it, until it’s absolutely perfect. And so sometimes you have to have them keep their eyes on what we could afford. And one of the biggest helps was George Lucas, who understood that. I remember asking him, “How do I get these guys to understand that we have to stay on budget?” And he said, “Involve them in it.” So, what we did… we would do a bit on a film, say on E.T. or Poltergeist, and when we were working on it every week, we would sit down and summarize how much we’d spent, how much we had left, and whether we were doing good (in terms of cost) or not. And we would review all the films. We usually did two or three films at once, and then we would review them with all those people. It was a bit of a competition then. “You know, this film is still doing well on budget. Theirs is a little over…” So that helped an awful lot.
But it is a difficult challenge, and as George Lucas said one time: “The visual effects are never done, they are just abandoned.”
TK: What were some of the processes of visual effects like in the pre-digital world?
Smith: The processes actually are no different in principle then when George Méliès, back at the turn of the century, was making films. It was re-photography of images. So you take an image of a spaceship, say you want it flying toward you. You would suspend it, and the camera would race in on the spaceship—by race in, I mean one frame at a time, very slowly. You would take that image, and then have another image of, let’s say, a star field, and then you would use the first image with the matted background that was blue and then matte out everything and then expose the star field. And that portion of the star field would be covering where the spaceship was, you would matte that out.
So you would put it together in re-photography. But you didn’t always succeed. Every morning we would review what we did. Very often there would be a mistake, and we’d have to do it over again, sending small pieces of film to the lab because what we worked with were just little pieces. It was tedious. It is tedious now digitally, but tedious in a different way.
TK: You also worked for Disney, right?
Smith: Yes, in 1986. I was sent there by George Lucas, because he was working on Captain EO with Michael Jackson, and they were having big trouble with the movie, because the visual effects were very difficult to do.
When I was through with that movie, Jeffrey Katzenberg asked me to come work for Disney, and I still wanted to make movies, so I went to Disney and then consulted on some of the theme-park visual effects production work. But then I was the executive producer of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. It was almost all visual effects and was a great idea for a movie. I did some other things while I was at Disney, too.
[Smith produced the visual effects for this high-budget, Disney theme-park 3D production, Captain EO, starring Jackson, which opened at Disney venues in California, Florida, France, and Japan. It is still showing as a theme park attraction after 26 years. Partly as a result of that acclaimed production, Smith was invited to join Walt Disney Studios as a feature film producer. His Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) won a BAFTA (British Academy Award) for outstanding special effects.]
Smith: While I was Disney, Jim Henson was going to a 3D theme park film for them. At that point, I sort of became “Mr. 3D”—before Captain EO I had never done it. So I produced Jim Henson’s movie, Muppet Vision 3D. He died while we were doing it—it was quite a shock… He was only 53 years old.
[In 1995, Smith left Disney to produce the science fiction film The Arrival starring Charlie Sheen. In 1999, he worked on the visual effects and directed second unit on the Jim Henson Co. film Muppets from Space. In 2001, he produced the Jim Henson Company/CBS’s, Jack and the Beanstalk , a four-hour movie of the week running in two parts on two successive CBS nights. His last feature film was as the visual effects producer and second unit director for Ted Turner’s Civil War epic, Gods and Generals (2003). The year he finished work on Gods and Generals, Tom wrote and published the civil war novel, Massacre At Baxter Springs (2004).]
Smith: I wrote a book on the Civil War, which after Gods and Generals I became more intimate with—I learned more about what it must of have been like to be a Civil War soldier. So I began thinking about my great grandfather, who died in Kansas in the Civil War, and I did a lot research on that. That is what the book is about… about his experience. He was about 17 years old , and he died about six weeks after he enlisted in Wisconsin. It is interesting what you can find out if you really dig. I actually got down to a handwritten description about what happened during the battle in which he died.
Gods and Generals was the very last feature film I worked on. After that, I went back and resurrected a film I worked on when I was working in 16 millimeter, which involves the geographic region of Western Illinois, the film Spoon River Anthology. It was pretty successful in 16 mm, but I wanted to do a bigger film, so I expanded the one I had, and it’s now being released by Phoenix [out of St. Louis]. It’s now around 90 minutes interactive—I designed it on the DVD so you can see the Spoon River part, or you can see a section on Edgar Lee Masters.
That project actually is what brought me in contact with WIU, because [Western Illinois University Distinguished Professor Emeritus] John Hallwas had written the introduction to the Spoon River Anthology book that came out, and he seemed to know a lot about it. So when I was expanding the project, I contacted him and interviewed him, and we’ve kept in contact ever since.
These days, Smith continues to write. Recently, he wrote the introduction to the new Oxford University Press book about educational movies, Learning with the Lights Off (2011), and he is currently writing a series of film history articles for “Insider” magazine.
View Smith’s Internet Movie Database (IMDb) bio at www.imdb.com/name/nm0810147/
Editor’ s Note: Notes from John Hallwas were used to help provide background information about Thomas G. Smith’s career. More information about Smith is also available in the University Relations’ press release that was disseminated prior to Smith’s Oct. 17 lecture at WIU.