Name a modern-day sci-fi/fantasy classic and the chances are that Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) visual effects supervisor Bill George has worked on it: Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Planet of the Apes and E.T, to name just a few.
But it all began with physical models for the Academy-Award winning effects guru (he counts miniature construction and design on sci-fi classic Blade Runner among his work) although the area is less in demand in an era of CGI-heavy blockbusters.
“The thing we used to dread hearing was ‘it looks like a model’," said George, who provided written answers to questions lodged through a moderated online Q&A session.
“Now we dread ‘It looks CGI’. I really love working with miniatures but working with CG gives you a huge amount of control that is hard to beat. Personally, I like mixing up techniques on a show to keep the audience guessing.”
For example, the shower scene in sci-fi romance I Am Number Four, which was overseen by George, used both CG-water and practical water shot against black. Still, the use of physical models in films is “on the decline”.
“Whenever I can I use models I will, because I think you can get a great result. By the way, I still build models at home for fun.”
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Number Six (Teresa Palmer) in I Am Number Four.
George joined ILM in 1981 but it was his first Oscar six years later for Innerspace (shared with Dennis Muren, Harley Jessup, Kenneth Smith) which allowed him to move out of the ILM model shop and explore other departments.
He says the concepts have remained unchanged over the years but “things like match-moving that used to be super hard have gotten easier”.
“As machines and software get faster the shots have gotten more complex. Tools are always changing and getting more robust and our work has gotten more demanding.”
I Am Number Four grossed more than $US144 million worldwide although its mix of teen romance set against sci-fi action prompted mixed reviews. George says the destruction of the Mog commander scene was his favourite because very little altered after filming.
“We shot practical explosions and sparks and bombs and there is nothing more fun than blowing stuff up! When we work on our shots we don't have the final sound effects that are added right at the end and the sound design for that sequence was rockin'!”
It’s not always work which is appreciated by the general public, who are increasingly casting a sceptical eye on CGI-work and special effects in general.
“Most people don't realise the tremendous time and budget pressure we are under to deliver our work,” he says. “People will comment ‘they should have done this or that…’ not knowing that we do have limitations. Our goal is always to maximize our artists time, to stay on track and get the most out of the effects as possible.”
I Am Number Four will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD on July 6.
Mogadorian Commander (Kevin Durand) leaves after Number Four escapes.