Janet Lewin has been with Industrial Light & Magic for nearly three decades, but she still possesses the same youthful enthusiasm that the Star Wars-based visual effects company was founded on. While Lewin was not part of the ground-zero team that brought George Lucas' galaxy far, far away to life in 1977, she has helped ILM put its signature stamp on films that venture both in and outside of the Star Wars franchise. In fact, some of her proudest moments came on a film that has no attachment to any current franchise.
"For me, my personal highlights have been working with Dennis Muren and Ang Lee on Hulk," Lewin told ComicBook.com. "That was an opportunity to really get close with a filmmaker who moved up to ILM to be a part of the filmmaking process. I learned so much from that experience."
All roads at ILM do tend to lead back to Star Wars, and that's exactly where Lewin found herself two years after Ang Lee's Hulk.
"I think being a part of the reboots for Star Wars after having been a producer on Revenge of the Sith with George was this beautiful full circle opportunity to bring the franchise back to life in a new way," Lewin continued. "That was really, really exciting and inspiring for me."
Today, Star Wars has expanded its galactic forces into serialized television, premiering live-action streaming shows for the first time in Lucasfilm's history. Lewin stressed that shows like The Mandalorian are history-making far beyond their mere existence: they are game-changers in how they are made.
"I think The Mandalorian is another example of a highlight and an evolution in the way we approach filmmaking," Lewin said. "To be a part of Mandalorian Season 1 and implement the StageCraft Volume and partner with Jon Favreau and his incredible filmmaking team was also just an incredible opportunity for me."
The Mandalorian's implementation of StageCraft, also known as the Volume, has been a long time coming. Concepts for a virtual production stage had been floated around Lucasfilm for years, and once StageCraft launched for the Pedro Pascal-led bounty hunter series, studios could not wait to get their hands on it. Films from The Batman to Thor: Love and Thunder have used the Volume to bring their larger-than-life landscapes to the big screen.
While the Volume expedites the post-production process, it still brings its fair share of challenges.
"I think it's made it harder and easier, but I will say that basically, the whole paradigm shift is moving visual effects ahead of production. In order for it to really pay off, you need to have all of your designs accomplished, pre-vis, and the final content that you're going to be projecting in high resolution, real-time, in the Volume all needs to be done before you shoot," Lewin said. "That's a big investment in time and resources to get it lined up before the shoot, but on the day, the director, the DP, the visual effects supervisor, production designer, everybody can make creative choices with the actual real content, not just talking with sticks and arrows on a blue screen. When it works well, you get all of these shots in-camera that require very little post-production. That can be a huge savings of visual effects labor and time, but more to the point that it's just better looking. It's higher quality results because the filmmakers are there making those decisions as a collaborative team. They're not handing off downstream and losing the intent of the work."
Regardless of how much preparation goes in before a shoot, Lewin said she still sees filmmakers getting that creative spark as production is ongoing.
"It doesn't mean you can't be inspired on the day," Lewin continued. "That happens all the time when we would've planned to shoot something a certain way and the filmmakers get there and they change it. That still happens all the time, but it's more that they're able to design together that really elevates the craft."
As evidenced by The Mandalorian's technological advances, ILM is up for any challenge. That was especially apparent in the recent launch of ABBA Voyage, a concert experience that transforms the "Dancing Queen" artists into digital avatars.
"Nothing like this had ever been done before," Lewin said. "We could only do our best to estimate what it would take. That's what we do time and again. We take these leaps of faith on these groundbreaking projects that we believe in and we get behind. Like [Executive Vice President and General Manager of Lucasfilm] Lynwen [Brennan] was saying, that is an example of one that was a nail-biter. Are we going to be able to hit that bar? Do we have the right resources? Do we have the right pipeline? We have this incredible braintrust of talent and so much of what makes ILM such a wonderful place to work is that we all rally behind each other. No show is standing on its own. When there's a problem, we bring in the braintrust and we talk about how we're going to approach this. That's an example of one where we tried lots of different techniques and we came out really, really successful."
ILM's revolutionary work within the entertainment industry can be explored in Light & Magic, a six-part docuseries chronicling the company's evolution, streaming now on Disney+.