The way out of ILM

After its revolutionary years, Industrial Light & Magic had entered a period of standardization and stagnation, lacking in incentives for inquiring and creative individuals. At the end of 1984, David Fincher realized that his three-year run at the company was heading to a dead end:

I got to see the beginnings of the whole unionised, mechanised and disgruntled world of Lucasfilm. I did that for about two and a half years. I came into ILM at the end of a golden age; there’s periods to everything. There was a period of time in music videos when things were really fun and exciting, when money was being spent and there was attention on it, it flourished and kind of sparkled – but then it got boring and stupid and then you moved on to commercials. I came to ILM at a time when things were sort of dying off, and all the people that were the reason that I wanted to be there were leaving. Richard Edlund had gone and Phil Tippett was taking a leave of absence, Joe Johnston was coming south to try and make movies, the place was sort of fragmenting. Dennis Muren was taking time off and there were a lot of Star Trek movies being made, things were kind of getting off track. They couldn’t keep the band together.

To me, the highlight of anything ever achieved at that place was The Empire Strikes Back. One of the finest amalgams of cinematic disciplines. In every single category, it’s beautifully lit, it’s beautifully designed, it’s really well cast – who would have thought, Billy Dee Williams for this? – and there’s incredible risks taken with it. I mean, they made a main character a Muppet! You sit there and think, “Who risks a hundred million dollar franchise by having a pivotal character that’s a Muppet?” And then they went, “We don’t know how to do this thing with the tanks.” “Well, we’ll do it stop-motion.” “Nobody does stop-motion any more.” “Well, we’ll do it. We’ll do it motion-control and it won’t look like it and we’ll take these rooms and fill them with baking soda and people will come up through trap doors with masks on and move things…” Who has the sort of confidence to create this potpourri of techniques? I thought that the guys who did the effects for this movie, the guys who had the discipline to set up those tables and take one frame every 25 minutes, I could learn something from them.

The kind of myriad disciplines that had gone in to achieving this whole thing were awesome, and that had kind of ended, they were doing Starman and Explorers and there was a lot of this “Just get it done” attitude. “Here, make a rubber worm and pull it with a wire, and that’s fine…” [1]

I thought, “This is a bunch of guys in Wrangler jeans and plaid shirts who are scratching their asses and trying to figure this thing out”. It was horrifying and liberating at the same time. I realized I had fallen for this idea, because George Lucas has blessed these people with a place to blather around, that they were somehow uber-qualified. Really, it was just a bunch of people trying to figure something out. [2]

I was kind of fed up and tired of being the special effects lettuce picker, the itinerant laborer. [3]

I was going, “I didn’t sign on for this”. [1]

Fincher had decided to be a movie director after watching the making-of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on TV and then seeing the movie with his dad. He was only seven years old and it might have been one of those things that kids say when they get excited about something, but he never changed his mind. He still had to grow and learn more about filmmaking until he could start to develop a more serious strategy to follow his passion:

In high school, I thought I’d work at ILM for a while, then try and direct television commercials and from that I would make features. It seemed like a logical kind of progression to me. And everybody just said, “You can’t just go from working at a factory like ILM to directing TV commercials.” It was too big a leap it seemed. And then, “You can’t go from TV commercials to directing features,” which is rare that people get that opportunity. But I went sort of, “But hey, you CAN make this step.”

So I sort of knew that it was going to be a long road, because I didn’t want to be the guy who’s loading the magazines for the guy who was shooting the scene for the guy who had the whole thing in his head. I wanted to be the guy who had the whole thing in his head. [3]

And the time had arrived for him to stick to the plan and take the next step of his career:

The first thing I ever got to direct was when I swindled my way into a commercial for the American Cancer Society. It was in motion-control: a puppet that was smoking a cigarette in utero – it’s a very odd little thing. [3]


1.  2003. James Swallow – Dark Eye. The Films of David Fincher (Reynolds & Hearn Ltd) (pp. 17-18)
2.  2011-02-09. Stephen Galloway – David Fincher. Punk. Prophet. Genius (The Complex Mind of ‘Social Network’s’ Anti-Social Director) (The Hollywood Reporter)
3.  2006. Stephan Littger – The Director’s Cut: Picturing Hollywood in the 21st Century (Continuum) (pp. 168, 170)

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