1. The Dykstraflex camera and elaborate motion-controlled photography
To make the Star Wars film he envisioned, George Lucas established his own special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. And the mindblowing-for-the-time space sequences in Star Wars were only made possible by ILM's development of the Dykstraflex, a motion-controlled camera that was totally digitally controlled, so shots and camera movements could be precisely duplicated again and again and again. Otherwise, X-Wings would've just looked a lot like this on the big screen.
2. Go Motion, a new kind of stop motion animation
First used on Empire Strikes Back, and used extensively in the first non-Lucasfilm movie that ILM worked on, Dragonslayer, Go Motion is a stop-motion animation technique developed by Phil Tippet to create realistic motion blur by having the puppet make several moves per frame. Like the Dykstraflex, the key is full digital control versus manual puppeteering — the motors controlling the rods manipulating puppet are run by computer, resulting in way smoother animation than traditional stop motion.
3. The first photorealistic CGI character
The stained-glass knight from the 1985 flick Young Sherlock Holmes doesn't look so hot now, but he's considered by some to be the first photorealistic CGI character in a feature-length film. Know what's awesome? He was the the first CG character to be painted onto film with a laser, according to AMC's FilmSite.
4. Detailed morphing effects
Developed Morf, graphics software for "digital metamorphosis of high resolution images" — like the funky series of transformations seen in this clip from 1988's Willow, the first time morphing effects this detailed had ever been seen. ILM boasts that it'd "be almost two years before any ILM competitor could duplicate the technique."
5. First weird water CGI
ILM refers to the pseudopod from James Cameron's The Abyss as the first "computer generated three-dimensional fluid-based character," and it was the first example of digitally animated CGI water, according to Filmsite. Again, it looks crude, but think of it as a predecessor to all the water work in Pirates of the Caribbean, also done by ILM.
6. First computer-generated skin that looks real
1992's Death Becomes Her won an Academy Award for visual effects, namely ILM's creation of the first-ever photorealistic computer-generated skin.
7. Two words: Jurassic. Park.
The raptors might have a secret, but the T-Rex and other dinosaurs are in fact the first time that computer-generated characters were rendered with physically textured skin and muscles.
8. The first computer-generated fur you wanted to touch
No, ILM didn't create a CGI Robin Williams, but the lions and monkeys in 1995's Jumanji are the first examples of photorealistic synthetic hair and fur.
9. The first "realistic" digital person
Again, not Brendan Fraser! ILM's work on The Mummy produced what's considered to be the first realistic, uh, "human" — Imhotep, the mummy — since it was the first one with a complete set of computer-generated anatomy: skeleton, muscles, sinew and tissue.
10. Legitimate all-digital sets with living, breathing actors
For Steven Spielberg's A.I., ILM developed "the first real-time interactive on-set visualization process allowing filmmakers to place actors in virtual sets providing complete freedom with camera moves." Leading to later movies with all-digital sets like Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
11. Ambient occlusion lighting effects
It sounds mysterious and vaguely sexy — and ILM's development of ambient occlusion to create more realistic computer-generated lighting effects, with accurate shadows and directional light, is in a fact big deal. First used by ILM for Pearl Harbor, it's now a technique that's heavily used in the computer graphics field — it even garnered a technical achievement award from the Oscars.
Baby Sunny in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events was played by a pair of twins, mostly. Except for a handful shots that were too risky for a baby, like Sunny hangs from the table by her teeth — which led to the first extreme closeups of a totally CGI character. That's how good ILM's CGI techniques had gotten by 2004.
13. Imocap digital motion capturing system
ILM's most recent breakthrough is Imocap, a motion capturing system — ILM calls it an "image-based performance capturing system" — that precisely records actors' every movement, every facial tick and allows it to be translated into a fully fleshed out digital creation, like Bill Nighy's Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
Pixar, the world's most beloved animation studio, actually spawned as the computer graphics department at Lucasfilm with ILM, where current CEO John Lasseter worked as a computer animator. George Lucas split off the division and sold it to Steve Jobs in 1986 for $10 million, who was mostly interested in commercializing the Pixar Image Computer.
Photoshop also got its start at ILM, created by Thomas and John Knoll as an image-processing program, which they wound up selling to Adobe.