Category Archives: Movie-making & Animation

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) Turns 40

Peter Lobner

When 20th Century Fox approved the production of George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie, the studio had no special effects department and much of the technology eventually used in creating that movie did not exist. George Lucas founded ILM in the summer of 1975 to address this matter, and since then, ILM has been at the forefront of developing, innovating, and applying a broad range of new technologies that have been instrumental in the production of 317 movies and have fundamentally changed the course of the movie-making business.

ILM_logo  Source:

You’ll find lots of interesting information at the ILM website:

You can read an excellent oral history, “The Untold Story of ILM, a Titan That Forever Changed Film,” by Alex French and Howie Kahn at the following link:

French and Kahn conclude:

 “What defines ILM, however, isn’t a signature look, feel, or tone—those change project by project. Rather, it’s the indefatigable spirit of innovation that each of the 43 subjects interviewed for this oral history mentioned time and again. It is the Force that sustains the place.”

 Pixar started in 1979 as an ILM internal project and it evolved into the premier computer animation studio, bringing us feature-length animated movies, including Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, A Bug’s Life and many more. More than being well-animated, the Pixar movies have excelled in telling meaningful stories through characters that have become part of our modern culture. You may recognize the Pixar logo shown below, with the little lamp, Luxo, Jr.:

Luxo-Logo  Source: Pixar

Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, forming Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar also is responsible for RenderMan software products that are widely used to manage texture, color, lighting and more in computer animation processes. Find out more at the Pixar website:

You can scroll through the Pixar timeline from 1979 to the present at the following link:

Movie special effects have come a very long way since Flash Gordon’s spaceship circled a landing site on visible wires, belching rocket exhaust that strangely resembled 4th of July sparklers.

How Can Studios Release High-Definition Versions of Decades Old Movies and TV Shows?

Peter Lobner

That modern high-definition (HD) digital versions of movies can be created from the original film stock is a real testament to the very high-resolution available in movie film, even older film stock if it has been well preserved. Details on the process are described in the article at the following link:

The most common film used in traditional movie theaters is 35 mm film, which is available in several variations for Cinemascope, widescreen, etc.  A 35 mm film frame measures 22 mm wide by 16 mm high and more or less of that frame is used depending on the aspect ratio of the image being captured. For example, a wide-screen (high aspect ratio) image does not use the full height of the 35 mm film frame. In effect, this is optical image compression.

35mm_film_formatSource: Wikipedia Commons

The large format film stock discussed in the article is 65 mm film, which was used to film the 1959 movie Ben Hur and many other wide-screen movies.  The resolution is higher than for 35 mm film because of the greater film area available for an “uncompressed” wide-screen image. As used in cameras, each film frame is 48.5 mm wide by 22.1 mm high. For projection, the original 65 mm film is printed on 70 mm film. The additional 5 mm in film width are used for four magnetic strips holding six tracks of sound.

IMAX-70mm-35mm comparisonSource:

The article doesn’t mention IMAX film, which is a horizontal variant of 70 mm film, in which the film roll is turned on its side with 15 perforations per frame. The above figure shows the relative sizes of 35 mm, standard 70 mm and IMAX 70 mm film. An IMAX frame is more than three times the size of a standard 70 mm frame and almost nine times greater than a 35 mm film frame. No wonder IMAX film movies look so impressive.

The 1st-generation U.S. photographic spy satellites, Corona, used special Kodak 70 mm film.

As noted in the article, the resolution of 35mm film is comparable to that of a 20 megapixel digital image. The large format 65-70mm film has roughly double the potential resolution of 35mm film, comparable to a 30-40 megapixel digital image. This means an IMAX film image would be comparable to a 90 – 120 megapixel digital image.

Many new movies are being filmed in 8K digital (7680 x 4320 pixel frame = about 33.2 megapixels per frame), which has about 4 times the resolution of the latest 4K (3840 x 2160 pixel frame = about 8.2 megapixels per frame) HDTVs.  Even 8K digital doesn’t match the image quality from the original film version of the movie Ben Hur or a modern IMAX film.

Rendering Disney’s Animated Movie Big Hero 6

Peter Lobner

Disney rendered the animated film Big Hero 6 on a 55,000-core supercomputer.

Disney Big Hero 6

Read the story at the following link:

The 1984 movie The Last Starfighter, along with Disney’s Tron, has the distinction of being one of cinema’s earliest films to use extensive computer generated imagery (CGI) to depict its many starships, environments and battle scenes.  A total of 27 minutes of The Last Starfighter were rendered on a Cray X-MP, which was a 4-core machine with a total computing performance of 0.8 GFLOPS/sec (GFLOP/sec = billion floating point operations per second).  
In comparison, Big Hero 6 used a modern 55,000 core supercomputer.  To estimate it’s computing performance, I scaled the known 2012 performance of the 75,000 core IBM Yellowstone supercomputer to get an estimate of 1.2 PFLOP/second (PFLOP/sec = million billion floating point operations per second). So the supercomputer used by Disney in 2014 to render Big Hero 6 has 1.5 million times the computing performance of the Cray X-MP used in 1984 to render The Last Starfighter.  
That’s pretty good progress in 30 years, and pretty consistent with what you would expect using Moore’s Law (basically, computing power of new computers doubles about every two years) over that period.