Q&A: ILM’s General Manager Janet Lewin Discusses the State of Visual Effects, New “Light & Magic” Documentary

Janet Lewin serves as the General Manager of Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s legendary in-house visual effects department. According to Lucasfilm’s official website, she “oversees all aspects of the visual effects and animation business” for the company.

This week I had the wonderful opportunity to interact with Janet Lewin during a fascinating roundtable interview in promotion of the new Disney+ documentary series Light & Magic, which chronicles the storied history of ILM.

Light & Magic isn’t just about Star Wars,” says Lewin. “It’s about the vast array of projects that ILM has contributed to over the past 47 years. We continue to get involved with any project that is creatively inspiring to us. We’re working on 40 different shows at the moment, including feature animation projects, episodic [television], live-action films, immersive entertainment, and everything in-between. And when we look to our past, we can see that we’ve got these amazingly talented creative individuals who love to solve problems and take chances and leaps of faith to realize new visions. The cool thing about ILM’s relationship with Lucasfilm is that we have a transparency with that studio. We’re one company, but it’s a symbiotic relationship. ILM and our innovation roadmap, and some of the breakthroughs that we’re making, can help influence Lucasfilm’s storytelling, and likewise.”

When asked how it feels to have been responsible for so much of the movie magic audiences have fallen in love with over the years, Lewin replied, “It feels great. It is not all on me. We have [an] amazing team of seasoned leaders in every aspect of the organization– creative leadership, production leadership, technology leadership. I’m so proud of the work that is being featured and celebrated in the documentary, and I feel just truly honored to be a part of the company that’s inspiring so many other people to get into the industry. I always talk about the intersection of production, creativity, and innovation– [and] art is also a throughline of all of that. I actually started as a temp in the purchasing department 28 years ago, and wove my way through the organization but really found my passion in producing visual effects. I think of myself as creative, but that’s not my strong suit. I’m really more on the business side of the house, but I love that partnership with creative– providing the structure and the support and the environment for people to do their best work.”

“We do still employ people who got their start as miniature modelers, traditional matte painters, and even motion-control operators. We have a lot of people who learned their craft painting on shower-glass doors, and then had to learn a new way of working in computer graphics. But I will say that one of the really fun things about being involved in the Star Wars films and episodic shows is that there’s a desire to honor our legacy with those kinds of hand-crafted visual effects. We do actually build a lot of miniatures for The Mandalorian, as an example. The Razor Crest we built as a miniature, some of the environments that we then photograph and put into our Volume– ‘loads,’ as we call them, the real-time images up on the LED screens– are from miniatures that we built. So we absolutely love to leverage all of these legacy tools to have this layered approach that you can feel is more hand-crafted than you might get in just traditional computer graphics.”

I asked how Lewin and the other powers that be at ILM helped director Lawrence Kasdan portray the company as accurately as possible in Light & Magic. “Kasdan has been a long-time collaborator for both Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic,” responded Lewin. “When he got involved with Solo: [A Star Wars Story] with Ron Howard, he had this brain child about wanting to honor the legacy of all these visual effects contributions to some of the most memorable films of all time. We gave him unfettered access to anything he wanted to explore for his documentary. It was really his vision, though. He was coming at it from the vantage point of a seasoned filmmaker and writer, wanting to tell a story that you didn’t have to be steeped in visual effects– or even really in the film industry– to enjoy it. He interviewed lots of people who have been at the company for a long, long time and could tell interesting stories about how they achieved their work. It’s really about celebrating the fact that we’re filmmakers, through and through, and that no challenge is too hard– that is part of our DNA. We love achieving the impossible and being in the fabric of these amazing films that inspire so many people around the world. That continues into the future– it’s not as though it was just ‘back in the day’ that there was a certain methodology or a certain way of working. We’ve continued to evolve and adapt and it’s important for people to know that we have the same spirit and DNA of our legacy, but that we’re still inventing and innovating every single day of the year.”

Light & Magic is now available to stream in its entirety, exclusively on Disney+.

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Mike Celestino
Mike serves as Laughing Place's lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly "Who's the Bossk?" Star Wars podcast. He's been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general all his life and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.