Inside ILM: Talking with David Weitzberg – He Blows Things Up in Star Wars

The computer graphics supervisor on his early inspirations, working on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and more.

Inside ILM is a feature in which talks to the gifted folks — many unsung — at Lucasfilm’s legendary visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic. Here, we’ll discuss their career paths, experience, and unique contributions to a galaxy far, far away and film in general. 

As a young kid growing up in Potomac, Maryland, David Weitzberg was interested in computers and photography, but it was Star Wars that really drew him into the world of special effects. Years later while studying computer science at MIT, Weitzberg traveled across the country to California to start an internship with the company whose work had captivated him. Fast forward, and Weitzberg is now a 19-year veteran of Industrial Light & Magic, living in San Francisco with his wife and three children. sat down with Weitzberg to discuss his start at ILM, his contributions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the newest additions to the missions in Star Tours, and most importantly, explosions.
(Note: Weitzberg often refers to films as “shows.” That’s how we talk in the biz!) Let’s start with a brief history of how you came to ILM. What drew you to the movie industry and ILM specifically?

David Weitzberg: Like a lot of people here, I grew up liking Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Amblin movies, and those kinds of things. I was always into computers and photography and it was really in high school when Jurassic Park and Terminator came out that I saw this path of being able to do it [special effects] and got excited and kept learning more about it. I was always into “behind-the-scenes” as a kid. My parents recorded Star Wars off the TV with an hour “Making Of” special, and I used to watch the beginning of the movie because it was exciting, skip through the middle with the slow dialogue parts, and then watch the final battle and the “Making Of,” over and over again. I started reading and learning a lot more of the making of visual effects and found it was something that I really wanted to do. I went to MIT for computer science, to get a technical background. While I was there I came to ILM for an internship. There’s a lot of us interns that came back and stayed. I was here in ’96 and I worked on Mars Attacks, went back to school, got my degree, turned back around and came right back. What was your internship for?

David Weitzberg: It was an introduction to visual effects, I learned how to work within the ILM pipeline to create shots that went into the finished movie. I worked directly with [Star Wars: The Force Awakens visual effects supervisor] Roger Guyett, who was Mars Attacks’ computer graphics supervisor. I helped out and learned as much as I could. And it was very cool as a college student to be able to see my work in a movie. What did you start out as when you came back full-time?

David Weitzberg: I was an assistant technical director, now called “pipeline technical director”, where I assisted the CG supervisor and helped with the day-to-day running of the show. We wrote scripts and tools and fixed any technical problems that artists had. Anything that’s not working, you figure out how to fix.

David Weitzberg, a computer graphics supervisor, smiles. Your title right now is supervising technical director — what does that mean?

David Weitzberg: My title varies from show to show. Mostly, I’m a computer graphics [CG] supervisor, which means I’m in charge of all the technical aspects of the show. The visual effects supervisor is the creative lead and she/he is responsible for getting the right images to the client. As a CG supervisor, you figure out technically how to do all of that and make sure that we have enough disk space, enough processors, and a lot of things that you don’t really think about but are necessary to get the job done. So the prequels were announced in ’94, and you started in ’96. Was that kind of a driving force for you for wanting to come back to ILM?

David Weitzberg: Absolutely. When I was an intern, they were shooting the Special Editions at ILM. I still remember seeing the actors in costume walking around and the filming call sheets. There was just something really magical about being here and seeing a Star Wars call sheet. At the time, too, just when I was finishing up school, I could have stayed in school and focused more on graphics research but the prequels were coming and at the time the technology in the industry was moving much faster, and I wanted to get in as soon as I could. I came back here and worked on Episode I — I think it was the second or third movie I worked on when I got back. What did you do on the prequel films? What’s one of your favorite scenes that you worked on?

David Weitzberg: Well, I worked on the opening shot of Episode III.

An epic space battle above Coruscant, in Revenge of the Sith.

Two Jedi Interceptors fly into an explosion. And you got a VES [Visual Effects Society] nomination for that.

David Weitzberg: I was nominated, and we lost [Laughs], but it was an honor to be nominated. It was a really fun project, we developed the look of the space battle. It was a 2,000-frame long shot or so. John Knoll created the title crawl, and then handed it over to us and we followed the Jedi fighters flying through the battle, with more ships in the background and the planet below, just all kinds of cool stuff. What’s the process for doing all that? Where do you even start?

David Weitzberg: You have to break it down into sort of meaningful chunks. What helps is that there are amazing teams here. First the shot may be storyboarded or shown in an animatic, a rough moving version of the shot that establishes the timing, where someone’s already blocked out roughly, “This thing happens here, this thing happens there.” Then it goes through a camera polish in the layout department, where they refine the camera moves and make sure everything is in the right place. Animation makes all the ships and characters move just right, sometimes another group adds physical simulations to the movement, and then it gets handed off to one of the groups I work with. That’s where you add lighting and different effects. For example, as the little ships fly by the giant Star Destroyer, you might get some bounce light so it glows just a little bit on that side. We add details to make it feel like it fits in the scene better. Then there’s all the particle effects and destruction, which is more what I’m specializing in now. Something blows up, there’s a laser fire, dust clouds, water splashes, whatever is needed in the scene. It’s about breaking up the complicated shot into smaller pieces and refining them all along until the whole shot is assembled. What was the atmosphere like during the prequels? Was everyone super excited that they got to work on the new Star Wars?

David Weitzberg: It really was exciting, there was definitely a buzz around it. It was a very popular show to be on and everyone was very excited to be a part of it. There is so much in that universe that can be done, so to be able to be a part of it was really something. For example, I worked on the Mustafar landing platform and I loved going out to the stage and seeing big practical models with the thick goop they used for the lava and the under-lighting effects. Do you still work with the people who do the practical effects?

David Weitzberg: Not so much now. It was different when we had the stages at Kerner. The CG department was still separate, but I like seeing how everything works so I took advantage of having these amazing artists here, to see what they were doing. Once the prequels were finished, did you think you’d ever work on another Star Wars?

David Weitzberg: I worked on it for the better part of seven years, so I enjoyed taking a break from Star Wars and getting to work on some other things. [Laughs] I didn’t think there would be any more Star Wars movies but then I got to work on The Force Awakens. What did you do for that?

David Weitzberg: I worked on the particle effects, adding explosions and splashes. There was a team of us working on it. When the X-wing cavalry come in at Maz’s castle, I worked on a bunch of shots of stormtroopers getting blasted and Poe flying around and shooting TIE fighters out of the sky.

An X-wing shoots a TIE-Fighter above a body of water.

Stormtroopers get blasted into the air. What’s your favorite scene that you’ve worked on in a Star Wars film?

David Weitzberg: There’s a lot. [Laughs] I think the opening shot of Episode III really stands out, just because it’s such a long shot and so much happens in it that we really got to do a lot. And it’s a Star Wars space battle! It’s a common thing, but I may or may not have put my head in for one of the pilots. You’ll never see it, but I know it’s there. How has the technology changed from the prequels to The Force Awakens? Did the process that you had for working on those change a lot?

David Weitzberg: Absolutely. Back then, the tools weren’t as refined as they are now and so we really were creating what we needed on the fly. As the technology has evolved, we’re able to do much more complicated simulations now. There can still be a lot of programming but there has also been a lot of software developed that lets artists focus on making their work look good without worrying so much about the technical aspects of how do you do it. Does the process change from film to film?

David Weitzberg: A lot of the processes are the same. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but part of the fun, I think, of working in this industry is every project has its own challenges. Even if you’re doing an explosion in a Star Wars film versus an explosion on a Star Trek film, or something somewhere more Earth-based, the looks are all different. There might be something that’s more of a “gas ball” explosion versus something that’s chunkier and dirty. There’s all kinds of different looks that you can do.

Ski speeders trail red plumes of dust above a salt field in the Battle of Crait.

A TIE fighter explodes above two ski speeders at the Battle of Crait. Moving on to The Last Jedi, what can you tell me about what you did for that? Did you do anything we saw in the trailer?

David Weitzberg: I worked on several shots in the Battle of Crait. You can see Crait in the trailer but I didn’t work directly on any of those shots. There’s one shot, kind of from behind that’s very similar to a shot that I worked on. My team did the speeder trails and the explosions whenever anything hits the ground. So you just finished working on Star Tours. What’s it like doing a ride? Is it really different from working on a film?

David Weitzberg: It is in a way. I actually worked on Last Jedi on the same sequences we visit in Star Tours, so it really is bringing everything together. I like working on the ride, it’s a different medium. Putting it in that ride experience adds a new dimension to it. It’s also different where, when you work on a shot in a movie, you might spend months working on something that’s gone in a second. But when you work on the ride, you work more on the whole ride and it’s great to work on every part of it. Have you ridden the ride yet with the updated content? How do you test that out?

David Weitzberg: I haven’t ridden it. We just watch it here, but a couple of the leads have gone down and ridden the ride. You want to take into account how the ship moves?

David Weitzberg: Yeah, Imagineering has people who focus on that. We coordinate with them so the visuals match up with the motion. Along the way you can still tweak it if you find problems. I have little kids and it’s fun taking them to Disneyland and seeing how they’re getting excited by all these things. There’s a bit too on one of the older Star Tours where, some ILM employees are the extras where they come up in the end and clap. You watch it and go, “Oh hey, I know that person, and that person…” [Laughs] How would you sum up your experience at ILM?

David Weitzberg: Always learning more. There are so many amazing talented people here that, even if they are doing the same thing as you, you still learn new ways to do it or ways to get better. It’s really about the people. I mean, I’ve been here for 20 years and you don’t stay at a company that long if not for the amazing people. It’s really about the team — it’s about what we’re able to do together. ILM has a very special culture where we all help each other out. There’s what we call the “15-minute rule.” If it takes longer than 15 minutes to solve, ask someone for help. Any advice for people wanting to break into this field?

David Weitzberg: I think it’s important to get a broad understanding of how visual effects work and how creating visual effects is done. A little bit of the history of visual effects and why things are the way they are. Photography is good to know, studying nature and seeing how things look in real life. If you want to be an animator, learn about motion and the fundamental principles of animation. If explosions and effects excite you, you can learn a lot by watching YouTube videos and seeing how nature and physics work. And I think the best way to learn is by doing — there are a number of software packages that are free to download and learn and practice creating visual effects at home. Bonus question: What’s your favorite explosion you’ve worked on?

David Weitzberg: My favorite kind of explosion are the ones where something more complicated is going on, that’s not just an “explosion.” One of the shots that I worked on was the implosion of Vulcan in the Star Trek reboot. A lot of the principles of our other explosion were there but instead of it exploding outward we made it suck in through a vortex with lots of clouds swirling around and a lot of different layers to make it up. The more complex, challenging explosions are the best.

Anina Walas is an operations and production coordinator with the Star Warsonline team. She loves pretty much everything Disney, great weather, making/eating really good food, and of course, Star Wars. You can follow her on Twitter @aninaden, but beware, she’s terribly inconsistent about tweeting things.

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