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The Empire Strikes At Silos


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Does your company do its work with static teams of company lifers who swivel from task to task as deliberately as a Sherman tank? At Lucasfilm Ltd., the creators of Star Wars, that sounds like a business model from a long time ago, in a company far, far away. Its teams form and unform rapidly around projects, managers must motivate teams of freelancers and full-timers, and silo-busting is the rule.

To promote that organizational behavior, George Lucas and Micheline Chau, Lucasfilm president and chief operating officer, moved their disparate units—special effects shop Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the LucasArts video game company, and Lucasfilm Animation, among others—to a $350 million complex in July, 2005, at San Francisco's Presidio, once an Army base and now a national park. A look at how work gets done there is instructive, as many companies try simultaneously to foster teamwork and to come to terms with Free Agent Nation:

ONE ROOF

Getting ILM and Lucas-Arts to share ideas and technology was a prime motivator for the move to the new digs, which look surprisingly old-fashioned—more college campus than Millennium Falcon. Lucasfilmers across the board say the type of collaboration Chau has pushed wouldn't be possible if they hadn't been brought under the same roof. In an era of extreme telecommuting, when companies are rolling out pricey high-def videoconferencing systems, even the highest-tech ILM staffers say there's no substitute for face-to-face interaction for their team-oriented projects. Lucasfilm's nascent Singapore beachhead, home to 130 staffers, is kept well stocked with San Francisco vets to cement the connection with HQ.

MOBILE MANAGERS

The digital artists at ILM sit in a pool of cubes positioned in the center of the building, most of them away from the sunlight so they can get precise readings of the colors on their screens. "We do our best work in black boxes," says Scott Farrar, an Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor who most recently oversaw work on the film Transformers. Typical office hierarchies don't apply: Managers like Farrar, who oversee teams of hundreds of artists on big films, are rootless. They move through office suites scattered around the central pool of artists, depending on whose talents are needed for the movie.

SCALABLE WORKFORCE

ILM has a permanent staff of about 700, but that can swell by as much as a quarter in the winter and spring, when effects work is being done on the summer blockbusters. Around 350 people at the Presidio worked with Farrar on Transformers, more than were actually on set with director Michael Bay. And John Knoll, visual effects supervisor on the third Pirates of the Caribbean, figures half of his team members were new to ILM. It's a significant challenge to accommodate the constantly rising and falling army of freelancers, all of whom need IT training and HR orientation, a computer (or three), and a place to sit. The desks, tables, and chairs are all reconfigurable, so that one or four people can use an office. And—a simple but crucial point—each room has ample electrical outlets.

SHARING TECHNOLOGY

ILM and LucasArts have started to use a common production platform. That allows artists to share techniques between films and video games. The collaboration is already paying off for LucasArts. Haden Blackman, the project lead on the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed game, credits ILM's expertise in lighting, makeup, and motion capture for making the characters' faces more realistic. "It's all based on technology they developed," Blackman says. Now, Chau singles out the game company as the main source of growth for Lucasfilm.

BRUTE POWER

Lucasfilm's nerve center is the 10,000-square-foot "machine room." From down the hallway, you can hear the hum of the many fans needed to keep the room cooled to 65F, lest the servers melt down. About 4,300 processors, as well as a network of 1,200 Linux desktop terminals, make up the "render farm," a cluster of computing might that allows the complicated visual effects to be churned out. Knoll, an Oscar winner and co-inventor of the Photoshop photo-editing software, estimates it would take a run-of-the-mill PC about 1,000 years running full tilt to create the effects for the most recent Pirates movie.

By Brian Hindo


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