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Big Screen Development

Features: March 1999: Big Screen Development

When Russell Darling sees his name up in lights, he’s a little surprised by the turns his life has taken. As a senior system programmer in the video engineering department at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in San Rafael, Calif., Darling has a role in all the films ILM makes. As a member of the generation that grew up nourished by the myths of Star Wars, Russell Darling followed the work of the effects house responsible for the amazing effects in movies such as Starship Troopers, the Star Trek films, Jumanji, and Jurassic Park. Now, he’s on the staff. An affable guy and a problem solver, he’s a man who loves his job.

Though a long-time fan of movies, and of ILM, Darling didn’t believe he’d end up working for a special effects house. It was something he wanted, but thought of as “an impossible dream.” Actually, Darling started out with his sights set on NASA. In 1988, he enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., because the school concentrated on aerospace engineering, aeronautic physics, and pilot training.

To fund his ambitions, Darling worked for a small software development company called Sales Partner Systems Inc. (SPS), a privately held company that develops sales force automation software. Because SPS was such a small company, the programmers did everything: design, development, support, and even information technology support within the company. “Working full-time and going to school didn’t give me much time for other things, like a social life,” says Darling. He spent about five years working and attending the university, and continued on with SPS even after he got his degree. On the positive side, he believes working in business software as well as the foundation he received from his college classes in C, C++, assembly, and LISP processing put him on the right track.

At SPS, Darling was working in Fortran and even Turbo Pascal until the company made the leap to Windows and started using Visual C++. But while Darling was getting smarter, his career was not advancing. At the start of 1996, he realized he’d have to move on because NASA wasn’t going to be a viable option for him. Budget cuts and the end of the cold war had motivated the change in Darling’s plans. “It wasn’t the best time in the aerospace industry,” he says.

For a guy who loved movies, harbored a secret desire to work in an effects house, and had a solid background writing software, the place to go was obvious—the San Francisco Bay Area. Next stop, Charles Schwab and Co., where Darling landed a job in the software development department developing investment-tracking software for the company’s customers. It wasn’t necessarily a glamorous job, he says, but “at least I was living and working in the general vicinity of ILM.” Within a few months, Darling found himself on the management track, a place where he didn’t want to be. “I didn’t want to go into management so soon, there was still so much to learn,” he says.

And now comes the lucky part. At the time, ILM didn’t communicate much with the outside world. The company didn’t even have a web site. But one day, Darling was leafing through the newspaper and saw a tiny advertisement. ILM was looking for programmers. He applied and underwent ILM’s rigorous process of phone and in-person interviews. “It took months and a lot of effort,” says Darling, who admits there were times when he didn’t think he’d make it, “but I got the job.”

Certainly, Darling had the skills. The majority of ILM’s effects are created on SGI systems, which Darling became familiar with in college. As a result, Darling is programming primarily for a UNIX network system and SGI machines. “We use a variety of tools including C++ and custom libraries we’ve written, some using straight C. Our production people often use scripts, and we use Python, a scripting language.”

But Darling realized right away that working in the movie business was very different from working in commercial software development. The most obvious difference, he says, is that “everything is production-driven.” The show comes first—unlike a commercial software house that has procedures, documentation, testing, and so forth. At ILM, “it’s up to you, the developer, to keep notes, make sure the design is correct, and make sure there’s enough documentation to get the user going,” says Darling. At ILM, software is rolled out to users more informally. A few people are given the software to try out before everyone gets it. However, says Darling, “it’s not like we’re following strict software principles. We do what needs to be done.” Darling was brought on as part of ILM’s effort to create a dedicated digital technology group. There are about 25 developers in-house, and the tools are all created there.

One of Darling’s first jobs at ILM was creating an unofficial project for one of the computer graphic supervisors on The Lost World. He created a storyboarding system, to let everyone on the production staff keep track of shots and plan ahead using the company intranet. Basically, storyboards are descriptions of shots. They can be as simple as fast sketches or as elaborate as computer-generated models of the actual shot.

“Before,” says Darling, “information about the shots were maintained in spreadsheets that were printed out and distributed, the graphic storyboards were pasted up on office walls. The information wasn’t available to everyone and it was static.” Darling’s “Show Management System” was written as a CGI program in C that connects web pages with a mini-SQL database. Everyone actively involved in production can dynamically generate pages based on database information. As a result, they can make queries as needed, view storyboards, and obtain all the latest information on a shot, sequence, or the entire production—right at their desktop. It was developed and used originally on The Lost World; and once Darling demonstrated the system’s benefits, ILM used it on Speed 2, Titanic, and Mighty Joe Young.

Darling also worked on a pet project of his group leader, Kipp Aldrich, which was one of the reasons Darling was hired. Aldrich and Darling developed the ILM Automated Digital Dailies and Shot Management System, which is a large, complex system usually referred to as the VideoServer. Basically, says Darling, “it’s a collection of hardware and custom software used for the real-time transfer, storage management, and retrieval of images.”

Thanks to the system, ILM’s creative and technical staff have “near instantaneous” access to the uncompressed digital images rendered every day. From this system, they can view, edit, and transfer images to the Avid Film Composer, a non-linear video editing system. Additionally, they can transfer images to the company’s ImageNet transmission system so that dailies, the footage shot every day, can be reviewed by the director remotely. The ImageNet system interfaces directly with the company’s video server. The system was developed in-house at ILM because, says Darling, the company couldn’t find a system that had all the necessary features, such as interactivity, customizability, and video conferencing.

Many companies, if they even have such a system, are content to transfer huge files over T1 lines—but ILM’s system is used to communicate with CEO George Lucas and even directors at home. A famous story is that Steven Spielberg was able to oversee the post production of The Lost World while he was working on the principal photography for Schindler’s List in Poland. The VideoServer is an organic system; it’s been growing and developing since it first went into operation in late 1996. One of the most recent innovations to the system is support for HDTV.

Besides all the high-tech glitz, Darling is probably most appreciated by his ILM co-workers when he makes their lives easier. For example, Darling added tools to the VideoServer to give artists direct access to the process of rendering. As is common in all forms of digital imaging, special effects (FX) shots are rendered overnight. Before the system was perfected, the process was handled manually. People went from station to station with a clipboard asking the artists how many frames they needed rendered, and then they’d queue it through the system.

For this function, Darling built a client requester tool. “It’s a simple thing that goes out to the server and tells it ‘I need a hundred frames and I need this many processors,’” and the system figures out the rest. For the first time, says Darling, “people who have art backgrounds rather than technical backgrounds can make their own allocations. The system renders the shots, puts them in sequence, and now, when the artists come to work in the morning, their dailies are ready and waiting for review.”

Darling believes the real secret to success at ILM is the ability to work under pressure. He says a lot of people are drawn to the company for the glamour, but they can’t handle the demands of production-driven work. The ILM workweek is about 45 hours, but people are expected to work until the job is finished when the production schedule is tight—and it’s always tight because special effects can take a long time. Sometimes, the last deliverables on an expensive production are due just weeks before the film’s debut. Some people from more commercial jobs have balked at the pressure and long hours. The company knows this and that’s why it has such a rigorous interview procedure. Yet ILM is always looking for new people—and there are rewards. For example, Darling says he gets plenty of time off when the production schedule slows down again. Also, the company closes between Christmas and New Year’s.

Whenever you’re talking about rewards, money comes into play. ILM says that people in Darling’s position have salaries in the $70K range. Of course, money isn’t everything. Although Darling says that when he came to California, he knew he’d need to make at least 40% more than he did in Florida, because California’s cost of living is much higher and there is a state income tax. In Florida, many programming positions pay around $30K to $40K. “It’s just easier to get by there,”he says. On the other hand, when it came to ILM, says Darling, the pay scale was secondary. “ILM is a great company and we get to work on really cool movies. I knew the job would be a lot of fun.” Besides, says Darling, I helped make The Lost World and I have screen credit. You can look up and see my name. How many software developers get that?”

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