Terrence Masson (Industrial Light & Magic)

Terrence Masson
ILM – Digital Effects Artist (The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition, Return of the Jedi: Special Edition). Sequence Supervisor & Development Lead (The Phantom Menace)
Interview: November 2022

Terrence Masson is a computer graphics educator, producer & lecturer, specializing in animation, storytelling and executive leadership. In the 90’s he worked at Industrial Light & Magic where he was responsible for the Star Wars Special Editions and The Phantom Menace. In this exclusive interview he talks about his Star Wars years…

How did your career in the movie business start and how did you join ILM?

I grew up reading science fiction thanks to my dad and I was always into computers and programming and drawing and art. So computer graphics was a natural combination for me as was watching films especially science fiction. So of course wanting to work on the best, most wicked awesome movies was something that just seemed completely natural for me to want to do. I was a combination of maybe naive and confident to not ever consider the possibility that that was unachievable. So in college I was just very laser focused working backwards from finding out what hardware and software ILM used and how I could get experience on that, which at the time of the late 80’s was many hundreds of thousands of dollars for an SGI with ALIAS software. So really the only solution was to go to graduate school to get access to that equipment. So I did that and made a short film that did very well internationally at animation festivals, including the Mill valley festival in Marin county, where ILM is so. That was basically my domino that tipped in my favor for applying as a technical assistant in 1991 to work on Hook. My first job was archiving all the T2 digital shots off of the ADR. 

I did all sorts of 2D digital animation, wire removal and rotoscoping on Hook, including the shot of Robin Williams flying down to Neverland which is used a lot for promo. Nothing like working on your very first major feature film and doing hand drawn digital effects animation of pixie dust and have none other than Steven Spielberg give you notes “Looks great. Do more!”

For the special editions you worked on several scenes. One example is the Falcon landing in Cloud City and another one is the Sarlacc pit scene. What did you change and why were the changes you made necessary?

For Cloud City George really just wanted to open up the whole sequence and make it look populated and more beautiful, like adding windows and extra cloud cars flying by. Adding the approach of the Falcon to the landing pad just added to that grand scope of the city. Those were mostly all digital shots with beautiful work by the modeling & matte painting team. As the senior technical director, I was responsible for shading and lighting and compositing all the elements and assets plus actually animating, flying, the Falcon. The final few shots of landing on the pad included some original matte paintings which was extremely nostalgic and exciting.

For Jedi the Sarlacc pit was more about testing creature work and by far the most difficult aspect was our very primitive lighting and shading tools. There was no subsurface scattering or ambient occlusion or HDR global illumination of any kind. 

A lot more fun for me in that sequence was recompositing many of the fight sequences including with Luke and his lightsaber, which I had the privilege of being tasked with doing the very first digital lightsaber and blaster bolts ever. I did make one very subtle change to a blaster bolt that originally was optically composited on top of Luke’s body which was actually incorrect based on the perspective and distance. So I did a quick rotomat of his body so that the bolt would pass behind more accurately. Very, very cool! 

Photo credit: Terrence Masson

Which other scenes did you work on? Could you share your experiences working on them?

That was it for me, one sequence in empire and one sequence in Jedi. It was all very exciting working with such a talented team, we were all housed in one separate small building with separate secure card reader access for only those people working on the special edition, super top secret stuff 

What difficulties did you experience while working on the Special Editions? I once read the original tapes were old. Was that for instance something that was a problem?

The only thing I ever wondered was why we didn’t have the original optical effects animation elements for the blaster bolts and lightsabers. I was very happy to have to analyze very closely and duplicate the original film look in digital, but I never did find out why we didn’t reuse the original elements.

Which scene you worked on turned out the best in your opinion?

Well, I did personally do the shot of Boba Fett getting eaten by the Sarlacc including the burp shot that followed. So those are very satisfying! If you look really closely on the final couple of frames when Boba Fett goes in, I stuck his leg in the corner of the Sarlacc beak as it gets pulled down 

You were 13 and 16 when Empire and Jedi were released. If someone would have told you back then that somewhere in the future you’d been working on a new release of those two films, how would have you reacted?

Ha! Probably something straightforward like : “Cool” 

After the Special Editions you worked on The Phantom Menace as the sequence supervisor and development lead. One of the scenes you did was the stampede scene where Jar Jar Binks is introduced. What do you remember from your time working on this film?

Well, I was never the most technically accomplished smart person in the room by far, but I was really good at optimizing pipeline and looking at storyboards, talking to Dennis Muren about what was important in a given shot and sequence. So my real strength was finalizing three or four shots a week as opposed to the typical one. I love finding creative solutions to make a shot look absolutely fantastic but at a fraction of the time and cost. It’s probably why I quickly became a Producer after leaving ILM.

The stampede sequence I supervised started with the landing ships coming down to the surface and ended at the underwater city. I helped out on the underwater City sequence as a lighting technical director, and being a lifelong scuba diver it was funny mentioning to George that we can’t have any red lights underwater for the city because that’s the first color that gets lost/absorbed at even shallow depth. But he said “This isn’t Earth and it’s not earth water. So put in red lights” 

After The Phantom Menace your ‘Star Wars adventure’ ended. Why did you leave ILM?

I worked on a few more films including Small Soldiers which was a blast, doing at the time the most complicated multiple creature shots ILM had ever done. I was then assigned to a movie called The Perfect Storm and I just didn’t have any excitement about that project; I had been offered a chance to write and direct a launch title for what would become the original Xbox project for Microsoft. Being a lifelong gamer, it was too good an opportunity to pass up working with that team of research scientists.

Photo credit: Terrence Masson

How do you look back at your Star Wars adventure at ILM?

There’s no question it was the absolute highest privilege to work with those people at that time of transition from optical techniques, traditional models and miniatures and matte paintings to help pioneer those very early digital techniques that no one had ever done before. It was a very special time with very, very special people that will never be recreated.

You have written a book, founded an AR company, you’re the chairman of the MFA Computer Arts Department at the school of visual arts in New York and you’re part of People Behind The Pixels, a site focusing on the history of computer graphics, like this site focuses on the history of Star Wars

Well my book CG101 was very satisfying to help both students and studio executives get a peek inside. What at the time was this very new digital computer animation stuff. After publishing a second edition and a Japanese edition it was pretty clear. I needed to put it online which is what History of CG is. Developing working relationships and then very long-lasting friendships with my mentors and people I idolized in visual effects and being able to know their stories and share them with generations to come is a real privilege The “people behind the pixels” is what it’s all about. Technology will come and go.

Thanks! If fans are interested in learning more about your work please check out Terrence’s website or follow him on Twitter!