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The Empire of Effects

The Empire of Effects
Industrial Light & Magic and the Rendering of Realism

How one company created the dominant aesthetic of digital realism.

June 2022
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368 pages | 6 x 9 | 50 b&w photos |

Just about every major film now comes to us with an assist from digital effects. The results are obvious in superhero fantasies, yet dramas like Roma also rely on computer-generated imagery to enhance the verisimilitude of scenes. But the realism of digital effects is not actually true to life. It is a realism invented by Hollywood—by one company specifically: Industrial Light & Magic.

The Empire of Effects shows how the effects company known for the puppets and space battles of the original Star Wars went on to develop the dominant aesthetic of digital realism. Julie A. Turnock finds that ILM borrowed its technique from the New Hollywood of the 1970s, incorporating lens flares, wobbly camerawork, haphazard framing, and other cinematography that called attention to the person behind the camera. In the context of digital imagery, however, these aesthetic strategies had the opposite effect, heightening the sense of realism by calling on tropes suggesting the authenticity to which viewers were accustomed. ILM’s style, on display in the most successful films of the 1980s and beyond, was so convincing that other studios were forced to follow suit, and today, ILM is a victim of its own success, having fostered a cinematic monoculture in which it is but one player among many.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The ILM Version
  • 1. ILM Versus Everybody Else: Effects Houses in the Digital Age
  • 2. Perfect Imperfection: ILM’s Effects Aesthetics
  • 3. Retconning CGI Innovation: ILM’s Rhetorical Dominance of Effects History
  • 4. Monsters are Real: ILM’s International Standard of Effects Realism in the Global Marketplace
  • 5. That Analog Feeling: Disney, Marvel Studios, and the ILM Aesthetic
  • Conclusion: Unreal Engine: ILM in a Disney World
  • Appendix: List of Films Mentioned in the Text
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Julie A. Turnock is an associate professor of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics.


“Immaculately researched, passionately argued, and hugely informative, The Empire of Effects is in its way as game-changing as the much-ballyhooed technological innovations it historicizes, contextualizes, and critiques. Julie Turnock adds powerfully and memorably to a growing body of scholarship on the aesthetics and industry of visual effects while establishing a trailhead for future academic work in these areas. Valuably, she dismantles an easy binary between visual effects and perceptual realism—the argument that effects work best when they mimic the world as we see it—to show instead how the ILM style enshrines a particular '70s cinematic aesthetic that audiences have been trained to receive as more believable and 'real.' ”

—Bob Rehak, author of More Than Meets the Eye: Special Effects and the Fantastic Transmedia Franchise

Julie Turnock’s The Empire of Effects makes a crucial contribution to the literature on special effects, both historical and contemporary. Among Turnock’s interventions is her challenge to ILM’s official history of how 'special visual effects' developed from an optical-photochemical field to a digital one, in an argument that expertly maps stylistic history onto the terrain of studio economics. She has pored through thousands of pages of trade journals and four decades’ worth of FX magazines in addition to the voluminous scholarly work on New Hollywood’s infrastructure, form, and style, and from this broader perspective has also formed a compelling take on the peculiar ideology of auteurism that surrounds effects artists and their work.”

—Paul Young, author of The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet