Legendary movie effects studio shutting down amid strikes

The rather plain, rundown industrial building at 3210 Kerner Blvd. in San Rafael, California, doesn’t look like much from the outside. But it’s what happened on the inside that movie lovers will never forget.

For more than four decades, thousands of the most iconic blockbuster movie effects ever to hit the screen were created in this unique studio: “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Men In Black,” “Ghostbusters,” “Poltergeist,” “Terminator” and “Transformers.” The list goes on.

Now the home of 32Ten Studios, the facility was once home to Industrial Light & Magic, the groundbreaking special effects company director George Lucas founded to help make “Star Wars.” (Later retitled “Star Wars: A New Hope.”) Lucas had moved ILM from Southern California to San Rafael after the film became a huge success.

ILM’s digital artists were moved to a new facility in 2006, after George Lucas sold the part of the company that specialized in so-called “practical” effects— the ones requiring models and real explosions.

Former ILM employees took over and continued to run the facility, first as a company called Kerner Optical and eventually, as 32Ten Studios.

For the last 12 years, 32Ten kept busy on films like “The Lone Ranger,” blowing up a model train trestle. And despite being separate from ILM, 32Ten was still called on to provide spectacular effects for Star Wars films like “Solo” and “Rogue One.” For “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” a model of the planet Kijimi was rigged with explosives and destroyed on the 32Ten soundstage.

“We’re always being asked to create the impossible,” says model and fabrication shop supervisor Sean House. “And the answer is, ‘Yes, we can.'”

But with the increasing use of digital effects in film and TV, computer models mostly replaced the plastic and metal ones 32Ten builds in their shop. Demand for practical models has steadily waned, says House.

Then it got worse for 32Ten. A global pandemic, along with recent actor and writer strikes meant that nearly all Hollywood productions were shut down, and work for 32Ten began drying up.

House says the company was supposed to provide work for three major film features this year that were ultimately postponed because of the strikes. 

Finally, House says the property landlord told 32Ten to clear out by the end of the month, apparently so the buildings can be converted to office space.

“It’s the perfect storm,” said House. “It’s more than a facility. This represents our family, our livelihoods and our ability to create.”

House believes there is still a role for practical effects, which he says often look more convincing than their digital cousins.

“There is an inherent realism. There’s an inherent randomness in nature,” he said. “We can see that randomness and say, ‘That’s real.'”

Hundreds of artists, former employees, and supporters recently gathered at 32Ten for one last party. It was a chance to say goodbye to the place where modern, cutting-edge movie effects were born. It was also the place where the Lucasfilm computer division first developed the PIXAR computer.

“This place was an innovation factory,” says John Knoll, executive creative director at Industrial Light & Magic. “I always loved that this facility remained a center of creativity.”

Rose Duignan worked as a production supervisor at ILM and Kerner Optical.

“I think it’s terribly sad to just repurpose these buildings that have so much legacy and so much history. I’m heartbroken,” she said.

Without a last-minute plot twist, the studio’s theater — where Academy Award winning sound designer Ben Burtt once worked — will likely be torn out.

The theater holds the distinction of being the first place that a Star Wars movie soundtrack was mixed, for 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” (Soundtracks for the previous two Star Wars films were produced at other studios.)

“To see it destroyed, no one is going to come back and build another. It’s really a legacy. It should be preserved,” Burtt told Scripps News.

The theater is also where the THX system was developed, a technology that would go on to revolutionize movie sound around the globe. It also happens to be where Consetta Parker and Gareth Jones held their Star Wars-themed wedding. The entire wedding party was in costume. Darth Vader officiated the ceremony.

“I’m glad that we got to have a little piece of magic in a place filled with magic,” Jones said.

“I think whatever is meant to happen is going to happen,” Parker added. “But nobody can take away everything that’s happened here.”

The pictures and posters on the walls that document the long list of films made here are already coming down. Models, props, and signs are being tagged for an auction taking place on Oct. 27.

“It was a time in history that will never be repeated,” said Jean Bolte, a renowned former visual effects artist at ILM. “Every square inch of this place, everything you see has history in it.”

Director Joe Johnston, who first came to the Kerner Blvd. facility in 1978 as an art director on “The Empire Strikes Back” feels like it’s time to say goodbye to the building.

“It’s not about the building. I’m not sorry to see it go,” Johnston told Scripps News.

Johnston, who went on to direct films like “The Rocketeer,” “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” told the crowd gathered at 32Ten that the work they created will endure, even if the building doesn’t.

“The work that was done here by all of you people, and the many who came after you, will live forever on movie screens and TV screens till the end of time,” Johnston said.

Academy Award-winning visual effects veteran Dennis Muren calls the Kerner Blvd. facility “hallowed ground.”

“If they tear this building down, I was thinking I would come down here and just suck the air out of it and put it in some canisters, so at least the air of the building is still around,” Muren said. “Occasionally I can open it up, and remember.”

Sean House is desperately trying to find investors, hoping the studio might get a last-minute rescue. But time is running out.

“The people that worked here created a cultural impact that was felt globally,” House said. “Childhood, or even adult dreams were created in whole or in part here. And that touchstone is being removed. And that to me is a real loss.”

The crowd gathered for the recent farewell party posed for one last picture outside the 32Ten soundstage. While the building may go away, the people who worked in it know they are part of a legacy that can never be torn down.