By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Lynwen Brennan and Lucasfilm.
Looking at the responsibilities of Lucasfilm Executive Vice President & General Manager Lynwen Brennan, which involves overseeing Lucasfilm, ILM and Skywalker Sound, one could imagine her head spinning around in bewilderment, but via Zoom she has a ready smile and good sense of humor. “Sometimes it does feel like that! I have an amazing team that helps to keep me on track.”
San Francisco is half a world away from Tenby, Wales where Brennan was the youngest of three born to two school teachers. “It’s as far away from Heathrow Airport as you could possibly get on that island. Everybody knows everybody. My childhood was spent either in the harbor, on the beach or on a boat. My dad was a larger-than-life personality. I got my drive and values of being respectful and interested in other people from him. My mum was definitely the organizer and her work ethic is a thing to behold even now at the age of 84.”
Music rather than movies had a big influence on the family. “My sister and niece are music teachers,” states Brennan, who is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “Those experiences of playing in orchestras and being involved in a team at such an early age, having those social experiences and having that self-motivation to do your part and practice were hugely important. I play the piano every day. It was the first instrument that I learned. I played the violin and viola in the orchestra, which I still play but not well.” Tenby had one cinema that has since closed down. “I was a [Girl Guide] Brownie when my father took us to see Jaws. Bear in mind I was in a coastal town and spent my whole life on a boat. I was terrified to go into the sea or to even have a bath for ages afterwards! That was the first one I remember going to see. Watching movies became a social thing with friends. When there was a good movie on terrestrial TV, we would get together to watch it. When we were able to get VHS tapes, I watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Grease over and over again. Then I got into wanting to actually understand more about movies and what I should be watching, like Casablanca and Citizen Kane.”
Her career path to the movie industry was paved by accidents. “I did biology and geography at the University of London and specialized more on the ecology side,” remarks Brennan. “I was interested in the history behind human behavior and how that leads to either sustainable land use practices or environmental damage. I had intended to take a year off after university and return to do a Masters or PhD or go into law.
The week after I graduated, I went to a local theme park with some friends and fell off of a rollercoaster. It took me about a year to learn how to walk again. In that time my brother, who had been working in broadcast television graphics, had an idea to do some software for film visual effects. He was thinking about setting up Parallax Software and asked me if I would help him. There were only five us in the beginning. I was doing everything from hiring people, payroll, customer support, marketing, public relations, office management to sales. About nine months later, we went to our first tradeshow and Doug Smythe at ILM was looking for the type of paint and roto software that we had created, called Matador. ILM was our first customer and Jurassic Park was the first film that they used it on. I remember sitting in the theater, seeing that Brontosaurus walk onto the screen, and thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to work at ILM one day.’”
Parallax Software was sold to Avid Technology in 1995. “I stayed there for two years and was then asked to work for Alias Wavefront for a period of time,” recalls Brennan. “Cliff Plumer, who had worked at Parallax with us, was at ILM and called me about an entry level job and asked if I wanted to assist them to gear up for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I thought, ‘I’ll do that for six months and then go back to the U.K.’ That was 22 years ago and I’m still here. Much has and hasn’t changed, which is the way we like it at ILM. I started as a Technical Area Leader for the Computer Graphics Technical Directors. A lot of the time then was hiring artists and figuring out how to scale the crewing systems that we had to handle multiple shows at one time. As things began consolidating, growing and requiring efficiency within the way that we ran the computer graphics side of things, I organically absorbed new responsibilities. I worked my way through the entire pipeline. Eventually, while I was on maternity leave, Chrissie England told me that she was intending to retire and would like me to take on the presidency [of ILM]. I would have a nice ramp in to learn the ropes from her, and she was generous with her contacts and training me on how to work with clients to get their visions on the screen.”
A radical shift had to be made to the business model of ILM as global tax incentives as high as 40% became important in attracting clients. “We grew our Singapore office, pivoted away from games and animation, and focused that team on full pipeline visual effects,” explains Brennan. “This was right around the time of the acquisition by Disney, and George Lucas brought Kathleen Kennedy in.
We were going to make movies again, and wherever shooting was taking place we had to make sure that ILM had a studio there. We expanded into London, Vancouver and more recently to Sydney. That was a huge shift from a management perspective to figure out how do you scale as a global company and keep the DNA that is ILM, but also allow those studios to have a unique character. How do you share work across shots, sequences or shows between studios in different time zones? Also, how do we keep our San Francisco studio feeling energized that its not their jobs going away, and when we’re saying that we are committed to staying in California, we really mean it. San Francisco is as big now as it was then. The part that hasn’t changed is the spirit of loving impossible things, and we’ll figure it out together. John Knoll always says, ‘A good idea is always a good idea no matter where it comes from.’ That is the mantra of ILM. I love that constant striving to push the envelope and to do better. There is never a sense that we know it all, and you can sit back and rest on your laurels.”
“Everybody in visual effects knows that it is not an easy business to run and stay profitable,” observes Brennan. “You have to have a clear vision of what is your North Star. We want to be putting images on the screen that delight audiences and enthuse our clients. We want to be delivering to our directors things that are even better than what they had already imagined. We also want to be looking for work that isn’t just what we’ve done over and over again. We do 15 projects at one time right now, so not everything is something that we haven’t done before, but there is probably an element of it in everything that we do. I will often say when we have taken on something that is hard and the financials are looking scary, ‘Remember why we took it on.’ You’re looking ahead of what you’re going to need, what the problems are, trying to solve them in advance, and you move things around in the company as you need to.
We have amazing producers who are making sure that we are focusing the resources on where the problems are going to be. Also try to minimize the amount of time that you waste. If we have a full pipeline, there is a lot of leeway in terms of efficiency. If you don’t have a full pipeline, then you lose money very quickly over the year.”
Brennan is fascinated by the Music and Sound Design Lab that Skywalker Sound does in partnership with the Sundance Institute. “One of the things I love about Skywalker Sound is when they take a scene and do different takes on the audio, whether that be different editing or mix or music, and how you feel differently depending on what the sound choices are made; it brings to the forefront how important sound is. Lucasfilm’s films and series are places where sound have shone, and have been celebrated and noticed by the general audience.” Skywalker Sound works on 200 projects each year. “Some of the tools have changed and the ability to work remotely as freelancers. Not everything has to be done on a big mix stage; that has enabled some expansion and democratization of the sound industry. But when you go to Skywalker Sound there is so much that hasn’t changed. It is so much about collaboration and experimentation.”
Everything is done holistically from the storytelling to business decisions. “We think about what stories we are going to tell on all of these different platforms,” remarks Brennan. “Assets from ILM, our console games and ILMxLAB live in a central platform so there is a playbox that we can work with. Utilizing game and real-time technology, whether that would be Unreal Engine in combination with our own real-time engine Helios, we use the best tool for the job. Because virtual production demands for us to push the envelope in terms of the visual fidelity and the interactivity that is needed to move the camera and manipulate in real-time, it has helped us to be able to think beyond that and how entertainment might evolve.
“I’m excited about where the future could go,” she continues. “Having various platforms to tell nuanced and targeted stories for different audiences and genres opens up the playfield so widely. Then also our job is to be good stewards of that so that we open it up in a thoughtful way. There is variety, but it’s not confusing, overwhelming or too much. The quality always has to stay high, which is Kathleen Kennedy’s mantra. The fact that we also have Skywalker Sound, ILM and ILMxLAB means that we have this creative community within Lucasfilm that we can bring to bear for our directors.”
Several career highlights stand out for different reasons. “I still remember that moment of walking through the door,” recalls Brennan. “Of my years at ILM, the projects that I remember are the ones which were really hard because we were doing something new and difficult. The Perfect Storm nearly brought us to our knees! You come out of that with this amazing sense of commandry. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was definitely a huge moment to be part of. The Mandalorian was another one of those moments. When we went all in on StageCraft, we didn’t know if it was going to work. Then to see how the series was embraced. Seeing Dave Filoni do live-action directing was a wonderful highlight as well. Even the decisions around Grogu, where we were part of a secret and couldn’t wait for the audience to see him. He went so beyond what we had hoped. There are so many highlights. I’ve been incredibly lucky with my career and the people I work with.”