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Movie magician goes from Normal to a galaxy far, far away

Lane Howard at ILM

Lane Howard, who grew up in Normal, is now a visual effects coordinator at Industrial Light and Magic. He worked on "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

This story was originally published on WGLT.org on December 14, 2017.

The original “Star Wars” in 1977 changed movies forever. It changed Lane Howard too.

Growing up in Normal, Howard remembers seeing “Star Wars” with his parents at a drive-in double feature. Soon he was a member of the official fan club—the official newsletter was called “Bantha Tracks”—and an avid collector of “Star Wars” toys.

Fast-forward a few decades, and Howard is no longer just a fan. He worked as a visual effects coordinator on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which opens Friday. It’s a dream come true for a kid who grew up on a healthy diet of movies, animation, and comic books.

“‘Star Wars’ was hugely impactful on me as a kid. In many ways it changed my perspective on movies and science fiction and what they could be,” Howard said. “I couldn’t get enough of it. It was a big moment for me to see that film and the sequels.”

Howard’s parents worked at Illinois State University. After graduating from University High School in Normal, Howard studied anthropology and archaeology at ISU.

So how does someone go from spending time at an archaeological field camp in New Mexico to making “Star Wars” movies? Howard met his wife, a Canadian, on one of those digs. He moved with her to Vancouver. His career at a crossroads, he decided to enroll at Vancouver Film School and fulfill a lifelong dream of working in the movies.

“It was quite a circuitous route, and I blame Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for most of it,” joked Howard, citing his love of science fiction and fantasy films growing up. Favorites include “Blade Runner,” “Jurassic Park,” and the original “Batman.”

He studied 3D animation and visual effects in film school. After working as a visual effects production coordinator at Zoic Studios, Howard was hired this year at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the visual effects company famously founded by Lucas.

Howard’s first assignment at ILM? “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

As its visual effects coordinator, he scheduled and managed teams of artists to ensure that ILM delivered its work on time. That meant sitting down with “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson several times a week to put the finishing touches on the movie.

“(Rian’s) excitement for the work really brought out the kid in all of us. I think the franchise is in great hands,” said Howard.

Unlike the rest of the world, Howard doesn’t have to wait until opening day to find out what happens in “The Last Jedi.” Is it hard to keep quiet about what he knows?

“No!” Howard replied quickly. “Aside from being contractually obligated to keep my mouth shut, I think most people don’t want the films spoiled for them.”

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