How MSIT Prepared Me to Create a Star Wars VR Experience

Milim Lee (MSIT '14) shares her journey from Northwestern to ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm's immersive entertainment studio.

Virtual reality (VR) has evolved in incredible ways the past few decades. In 2015, legendary entertainment company Lucasfilm actually launched its own immersive entertainment studio called ILMxLAB to capitalize on VR’s potential.

ILMxLAB makes users the heroes of their own adventures, and Milim Lee (MSIT '14) helps bring those adventures to life. As a technical artist at ILMxLAB, Lee plays a hybrid role as both an artist and a developer. Her primary responsibilities are real-time visual effects (VFX) creation and optimization, as well as pipeline development.

In November 2020, ILMxLAB launched “Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge,” a unique VR experience where users fight alongside classic Star Wars characters and take on new villains as they explore the planet Batuu. Lee played an active role in the development of the content, and she recently took time to talk about her role, her ability to communicate with artists and engineers, and how Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program gave her key training that she leverages on a day-to-day basis.  

"The MSIT program taught me how to look at things from different perspectives and see the whole picture." — Milim Lee


What does a normal day at work look like for you?

Based on the priority, I could work on tasks that require more artistic skills or programming skills throughout the day. Sometimes I work on making real-time VFX assets to support storytelling, and sometimes I develop new tools and pipelines to enhance the production workflow. I also help asset optimization and make the content perform better on virtual reality headsets. Whichever task I do, my role requires constant communication daily with both the art and engineering teams. 

What role did you play in the development/creation of “Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge”?

Inside the content, I made various visual effect assets, such as blaster mechanics, enemy impact, explosion, destruction, and some shading effects. I also implemented VFX and lighting into a sequencer and provided some cinematic moments on some intense scenes. Besides content development, I coded a new pipeline and some scripts for the art team and automated their repetitive manual workflow. 


What are some of the other projects you've worked on at ILMxLAB?

I worked on the Vader Immortal: Star Wars” VR series, released in 2019. Just like “Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge,” I worked as a technical artist for the project.

How did you get interested in working in virtual reality?

I’ve always had a big interest in both 3D art and programming, and I wanted to pursue a career path that reflected my interests. After graduating from the MSIT program, I went to art school to gain more artistic skills. During my first year in art school, I was lucky enough to participate in an internship program at Blue Sky Studios, where I met industry professionals and learned the animation movie-making process. I also got involved in an unusual project due to my strong technical background. I was part of a team that developed a new production pipeline using VR technology. That was the first time I utilized VR and game engines, and I saw the great potential of immersive technology in the entertainment industry.

How unique would you say your background of tech and art is?

The technical artist serves as a bridge between artists and engineers, so the position requires both artistic and technical skills. This role is relatively new in the industry, and I've heard that there aren't many people who have educational backgrounds on both sides.

Why is it so important to be able to communicate with both artists and engineers?

I often intercede between the art and engineering teams to help them communicate better with each other. For example, the engineering team may look at the performance analysis report and say one particular scene has a high graphics processing unit and needs the artist to bring the number down to a certain point. To better deliver the context, I look at the asset and suggest ways for the artist to improve the performance while keeping almost the same visual quality.

How did MSIT help prepare you for the work you're doing now?

The MSIT program taught me how to look at things from different perspectives and see the whole picture. That’s one of the most critical abilities needed in my role because a technical artist should determine the right technical strategy to maximize the visual goals within limited graphics performance. I have to communicate with both art and engineering teams and understand their standpoint to find the best compromise to meet their needs.

How else do you incorporate your MSIT experience into your work today?

During the tool and pipeline development process, I often use the idea of agile project management that I learned in MSIT. I break down my work into several tasks and stages to manage and track the progress better.

What were some of the most important lessons you learned during your time in MSIT?

One of the lessons that I learned through the MSIT program is the value of diversity. I met professionals from various fields, and it was a priceless experience for me studying with people I usually wouldn't have come across and sharing ideas and opinions drawn from their own experiences. Discussions in class helped increase my understanding of complex technology issues and enhance my creativity, which I think one of the most important traits to have as a leader in any industry. 

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering the MSIT program?

MSIT is a perfect program for people who want to develop leadership skills for career growth. You will learn technical and business management skills from top professors and industry experts. Plus, many of your classmates are already working professionals, and studying with them throughout the program will give you an opportunity to have a strong network from different industries and broaden your career opportunities.

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