Long before the precision of computer-aided design and the perfection afforded by 3D printing, there was Ira Keeler. In the world of special effects miniatures and modelmaking, Ira stood out as a master craftsperson possessing the uncanny ability to sculpt even the most complex shapes from a block of solid wood with near-perfect symmetry. He could often be found at his work table in the model shop chewing on his pipe, wood shavings piled ankle-deep around him as his hand traced the surface of the curve of an aircraft fuselage or the cockpit of formula one racer, seemingly able to detect the most minute fluctuation in surface detail. From his tools, he’d grab a tiny block plane, a chisel, an X-acto, and a piece of sandpaper and methodically remove any excess material until his trained hands could no longer detect a variance.
Ira contributed to many, many films during his time with ILM. Joining the company in 1982, he sculpted such iconic vehicles as Doc Brown’s DMC-12 DeLorean for the Back to the Future trilogy, the X-2 aircraft for Space Cowboys, the saucer pattern for the Enterprise E for Star Trek: First Contact, and a host of others too numerous to mention. He contributed to the special effects magic of films such as three of the Star Trek series, The Rocketeer, Roger Rabbit, Always, the original Indiana Jones trilogy, Jurassic Park, Men in Black, and Starship Troopers, in addition to other projects such as commercials, and the original Star Tours attraction at the Disney Parks.
“More than anyone I’ve ever worked with, Ira had an innate talent for creating exacting patterns with a replication of detail down to the smallest element,” noted John Goodson who worked with Ira on numerous projects in the model shop over the years. “He had the capacity to understand three-dimensional space in a way few others do and not only that but he could replicate in any scale needed.”
ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Bill George who worked in the model shop aside Ira as a model maker for decades noted, “Ira was a master and all of us in the model shop were in awe of his skill. He could carve the most complex patterns out of wood and make it look effortless. Many of his patterns were kept and displayed after their initial use because they were so beautiful and impressive. He contributed so much to so many classic ILM model projects. Ira was a lovable gentleman with a sly sense of humor and a big heart.”
Ira’s artistry also left an indelible mark on a galaxy far, far away. For Star Wars: Return of the Jedi he not only sculpted but helped creatively interpret the designs for the Red Guards, numerous weapons, and some of the beloved spacecraft as well. He sculpted the Scout Trooper helmets with such precision that Lorne Peterson, longtime Model Shop Supervisor noted, “with the most basic of carving hand tools Ira could achieve sculpts and create patterns for us that would rival what others could do when given twice the time with all of our modern power tools at their disposal. It was really remarkable. He was a true artisan, and a quiet, kind soul that I’ll never forget.”
Ira’s contribution to Star Wars continued with his work on the prequel Episodes I and II after which he retired from the model shop and dove headlong into passion projects and hobbies such as, designing and hand-crafting beautiful model rockets and restoring model trains to absolute perfection for collectors the world over.
To know Ira was to love Ira. His generosity in sharing his craft and his decades of experience with any artist that showed interest was a hallmark of what made and continues to make ILM, ILM. Ira’s DNA, like so many amazingly talented individuals who have done some of their life’s best work at ILM, continues to touch every project the studio contributes to, and for that, we are honored. Ira is survived by his wife Joy, their two children Dawn and Shawn, and grandchildren Jessica and Matthew and will be missed dearly.