Light & Magic premieres on Disney+ on July 27, 2022.
If you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and loved movies, that was a magical time for film magazines. Starlog, Cinefantastique, Fangoria, and Cinefex, just to name a few, specialized in revealing the below-the-line creative people who brought the spectacle to life. And for those interested in the making of the movies, like me, they were a virtual master class in technique and innovation. Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan was smack in the middle of that creative whirlwind, working with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as a screenwriter on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. And it’s his ground level perspective that provides the necessary insider’s point of view in telling how Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, came to be in the new six-part Disney+ docuseries, Light & Magic. Like those magazines of old, the series goes deep, especially with the original Star Wars trilogy, in regards to how ILM became synonymous with creating modern special effects and visual effects. As a series, it works best when it focuses on the incredible talent who launched the company and have since become legends in their field. Where it stumbles is in its pacing, frontloading episodes with a micro focus on Star Wars and then in the later episodes, rushing through 30 years of VFX innovation to end on what feels like a very sanitized, underwhelming corporate sizzle reel.
The first episode, “Gang of Outsiders,” starts with archival footage of Lucas explaining why he had to start a visual effects company for Star Wars: there weren’t any existing shops that could handle the depth and breadth of shots that he envisioned. John Dykstra was recommended by special effects legend Douglas Trumbull (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to supervise the start of Industrial Light & Magic. Lucasfilm producer Gary Kurtz and Dykstra set out to headhunt the best talent they could find. They collected a group of young artists and tech geeks with varied backgrounds, including now legends Richard Edlund, Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett, and Dennis Muren. Within a hot warehouse in Van Nuys, Calif., they were given a $1 million budget to literally invent new hardware and techniques to bring Lucas’ vision of Star Wars to life. Documented with a wealth of incredible archival film from those days and interspersed with talking-head interviews with the players today, Kasdan captures a palpable sense of history and perspective with everyone looking back at essentially their younger selves enthusiastically throwing themselves into the job. And there’s also the necessary guideposts of understanding exactly what wasn’t possible at the time, and how the people in the trenches of ILM bypassed existing roadblocks to use every technique at their disposal to solve the problems.
Throughout the first four episodes of Light & Magic, Kasdan breaks up the granular stories of the individual challenges in making the original Star Wars trilogy effects by giving key creatives from ILM’s early years breakout personal biographies that allow us to get to know these people outside of their jobs. They’re contextualized via a treasure trove of personal photos and delightful 8mm movies they made as kids building into more mature projects from college. These intimate asides are some of the strongest elements of the whole series. Getting to see what first inspired them to pursue their passions and how they made their early creative marks warms up the technical focus of what they were doing back in the day. And Kasdan makes space for the players to share their personal assessments with the benefit of almost five decades of hindsight. For instance, Tippett is incredibly unguarded about sharing his early compulsion to lose himself in the painstaking work of stop-motion animation to deflect his depression. Only now has he come to understand that was undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which is brave to share. Those kinds of stories add so much context and grounding reality to the spectacular feats they achieved in the VFX field.
By the third episode, though, the series starts to get overburdened by the hyper focus on the work done on the original Star Wars films, which by far get the majority of the docuseries’ storytelling real estate. Yes, ILM was literally founded to facilitate Lucas’ ambition in regards to those movies, but there’s also a whole host of BTS and special featurettes made for each one that document in detail how everything was made. And if you love those films, there’s a good chance there’s plenty that will be familiar in this series as already covered in other docs, books, and Blu-ray extras. By this point in the overall story of ILM as an entity, it should be deeper into the work done on other films. But that doesn’t happen until the fourth episode as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan are finally given some time.
The docuseries also leans softly on the creative rifts that occurred, especially when Dykstra was not asked to join ILM’s move to Marin in Northern California. To Kasdan’s credit, Dykstra and others address it on camera, which is important because it effectively changed the entire org chart of ILM and forced friends and colleagues to make some really tough personal choices. And it set off further cracks in the tight team which are documented in the fourth hour, with Johnston and Edlund deciding to go their own ways, opening up space for the ascent of Dennis Muren, John Knoll, and then the eventual digital shift of the entire company. There’s certainly no need for a scorched-earth approach to the major exits but there’s a noted absence in self reflection with regards to what those major flexion points did to the overall company culture. Perhaps that’s because Lucas’ own frustrations with the slow development of tech in his own words is rather binary and without emotion.
The doc makes it clear that the chasm between what he sees in his head and what it took to make that happen was thwarted for decades by the slow evolution of what would become digital VFX. And when it finally met his intentions, he was all about looking forward instead of honoring the prior work of those in the ILM trenches. That’s likely why there’s no mention at all by any of the old guard of ILM about how they felt when large chunks of their work was essentially erased with replacement visual effects in the Star Wars Special Editions. Some candor on those more controversial decisions would have helped with the overall context of ILM shifting from physical to digital effects. And that insight could have easily been provided by outside industry VFX experts, film historians, or even other directors influenced by the work of ILM. But all of the talking heads in the series are current Lucasfilm employees, former ILM staff, or directors who have used ILM. It doesn’t broaden the impact of the company outside of its own footprint.
Episodes 5 and 6 then suffer from the series shifting from a deep dive approach to ILM projects to just a skimming of the company’s work for 30 years. The Star Wars prequels, which Lucas had ostensibly been working towards as the fulfillment of his dream for entirely digital VFX, are remarkably zipped through quickly. And then outside of James Cameron’s The Abyss and T2, and Spieberg’s Jurassic Park, no other films get the micro treatment. Even the movies in the opening title animation like Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, and the MCU entries are reduced to mere visual cameos.
In the last minutes, The Mandalorian and ILM’s invention of the Volume system are crammed into the piece and that basically reminds you that the series forgot to continue to chart the innovations of ILM. With six hours and 50 years to cover, maybe the series would have better served the company’s legacy regarding how much they’ve impacted cinema if it frontloaded Star Wars in the first two hours and then each hour after covered a single decade and the films within that really moved ILM forward creatively and technologically. While there are some appreciated inclusions of new era creatives like Doug Chiang and Ellen Poon, they feel a bit shoehorned into the narrative, missing the context of ILM’s bigger picture focus which was done more organically in the first few hours. As it stands, the last two hours feel overly crowded with a lack of focus in its storytelling – and a very corporate sizzle reel ending that feels like a PR piece rather than the docuseries it started out as.
Ranking the Star Wars Movies From Worst to Best