Light & Magic will premiere on Disney+ on July 27, 2022.
If you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and you love movies, that was a magical time for movie magazines. Starlog, Cinefantastic, Fangoria, and Cinefex, to name just a few, specialize in revealing the creative people below who brought the spectacle to life. And for those interested in producing movies like me, they were a virtual master class in technology 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 her grassroots approach that provides the essential insider’s perspective in explaining how Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, came to be in the new six-part Disney+ documentary, 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 modern special effects and visual effects making. 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, frontloading episodes with a micro focus on Star Wars and then in subsequent episodes, ends up feeling like a very clean, poignant corporate sizzle reel through 30 years of VFX innovation.
The first episode, “Gang of Outsiders”, begins with archival footage of Lucas explaining why he had to start a visual effects company for Star Wars: there was no existing shop that could provide depth and breadth of shots. could handle what he had imagined. John Dykstra was recommended by special effects legend Douglas Trumbull (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to oversee the beginnings of industrial light and magic. Lucasfilm producers Gary Kurtz and Dykstra set out to find the best talent. They gathered a group of young artists and tech geeks from diverse backgrounds, which now includes Richard Edlund, Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett, and Dennis Murren. Within a heated warehouse in Van Nuys, Calif., he was given a $1 million budget to literally invent new hardware and techniques to bring to life Lucas’ vision of Star Wars. Documented with a wealth of incredible archival film from those days and conversation-head interviews with players today, Kasdan captures a clear sense of history and perspective, in which everyone essentially finds their younger selves enthusiastically in the job. throws. And there are also essential guideposts to understand what was not possible at the time, and how people in the ILM trenches bypassed existing barriers to use every technology at their disposal to solve problems.
During the first four episodes of Light & Magic, Kasdan breaks down the nuanced tales of the personal challenges in making the original Star Wars trilogy impact by giving key creatives from the breakout personal biographies of ILM’s early years, which allow us to get to know these people on the outside. allows for. their work. He is referred to through a treasure trove of personal photos and delightful 8mm films, which he made as kids out of college into more mature projects. These intimate aspects are some of the strongest elements of the entire series. To see what first inspired them to pursue their passion and how they scored their early creative marks, take a technical focus on what they were doing back in the day. And Kasdan creates space for players to share their personal assessments with the benefit of nearly five decades of back vision. For example, Tippett is incredibly insecure about sharing his initial compulsion to lose himself in a painstaking work of stop-motion animation to overcome his depression. Only now does she understand that it was uncontrolled bipolar disorder, which is brave to share. Stories like these add so much context and ground reality to the stupendous feats he has achieved in the VFX arena.
By the third episode, however, the series begins to become more cumbersome with the excessive focus on the work done on the original Star Wars films, which by far gains the storytelling real estate of most documentaries. Yes, ILM was founded literally to facilitate Lucas’ ambition with regards to those movies, but it also has a whole host of BTS and special features for each that detail how everything was made. . And if you love those movies, a lot in this series will sound familiar as already covered in other documents, books, and Blu-ray extras. By this point in the overall story of ILM as a unit, it should delve deeper into the work done on the other films. But that doesn’t happen until Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, and the fourth episode of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan are given some time at the end.
The documentary also leans slowly over the creative cracks, especially when Dykstra was asked not to join ILM’s move to Marin in Northern California. To Kasdan’s credit, Dykstra and others address this on camera, which is significant because it effectively changed ILM’s entire organization charts and forced friends and colleagues to make some difficult personal choices. And it put further cracks in the tight team that are documented in the fourth hour, Johnston and Edlund decided to go their own way, opening up space for Dennis Murren, John Knoll’s climb, and then the final digital makeover. whole company. There’s certainly no need for a scorched-earth approach to major exits, but those key flexibilities point to a marked absence in self-reflection with respect to the overall company culture. Perhaps it is because Lucas’s own frustration with the slow development of technology in his own words is rather binary and without emotion.
The Doctor makes it clear that the gap between what he sees in his head and what it takes him to do was thwarted by the decades-long slow development of what would become digital VFX. And when it finally did live up to his intentions, it was about looking ahead rather than honoring the prior work of those in the ILM trenches. Perhaps that’s why there’s no mention by any of ILM’s old guards about how they felt when the bulk of their work was essentially wiped out with replacement visual effects in Star Wars Special Edition. Some clarity on those more controversial decisions would have helped in the overall context of ILM’s physical to digital impacts. And that insight could have easily been provided by outside industry VFX experts, film historians, or even other directors influenced by ILM’s work. But all the heads of the series are current Lucasfilm employees, former ILM employees, or directors who have used ILM. It does not broaden the company’s influence outside its own footprint.
Episodes 5 and 6 then suffer from the series shifting from a deep dive approach to ILM projects to a skimming of the company’s work for only 30 years. The Star Wars prequel, which Lucas was working on as the fulfillment of his dream for an entirely digital VFX, has zipped up remarkably quickly. And then outside of James Cameron’s The Abyss and T2, and Spieberg’s Jurassic Park, doesn’t get the subtle treatment in any other movie. Even movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and MCU entries have been reduced to visual cameos in the opening title animation.
In the last minutes, The Mandalorian and ILM’s invention of the volume system are pieced together and it basically reminds you that the series has forgotten to continue ILM’s innovations. With six hours and 50 years to cover, perhaps the series would have better served the company’s legacy of how much they influenced cinema if it pushed Star Wars to the first two hours and then one each hour. After covering decades more films that really propelled ILM forward creatively and technically. While there are some admirable inclusions of new-age creatives like Doug Chiang and Ellen Poon, they feel a bit convoluted in the story, missing the context of ILM’s big picture focus that was more systematically done over the first few hours. was. 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, not a docuseries. started.
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