You probably remember a scene that transformed your idea of what was possible on the big screen, a moment that caused such a stir that you just have to shout about it – or at the very least, book a another ticket to the theater to see it a second time.
Depending on your date of birth, it could have been that frame-filling Star Destroyer in the opening seconds of the original Star Wars, the T-1000 seamlessly transforming into liquid metal in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or photorealistic velociraptors setting off to hunting in Jurassic Park.
All of these moments were dreamed up by visionary directors eager to push the boundaries of cinema, but George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg also stood on the shoulders of giants. If not for the groundbreaking efforts of the visual effects pioneers of Industrial Light & Magic, their ideas would have remained mere words on a page – to paraphrase Harrison Ford, you could type that crap, but until ILM came along, you sure the hell couldn’t realize it.
The new Disney Plus Light & Magic series spotlights the trailblazers who have consistently delivered the 99% perspiration that can turn a screenwriter’s 1% inspiration into jaw-dropping visuals. As the documentary traces the journey of Hollywood’s most famous cinematic effects purveyors from the mid-’70s to the CG-dominated days, this joyous and awe-inspiring look behind the cinema curtain helps you see your favorite blockbusters in a whole new way.
As many ILM geniuses (and we don’t use the word lightly) look back on glorious careers that turned the impossible into an art form, it becomes clear that the “magic” part of company name is no exaggeration. Indeed, while keeping the workings of an illusion a secret has traditionally been part of the magician’s craft, looking behind the scenes at ILM only serves to make these iconic movie moments more special. It’s where art, science and talent come together – and the results are used to being spectacular.
illusions of grandeur
ILM was created because the interstellar action that George Lucas envisioned for Star Wars was not possible with the technology of the mid-1970s. Many major Hollywood studios had closed their visual effects departments, and while 2001 As A Space Odyssey delivered some memorable space scenes in 1968, its majestic, quiet approach was light years away from the high-speed dogfights Lucas had in mind for X-Wings and TIE Fighters. Lucas’ solution to the problem changed cinema forever, as he set out to create a new company that could turn his dreams into reality. This company was Industrial Light and Magic.
The director’s first stop was Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects pioneer who had worked with Stanley Kubrick in 2001, and would go on to work spaceship magic on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But when Trumbull was unavailable, he referred Lucas to a young protege named John Dykstra.
Although relations between Dykstra and Lucas would become strained during the making of A New Hope – with pre-release delays resembling an angry Star Destroyer, Lucas was infuriated by how long the fledgling ILM was taking to deliver finished effects shots – they were a match made in creative heaven. Armed with groundbreaking ideas about shooting spacecraft with digital motion control cameras—his Dykstraflex system helped us believe a Millennium Falcon could fly—Dykstra gave his boss’ big ideas tangible form. and cinematographic. But arguably more importantly, he persuaded Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett and Ken Ralston to join him in Lucas’ idealistic crusade.
Although they’ve since become legends in the visual effects community — winning Oscars and stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame along the way — they were an unlikely group of rookies. Some of them had worked in advertising, others had tried to emulate Ray Harryhausen in ingenious home movies, but while most of them lacked real big-screen experience, that pales in comparison. insignificance next to their passion, their ingenuity and their refusal to believe that anything – well, pretty much anything – was impossible. Watching them in Light & Magic, looking back as talking heads – or immortalized in an impressive collection of archival footage – is utterly infectious.
Sure, sometimes they look like college students given the keys to the world’s largest toy store – Lucas compares the atmosphere at ILM’s original warehouse headquarters in Van Nuys, California to a ” fraternity house” – but if it was a school, they would pick it up straight As.
The craftsmanship of the spaceship models or the matte background paints is undoubtedly unmatched, but it’s the inventiveness of the seat of the pants that makes them truly special. In pre-computing times, their solutions to blasting the Falcon into hyperspace or – after Lucas opens the doors of ILM to his fellow filmmakers – imploding a house in Poltergeist, have a wonderfully MacGyver quality to them. As glorious as modern CG can be, old-school analog techniques involving optical printers, model kits, and stop-motion animated AT-ATs are so much more romantic than watching someone move pixels around with a mouse.
The digital age
Despite its fondness for old-school cinema, Light & Magic also gives due credit to ILM’s pioneering moves in the digital world. Lucas himself comes across as something of a visionary, not only for forming the company in the first place, but also for identifying how computers could – and then transformed – Hollywood.
ILM and Lucasfilm’s journey from simulating Planet Genesis in Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan to the point where compelling dinosaurs could be created on a desktop computer – via The Abyss and Terminator 2 – is arguably as remarkable as anything Dykstra and his team have thrown at Star Wars. But it’s also tinged with an undeniable sadness, as effects legends who had reached the absolute peak of their craft in an analog world had to either adapt to the new world order or be left behind.
Now that just about anything a writer can imagine can be viewed on screen if you have enough time and money, few would say that a return to the techniques that established ILM as a power plant would be financially or artistically viable. But Light & Magic shows how Dykstra, Muren, Edlund, Johnston, Tippett and Ralston were arguably just as important to the success of Star Wars as Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher – and celebrates them as the Hollywood legends they are. without a doubt. .
After ushering in a new era of big-budget blockbusters, Star Wars has often been blamed by critics for kickstarting cinematic absurdity. Light & Magic shows that the opposite was actually true, and that thanks to the work of ILM, a new form of storytelling – unique to the screen – was born. Everyone has their favorite movie quotes, but most will also have their favorite Industrial Light & Magic effect.
Light & Magic is available to stream now on Disney Plus.