Review by C.J. Bunce
The best documentaries tend to be about a subject you had no interest in before watching it. I count Michael Apted’s 7-Up documentary series as the best of all time, with the rest of the best to include the World War II story Ghost Plane of the Desert: Lady Be Good, Nova’s biography of Andrew Wiles searching for Fermat’s Last Theorem The Proof, Penn & Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer, Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer, the Bruce Lee biography Be Water, Thor Heyerdahl’s Oscar-winning Kon-Tiki, Stephen Fry’s fandom journey Wagner and Me, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, PBS’s The Farthest: Voyager in Space, the FBI scandal story 1971, Kurt Russell family’s The Battered Basterds of Baseball, and one from everyone’s top 10 list, Harlan County USA.
But how about a documentary about a subject you know you like? Lawrence Kasdan’s Light & Magic fits the bill, a docu-series about the making of Star Wars… and more. It probably won’t get an Oscar nod next year, but sure it has the most nostalgia per minute. You may think you have seen it all, then Kasdan, Ron Howard, and their friends show up and find this incredible footage and get most of the original creators of Star Wars, Lucasfilm, and Industrial Light & Magic to walk fans through how it all happened. The six-part docu-series is now streaming on Disney+. Like ILM’s myriad contributions to movies, the result feels like magic.
If you’re like many kids who grew up with ILM, you searched near and far for any snippet of information about Star Wars and its creators, typically in fandom magazines in the early 1980s via media like Dynamite Magazine and the fan club newsletter Bantha Tracks, later on VHS tapes, then DVDs, and Blu-rays–and then the Internet. Just as we learn John Knoll and Doug Chiang did. At last you get to see two things: first, what your favorite model makers and special effects artists were saying and thinking in the key years of 1975-1982, and second, how most of them look back on it all today.
What inspired filmmakers in Hollywood from George Lucas to nearly every other name in blockbuster films to bring the impossible onto the screen? It started with George Lucas telling everyone around him to “just think about it.” Many a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants dot-com business has a similar story to ILM (I worked for one)–a company that rebelled from convention in order to pull the best from its people. But few get this kind of notoriety. In this case it happened to be people from diverse disciplines only tangentially related to movies with one thing in common: they were pulled in by Lucas himself or one of a handful of lieutenants who were particularly ingenious creative thinkers. First and foremost? John Dykstra, whose Dykstraflex camera changed cinema forever, and with Lucas he pulled together the first generation at ILM, including key players Joe Johnston, Lorne Peterson, Ken Ralston, Dennis Muren, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Richard Edlund.
With all the founding team getting older, and some since passed, the series is well-timed. Lucas participates, but seems much older than the man who sold Star Wars to Disney. Most of the key ILM original creators were available to give insight into what worked and what didn’t at ILM in the mid-1970s leading up to the summer of 1977 and the release of Star Wars on May 25.
From George Lucas’s car wreck to joining his mentor Francis Ford Coppola at American Zoetrope to getting 20th Century Fox exec Alan Ladd, Jr. interested in Star Wars after the response to THX-1138, to creating American Graffiti and using the proceeds of its success to build the first special effects company, it really feels like Kasdan covers everything relevant without extraneous gossip, everything anyone would want to know about. Nuances include Lucas’s ever-present look of disappointment at every result he or his people created over the years, his policy of requiring ILM’s leads to take projects from his friends like Steven Spielberg regardless of schedule conflicts.
The high point of the Light & Magic is the journey of ups and downs of practical effects and stop motion legend Phil Tippett, who always appeared so forlorn in photos and interviews over the years. Another high point is Ron Howard giving his own idea of who Lucas is and how he thinks–few realize how much Howard has been involved with Lucas since American Graffiti, and then Willow, and why his directing Solo: A Star Wars Story, and his daughter Bryce Dallas Howard directing The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, connects a 45-year circle with his family and ILM.
The best episodes are the first three, including the wide-eyed optimism of the employees, and that early success before practical effects turned to computer effects and the digital revolution took over. One theme is Lucas’s early vision of some ethereal technology that he hoped to capture some day that would allow him to make big films his way, which ultimately took the form of digital film for his Star Wars prequels. He thought it, he built it, then he used it and benefited from it. Episode 1 covers getting off the ground with John Dykstra put in charge, building an incredible company from the ground up, and introducing innovators many have only seen in black and white photographs. Episode 2 introduces conflict as Lucas gets back from filming Star Wars in England to see only two shots from a year of work: the escape pod release and firing Death Star guns, despite a hard-working team building the framework of his company. Lucas discovering Tippett’s 20-year-old stop motion creature on the shelf inspires a discussion and the result a few days later is the memorable holo chess scene–it’s both great happenstance and great storytelling by Kasdan.
Episode 3 is the most emotional, with Dykstra not getting asked to move to Marin County with the rest of the team after the success of Star Wars, Tippett explaining his personal challenges, Dennis Muren’s childlike love of movies, and a rare look at concept artist Ralph McQuarrie discussing his artistic approach, along with Disney matte painting royalty Harrison Ellenshaw reminiscing about moving from creating a dozen paintings on Star Wars to 150 for The Empire Strikes Back. Episode 3 may be the best hour of TV you’ll watch this year. Empire saw the rise of computing and Kasdan telegraphs more than once the coming battle between practical, real-world special effects, and digital visual effects.
The second half of the series falls under the umbrella of ILM’s computer shop under Ed Catmull. Episode 4 includes ILM’s next phase of blockbusters: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, and then ILM goes outside its inner circle by working on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Edlund leaves, and Ron Knoll takes the baton to create ILM’s next generation. Episode 5 introduces computer visionary brothers-in-arms Mark A.Z. Dippé and Steve “Spaz” Williams, and Jean Bolte discusses bridging the sides of ILM and breakthroughs in technology. James Cameron discusses The Abyss water creature and the T-1000 of Terminator 2, and computer graphics finally displaces the model shop at ILM with Episode 6, with Muren, Spielberg, Williams, Bolte, and Tippett finding the exact moment while creating Jurassic Park. Young Doug Chiang arrives with storyboarding prowess, and Lucas’s prequels are revealed as the culmination of it all, and Kasdan leaves viewers with images from big effects movies of this century created with the help of ILM, culminating in the “volume”–the giant multi-screen filming backdrop Jon Favreau introduced the world to with The Mandalorian.
This series would make a good double feature paired with Elstree 1976 (reviewed here), a different look at the making of Star Wars from the viewpoint of the production in England. The ultimate fix for Star Wars fans and fans of special effects and visual effects, the six-part documentary series Light & Magic is now streaming on Disney+.