Review by Dan Skip Allen
It's no secret that George Lucas revolutionized filmmaking with the formation of Industrial Light and Magic in the '70s when he made Star Wars. The surprise is how it caught on so fast with some of his fellow constituents like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and James Cameron. Today ILM is an everyday part of making films.
This six-part documentary has a lot of talking heads. It is a way to explain what happened during the early days of ILM and how the company changed over the years. George Lucas relied on friends and fellow industry members to start this fledgling company. Members like John Dykstra, Phil Tippett, Joe Johnston, and Dennis Murren are affectionately called The Gang of Outsiders. These men would be the backbone of a visual effects company that changed the industry as we know it.
These men and eventually some women — Jean Bolte, Ellen Poon, and others — helped the Star Wars films become some of the best regarding visual effects, puppetry, miniatures, and clay modeling. This is a far cry from the days of American Zoetrope. The company Lucas formed with Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
As a kid, I watched films like Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. These films benefited the most from the men and women of ILM. Mixing different visual styles helped make these films new, original, and innovative. What ILM was doing was groundbreaking at the time. They even won Academy Awards in a new category in the early 80s.
Men like John Knoll, Steve "Spaz" Williams, and Mark Dippe brought a new aspect to ILM. They started implementing computers into the effects work they were doing. Led by Jim Morris, this new part of ILM changed this for the better. Scenes in films like Willow where a woman changes shape from various birds and mammals and later The Abyss and T2 created this new digital compositing which made water come to life and the shape-shifting T-1000, played by Robert Patrick.
Computers we're now the way of the future. ILM had a Pixar division that worked on films that needed this kind of work. And other equipment, such as a Three Dimensional Projector, helped bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park. However, this caused problems for people on the more physical side of ILM, such as the modeling and miniatures & sculpting departments. This wasn't the first time men and women were let go at ILM, but it would be the last.
New projectors in theaters were now a realistic part of how these new digital visual effects were implemented in theaters. This made the viewing experience much better for people going to the cinema. Lucas finally had the technology to do his much-talked-about prequels. The films warrant critical successes, but the visual effects were very popular. The various scenes melded all kinds of technology that ILM created. Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), Jon Favreau (Iron Man), and other filmmakers made these innovations a part of everyday filmmaking.
When it comes to filmmaking, ILM has changed the way we as viewers think about and experience films in and out of theaters. George Lucas had a dream of making films he wanted to watch and see. Film people could be amazed by, and Star Wars started that out. ILM literally brought the light and the magic to film and how they are made. His friends and, eventually, colleagues would take this company and run with it, even forming an offshoot of it called Pixar, which was sold for 57 million dollars. We all know what happened next with Pixar.
Say whatever you want about George Lucas as a filmmaker, but what he created with ILM and how Lawrence Kasden, a frequent collaborator of Lucas's, depicted this story is pretty damn good. The talking heads worked well in the film, but adding all the various archival footage and CGI effects helped make ILM what it is today. This is the real legacy that Lucas will leave behind as a filmmaker and creator.
Light & Magic debuts on Disney+ on July 27. All six episodes reviewed.