Industrial Light and Magic created all our childhoods. Their documentary needs to be discussed more. So read on for my Light and Magic review…
A long time ago, in a state far far away (from me), George Lucas founded ILM to create the visual effects for his new movie, Star Wars. Yeah, I’d never heard of it either. But it was apparently popular in the late 70s. This VFX team went on to change their industry with ground-breaking work on such films as Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Willow, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, and much of the MCU.
I wanna say up top: You don’t need to be a serious film nerd to enjoy this documentary. You probably know ILM’s work if you’ve watched some popular films of the past 50 years. And you’ll love this doc if you’re even the least bit interested about how the team behind those films pulled off their work.
I’d argue Light and Magic explained ILM’s crafting process in easy-to-understand ways. Of course you’ll appreciate it more if you’re familiar with the lingo. But Light and Magic makes clear the scale of challenge and accomplishments ILM faced throughout its life.
It shocked me that the original team all knew each other! ILM began as a ragtag bunch of friends and acquaintances from varied backgrounds who combined their skills to make history. And that gives me inspiration as a film-maker who loves working with my friends, and networking. Who knows what those connections may bring about?
Light and Magic, so far as I can tell, is about team-work and problem-solving. These people were faced with innumerable challenges, and even “the impossible” a few times. Their budgets and timelines were limited. But they compensated with creative-thinking, and incredible collaborative skills.
Light and Magic is about friendship, and the benefits of loving your job. It’s about changing the world through shared passions. But Light and Magic is also a tragedy about the double-edged sword of advancement.
Light and Magic shows that harbingers of progress are some day destined to become obsolete. ILM were the team which pushed VFX boundaries to such an extent that their own advancements came back to bite them. Of particular note: the onset of CGI forced ILM to close down whole out-of-date departments (like the model shop, stop-motion, puppeteering, etc).
The old footage and pictures mesmerized me as a film and history nerd! I couldn’t believe they had ANY behind-the-scenes from ILM in those early days– for A New Hope in particular. Cameras weren’t ubiquitous, let alone ones which could shoot video, and Star Wars was a schlocky sci-fi B movie about which nobody was meant to care. So the fact Light and Magic found old footage of its makeshift VFX department– let alone footage which survived well enough to be shown after 40+ years– is a minor miracle!
That they also found footage of the OG ILM team’s childhood films is even more impressive! Some of their work blew my mind (especially Ken Ralston’s). I’ve been making films since I was 7 years old, with access to better technology, and I’m still not that competent in effects work! There’s an innate talent in these people.
Which is why I loved Light and Magic‘s focus on ILM’s oldest trailblazers. It would have been easy for this doc to hype up George Lucas, or the more well-known producers, or pack this thing with gratuitous cameos (although Light and Magic does sometimes do that). L&M lets the genius crafters and artists tell their own stories. Their passion and child-like wonder for their trades are infectious and warm my heart.
That’s why L&M’s last episode wasn’t so interesting to me as the others (or, at least, the last third of the last episode): there were less creators– more producers and cameos. I felt a disconnect from the ILM of old vs what it’s become under Disney’s regime. Something about the more modern section just felt off…
It’s like ILM faces the endgame of its corporatization. What started as a bunch of cool outsiders playing in warehouses and inventing stuff has become more business-like and less human. The Industrial part of the company has expanded to take space from the light and magic.
I got the impression that large chunks of episode 6 were pure propaganda, aimed to celebrate the Disney-era of Lucasfilm. Internal drama appeared non-existent, even though there was every reason for discontent (with such a big shift in management), and the rest of L&M was more open about old company problems. I’m not saying there’s lots of dirt. But the ending seemed suspiciously sanitized.
George Lucas was, of course, the stand out interviewee (of the non-VFX artists). He was the mind behind ILM, so it’s only fitting he share his thoughts. And what intriguing thoughts he had! Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard were second-most interesting directorial interviews because they felt more “legitimate” than the others.
Spielberg worked closely with George and ILM in the 80s and 90s to make some of the best films of all time! He was there from ILM’s start, and reviewed some of their earliest works beside George. Ron Howard, for his part, had a long working relationship with Lucas as well– from American Graffiti onward.
But enough about those other guys. Let’s talk about George some more. Light and Magic made me realize that George Lucas’s vision essentially ushered in our modern world. We may not have such widespread use of digital cameras, audio, video, or photo editing without his incessant pushes for technological advancement. Lucas saw the future and forced his way through staunch traditionalists and naysayers to reach it.
Did he invent most of this stuff? No. But he was an early adopter, key funder, and public advocate. And he deserves to be recognized for his role in shaping our culture (outside of Star Wars).
Light and Magic NEARLY made me want to change careers. I could see this doc tipping the balance of someone who was on the fence about their future job. And I truly hope Light and Magic inspires someone to join VFX work.
Light and Magic is a doc all film fans ought to Watch A.S.A.P.
FOR MORE DISCUSSION OF ILM, CHECK OUT THIS EPISODE OF CLOSE UP WITH RYAN AND JOE
What’s your favourite ILM-made film (look ’em up. I’ll wait)? What did you think of Light and Magic? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know.
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Till next time,