REVIEW: Overcoming the Impossible in "Light & Magic"
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
“We can do anything, and I don’t know that there's ever been another collection of people who can say that with such conviction.”
These words, spoken by Industrial Light & Magic veteran Jean Bolte, are one of many that offer high praise in the closing moments of the newest six-part documentary series Light & Magic. After spending just over six hours experiencing the untold history of ILM, it’d be impossible not to agree — ironically, “impossible” is not even in ILM’s vocabulary.
Coming to Disney+ on July 27, Light & Magic is directed by Lawrence Kasdan and features archival footage from the making of Star Wars, some of which has been unearthed for the first time, and is chock-full of interviews with the likes of George Lucas, Joe Johnston, Rose Duignan, Dennis Muren, and many more of the visual effects artists who brought some of the most iconic films in history to life.
Light & Magic is breathtaking, inspiring, and effectively captures the family spirit and innovative mindset of ILM that enabled it to change the film industry forever. I laughed, I cried, and I never stopped smiling throughout the entirety of the series, and it will leave you feeling more excited for the future of filmmaking than ever before.
Kasdan clearly outlines the evolution of ILM since 1975 and highlights the key players and inflection points that brought us to where we are today; whether it's the invention of the Dykstraflex, the advent of digital editing, or the digitized re-creation of a T-Rex, it’s an almost unbelievable history of the right people coming together at the right time to deliver on what would be unthinkable for any other group.
One of the biggest questions I had going into Light & Magic was how balanced it would be in addressing the more strenuous times of ILM’s history, and it didn’t leave much off the table. It details some of the internal conflicts that include tensions between Lucas and John Dykstra, post-Return of the Jedi burnout that led to the departure of Richard Edlund, and a widespread resentment toward the switch to digital that made stop-motion animator Phil Tippett feel “extinct” at first.
It also leans into the external pressures that ILM faced as they continued to push the envelope in an unprecedented way. Lucas, who is famously “anti-establishment” when it comes to getting his movies made, jokes about being “a persona non grata in the film industry” when making the choice to shoot Attack of the Clones digitally — by the way, this is one of his many hilarious quotes throughout the series, so you are all in for a Lucas sound-bite feast.
“The magic in ILM, it really was the people. The camaraderie is something I don’t think you can ever experience in several lifetimes.” — Lorne Peterson
The first two episodes of Light & Magic are entirely focused on the making of the original Star Wars before transitioning over to The Empire Strikes Back in part three. There is some insight into the making of Return of the Jedi in part four, including an incredible sequence that features puppets from Jabba’s Palace dancing to “Super Freak” by Rick James, but the series shifts its focus toward the technologies of the time and the groundbreaking digital achievements that would ensue, such as the water creature in The Abyss, the “morfing” sorceress in Willow, and the fully digital T-1000 in Terminator 2.
Kasdan’s choice to spend some a few episodes away from Star Wars is a welcome and much-needed point-of-view that showcase ILM’s defining moments outside of a galaxy far, far away and expand people’s knowledge to include these projects when discussing the changing VFX landscape throughout modern film history. Star Wars eventually comes back into the picture midway through part six with the making of the prequel trilogy in the early 2000’s before wrapping up with some commentary on the volume and interviews with Barry Jenkins, Deborah Chow, and Jon Favreau, the latter of whom speaks to his time first working with ILM on Iron Man.
Light & Magic is not simply a retelling of how Star Wars was made and instead puts the people behind it at the forefront. It’s about one group of individuals persisting in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and building a world-renowned company from the ground up to change the way things are done. It’s the most comprehensive documentary on Disney+ since The Imagineering Story, which was exactly what I was hoping for, and it’s something I will continue to revisit if I’m in the mood for a behind-the-scenes pick-me-up.
“Industrial, light, and magic is the three key ingredients to a successful film” according to Jean Bolte, and, keeping that in mind, I walk away from this series feeling extremely grateful that this awe-inspiring recipe hasn’t been lost to the passing of time.
All six episodes of Light & Magic are coming to Disney+ on July 27. Stay tuned for more of our coverage in the weeks ahead.