Special effects have always been a huge part of movies. From King Kong (1933), to the Ray Harryhousen films with the brilliant stop-motion effects, to the stunning 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Movies offer viewers the chance to see things that cannot be seen any other way. The six-part Disney Plus documentary Light & Magic tells the story of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) that played an enormous part in the evolution of visual effects in Hollywood movies. The company was founded by George Lucas when he was working on his first Star Wars movie in 1977. He visited every optical effects company in the industry, but found none that could deliver what he had in mind.
2001: A Space Odyssey had really pushed the boundaries in what could be achieved in visual effects, but the movie was slow. Lucas wanted to create speed and energy. He wanted to see dog flights in space. He met a special effects man called John Dykstra, who was part of a small community of special effects people. He hired him to set up the team of model makers, storyboard artists and camera and light people at the newly founded ILM.
The first two episodes show the extremely challenging process of getting the first Star Wars film made. Thousands of elements had to be combined into extremely complicated shots. There were many desperate moments, but the end result was amazing and audiences and industry experts were blown away. Nobody but the people at ILM could have done it back then. It inspired many directors to also push the envelope in special effects the following years and decades, like James Cameron: “I went home, and said to my wife; ‘I quit my job. You have to pay the bills for a while, cause I’m gonna make a film’.”
The third episode is about ILM’s challenge to create a worthy sequel: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). This classical space opera had even more complicated special effects to accomplish. Like always with sequels, the scale was much larger than the first movie. The team also got other assignments than Star Wars, namely Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Dragonslayer (1981) and ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Movies that were nominated for or won Academy Awards for their amazing visual effects.
Lucas also got interested in computers and he hired Ed Catmull to digitize processes. The computer team made the impressive terraforming sequence in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn (1982) and this can be seen as the beginning of computer generated effects in movies. This inspired Lucas and the ILM people to get into it. Catmull’s division (Pixar) was later sold to Steve Jobs and they turned it into a cartoon company.
The next major project was Return of the Jedi (1983), the most complex movie in terms of visual effects ever conceived. “It was not a fun movie to make”, says one of the team members. But the result surely was fun to watch. Each of the 900 visual effects shots was a triumph for the ILM team. It was followed up by a number of other eighties classics: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), The Goonies (1985) and Back to the Future (1985). Each new project had its own challenges, and the attitude at ILM always was: ‘let’s do something that’s never been done before.’
In episode 5 titled ‘Morphing’, the computer era is really about to take off. The first successful computer effect was the water creature in James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989). Now that film could be translated into pixels that could be manipulated, anything became possible. But the industry needed a proof of concept and the 90 seconds sequence in The Abyss was just that. But as always with new technology, there is resentment at first. They called digital ‘the dark side’. Digital wasn’t yet seen as the main thing, but as an addition to old school effects. The model shop remained the central place in ILM’s laboratory.
Then one day, James Cameron called and he wanted to do something way bigger than The Abyss. He pitched them: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). A liquid metal man was a huge leap from a water snake. The team had only nine months to create the T-1000. They first had to capture actor Robert Patrick in data. They filmed his muscles and how he moved. Once they had him digital, they combined all special effects with the right lighting, so it all seems to be part of the same world. The end result was stunning. One ILM guy recalls the T-1000 walking through the bars in the mental institution; an impossible shot. This was truly groundbreaking stuff.
The following year, another major movie would truly signal the end of traditional special effects. They had planned to create the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993) with advanced stop motion animation. Spielberg hired the best guys in the business. Stan Winston would design the creatures and Phil Tippett would animate them. He also hired Michael Lantieri, a practical effects genius and Dennis Muren, a visual effects wizard. The team had already built the dinosaurs, and Light & Magic gives us a few images of what the Velociraptors looked like with stop-motion. They’re certainly impressive, but since we are now used to digital effects, the unrealness becomes an issue. Once they did a successful test with a digital T-Rex running through a landscape everybody knew: visual effects will never be the same again. “I feel extinct”, said Tippett, and Spielberg used that line in the movie.
So 1993 was the year of the big breakthrough of digital effects, and they would be used for many successful movies in the nineties, like The Mask (1994), Forrest Gump (1994), Jumanji (1995) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). The documentary series ends with the final innovation that the visionary George Lucas had anticipated all along. The tv-series The Mandalorian (2019) is shot entirely in a round set called ‘The Volume’. This is ILM’s replacement for the green-screen. It uses a massive, curved LED screen to create photorealistic backdrops, circumventing the need for outdoor locations or extensive physical sets. Due to this innovation, The Mandalorian is able to deliver Star Wars effects on a tv-schedule and budget. ILM, which had started with a group of creative designers in a warehouse at Van Nuys, is still pushing the boundaries in creating cinema magic today, now also for the small screen.