Light & Magic: The Making of Cinema Magic

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.

The Verdict: Clerks III

In the 1990’s, a glorious time for American, independent cinema, writer-director Kevin Smith debuted with the ultra low budget comedy Clerks. It was a terrific movie because of the characters, the delicious dialogues on pop culture, and mostly because it was very, very funny. Smith followed up his cult success with some pretty great (Chasing Amy / Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and not so great (Jay and Silent Bob Reboot) movies. Now Clerks III has arrived and it is Smith’s worst movie to date (from the ones I have seen). The main problem: it is not funny. And the dialogues don’t work. Also, the characters Dante and Randall are not interesting any more 26 years later. Randall is no longer harassing customers. And Dante’s self pity worked in the original because he had an actual big life decision to make. Now, it just gets tiresome. The one positive thing I can report about Clerks II is the ending. Spoiler alert: Dante dies! Not to be too harsh on Smith; I still love the guy. And not that I hated Dante so much that I wanted him to die. I just thought it was a fitting ending to the Clerks saga. Hopefully, Smith’s Mallrats follow-up will be better.

Clerks III is now available on Netflix

The verdict: to stream or not to stream? Not to stream. Watch the original instead.

Dungeon Classics #27: Clerks

FilmDungeon’s Chief Editor JK sorts through the Dungeon’s DVD-collection to look for old cult favorites….

Clerks (1994, USA)

Director: Kevin Smith
Cast: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti
Running Time: 92 mins.

Writer-director-comedian Kevin Smith once said in an interview that Reservoir Dogs influenced him to make Clerks. “A bunch of guys talking about movies and making dick jokes, that counts?!?” So he maxed out his credit cards, sold his comic book collection and filmed at night at the quick stop grocery store where he worked. The protagonist is Dante ‘I’m not even supposed to be here today’ Hicks. An appropriate name because Dante literally thinks he’s in hell. He hates the store, the stupid customers and basically his whole existence. His partner is the foul mouthed Randall who ‘runs’ the video store next door, which means bitching about movies, abusing customers and playing hockey on the rooftop. Clerks follows Dante’s and Randall’s misadventures as they deal with weird customers, (ex-) girlfriends and two deaths happening that very same day. Now Smith is no Spielberg, but two things he can do: write a screenplay that is funny as hell and find the boys and girls who know how to deliver these great lines. Clerks started a whole franchise of Kevin Smith comedies with many of the cast members frequently returning. Some movies are good (Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back!), but like with Bond Girls, the first one is still the best. Clerks is clever, original and very, very re-watchable.

Waarom 1971 ongemerkt een historisch jaar blijkt te zijn

In 1971 verscheen mijn favoriete boek aller tijden; ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ door Hunter S. Thompson (oorspronkelijk in twee delen gepubliceerd in Rolling Stone Magazine). Maar het jaar was ook economisch zeer significant te noemen; het was het jaar waarin president Nixon (Thompson’s zelfbenoemde aartsvijand) de dollar loskoppelde van de goudstandaard. En dit heeft veel grotere gevolgen gehad dan de meeste mensen zich realiseren.

In zijn boek ‘Keerpunt 1971’, beschrijft econoom Edin Mujagiƈ deze gevolgen. Volgens de econoom heeft het besluit van de Nixon administratie geleid tot eeuwige inflatie, zombiebedrijven, populisme en een middenklasse die er niet langer op vooruit gaat. De enorme geldschepping van de centrale en commerciële banken heeft geleid tot een gigantische schuldenberg en een steeds lagere waarde van onze valuta.

De architect van de Amerikaanse ontkoppeling, Paul Volcker, zei geen spijt te hebben gehad van zijn voorstel destijds. De situatie zoals die was, was volgens hem niet houdbaar. Maar hij was wel ontevreden met het onverantwoordelijke gedrag van de centrale bankiers sindsdien. De geschiedenis leert ons dat wanneer machthebbers geld kunnen scheppen, ze dit vroeg of laat zullen doen als er economische problemen zijn. In de crisissen van 2008 en 2020 zijn er inderdaad astronomische bedragen gecreëerd.

Volgens Mujagiƈ zitten we nu in de laatste fase van een tijdperk, een tijdperk dat begon in 1971. Vroeg of laat zullen de wereldleiders een nieuw systeem moeten ontwerpen dat – in tegenstelling tot het huidige systeem – regels heeft. Toch is de econoom optimistisch. De economie beweegt in grote cyclische golven. En na de grote neergaande golf waar we nu middenin zitten, komt er weer een opgaande golf van nieuwe economische groei. En dankzij de ontwikkeling van een grote verzameling nieuwe technologieën belooft de volgende golf spectaculair te worden met veel vooruitgang voor de mensheid. Maar voor we dit beloofde land kunnen bereiken moet er dus nog wat gebeuren om het kapitalisme te herstellen.

Daarbij is het vooral cruciaal dat het mechanisme van creatieve vernietiging vrij zijn werk kan doen. Crony capitalism, met zijn kenmerken als lobby en invloed van grote bedrijven op de politiek staat daar haaks op. Er moeten volgens Mujagiƈ tenminste drie dingen gebeuren als we het kapitalisme weer willen laten functioneren zoals het hoort:

1) Monopolies en oligopolies moeten worden aangepakt aangezien de aanwezigheid daarvan de economische groei afremt. Hier is een machtige mededingingsautoriteit voor nodig.

2) Het economisch model ‘groei door schuld’ moet verleden tijd zijn en de macht van de centrale banken moet drastisch worden ingeperkt. Misschien moeten ze zelfs wel opgeheven worden, aangezien blijkt dat er meer nadelen dan voordelen aan kleven.

3) Het streven naar aanhoudende inflatie moet van tafel, de markt moet meer ruimte krijgen om prijzen te bepalen, ook, of beter juist, als dat voor deflatie zou zorgen, omdat dalende prijzen dé aanjagers waren van stijgende welvaart na de eerste industriële revoluties.

Overheden hebben sinds 1971 veel te veel ingegrepen in de economie. Dat moet stoppen, behalve op het gebied van klimaatverandering. Dat is een externaliteit die de vrije markt niet gaat oplossen. De vierde industriële revolutie die aanstaande is biedt de kans op een nieuwe welvaarts- en welzijnstijging voor de mensheid, maar alleen als de in 1971 gemaakte weeffout in het geldsysteem hersteld wordt. Volgens Mujagiƈ is dit proces reeds ingezet en – zich baserend op soortgelijke perioden uit het verleden – is hij optimistisch over een positieve uitkomst.