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: Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off

In my childhood, I was obsessed with skateboarding. As often as possible, me and my friends would go to a halfpipe in a town nearby and practice all day there. We would also visit the skateshop every so often and buy all the skateboarding magazines available. In those magazines was always this absolute legend: Tony Hawk, the best skateboarder in the world. He was like a God to us. The documentary about him, that is now streaming on HBO Max, showed me that he is just a man who, despite all his physical injuries, won’t stop skating until his wheels fall off (Hawk is now 54). Tony Hawk’s life story is not just interesting for skate fans, but for everybody. This is already one of the great sports documentaries. At the age of nine, Tony discovered skateboarding and since then has done nothing else. Pretty soon, he joined the famous Bones Brigade (a team of pro’s with a.o. Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill and leader Stacy Peralta). A few years later, he turned pro and started winning every competition in the country. In the early nineties, skateboarding went out of fashion and Hawk could no longer make any money doing what he loved. He even had to sell his house and break down his personal halfpipe. He never stopped skating though and in the late nineties/early zeroes, it came back and Hawk made millions on huge shows in Las Vegas and the well known video game franchise. We follow him on his path through those years as he tirelessly works towards his greatest career achievement: the impossible 900. His perseverance is amazing and inspired me to think of new things to try that I think are impossible. Apart from being a moving life story, it also gives the viewer a gigantic amount of the most insane skateboarding footage ever collected. Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off is a great flashback to my childhood, but Hawk’s amazing aerial acrobatics are a thrill for everybody to behold.

Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off is now available on HBO Max

The verdict: to stream or not to stream? To obsessively stream

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

(1995, USA)

Director: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson
Written by: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson
Features: Martin Scorsese (host), Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, ao.

Running Time: 225 mins.

When Scorsese starts to talk there is no ending. For nearly four hours, he talks about American films. From the silent era to the sixties when he started making movies himself. Luckily for the viewer, Scorsese is a very interesting storyteller and film lovers will be glued to the screen.

His ode to American cinema is a mix of personal anecdotes, film fragments, interviews and razor-sharp observations. Scorsese starts with Hollywood pioneers like King Vidor, D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. He then takes a closer look at the genres that made Hollywood great; the westerns, the musicals and the gangster films.

Many cinema hallmarks pass by. From the transition from silent to sound films and how technical effects evolved over the years. Scorsese also explains how his own cinematic mind was formed by observing characters like the infamous Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He explains how the change in genres reflect on the times in which they were made. Like how post WW2 big businesses advanced in gangster films and the musicals got gloomier.

Scorsese provides great insight in the Hollywood system. How producers like David O. Selznick called the shots in the early days and how iconoclasts like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles attacked the system and sometimes paid the ultimate price for it. He calls Hollywood films censored art and shows many of the old masters at work. The rarely seen interviews with legendary directors such as Billy Wilder and John Ford alone are worth the four hour investment of watching this documentary.

No less than 60 films are discussed. From most of them a fragment is shown while Scorsese discusses their significance in a voice-over. For the complete list of films discussed click here. Scorsese and his team have created an incredibly rich and insightful documentary. Even the most hardened film buff will find some unseen cinema treasures here.

The Ten Commandments

Bullets Over Hollywood

Bullets Over Hollywood (2005, USA)

Director: Elaina Archer
Written by: John McCarty (book), Elaina Archer, Tom Marksbury
Features: Paul Sorvino (narrator), Leonard Maltin, Michael Madsen, Edward McDonald, ao.

Running Time: 70 mins.

This Hugh Hefner produced documentary shows the fascination of moviegoers with the mob. ‘Once in the racket, always in the racket’, Al Capone said who became the archetype of the gangster and role-model for some legendary movie characters like Caesar ‘Rico’ Bandello (Little Caesar) and Tony Camonte/Montana (Scarface) This also applies to Hollywood when it comes to making gangster films. Every time you think the realms of the genre have been fully explored, some new masterpiece comes along. After the time that Cagney, Robinson and Bogart dominated the screen, a new generation of filmmakers emerged in the seventies with Coppola, Scorsese and De Palma. Then at the brink of the new millennium, the Hollywood gangster legend continued on the small screen with The Sopranos.

Bullets Over Hollywood opens with the very first gangster film: The Musketeers Of Pig Alley, made in 1912. It then goes on to chronologically move through gangster film history right up until The Sopranos. The documentary combines film fragments, interviews and real gangster footage while Paul Sorvino (GoodFellas) provides the narrative. It is an interesting viewing for enthusiasts of the genre, but misses real insight in the works that it covers. Some interesting facts are revealed such as the story that Howard Hawks was forced by Hollywood to add ‘the shame of the nation’ to his gangsterfilm Scarface, because they didn’t want to glorify gangsters. Also interesting is some behind-the-scene footage of gangster classics, but these fragments are unfortunately a little brief. Altogether this is worth a look. If only to hear Leonard Maltin rave about The Godfather and to re-experience some of the finest sequences in the history of this fascinating American phenomenon.


The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912, D.W. Griffith)