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.

Cult Radar: Part 5 is glad to explore the video trenches to find that oddball treasure between the piles of crap out there. Off course a treasure in this context can also be a film that’s so shockingly bad it’s worth a look, or something so bizarre that cult fans just have to see it. Join us on our quest and learn what we learn. Hopefully we’ll uncover some well-hidden cult gems.

Researched by: Jeppe Kleijngeld

The Inglorious Bastards (Italy, 1978)
OT: Quel maledetto treno blindato

Directed by: Enzo G. Castellari
Written by: Sandro Continenza, Sergio Grieco, Franco Marotta,
Romano Migliorini, Laura Toscano
Cast: Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten, Fred Williamson, Michael Pergolani

Before Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, there was this WWII exploitation flick. A group of Dirty Dozen-like US soldiers get transported through France in order to be court-martialed. After they get ambushed by Germans, they manage to escape. They take one German hostage, who is to lead them to safe Switzerland. Underway they have to battle their way through hoards of Nazi’s and the US military. This film is characterized by loads of shoot-outs, explosions and humor. And of course some naked girls; every exploitation film needs a couple of those! The ‘Bastards’ (five in total) are well cast. Williamson is excellent as a badass motherfucker. While the movie never becomes truly great, it does manage to involve the viewer in the characters’ mission, and every time the glorious WWII music plays, you can’t help but cheer for these bastards.

EXTRA’S: As entertaining as the movie, is the excellent 38 minute discussion between Tarantino and director Enzo Castellari about their influences (Peckinpah) and the art of filmmaking.

The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (Germany, 1963)
OT: Der würger von schloß Blackmoor

Directed by: Harald Fodor
Written by: Ladislas Fodor, Gustav Kampendonk, Bryan Edgar Wallace
Cast: Karin Dor, Harry Riebauer, Rudolt Fernau, Hans Nielsen

A hooded figure invades Blackmoor Castle, during a party held by the castle’s tenant Lucius Clark. The ‘Strangler’ threatens him and demands the diamonds back that Clark supposedly stole. He also leaves one man dead with a ‘M’ marked on his forehead. A Scotland Yard inspector comes over to the estate to investigate the murder. He discovers a plot around the diamonds and a confrontation with the killer ensues. This detective movie uses the build-up of a horror. This makes the beginning quite suspenseful, but it becomes a bit dull halfway through, when it turns out to be just another mediocre whodunit. Still, it is not totally without a sense of style and humor. The electronic soundtrack is made by Oskar ‘The Birds’ Sala.

Planet of Dinosaurs (USA, 1978)

Directed by: James K. Shea
Written by: Jim Aupperle, Ralph Lucas
Cast: James Whitworth, Pamela Bottaro, Louie Lawless, Harvey Shain

The DVD cover of Planet of Dinosaurs is a true masterpiece, but does the movie live up to it? That depends on your taste for campy stop-motion creature features. The story: a spaceship crash lands on a seemingly deserted planet. There are initially nine survivors that start to scout the area. Within two minutes, there are eight survivors left. They have landed on the planet of the apes with dinosaurs!! Some observations:
– Space effects in the beginning, ships and stuff, are very funny.
– The crew has ‘four lasers’. Hmmm…[cynical]cool.[/cynical]
– One of the last stop motion creature flicks. It’s not Harryhausen, but there is quite a lot of variety in prehistoric monsters. Only too bad they are somewhat static.
– The actors are as convincing as the dinosaurs.
– Lame dialogues and synthesizer score.

Worth watching? Yes, if you find this type of thing hilarious. Otherwise avoid.

Diabolik (Italy / France, 1968)

Directed by: Mario Bava
Written by: Mario Bava, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates, Arduino Maiuri
Cast: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi

Adaptation from the Italian comic book series, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by horror author Mario Bava, doing a wonderful job outside of his usual territory. John Phillip Law plays anti hero Diabolik, a masked super thief who steals riches from both the government and the Mafia. His partner is the beautiful and voluptuous Eva (Marisa Mell). Together they fulfill the male fantasy: driving black and white jaguars, making love between 10 million dollars in a rotating bed and getting away with the most daring robberies. Their opponents are inspector Ginco and mob boss Valmont, who team up in an attempt to lure Diabolik and Eva into a trap. Bava directs this superhero movie with great style, while showing respect for the source material. He delivers one amazing set-piece after another, accompanied by a brilliant musical score from master Ennio Morricone. Camp was never before or after this spectacular. Diabolik = must see movie.

Mister Scarface (Italy / Germany, 1976)
OT: I padroni della città

Directed by: Fernando Di Leo
Written by: Peter Berling, Fernando Di Leo
Cast: Harry Baer, Al Cliver, Jack Palance, Gisela Hahn

Tony (Harry Baer) collects accounts receivable for gangster Luigi. His crime family gets involved in a power struggle with local bigshot ‘Scarface’ Manzari (Palance). Tony teams up with fellow collector Rick (Al Cliver). Together they plan to scheme Scarface out of a fortune and retire afterwards. This leads to an inevitable bloody confrontation with Scarface and his crew. The fuzzy plot and often inaudible dialogues (due to deteriorated picture quality) make this movie hard to follow at times. The good things are Palance’s demonic performance and the well crafted Napels underworld atmosphere. Lot’s of action and violence during the second half especially, make this worth a look for gangster film enthusiasts.

John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell in Diabolik.