By Josh Reilly B. and George Bate
Visual effects in film and television have evolved greatly over the years. In the modern day, there are characters, unique locations, and more that can be brought to life by incredibly talented VFX artists that previously were simply too far fetched to create.
Arguably no other company or group has had as big of an impact on the visual effects industry than Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM, which was founded by George Lucas in 1975. Lucas himself has pioneered new VFX techniques in all of his films, from the astonishingly detailed models used in A New Hope, to the innovate techniques deployed to visualize highly demanding concepts like a chase sequence in space in The Empire Strikes Back, and the ushering in of green and blue screens with the Star Wars prequels. Although Lucas is now retired, the legacy of his work remains as Lucasfilm and ILM continue to push forward with new and groundbreaking VFX. Most recently, the introduction of the StageCraft technology, used in The Mandalorian, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Batman, and more has evolved the space greatly.
Now, a new six part documentary airing on Disney+ promises to open the curtain on ILM. Light & Magic, from director Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote several Star Wars and Indiana Jones titles, including The Empire Strikes Back), shows how ILM changed the art form forever with their incredible and groundbreaking work. At its heart, though, is the family feel that Lucas and co. instilled in the company, a heartwarming detail that is seen throughout the six episodes.
Recently, The HoloFiles and Star Wars Holocron had the opportunity to interview Lawrence Kasdan, Janet Lewin, Dennis Muren, and Phil Tippett as part of a roundtable about Light & Magic with other media outlets, including Skywalking Through Neverland, Laughing Place, Fangirls Going Rogue, Coffee with Kenobi, Skytalkers Podcast, and more. The great minds at Lucasfilm and ILM, all of whom have had such an impact on the visual effects field and the film industry more broadly, had many interesting insights to share.
One of the major elements explored in the documentary is the making of the very first Star Wars film. Clearly, A New Hope remains an inspiration not only for directors and writers but for visual effects artists as well. Despite its iconic nature, many at the time dubbed Lucas’ script to be simply impossible to translate onto the big screen or, more simply put, “unfilmable.” Obviously, Lucas and co. found a way, but Janet Lewin commented on if there are still any ideas or stories in the modern day that are a bridge too far.
“Not really, no. If a filmmaker is up for doing what’s never been done before, then we’re up for it. There’s visual effects that are harder than normal, like de-aging an actor or water effects that are really difficult. But nothing is unachievable.”
The nature of the StageCraft, and playing such a huge role in the development of Star Wars Disney+ series, opens the door to broaden the scope and scale of a galaxy far, far away. This tech was fully utilized in the first season of The Mandalorian, but has been around for a few years before that, evolving constantly to the place it is today. The HoloFiles asked Lewin about this evolution and how the technology has changed since it was first created.
“We have been developing virtual production tools for many years, for visualizing on set to help a director visualize a shot…from Rango to Transformers…For Rogue One, we did get some in-camera VFX from kind of a StageCraft, but it was limited. [There were] LED walls but, unfortunately, the pixel count wasn’t dense enough. But we did get a few shots. On Solo, it was projection work, so we did get a few shots there…We’re not saying that it’s a magic bullet but it’s certainly an option. For The Mandalorian, it was that perfect match…Jon Favreau had his vision and Greig Fraser too, who helped us pioneer some of this on Rogue One…It was one of those experiences that reinforced what is so amazing to me about Lucasfilm and ILM. We attract these visionaries and we have the talent to execute what they want.”
Similar to the question posed to Lewin regarding potential limits to VFX and if this halts any stories from being produced, The HoloFiles asked Lawrence Kasdan if his writing has changed at all since the dawn of the digital era and the introduction of all of these new ways to bring stories to life.
“My writing style hasn’t changed all that much. Years ago, people realized that you can do anything. Digital technology made anything possible. The lineage of physical effects help inform these new effects and now we see people who want to go mix them together…But in no time in writing The Empire Strikes Back or The Force Awakens did I question anything. George would say ‘We’ll make it work’ or Steven would say ‘I want something like that but we’ll figure it out’. That’s never changed. Never [at ILM] do you hear ‘never, we can’t do that’. I think that’s really wonderful.”
Over the course of this documentary, Kasdan interviews a variety of different people, many of whom he considers to be good friends. Skywalking Through The Neverland asked how Kasdan managed to get them to open up as much as they did, both professionally (the peak behind the VFX curtain to see how the magic trick is done) and personally.
“I had an incredible producing staff from Imagine. They’ve made a lot of docs…I was exhilarated by all of them. They could come up with anything. Lucasfilm opened the door to their archives for the first time for us. So you’re able to show a person you’re interviewing a video of that same person 30 years younger figuring out a problem [in VFX]. So that helps a lot. But if you’re really seeing and listening to people, they really open up like flowers. If there was a slight hesitation, I ask them ‘tell me more about that, tell me how that made you feel.’”
Kasdan doubles down on the human element there once again, which is arguably the main theme throughout the episodes. Following up on that, Kasdan described the emotional nature of reconnecting with these incredibly influential figures and reminiscing about their work through the Lucasfilm archives.
“Lucasfilm is probably the best documented enterprise in movies because George [Lucas], right from the beginning, kept all the paintings, drawings, set designs. When we came in, it was richer than what any of us thought…Over the course of the six hours, you hear them trying to figure out the effect and we actually have them in the room trying to figure out the effect. That was very emotionally stirring.”
As the series has now been the released, one of the aspects that appears to be very emotionally resonant with audiences is the diversity and inclusion. As much as ILM and Lucasfilm have been industry leaders with VFX, they also have a strong track record of looking for unique voices from underrepresented groups. As a woman in the Senior Vice President of Lucasfilm VFX and the General Manager of ILM roles at these companies, Janet Lewin is a genuine trailblazer in her industry. Excelsior Newspaper asked Lewin if she could lend any advice to women aspiring to join a field that is still predominantly male.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate, as have many women who have worked at Lucasfilm and ILM, to have a company that really values nurturing talent from within and giving opportunities and experiences for growth. They also provide role models with other women in leadership and executive positions. I’ve been at the company for 28 years, and I started as a temp…I wove my way through the organization by saying yes to opportunities and hard work, but also being able to see women in roles that were in higher positions than me, who let me know that there was a path for me. Diversity and inclusion is top of mind for us at ILM and we’re doing a lot of work to find underrepresented talent…in an effort to find more diverse talent, including women.”
The past is put into focus in this documentary with, as mentioned, a great deal of archive footage. Jedi News asked Phil Tippett if he would, hypothetically, take advantage of an opportunity to go back and revisit his past work and change anything.
“If I had a time machine, it would be nothing. Who wants to live in the past? We’re always interested in what new spectacle we can come up with.”
Tippett is confident in his work, and rightfully so, but is also looking forward to what he can achieve in the future.
The HoloFiles went on to ask Dennis Muren and Tippett about the timing of this documentary and, more specifically, why now was the right moment to give such an in depth look at the behind the scenes process. Muren in particular showed a real appetite to explain how VFX shots are created to people who are interested.
“I think it makes a big difference to people. If somehow our goofy personalities are something they can relate to, keep going if they identify. I think that’s a really neat thing. At the beginning [in the 70’s and 80’s], there were concern from some about keeping the effects a secret, but that never bothered me. I struggled to learn as a kid how these effects were done. I want to make people happy if they like seeing how these effects at ILM are done, especially if they can top it and show us how it’s done.”
Tippett answered this question by referencing his excellent film Mad God, a project that was decades in the making before being released on Shudder earlier this summer.
“When I was working on my movie Mad God, some of the guys working on it were of the generation that were really inspired by Star Wars, but that era’s over now. They’re computer graphics artists now. Mad God gave them the opportunity to fulfill their wishes with real [effects]. Stop motion and things like that. But it also really gave them an awareness as a computer graphics artists to give them new ideas. I hope a young audience sees this documentary and it exposes them to things and techniques that aren’t used that often but maybe it creates a resurgence in like minded people who want to work with their hands.”
On a playful note, Muren commented on some conflicting stories about the filming of some of these iconic films that he’s worked on.
“There’s a lot of those things, but those come from memories and things like that. Anything you’re working on is always going to have different points of view and you adjust to them and forward them…There isn’t really conflict but there is a result. We’re just used to it. They have to move ahead and they do move ahead.”
Light & Magic is now streaming on Disney+.