‘Light and Magic’ is an Essential Celebration for All Film Geeks

The new Disney+ docuseries will have you demanding trading cards of all the ILM hotshots.
Light and Magic Lucasfilm

Star Wars Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Star Wars shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry reviews the new six-part docuseries Light and Magic from director Lawrence Kasdan.

What the hell is that blue guy on the piano thing called? Phil Tippett doesn’t remember, but we do (Max Rebo, baby!). What the Return of the Jedi visual effects supervisor does recall like crystal is the transformative experience of wearing the Max Rebo suit. He remembers how his body and limbs came alive, how a rhythm rippled through him as he tested the costume, and how his wife could not believe that it was him within Rebo when she walked into the Lucasfilm creature department. Tippett remains in awe of what a little foam rubber and latex can do when manipulated by certain artists, and his awe is infectious.

Coursing throughout Light and Magic, the new Disney+ documentary series celebrating Lucasfilm’s special visual effects division, Industrial Light and Magic, are interviews with legendary filmmakers peeling back the curtain on numerous cinematic touchstones. As an insider and movie maker himself, director Lawrence Kasdan achieves unfettered access, and his interviews deliver several previously unknown or shallowly excavated gems.

Told over the course of six episodes, the show begins with ILM’s purposeful-yet-serendipitous creation. George Lucas needed a team to pull off the impossible with Star Wars, and that crew assembled through various forms of chance and friendship. If John Dykstra had a different last name, he wouldn’t have been assigned a counselor from California State University’s industrial design department. That galaxy, far, far away, may never have happened. Or, at the very least, it wouldn’t look the way it does.

Light and Magic lays almost as much success at John Dykstra’s feet as it does Lucas’. While Star Wars‘ creator was off in England struggling to bring Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo to life on rickety stages, Dykstra was struggling equally to realize cosmic dogfights and Death Star trenches. The hot-tempered wildman is seen as the Mirror Universe version of the director who hired him (please forgive the Star Trek reference). Where Lucas is quiet and contemplative, Dykstra is loud and bombastic.

Creators like Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, and Richard Edlund rallied around Dykstra, and while their initial work came together very slowly, they radically altered cinema. Such a feat would be hard to argue before watching the docuseries and virtually unfeasible afterward. Standing on the shoulders of Douglas Trumbull and 2001: A Space Odyssey, they forever enhanced cinematic spectacle. There was no going back.

In Light and Magic, Kasdan doesn’t avoid the tensions that bubbled during ILM’s history. They get into the blow-up between Dykstra and Lucas; why the special photographic effects supervisor was not invited back for Empire Strikes Back. Both men are polite about it and necessarily withhold the details, but others who were there are more than willing to spill the tea. The same is true for other moments like Pixar’s creation and the incoming CGI onslaught.

Light and Magic‘s first half is utterly engrossing. However, the docuseries becomes addictively juicy once James Cameron comes calling with Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Steven Spielberg demands realistic dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. It almost feels cruel for Phil Tippett to relive the catastrophic transition from stop-motion dinos to computer-rendered beasties. He seems to have undergone tremendous healing and growth since that moment, but the pain still registers on his face. We feel for him, but we also appreciate how his misery resulted in one of the best lines in Jurassic Park, “Don’t you mean extinct?”

Similar to the case regarding the battle between Dykstra and Lucas, it’s the folks on the sidelines who provide the emotional narrative for this critical juncture. Co-visual effects supervisor Mark Dippé recognizes the hurt his digital work did to Tippett’s soul, but evolution is evolution. The Homo sapien feels no sorrow for leaving Homo erectus in the dust, just as the talkies don’t regret surpassing the silents.

With Star Wars, George Lucas looked backward narratively and forward creatively. His original science fiction adventure stemmed from his desire to transplant 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s astonishing effects to the swashbuckling serials of his youth. Spaceships are cool when they’re fast, not when they’re twirling to classical music. Lucas’ desire to witness a calamity in the cosmos demanded impossible technology, so he found the folks who could make the impossible possible. ILM accomplished wonders by making the future their mission, frequently requiring them to ditch processes they mastered and adored.

Lawrence Kasdan earns his runtime. Light and Magic never drags. ILM has touched too many movies and impacted culture in too many ways to allow one dull episode in the bunch. When one episode ends, you feel a pang of disappointment, but the moment a new one starts, you’re emitting, “Ooooooooooo.” Those who already love the creators within will come away with their love further solidified. Those who’ve never encountered a Phil Tippett or a John Dykstra will add them to their roster of favorite filmmakers.

Light and Magic is a doc about love that also fosters love. It inspires, sending creative shivers through your system. As a young Dennis Muren once made monster movies in his backyard, you’re ready to make monster movies on your laptop. Or backyard! Stop-motion may no longer be the dominant creature artform, but Phil Tippett would surely be disappointed if I didn’t highlight his favorite discipline’s current renaissance in films like his own Mad God.

After completing the series, I went to my own journals and notes. I looked over the various ideas splayed across them and contemplated the excuses that prevented them from actualizing. The only thing that separates me from those kids who made Star Wars is belief: in self, in possibility. Fear is the mind-killer. And Life and Magic should kill fear.

All six episodes of Light and Magic will premier on Disney+ on 7/27

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)