Just days after Marvel confirmed release dates for a bevy new projects over the next three years, many of us may need a little reminder of just how magical movies can still be. Luckily, there’s Disney+’s latest docuseries, “Light & Magic,” which is now streaming. Sure, it’s still part of the Walt Disney empire, and some might consider it Disney propaganda, but boy is it a nice time.
“Light & Magic” documents the history of Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects company founded by George Lucas when he was making “Star Wars: A New Hope.” Over six episodes, the docuseries compiles interviews with current and former ILM employees and collaborators to piece together as complete a chronicle of the story as possible, starting with the miniature models and matte paintings created back in the 70s and ending with “The Mandalorian’s” revolutionary mix of practical sets and video screens in the 2020s, going movie by movie and effect by effect to recall the blood, sweat and tears that went into every little piece of every project.
If you’re a movie buff, or at the very least a George Lucas buff, it’s a must watch. But it also goes beyond movie fandom to the point where it feels like there’s another documentary hiding underneath, or maybe a scripted workplace show set at a visual effects company. There’s an unexpected human element to this story that could have taken up a lot more of the narrative, as it sounds like ILM became more of a community than just a workplace, and long hours and high pressures meant breaks and decompression were vital.
With the kind of success and innovation that ILM has experienced, there naturally come a lot of ups and a lot of downs, and while the downs aren’t explicitly shared, they are hinted at. There are moments where former employees recall how burnt out they were at certain times, or how their work impacted their mental health and vice versa. One short segment focuses on a breakroom at the office that was essentially turned into an employee nightclub, and there’s also a good amount of footage of employees running around pretending to be dinosaurs in the parking lot as part of the prep for “Jurassic Park.” And all throughout the story, the changing times loom.
All of the original effects in “Star Wars” were practical, created with puppetry and models and some creative and horrifying projects, like the tauntaun made out of the skin of an unborn calf. (You might have to rewatch that part a couple of times to understand how on earth that worked.) As the years went on, computers began taking away the need for practicality, leaving the artists who were once considered visionary geniuses behind in the dust as it became clear that entire worlds could be successfully created on a computer screen.
In a doc made by someone other than Disney and airing somewhere other than Disney+, there might be a grittier story to be told here about what the male-heavy environment at ILM was really like, and how all of the incredible craftsmen really felt about the introduction of computer generated effects. But for a Disney-made series, “Light & Magic” is still a fascinating ride through movie history that maybe just has some pacing issues.
The first five episodes move one movie or major innovation at a time, and then the last episode starts with “Jurassic Park,” which came out in 1993, and ends with “The Mandalorian,” which premiered in 2019 and is arguably the pinnacle of everything ILM has achieved. It’s the ultimate combination of the practical pieces from “Star Wars” of the 70s and extreme CGI from “Star Wars” of the early 2000s, and has produced some of the most beautiful filmmaking in the entire “Star Wars” universe. The docuseries clearly sees that, but it feels strange that it almost comes out of nowhere and gets such a short amount of time in the spotlight (although there’s a specific docuseries on the making of “The Mandalorian” you can stream on Disney+ for a deeper dive).
And somewhere in the middle, the prequels, which used essentially every CGI effect available, are only briefly mentioned as a turning point for the company. You could actually argue that after “Jurassic Park,” CGI went a little too far, and almost 30 years later, that movie remains one of the best examples of the art form. “Jurassic Park” holds up in a way that many other movies don’t, which might explain why this series practically jumps from there to ILM’s present day successes, briefly stopping to explain why Robert Downey Jr. could only rarely wear the full Iron Man suit.
It doesn’t necessarily feel like some of the less successful moments in ILM’s history are glossed over or forgotten, but it just feels like there’s more to the story (more tea to be spilled, perhaps) that might get to be told someday. For now, the story that is being told is a pretty interesting one, and worth a watch for any lover of movies and the magic behind them.
All six episodes of “Light & Magic” are now streaming on Disney+.