Some key names have been overlooked in the excellent ILM series Light & Magic, and it’s arguably the one thing that lets the Disney+ show down.
History, goes the quote, is written by victors. It’s an old quote that’s come up plenty of times in the past, but I couldn’t help but think it a little when watching the excellent Disney+ series, Light & Magic.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of this yet, do seek it out. It’s a six-part series that tells the story of the rise of Industrial Light & Magic – ILM to most of us – and traces its journey from making the first models for the first Star Wars film through to making computer-generated dinosaurs for Jurassic Park.
What really helps make the show work is it’s got all the key faces – well, nearly all – that you’d want to hear from. This is an official Lucasfilm series, and thus you get George Lucas for a start. Then there’s Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron on the director’s side of things. But crucially, the wizards who were at the heart of ILM’s rise. People like Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren and John Dysktra, who were at the coal face of a fast-changing world of special and then visual effects.
The series has been put together by Lawrence Kasdan, who of course co-wrote the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back). Kasdan is a terrific director in his own right too of course, and he skilfully lets us into the world of ILM, threading a story that’s movie nerd gold. Furthermore, he gets access to behind-the-scenes material and photos, and at times, he doesn’t shy away from the tensions at the burgeoning company. It doesn’t get much more severe than the parting of the ways (well, sacking) between John Dykstra and George Lucas after the original Star Wars film, but at least he gets them both on camera. It’s addressed. They both have their say.
In fact, Kasdan gave an interview to The Wrap where he chatted about finding the raw edges of the ILM narrative. “I love that part of the story”, he says of Lucas firing Dykstra after the first Star Wars. “I agree that it had never been told. And I have this faith that if I’m talking to people, they will tell me stuff. And it may not happen right away. But if you ask the right questions, you will get to the thing you want”.
Yet there’s also, inevitably, something of an angled slice of history here. Nothing out of the ordinary there. As objective as the author of any history book may intend to be, they inevitably have to put some perspective on the story they’re telling. What’s interesting about Light & Magic is, given the company behind it and what it’s about, is that it’s posited to a degree as a document of record. The definitive telling of a story, if you like, from a company with access to the archives and people to tell it.
Which brings me back to the victors telling the story.
Reading George Lucas’ excellent but very much unofficial biography, penned by Brian Jay Jones, there’s an inevitably a different viewpoint. Jones’ book is very good, but also not endorsed, and Lucas is not an active contributor to it (archive interviews are deployed instead). Still, it explores a lot deeper the less friendly interactions behind the scenes of those early Star Wars movies, and injects a bit more frost into the story of ILM as well.
It also finds a place in its story for two prominent figures in the world of Star Wars, particularly when focusing on a pair of films that Light & Magic keenly explores. Those names are Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand. I may have missed them, but I didn’t hear them mentioned one single time in the six-part series. If they were mentioned, it was in passing at best.
Kershner is the credited director of The Empire Strikes Back, Marquad of Return Of The Jedi. Neither are with us anymore, both gave interviews previously though.
You could get to the end of Light & Magic and – if you didn’t know the actual stories involved – assume that George Lucas had directed all of the Star Wars films concerned. Accepting that Lucas was widely reported to be far from a passive producer on The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi (and on Empire at least, he was said to be at ILM whilst Kershner was shooting on location), there’s a story in there. Yet the footage we see on the sets of those films is of Lucas in conversation, and whilst the onus of the show isn’t trained in particular on the movies themselves – it’s still about ILM – they are a sizeable part of it.
Kershner and Marquand were, rightly, never going to be the focus of a historical series of ILM. To blank them entirely though feels, at best, lacking in class.
Because I think due credit matters here. Jones’ book talks about how Kershner’s interaction with the actors and crew was notably better than Lucas’ on A New Hope, but again, that’s one perspective (listen to Nancy Allen chatting in interviews about her experiences being directed by Irvin Kershner on RoboCop 2 and a very different picture is painted there). Light & Magic suggests Lucas was and is a visionary, but outside of the Dykstra moment, one without too many rough edges. And that’s how this particular historical document has been put together.
It’s not just Lucas either. There’s a fascinating segment of the series when the onus shifts to 1982’s Poltergeist, and solving the puzzle of the house in the film imploding. It’s testament to the ingenuity of the ILM team the solution they came up with, an answer that didn’t and couldn’t rely on computers. But here, you’d think the film in question was directed by Steven Spielberg. Again, Spielberg was heavily involved as producer on the film, and there have long been rumours he ghost-directed it. But Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist, and the sequences behind the scenes of that film appear to have airbrushed him from the history of the movie.
The directors of these film are key collaborators with the effects teams concerned, but you wouldn’t think so. And in the midst of a genuinely terrific six-part series, that I hugely recommend, it’s the one thing that leaves a slightly odd taste.
Perhaps more understandably given his conduct, John Lasseter gets barely a mention during the extensive parts of the series discussing Pixar’s part of the ILM story. It’s left to Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, to fill the gaps there, even though he’s half the story.
Whether intended to be or not, Light & Magic is now a crucial part of the history of ILM, and one of the definitive tellings of its story. George Lucas is rightly at the heart of that tale – just not at the expense of others who directed some of the superb films involved.
As it stands, this particular history book has been written, and it feels signed off by the company whose name opens it. And Messrs Kershner, Marquand and Hooper have been unnecessarily shortchanged. A pity. The show, thus, is excellent, but not quite complete.
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