Light & Magic, and the love of cars that led to Star Wars

Light & Magic
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The excellent Disney+ series Light & Magic shines light on the inspirations and life moments that led George Lucas down the path towards Star Wars.

Star Wars almost certainly wouldn’t have existed without George Lucas’ love of cars. First, there was the near fatal automotive accident that prompted Lucas to switch his career goal from motor racing to filmmaking.. Then there was American Graffiti, Lucas’s second feature film, about his generation’s affection for cruising around in (or racing) souped-up hot rods. Billed as a comedy drama, it functioned more as a scrapbook of sights, sounds and emotions from a bygone decade; American Graffiti was also an enormous hit, such that it encouraged 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd, Jr to take a gamble on Lucas and the far-out space opera that everyone else in Hollywood had turned down flat.


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Although set in a far-off galaxy, Star Wars is awash with allusions to cars and the joy of going fast. The Landspeeder that Luke Skywalker uses to hurtle across the Tatooine deserts lacks wheels, but it looks uncannily like a convertible hot rod from the 1950s. Space-faring vagabond Han Solo immediately comes across as the self-confident older brother with the classic car he’s lovingly restored and upgraded himself: when Skywalker laughingly dismisses the Millennium Falcon as a “piece of junk”, Solo, faintly wounded, boasts of its superior speed (“she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid”).

Even Lucas’ approach to movie-making had an air of the petrol head to it. His awkward way with actors, something he poked fun at himself, tended to revolve around speed (“Faster… more intense”). Then there was his tinkerer’s approach to visual effects. As laid out in director Lawrence Kasdan’s peerless Disney+ series, Light & Magic, many of the space-fantasy images Lucas had rattling around in his head were beyond anything that had been attempted in a movie before. To make matters trickier, the in-house studios that once provided effects shots for Hollywood movies had vanished by the late 1970s; many of the technical wizards that built miniatures or specialised in things like stop-motion or other optical effects, had retired or moved elsewhere.

Seemingly unperturbed by his lack of budget, Lucas assembled Industrial Light & Magic in May 1975: a team that mostly consisted of young artists and technicians who’d never worked on a major film before. Some of them are famous today; there was the volatile, effervescent John Dykstra, who later worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies; there was animator Phil Tippet, whose later work included RoboCop’s intimidating, tragi-comic ED-209. There was artist Joe Johnston, who would go on to direct the likes of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and Captain America: The First Avenger. For months, this disparate team of eccentrics, tech geeks and dreamers were holed up in a sweaty industrial building in Van Nuys, building space ships and miniature sets, and trying to figure out how to turn the scenes in Lucas’ script into convincing effects shots.

Light & Magic

Dennis Muren at work making Star Wars, in the documentary series Light & Magic.

In many instances, the team was having to create new technology before it could even commit a frame to film. Dykstra and his crew hashed together a motion-controlled system from old VistaVision cameras and assorted computer parts. Meanwhile, the twentysomething-something sound designer was running around, hitting things with hammers and recording the hums of broken televisions to create Star Wars’ sonic landscape.

Some of Star Wars’ more problematic shots required more simple solutions. The famous trench run sequence required a sizeable chunk of the Death Star’s surface to be built; in fact, the set was so huge that it was constructed outside the studio, in the baking California sun. The team figured out that the camera would have to be moving at 20 miles per hour to get the feeling of speed in the finished shot, so they put the camera in the back of a moving pickup truck and shot it on the hoof.

Most people watching Light & Magic will be aware that Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon when it appeared in May 1977. But knowing this doesn’t make Kasdan’s documentary series any less riveting. Like an action movie or thriller, we may know the heroes will win the day in the end; what isn’t clear is just /how/ they’re going to do it. Light & Magic, more than any other Star Wars documentary I’ve yet seen, captures the agonising, thrilling sensation of hitting a creative barrier, managing to claw together a solution, only to careen headlong into yet another, even bigger problem. If it wasn’t time, it was budget; if it wasn’t budget, it was some technical limitation that hadn’t even been considered before.

The team at ILM didn’t come through the Star Wars experience unscathed, either; when the company was relocated from Van Nuys to San Rafael in 1978, most of the crew were invited to make the same move up the coast. John Dykstra, who repeatedly clashed with Lucas during the production of Star Wars, wasn’t asked. As Kasdan’s interview makes plain, it’s a rejection that still wears heavily on Dykstra today.

Aside from all the problem solving, it’s these human moments that make Light & Magic such an electrifying watch. It’s there when Phil Tippet talks emotionally about his anxiety and depression, or when VFX artist Dennis Muren excitedly reminisces about the Ray Harryhausen-inspired short films he made as a child. Kasdan has an intimate understanding of Star Wars, given that he co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return Of The Jedi and The Force Awakens, which goes some way to explain how he managed to get such candid insights from the people involved.

Star Wars is merely the first chapter in the Light & Magic saga; the rest of the series explores its growth into a special effects powerhouse, and later its move to digital VFX, with the same attention to detail. What comes across throughout is that this disparate group of people all shared a thrill-seeker’s glee at bringing inventive, never-before-seen effects sequences to the big screen. It’s a personality trait they have in common with George Lucas, whose quiet, sometimes stand-offish demeanour belied his own daredevil streak. “Faster, more intense,” indeed.

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