The big panel today at Star Wars Celebration focused on the new documentary, Light & Magic, which chronicles the special effects work from the geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects house co-created by George Lucas. The documentary series, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan and produced by Ron Howard, was unveiled during a panel and press conference today at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim. The panel, which featured Kasdan and Howard along with ILM legends Phil Tippet and Dennis Murenas well as director Joe Johnston, current ILM General Manager Lynwen Brennan and Rose Duignan, who dove into their memories of founding ILM as well as where it is headed in the next generation.
Here’s the synopsis for Light & Magic:
Granted unparalleled access, Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan takes viewers on an adventure behind the curtains of Industrial Light & Magic, the special visual effects, animation and virtual production division of Lucasfilm. Learn what inspired some of the most legendary filmmakers in Hollywood history, and follow their stories from their earliest personal films to bringing George Lucas’ vision to life.
During the panel, we saw a brief trailer for the documentary series as well as the opening credits followed by a discussion with the aforementioned ILM icons. First up was director Lawrence Kasdan who had to attend remotely due to a positive COVID test earlier today. But, he was happy to see the turnout and shared how this project came to be.
Been around these movies for 40 years. Knew some of these people but never understood how the FX happen. He knew it was a house of geniuses. George Lucas had the vision to bring them together despite varied disciplines. Art, mechanics, storyboard, etc. He and Jon Dykstra brought them all together to make a place unmatched for decades. Greatest FX house in the world. Lots of improvising in the early days. Everyone helped one another learn how to perfect their craft. Geniuses help geniuses. No pride when asking for help. They only want to do a good job. The whole company is aimed at creating the greatest FX ever.
Phil Tippett binge watched the series and said there was a lot he had forgotten over the years.
Binge watched it. We don’t often think about this stuff. We just go on to the next thing. It was this little kind of paleontological look at the species of us. Pony Express or Cowboys became mythological things. Entities that were slices of time. But have become our mythos. This is one of them. Larry did a fantastic job. Made me wistful about that time. A tear in my eye of how much it means to me and my kids and their kids. It will be here now until the earth blows up.
Current ILM General Manager Lynwen Brennan had this to say:
Larry did a spectacular job. What you find in this doc is that it is about the people. Yes, we have done spectacular things and people on this panel have changed the industry, Byt it is about the soul of the people. I honestly have the easiest job in the world. So many incredible people at ILM and in 5 countries. What unites us are our DNA and spirit and camaraderie. Dennis was saying there was no hoarding of secrets NO sense of anything being impossible. An honor to work there and stand on the shoulders of giants.
We then saw a short clip showing George Lucas’ American Grafitti and how Ron Howard’s experience on that set paved the way for Star Wars. Howard had this to share.
Seeing Star Wars was mind-blowing. Saw it twice on opening day. I was already excited to direct my first movie with Roger Corman. That simple conversation about using the advances made in 2001: A Space Odyssey and I began to understand he was applying technology. Cinema does that really really well. Uses new advances one after another. This was a mind-blowing leap. It was incredible. Then, as I became a customer of ILM on my film Cocoon, it was fascinating and I was very intimidated. I am more actor-centric and character-driven as a filmmaker. I had seen motion control and talked to George about breakthroughs but I immediately found the energy was more like talking to artists and fellow writers and musicians. If I had those kinds of convos I could let them be the magicians. Willow was an exponential leap for me.
Director Joe Johnston came from a much different background than the rest of ILM.
I can’t say I was of a similar mind. I came from a different background as an industrial designer. Saw a flier on the wall at CalState looking for artists and model builders and painters on a space movie. Working in Malibu on things that had to work as a water softener or bus seat. Boring stuff. I saw this and wow I was like things now just need to look good. It is easy to design stuff that doesn’t have to work. I felt like a fish out of water for a while until I realized I was part of a giant family.
Johnston also shared how he helped create the look of the Millennium Falcon.
Space 1999 had a ship similar to Han’s ship. Lucas didn’t want to copy anyone. We need a new ship. So I basically went home to Long Beach and Grantwood Hume said can you use this cockpit and radar dish since we already built and wired them up. Please incorporate these into the design. I was feeling pressure and looked around my apartment and saw a stack of dirty dishes that seemed to always be there. If you took two plates it kind of looks cool. If you put engines in the back and a cockpit upfront it is a nose. I played around and did five or six drawings. The trick was to make sure George liked the same one. I finished the one I liked a little more and he liked it but the cockpit was out in front and he didn’t like that. So we put it on the side and he said yeah that’s good. George was vaguely asking for stuff because he wanted choices.
Phil Tippett also shared how some characters got named by Lucas.
I found my tribe. Dennis and I evolved from the same swamp. Same blueprint as mine. We had a history of the same roots. Coming on to my first experience with Star Wars. Developed a relationship with George. The engineering and design of the imperial walkers. George wanted designs of the Tauntaun. I did sketches and George liked it and that was done. We made sculptures out of skulpy. On Fridays, we would bring them out and George would tell us who each person was. He asked me who one was and I said a Calamari man and George said well that is Admiral Ackbar. I had no idea but he came up with stupid names for them all. He took calamari man and turned it into Mon Calamari. With George, nothing had been written for Jabba’s palace and George was still developing it. He said make me a bunch of stuff. He responded to three maquettes that he could lift and rotate and look at from all sides. Very much wanted to go and explore and see what happened.
Rose Duignan shared a story about an unfortunate experience with Fox executives during the filming of Star Wars.
I never took shorthand. I write really fast though. I came in with the second wave, the last nine months giving birth to the final movie. Came up with a production management system. George came back from shooting all the live-action in England. FX budget was 2 million and half was gone thanks to 70 models and blue screen tech and refurbish optical equipment but not a single FX shot was done. We started immediately doing shots. One day, Joe was in the hot tub and I heard a noise. A group of people were laughing hysterically and I stood there and saw Jon Dykstra lifting a fridge on a forklift high and dropping it over and over just as Lucas and a big wig from Fox arrived in a limo and look at what is happening, got back in the limo and left. I knew we were in deep deep trouble. That is when they started calling us the country club despite how hard we worked. We were so young, All in our 20s, no kids, all work, work, work.
As it turned out, Phil Tippett revealed that Ben Burtt was recording the audio of the fridge drops which Rose never knew. Joe Johnston also shared how he came up with the design for the Star Wars logo on a rush.
Gary Kurtz came to me one afternoon with an idea for the star wars logo. On one line, thin hairline letters. Pointed ends. He was in a panic because we need this tomorrow. We already shot the roll up but need the logo for the opening shot. Can you fix this? I said I can’t but I can redesign it. He said you have until 10 am tomorrow. So I basically drew with a ruling pen and ink what I thought it should look like. But instead of one line, I stacked it, and if I had a penny for every time that as been printed….I wouldn’t be here right now.
Coming back to Ron Howard, the crowd chanted for Solo 2 to which he said he has no say in the matter but appreciated the support. Howard then shared
On Solo we had tremendous collaborators. I did find after years away but staying close to the spirit of ILM. Just conceiving of this, Larry is a great storyteller. The heartbeat of it, the adventure. This series is about that spirit and a renegade quality and its own type of adventure story. The advances were spectacular and with my daughter Bryce who works on The Mandalorian, the breakthroughs just keep coming. It is always about creativity first. Technology is there and what is the idea, the dream. And everyone on this panel is driven by this. But it all comes back to George. How do we do it?
Lawrence Kasdan then had more kind words about George Lucas.
The genius of George is he knows what to ask of people. Things that have never been done before he can make it clear. People would come away saying I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we are going to do it. We had to work fast but have patience. It was so amazing to see that clip of Phil and the snow lizard. Seeing someone sit down and come up with distinct designs, it is amazing and miracle to me. That kind of talent is in every person at ILM. They want to share those ideas.
Kasdan then wrapped up with his hopes for those who watch Light & Magic.
I hope this documentary that everyone’s histories from everywhere they came from all wanted to do this one thing. The secret desire I had for this show as I cut it, I was inspired about creativity about selflessness and my secret desire was to make this for my grandchildren. I showed it to them and they got excited and they wanted to make stuff and we made stop motion together. There is a great story at the end. I hope people, even if they don’t go into FX, their mind is as important as anything and they can be supported. If just a few kids get that out of this show, I will be happy.
Following the panel, we were privileged to attend a press conference with the panel who shared more stories about the early days of ILM. Check out the embeds below.
Light & Magic premieres on July 27th on Disney+.