As a writer, Lawrence Kasdan has crafted stories that would be impossible to tell without the groundbreaking visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic. Kasdan, who co-wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” (and several other “Star Wars” projects), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Dreamcatcher” (which he also directed), has always been in close proximity to ILM. But his latest project, a six-part documentary series called “Light & Magic,” goes deep into the history and pedigree of the company, which was created to work on the first “Star Wars” and has transformed the industry, again and again.
In 2019 Kasdan and his wife Meg made a short documentary called “Last Week at Ed’s,” which chronicled the closure of a beloved West Hollywood diner. (The Kasdans frequented it.) “In the process of making that documentary, I fell in love with docs,” Kasdan said. “I love the process. I love not knowing what the story was at the beginning. I love that people are more interesting in real life than anything you make up in your head in some room. And I thought, I want to do more of this.”
Kasdan met with Imagine Entertainment, the production company founded by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. When they asked him what he wanted to make, Kasdan told them that he wanted to do “a history of visual effects.” Imagine said that they already had a relationship with Disney+ and Lucasfilm and proposed, instead, a project that chronicled the history of Industrial Light & Magic. “That was like saying, you want to go back to your old high school because I really grown up there. And I didn’t know that even being around it for so long. I didn’t know how anything worked. And I didn’t know that the histories of those people. I said that’s what we should do.” Imagine (and Disney+) agreed.
While working on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” Kasdan admits he was aware of what ILM was up to but wasn’t keenly involved. He was working on his own career as a filmmaker and the writing process for those projects was fairly involved. “I certainly didn’t know that they’d come from all over the world and and all over the country to this place that had miraculously appeared,” Kasdan said. He credits John Dykstra, one of the pioneering artists on “Star Wars” for having faith that these people, from various disciplines, would work well together. And for the genius of George Lucas, who said, “We’re going to make this work,” even if nobody knew how exactly.
“[Lucas] liked moments of tension. And he didn’t know if he would be able to get the work done in time and the budget, but they all came through for him,” Kasdan said. “And partially because he was driving them very hard. Yet, the atmosphere was full of fun.”
Of course, that kind of push-and-pull can lead to a break and after “Star Wars” was completed that Lucas fired Dykstra, something that is talked about very openly in the documentary series. “I love that part of the story. 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,” Kasdan explained. “It also requires that someone like Dykstra and George, be very candid. I feel that people have that capacity. But John was so open and candid about it. And the people who worked for keep John were, and George was very clear, and there’s a lot of the archival stuff was him at the time, his frustrations, his concerns that he that he was having a heart attack, he was so stressed? I thought that’s a great story. And these people were generous enough to tell it.”
Another big surprise of “Light & Magic” is how it captures the friendship of effects artists Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, trailblazers whose relationship forms the emotional core of the story. (Tippett is also very open with his struggles with mental health.) For Kasdan, that was just as much of a surprise. “That was one of the joys of doing this and why I have been drawn to documentaries so late in my career,” Kasdan said “You don’t know anything and you just go in there. And if you’re the right person, and you’re creating an atmosphere and Imagine was fabulous about how we handled it, people will open up to you. And I love this history.”
In telling the story of Industrial Light & Magic, an effects house that has touched everything from “Mission: Impossible” to “Twister” to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Kasdan is also telling the story of modern filmmaking. How advancements in technology allow for different types of stories to be told and how those technological advancements also inspire the storytelling. (Some company called Pixar initially started out as the computer graphics division of ILM.) More recently, ILM was responsible for the “Volume” technology, the real-time screen that is being utilized for things like “The Mandalorian,” “Thor: Love and Thunder” and even FX’s “The Old Man.”
But more than a history of Hollywood, Kasdan felt that “Light & Magic” is really the story of George Lucas, who changed the industry purely by force of will. “I didn’t understand fully how important George was to everything,” Kasdan said. “No one said to him, you have to figure out digital, you have to figure out a new way to edit, a new way to make sound, a new way to project film, a new way to compile it, no one said that. He said, ‘I want to do those things. And I’m going to find the people that will help me do those things.’”
When it came time for Kasdan to make his own visual effects extravaganza, “Dreamcatcher,” based on the novel by Stephen King (that was written in a haze of painkillers following his accident), he knew who to call. Even though the movie was something of a disappointment (it is ripe for critical reappraisal and acknowledgement as a future cult classic), working with ILM was a dream for Kasdan. “The movie was a bad experience for me, but it wasn’t their fault,” Kasdan said. “I love dealing with them. But I don’t know that I use them correctly. I learned a little bit from making this show. How much Steven [Spielberg] and Bob [Zemeckis] and George, how ILM was dependent on them in the process, where they would say, ‘Here’s what I want. Can you make that happen?’ They would say, ‘Here’s what I’m feeling. What can we do?’ And that is the right way to use ILM. I’m not sure I did that enough on ‘Dreamcatcher’ and but you know, the effects are not the problem with the movie, the movie is the problem with the movie.” (Somewhat tellingly, no footage from “Dreamcatcher” appears in “Light & Magic.”)
“Light & Magic” is so special, so engrained in the nitty gritty of one of modern cinema’s most delicate and transcendent artforms, that you wish it was longer than its six hours. With the kind of ground that ILM is constantly breaking, we wondered if there was a chance that Kasdan might come back and produce some new installments. “I never want say never,” Kasdan said. “I only look for these things to be satisfying in and of themselves., I’ve written a lot of sequels, but I’m not drawn to sequels.” Still, “Light & Magic” is the story of making the impossible possible. If anybody can (and should) continue to tell their story, it’s Kasdan.
“Light & Magic” is streaming now on Disney+.