Friday, September 2, 2022

Green Phoenix - Light and Magic Review

 Light & Magic poster.jpeg

Disney+ has been, in my humble opinion, a boon for anyone interested in classic films and the filmmaking process. The streaming service is filled to the brim with fascinating behind the scenes documentaries and featurettes that reveal the magic and history behind some of our favorite films. From The Reluctant Dragon to Waking Sleeping Beauty, the streaming service is just an absolute treasure trove that I find myself drawn in for hours upon hours of great information and fun.

That's why, when I saw Disney+ recommending a documentary series called Light & Magic, outlining the history and legacy of the special effects company Industrial Light & Magic, I knew I had to watch and review it. That it would be everything that I tend to look for in my documentaries and even play into my love of film history and special effects.

And I was not disappointed. So let's not waste anytime talking and just get right into a review that already had to be delayed by a week due to work and other distractions. But in my humble opinion, this review was worth the wait.

  • Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
  • Produced by LucasFilm Ltd.
  • Number of Episodes: 65rt
  • Available on Disney Plus


Light & Magic is a 6 episode documentary series on Disney+ detailing the foundations and origins of the special effects company Industrial Light & Magic, the people behind most, if not all, of the greatest films of the 1980s and 1990s. Beginning in the mid to late 1970s in a California warehouse working on George Lucas' untested film Star Wars, the series catalogues the trials and triumphs of this band of weirdos and film nerds as they buck the status quo.
Along the way, we bear witness to the myriad of stories and personalities at the heart of the company and see the internal struggles as the new technology of CGI changes everything within ILM, both for the good and the bad.



Ever since I first watched The Reluctant Dragon as a child, I have been fascinated by the process of filmmaking and enchanted by the magic of special effects that go into making the most memorable moments of film. This was even before I knew that I wanted film and television production to be what I did with my life. After I came to the realization of what my true passion was, this love only grew and since then I have hungered for any and all documentaries and featurettes that detail the secrets that occur behind the scenes.

In the age of DVDs, this came in the form of the bonus features and behind-the-scenes shorts. Now in the age of streaming, I am able to enjoy all the best film history documentaries to my hearts content, and Light and Magic will absolutely join the upper echelon of great film documentaries.

Over the course of 6 episodes, we witness the origins and rise of the greatest special effects company in cinematic history, watch their impact and evolution from practical to digital effects, and follow the very real people who helped facilitate some of the most iconic moments in movie culture. And the structure and look of the series is absolutely fantastic, thanks to the stellar direction by Lawrence Kasdan.

Now Kasdan was actually the director behind The Empire Strikes Back and so I feel like it is super poignant to have him returning to tell the story behind the creation of ILM. We see George Lucas and John Dykstra bringing together a ragtag group of weirdos and movie nerds in an abandoned warehouse all to see Lucas' vision for Star Wars brought to life, the struggles of performing effects that had never been done before, and the triumphs and transition into the legendary effects company we know today. And where a normal documentary might focus on the nature and evolution of different effects, Kasdan was very smart by keeping the focus of this documentary on the true lifeblood of ILM, the numerous artists and craftspeople that make the movie magic possible.

While the film does reliably go through the various eras of ILM's history, it will always intersperse these segments with brief biographies of the various players in that segment or era of the film, specifically focusing on the elements of their early life that eventually led them to ILM before transitioning back to the main historical segments. It's fascinating to see the myriad personalities and upbringings that all converged at the same location and then to see how the those childhood experiences correspond to the developments or role that these craftspeople put into their work and advanced ILM. Kasdan and his team did a really good job of inserting the human element into the series to make sure it wasn't completely dry but was engaging and full of life.

Beyond the human element, Light and Magic does a marvelous job of peering beyond the wizard's curtain so to speak. I've always enjoyed watching how movies and effects are done because it made me feel like I was watching an expert magician perform a trick and then show me how it was done. I don't end up losing my appreciation for how the trick was done but rather find myself appreciating the trick by recognizing the skill and artistry that made it possible in the first place. Watching the little tricks, new technology and sheer creativity involved, especially as ILM began to make its shift into digital was fascinating to see and really grounded the filmmaking process, even for someone familiar with the industry.

I will admit that sometimes I wished that they went into a bit more detail or didn't jump around some films quite so much, allowing us to follow ILM's role in a wider array of movies, but what we were presented was still deeply enjoyable.

The series has an extremely high production value and manages to capture a real sense of joy, wonder, and ultimately tragedy in the story of ILM. Throughout the series, we see ILM's devotion to cutting-edge special effects propel their model shop to new heights while also slowly revealing a feeling in some people (especially George Lucas) that the practical effects are somehow unsatisfying. We see these amazingly talented indviduals and slowly see our enthusiasm for new technologies and desire to see the CGI department succeed when everyone expects their failure transition into a strangely empathetic grief when we realize that the CGI departments success will ultimately spell doom for many of the model makers that we had spent the past 5 episodes by that point in the series getting to know and appreciate.

This is best exemplified in the story of Phil Tippett. A skilled stop-motion animator that found his efforts to create the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park curtailed by a surprise test of computer graphics capabilities. The moment sent shivers down my spine that I wasn't expecting from a documentary series on Disney+ of all things. Which really spoke to the overall strength of the series.

The series was difficult to get through not because I wasn't interested but rather because the whole series is over 6 hours in length. I thus do not recommend that you binge the series, especially since some episodes will cover information previously shown in the last episode. I suggest one episode a day for best viewing experience personally. But that viewing experience is not to be avoided.

I absolutely think that this is probably among my favorite things on Disney+ right now. A passionate telling of the history of the great special effects company in the film industry, with music by the great James Howard just made it a blast and something that I might even keep on in the background or when I want to just relish in the filmmaking experience by proxy. Watching this series even made me want to go our with my camera and just shoot something, anything.

And that is something that only the very best filmmaking documentaries can do.
  • 9/10
  • 9/10
  • 9/10


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