The employees of Industrial Light & Magic made alien stories like Star WarsRaiders of the Lost Ark, and ET The alien. But in real life they looked a lot more like characters meatballs, animal house, and caddyshack.
That’s what is revealed in Light & Magic, filmmaker’s new docuseries Lauren Kasdan, which tells the raw story of a historic visual effects company known to anyone who’s seen a big-budget movie for the past half-century. The group of innovators who founded it changed the craft of filmmaking forever, creating whole new ways to make the impossible look real. Unfortunately, the same wildness that made them so daring nearly caused the implosion of Star Wars when they just started.
In the six-episode series that debuts this week on Disney+, the men (and it was mostly men back then) work and play hard in a way that would give any modern HR rep a heart attack. In reality, george lucas, who brought the company together to create visuals for its space opera that no one else could imagine, was hospitalized during the post-production of Star Wars due to stress-induced chest pain.
“It was like a fraternity home,” Lucas says in the document. Four-time Oscar-winning securities supervisor Ken Ralston says it differently: “George always said give them enough pizza and beer and they’ll do anything.”
Kasdan, who cooperated The Empire Strikes Back, Raidersand Return of the Jedi before starting his own career as a director, he stood on the brink of the birth of Industrial Light & Magic, watching from the sidelines as the company brought to life the things he and Lucas wrote on the page. He made Light & Magic to better understand the people who have brought his stories to life. His series doesn’t judge their antics, but celebrates them. The doc also doesn’t suggest anyone was injured in the act, except for the animator who broke his arm decades later while imitating a jumping dinosaur during a group exercise for Jurassic Park.
That freewheeling mentality has in any case prompted Industrial Light & Magic to put tradition aside. “It was absolutely fundamental,” says Kasdan Vanity Fair in a new conversation. “That original group, those people my age now, they were crazy and fun. These people were from the ’60s, and that spirit you’re talking about would be very strange in a company today.”
The sense of camaraderie attached to them when the work became particularly painful, the problems became more difficult to solve, the hours grew longer and the pressure mounted. “They had to have a huge passion for the job,” says Kasdan. “They came together and created this organism that could do things the world had never seen before. And I think that comes with a sense of play.”
Among their numerous innovations, Industrial Light & Magic built new camera systems to create aerial dogfights. They created the illusion of gigantic spaceships and space stations using tiny models. They designed an entire universe of aliens, vehicles and worlds that seemed real and fantastic at the same time. The work they did in the mid-’70s changed everything in an industry that still dangled models from strings or struggled for the realism of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odysseyy seem more fast and exciting.
Breaking new ground on Star Wars was so all-consuming that the personal lives of these mostly twenty-somethings could only be lived on the fringe at work. At one point during post-production of star wars, one of them bought a military-grade shipping container and transformed it into a makeshift hot tub in the parking lot. It was big enough to fit two people comfortably, although one vintage photo in Light & Magic shows that it is uncomfortably filled with eight.