Industrial Light & Magic’s employees crafted otherworldly stories like Star WarsRaiders of the Lost Ark, and ET The Extra-Terrestrial. But in real life, they were a lot more like characters from matchballs, animal house, and Caddyshack.
That’s what’s revealed in Light & Magic, the new docuseries from filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, which tells the rough-and-tumble tale of a historic visual effects company known to anyone who has seen a big-budget movie over the past half-century. The group of innovators who founded it forever altered the craft of moviemaking, creating entirely new ways of making the impossible look real. Unfortunately, the same wildness that made them so daring nearly caused the implosion of Star Wars when they were just starting out.
In the six-episode series debuting this week on Disney+, the men (and it was mostly men back then) work hard and play hard in a way that would give any modern HR rep a coronary. In fact, George Lucas, who assembled the company to create visuals for his space opera that no one else could envision, was hospitalized during the postproduction of Star Wars due to stress-induced chest pain.
“It was like a fraternity house,” Lucas says in the doc. Four-time Oscar-winning effects supervisor Ken Ralston puts it another way: “George used to say give them enough pizza and beer and they’ll do anything.”
Kasdan, who cowrote The Empire Strikes Back, Raidersand Return of the Jedi Before launching his own career as a director, was on the periphery of Industrial Light & Magic’s birth, watching from the sides 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 gave life to his stories. His series doesn’t cast judgment on their antics—instead, it celebrates them. The doc also doesn’t suggest anyone got hurt in the process, except for the animator who broke his arm decades later while imitating a leaping dinosaur during a group exercise for Jurassic Park.
If anything, that freewheeling mindset is what made Industrial Light & Magic determined to cast aside tradition. “It was absolutely fundamental,” Kasdan tells Vanity Fair in a new interview. “That original group, those people who are now my age, they were crazy and fun. These people came out of the ’60s, and that spirit you’re talking about would be very foreign in a business today.”
The sense of camaraderie bonded them when the work became especially painful, the problems harder, the hours longer, and the pressure building. “They had to have enormous passion for the work,” Kasdan says. “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 countless innovations, Industrial Light & Magic built new camera systems to create deep-space aerial dogfights. They generated the illusion of gargantuan starships and space stations using itty-bitty models. They designed a whole universe of aliens, vehicles, and worlds that seemed both real and fantastical at the same time. The work they did in the mid-’70s changed everything in an industry that was still dangling models from strings or struggling to make the realism of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odysseyy seem more fast-paced and thrilling.
Breaking new ground on Star Wars was so all-consuming that the personal lives of these mostly 20-somethings could only be lived out in the margins at work. At one point during the postproduction of Star Wars, one of them acquired a military-grade shipping container and transformed it into a makeshift hot tub in the parking lot. It was big enough to comfortably fit two people, although one vintage photo in Light & Magic shows it stuffed uncomfortably with eight.