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Light & Magic Documentary

I watched the six-episode Light & Magic documentary on Disney+, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, about (what else) Industrial Light and Magic, ILM.

Like all sci-fi kids my age (I was born in 1974), I spent the better part of my childhood reading magazines and making-of books about these geniuses.

It was like bedtime stories: They didn’t know how to film the spaceships and make them look real, so they created motion-control cameras—they moved the camera, not the spaceship, and controlled it with a computer!

I never had any real desire to go into special effects work. I loved to draw, so I admired the concept and storyboard artists, but it was pretty apparent I didn’t have their level of skill, or the patience to improve my work to anywhere near that level.

Still, I read all the Starlog and Cinefantastique articles and got to know the famous names: John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, Ken Ralston, Phil Tippett, and on and on.

The sense of camaraderie and family is very strong in Light & Magic, and it’s helped by the tonnage of well-preserved archival footage.

It used to be way more fun to read about how VFX were made. The artists would talk about model-making, and resin, and acid, and molds, and armatures—and all these things that you could visualize and relate to. They were tactile and comprehensible.

Nowadays, of course, it’s all software and pixels.

This is the big—well, “controversy” isn’t the right word. There’s no doubt that digital cinema is here to stay. It can do anything, and done well, it’s breathtaking.

But the analogue era—which pretty much ended with Jurassic Park in 1993—had a weight and substance to it we’ll simply never see again.

The stuff looked real, because it was real. It was models, and creature suits, and real people using plaster and paints to create the most fabulous illusions.

There will, I am sure, never be a film made again using analogue techniques at anywhere near that scale.

It reminds me of something else: steam travel. On Martha’s Vineyard, we had the last commercially operating steamship on the east coast until it was finally retired in 1988, the S.S. Naushon:

I loved this boat! Steam travel is a joy to experience: there’s no vibration or noise. It’s like being on a sailboat.

The Naushon (originally the S.S. Nantucket) was the last steamship of its kind, built in 1956. But the boat guzzled fuel and had a variety of operational shortcomings, so they had to get rid of it. The modern diesel vessels were too efficient not to use.

The analogue era of VFX feels the same way to me: the technology was utterly perfected...but it could not escape its limitations. So it had to be retired.

And we’ll simply never see its like again.

We do tend to overestimate analogue effects. They did look fake, too. Stop-motion requires the most incredible artistry, but it always “bumps.” We were just so blown away, we didn’t care.

The last two episodes of Light & Magic are about the transition to digital. On the one hand, you had geniuses like Dennis Muren and John Knoll seeing the future and overseeing quantum leaps in the technology.

On the other hand, you had the entire crew of the model shop feeling like the gunslingers of the Old West, watching their way of life disappear.

So I do have nostalgia for what was lost...but I’m grateful for the innovations that have enabled, basically, every project I’ve ever done.

I created Film Score Monthly when desktop publishing was brand new. How else could a 16-year-old write, edit and publish a newsletter? Paste-up was terrible!

Then I did the FSM CDs when digital music editing was coming into its own. We used ProTools to restore and correct defects in old master tapes that never could have been addressed with analogue equipment.

And now, with filmmaking—I love digital. I can edit YouTube videos on my home computer. I have no desire to shoot with physical film.

So I’m grateful to George Lucas and all the artists and technicians for making this future a reality.

It’s true there’s a ton of bad CGI out there...but that’s just inevitable.

The problem is not the technology—the problem is hackery! All hacks off the stage!

And yeah, the accessibility of the technology means there are more unqualified people using it. This is a huge problem with movie music today. Well, c’est la vie.

I also enjoyed the James Newton Howard score to Light & Magic, by the way. I appreciate that it wasn’t the typical, grandiose “movie music” but more intimate and heartfelt.

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As someone who not only admired these artists, but practiced his own “monster kid” application of VFX, this was a touching reminiscence. Your analogy to steam engines seems quite apt, and is a reminder that everything passes eventually. (Enjoy now while it lasts!) Thanks LK!

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