This Visual Effects Studio Transformed Movies Forever

A new documentary tells the story of Industrial Light and Magic, the pioneering team that brought films like “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park” to life

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A scene from "Light and Magic" Courtesy of Disney+ / Industrial Light and Magic

Over the past 47 years, countless moviegoers have encountered the work of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), even if they may not have realized it at the time. That’s because ILM’s team works way behind the scenes, creating innovative—and believable—visual effects that help viewers suspend their disbelief for a few hours while watching movies like Jurassic Park (1993), Transformers (2007), and the Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.

Now, a new six-part documentary called “Light and Magic” brings the company’s story into the spotlight. The series, which launches on the streaming platform Disney+ on July 27, explores the history and impact of ILM, which film director and producer George Lucas founded in 1975 while working on Star Wars.

Light & Magic | Official Trailer | Disney+

Released this week, the documentary’s trailer offers a tantalizing look into the origins of ILM, which developed pioneering visual effects techniques and technologies that revolutionized the film industry. As Germain Lussier writes for Gizmodo, ILM “literally changed the world.”

“Visual effects create the magic that makes people want to go to the movies,” says Lucas in the trailer. “Movies are special effects.”

The company, which is an offshoot of Lucasfilm, has won numerous awards since its founding, including 3 Emmy Awards, 15 Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, and 33 Academy Awards for Scientific and Technical Awards, per ILM’s website. Today, it draws on the talents of more than 1,200 employees around the world, including artists, software engineers, art directors, editors, producers, computer graphics artists and technicians, all of whom collaborate with filmmakers to make their visual dreams a reality.

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A scene from "Light and Magic" Courtesy of Disney+ / Industrial Light and Magic

In its early days, the company mastered traditional visual effects techniques, such as blue-screen photography, matte painting, and model and miniature construction. Then, staffers really began innovating, figuring out how to use computer graphics and digital imaging in feature films and developing numerous new technologies along the way.

ILM created some of the silver screen’s earliest computer-generated characters, as seen in movies like The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park. Within the industry, the company is also well known for its ability to seamlessly combine photorealistic digital images with video footage.

More recently, the company developed a new real-time virtual production platform called StageCraft that allows filmmakers to surround actors with screens realistically depicting any location in the world. This means moviemakers can do their work from a studio, rather than traveling to far-flung locales to get the right shot, saving both time and money.

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A scene from "Light and Magic" Courtesy of Disney+ / Industrial Light and Magic

All told, the team at ILM has worked on more than 350 films, including 25 of the top 50 worldwide box office hits, per the company’s website. The documentary itself features some heavy hitters, too. Star Wars and Indiana Jones writer Lawrence Kasdan directed the series, which includes interviews with Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis and other influential filmmakers

Reflecting on ILM’s trajectory for the documentary was eye-opening even to the people who lived through the journey.

“It was a wild place,” said Kasdan at a Star Wars event in late May, per the A.V. Club’s Matt Schimkowitz. “At first nobody knew how it was going to work. It was a lot of improvising, which led to a lot of communication. People realizing the skills they had could be expanded. For 40 or 50 years, it’s been that kind of environment, where geniuses can be geniuses.”

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