Light and Magic Roundtables: Lawrence Kasdan, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren and Janet Lewin

LIGHT AND MAGIC is a 6-part documentary series now streaming on Disney+. It is masterfully directed by Lawrence Kasdan – writer of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Force Awakens, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. This phenomenal 6-part series takes you on a journey through not just the history of ILM, but the making of Star Wars and other big effects blockbusters (The Abyss, Terminator 2, Willow, Jurassic Park). We get to know the people behind these effects, and their relationships with one another. 

This week Richard and I had the pleasure of participating in a series of Roundtables with director Lawrence Kasdan, legendary effects artists Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, and Janet Lewin – Senior Vice President, Lucasfilm VFX & General Manager, ILM. You can listen to the full Roundtables by clicking the player above, or read their answers to several relevant questions below.

Lawrence Kasdan – Director of LIGHT AND MAGIC

First up, Mike Celestino (Laughing Place) asked what was the experience of creating his first documentary like, after a long and storied career of making narrative films?  

Lawrence Kasdan: I had made a little documentary just before this with my wife about a diner that we used to eat at that was closing (Last Week at Ed’s). When we made that documentary, I loved it. I loved making it, shooting it, cutting it. I loved everything about it and I started meeting documentary people. I met the people at Imagine [Entertainment] and they said, ‘What would you like to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, what about the history of visual effects?’ And they said, ‘We have a relationship with Disney and Lucasfilm. What about that?’ And I said, ‘That’s where I grew up. I’ve been around ILM for all these years. That’s perfect.’ And I wanted it to be about the people, not the technology. That’s what I hope the show is about. I was so amazed by this collection of geniuses and I wanted to make a show about that.”

We were blown away by the emotion and detail of the interviews in LIGHT AND MAGIC, so I wanted to know more about the process of these interviews. 

Lawrence Kasdan: It was great [interviewing my friends] and that was one of the biggest pleasures of the whole enterprise. And since I was focused from the get-go on the people, it was great to come back to people I had known a little bit, people I had known a lot. And now it’s much later and generations that followed them are even looking back at the original people and are just astounded that they could even be in the same room with them. So I found the whole thing so emotional. They are so brilliant and to see them generously sharing their gifts with each other; in coming up with a product that maybe even the client didn’t even know they wanted. What ILM has come up with thousands of times is something better than they imagined. And I I love that part of it. They’ve really been a part of the creative process for all these movies.

You’re interviewing your friends, but if some of them were holding back on information, did you have any secrets to pull that info out of them? 

Lawrence Kasdan: I had an incredible production staff, from Imagine (Entertainment). They work on a lot of documentaries. I was exhilarated by the researchers, the producers, the archivists. And also Lucasfilm threw their doors to the Archives open for us, so there’s a lot of stuff in the six hours that’s never been seen before. So when you show that footage to people in the interview, and you’re able to show that same person thirty years younger figuring out that problem, I find that opens things up a lot. And I’ve always found that if you are really listening to people, they will open up like flowers. I didn’t have people I felt were holding back. If there is a slight hesitation I would go to that space and say ‘well tell me more about that. Tell me what you felt at that moment.’ That’s not the first thing that people will tell you, but it can be the second or third thing. 

Janet Lewin – Senior Vice President, Lucasfilm VFX & General Manager, ILM

In LIGHT AND MAGIC, we saw how technology shaped the lives and relationships of ILM employees. Has StageCraft, with it’s technological achievements, also shaped the relationships of current ILM and Lucasfilm employees, and how?

Janet Lewin: Because StageCraft is actually part of physical production it requires us to be more physically present on set in Los Angeles, and actually in any of our Volumes. We have a Volume in London and one in Vancouver. We’re really part of the film-making team; and the whole concept of StageCraft is that you have to design your sequences early and do your pre-vis and actually create the backdrops that ultimately are projected on the LEDs.

In visual effects, as a part of all of that, we have virtual art departments that work hand-in-hand with the production designer and we’re part of the pre-vis teams as well. We’re operating the “brain bar” as well. it’s the the team of technology experts who are responsible for troubleshooting and moving the environments and getting everything just right on the day that we’re shooting. All of those roles are much more embedded within production now and I think that is really emotionally gratifying. It also kind of speaks to that mantra about ILM, that we’re filmmakers. Those individuals having the exposure they get to the filmmaking process cros- pollinates to other groups within the company. So even if we’re not using a Volume or StageCraft per se, we can still leverage some of the key learnings about how to collaborate and design shots that can influence things like feature animation or traditional visual effects as well. 

Where do you see visual effects going in the future?

Janet Lewin: I have sort of an unsexy answer which is, as we are growing and trying to look for talent around the world and especially to the point I was making earlier about our commitment to diversity and inclusion, one of the gating factors is the complexity of the tools and the pipeline. Today we have the best proprietary tools, but they are difficult to operate and so it means that it’s a rarefied talent that we need to execute. In order to really level the playing field and actually create more visual effects faster and cheaper and maybe better, what we need to invest in is a simpler toolset for some amount of the work. That’s where I see the future. As well as facial stuff is going to be an area that a lot of visual effects companies are going to invest in; machine learning and AI. Everything’s kind of converging in a lot of different areas of content creation including visual effects and games. 

Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, Legendary Special Effects Artists

What is the most conflicting behind-the-scenes story you’ve ever heard on the making of Star Wars?

Dennis Muren: Anything you’re working on is always going to have different points of view on it, and you adjust with them and you move forward. So at least I think it’s true for many of us that are in the industry. There really is no conflict, but there is a result and that result comes from interaction. That’s how things get done, they have to move ahead and they do move ahead. 

Other journalists and podcasters who asked great questions at these roundtables include Mike Celestino (Laughing Place), Tricia Barr (Fangirls Going Rogue/FanGIRL Blog), Coffee With Kenobi, Skytalkers Podcast, Star Wars Holocron, and James Burns (Jedi News).

All six parts of LIGHT AND MAGIC are streaming now on Disney+.

Have an Opinion?