Newsy Exclusive: A Visit To Skywalker Ranch

The Disney+ series "Light & Magic" gives us a never-before-seen look at what it takes to make some iconic movies visual masterpieces.
Posted at 9:08 PM, Jul 28, 2022

It's the story of the cutting-edge special effects company almost as famous as the movies it helps make. 

Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM, was founded by George Lucas in 1975. 

"When I was writing 'Star Wars,' there were no special effects houses anywhere in the world.  So how were we going to do the effects? I realized I was going to have to start a company," Lucas said. 

A new six-part Disney+ series, "Light & Magic," pulls back the curtain on the people and inventions that helped ILM transform movie-making. 

"We were departing from convention.  We had to build equipment from scratch. This was a long shot," said John Dykstra, Academy Award-winning special effects artist. 

"Light & Magic" is directed by Larry Kasdan, a longtime screenwriter who knows "Star Wars." He's always been impressed with ILM's wizardry. 

"What a lot of these people share and what the company shares is this ethos: You will run into problems. But we know we're going to solve them. We don't yet have the tool to do this new thing, but we will not give up until we do," Kasdan said.

Stop-motion animator Phil Tippet helped Lucas fill the galaxy with strange new creatures.

"So I spent a day just drawing really quickly. 'It could be this, could be that.' ... And sent it to George and he picked one," Tippet said.

Joe Johnston was there in ILM's early days, too.

"I didn't particularly know what I was doing. And a lot of people really didn't know what they were doing. We made a lot of mistakes. And we had a lot of failures,"Johnston said. "And we've had a lot of successes and we sort of learned how to do it. George really gave us, and I think particularly me, he gave me a lot of freedom to design this stuff and to experiment and see what worked."

Johnston went on to direct his own films including Marvel's first "Captain America" movie. 

Recently, he and a few former ILM-ers reunited at Skywalker Ranch. Lucas built the pastoral filmmaker's retreat in the hills of Marin County, California, near San Francisco. 

NEWSY'S CLAYTON SANDELL: Do you remember the first time you came here? 


SANDELL: What was it like? 

JOHNSTON: There was nothing here. Literally nothing here. George had just bought the land and we had a picnic. I think there were only like 15 of us. 

Today, the Victorian house where Lucas keeps offices and a research library overlooks Lake Ewok; there are goats, chickens, and even a dedicated fire department. 

Vineyards produce a Skywalker-branded wine, but what looks like an 1880s winery is actually full of state-of-the art sound editing rooms, recording studios and a theater.

For decades it's been the professional home of Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt.  

"I first came out here with a gang led by George Lucas in 1978," Burtt said. "We had a shooting range right in this area where we are, where we did all the guns for 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' machine guns, and bullet ricochets."

The countless sounds recorded at Skywalker Ranch help complete the illusions created by ILM.

"The opening of the first 'Star Wars' movie, people really thought it came out fine and people were excited to see it. But once the sound was put in for that shot, it just elevated it to something quite different. And that that's the magic of sound, which is, it brings to life the visuals," Burtt said. 

ILM was always evolving, but nothing disrupted the company culture more than the arrival of computer graphics. 

Ed Catmull was the co-founder of Pixar and the president of Walt Disney Animation.

"What was cool about ILM was they were just trying to get the image on the screen. So they were neutral about this stuff when we weren't good enough. But when we started to get good at this stuff, they were open to it," Catmull said.   

But others, especially in the ILM model shop, felt threatened. 

Model-maker John Goodson successfully made the switch from plastic to pixels. 

SANDELL: Not everybody was happy about the digital revolution.  

JOHN GOODSON: No! I would say most of us were not, that were not part of it. That was really difficult. Really difficult. 

... I always say that visual effects, we're visual liars. And if we've done our job well, you don't realize you've been lied to. And that's kind of the trick, you know, it's to convince you, something is real, that doesn't exist.

Doug Chiang joined ILM in 1989. He's now Lucasfilm's executive creative director. He says despite growing to thousands of employees in five countries, the ILM DNA is intact. 

"I kind of grew up idolizing all these guys," Chiang said. "The way I look at it is, it's like the old school of ILM magnified by 10. But all the inherent qualities that makes it ILM are still there. It's the people, it's the family."  

Over nearly 50 years, much of ILM's story has been told. But at Skywalker Ranch, Johnston says there are still a few secrets literally buried away.  

JOHNSTON: In the foundation of the main house there's a time capsule. 

SANDELL: Do you remember what's in it? 

JOHNSTON: All kinds of great stuff. There's one of my sketchbooks in it. A bunch of other things, including a $1 bill that I wrote a message on. You'll have to wait. 

SANDELL: You're not going to tell us what the message was? 

JOHNSTON: No. That's what time capsules are all about! 

"Light & Magic" is its own time capsule; a love letter to an origin story of innovation and creativity. 

"It was a really special time that I don't think could ever be repeated. That experience of bringing people together who had never worked on films before," Johnston said.