Lawrence Kasdan names the best Star Wars special effects ever

Lawrence Kasdan knows Star Wars. As one of the authors of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, and Solo, he has been intricately involved with the franchise for over 40 years. So he wanted to learn more about the special effects team that brought his words to life in those films and others he worked with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The result is Kasdan’s latest directorial effort, on the new Disney+ series Light and magic — a six-part documentary about Industrial Light & Magic, the pioneering visual effects division of Lucasfilm. Kasdan spoke with EW Weekly Star Wars podcast, Dagobah Dispatchto talk about his career, why old-school practical effects are cooler than digital new ones, his favorite Star Wars special effect ever, melting faces off on Raiders of the Lost Arkand what he learned while creating his new series, which is out now. (You can also listen to the whole conversation, as well as our interviews with Pedro Pascal and a number of others Star Wars Comic-Con Cosplayers, at last episode of Dagobah Dispatch.)

George Lucas - 1980

George Lucas – 1980

Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan on the set of “The Empire Strikes Back”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s go back in time. You are an up-and-coming writer and the first two film jobs you are hired for are The Empire strikes back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, two of the best movies ever made. What was it like starting your career that way?

LAWRENE KASDAN: Well, it was kind of amazing. It had taken me seven years to sell two scripts I had written, two spec scripts. And the other was bought by Steven Spielberg. And the day I met Steven Spielberg, he said, “I’m going to do a movie with George Lucas, and I want you to meet him. Are you okay with that?” I said, “Yes, I’m very fine with that.”

And we went over and we saw George and he just gave bones of what Raiders would have been. And I wrote Raiders for. And when I finished it after about six months, I took it to George, and before he read it, he said, “I’m having trouble with the sequel to Star Wars. Will you help me with that?” And I said, “Well, won’t you read [Raiders] script first?” And he said, “I’ll read it tonight. If I don’t like it, I’ll call you tomorrow, I’ll take this offer back.” I thought that was perfectly fair, but he liked it. So I unexpectedly found myself writing first Raiders and then Empire in quick succession. And I was in heaven.

As a writer on these films, how much exposure and awareness did you have at the time with the folks at Industrial Light & Magic bringing your scenes to life?

At that time almost no one. And I was busy writing a lot, but I visited Empire once in England. I was never on set again Raiders. So I saw people making the finished product and I was amazed. And I was amazed at the ideas that I had and George and Steven had in a small house in Sherman Oaks when we worked it out. And now it’s suddenly on the screen.

And what I didn’t know at the time was who these people were. But over the years I have used them. I have made other films there. And I saw that the group was a group of geniuses, and I loved the spirit they had with each other. And it continued through the generations.

And you can see that there is a real affection in these people for each other, for their experience. They are very grateful to have the experience of working there, being around these equally brilliant people. So I found that there was some kind of movement. And as the years went by, I got to see and know more about them. And then of course this was the deep dive that I really wanted to take. Where did these people come from? How did they end up at ILM?

Light and magic

Light and magic

Lucasfilm Ltd. An AT-AT from “Light & Magic”

When I watch the episodes that look at the early years of ILM and I see all these practical, what would now be considered primitive effects with the models, and stop-motion, and matte paintings, it’s a fondness and often a preference that I have to some of the practical effects over the much smoother CGI that we see today. Is it just my childhood nostalgia talking, or is there something special and magical about the old way of doing things?

It is. And I don’t think it’s nostalgia at all. Many things in our world and our culture have gone from being handmade with the fingers, with the hands, with the eyes, modeling things, painting things. They have gone from the tactile place to a digital place. And sometimes the digital stuff is brilliant, but it can’t have that thing. And I think what you’re talking about is a devotion. It’s not just you. That’s the species. They did it before anything. They were in caves making things, they painted on the walls. I think there is something irresistible about it. And when you don’t see the tactile part of it, you miss it.

I think part of it is also: How did they do it? Things look amazing now, as you say, but we kind of know they’re only doing it on a computer. When I watched the old movies it was: How did they do Tauntaun? How did they do these things? That’s the magic to me.

Well, that’s what I wanted the show to be about. And not just how did they do it? Because the patience and artistry involved is astonishing. But also how they did it feel if it? I wanted to know what kind of person could do what Phil Tippett does with that Tauntaun hour after hour, move the Tauntaun a fraction of an inch and then climb on his stomach under the set and go to the other Tauntaun. It’s just amazing, the patience and dedication they have given to all these undertakings.

Now there are people sitting at computers doing digital things, and it is painstaking work. But for people who have been around for a little while, you miss that feeling of, “Oh, where’s the room where they did this?”

Light and magic

Light and magic

Lucasfilm Ltd. Joe Johnston, John Dykstra and Dave Jones in “Light & Magic”

What is your favorite effect from one Star Wars movie that still gives you chills or just visually just knocks your socks off? As you went through and re-watched all of these things, to create your series, what really impresses you the most – either with the work they took to get it done, or just the way it looks on screen?

There are millions, but I have to get back to A new hopebecause that’s what made me and everybody in the theater around me in 1977. And so many of these people who worked at ILM afterwards, they saw that film around the world and said, “How did they do that? Why is it more exciting than anything I’ve ever seen?”

They know that there have been spaceships in movies since the beginning. Why is this so dynamic? Why is it so fast? Why is it so energetic? And then everything that is inside ONE New hope is the seed of everything that follows. And they figured out different, better ways to do it, but nothing compares. It’s like being there when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.

That’s the first shot too, right? Under the Star Destroyer, as it walks across your screen, you think, “What’s going on?”

Yes. And I love it. It is in the show that you see how they thought and how [Richard] Edlund found it out. And what did it look like when they first tried it? It’s that simple. And like you, it’s my favorite effect ever.

When I was a child, there is a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark which literally gave me nightmares. I’m guessing you know what scene that is, right?

Tell me.

That’s the face-melting scene, which you get into in this series. What was it like for you to see that scene come to life…or death, I guess, as it were?

It was amazing that they had figured out such a good way to do it. And Steven will be the first to tell you. And he says that in the show, I think. I didn’t know what to do, but I went to them and said, “How can we do this?”

And that’s really the story of ILM, because these images don’t fully come from people. They come as an idea, and they depend on the people at ILM to make it real. And it happened with the very tactile… It’s a wax figure that melts under the heat. It is very powerful. When people say to me, “What do you think about the development of effects?” I think, “Well, it didn’t get any better than that,” that one moment when your head melts. Because everything else, as we go along, you think they can do anything. But when that movie came out, you didn’t believe it. You thought, “What happened?”

Light and magic

Light and magic

Lucasfilm Ltd. Face melting from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

You’ve had a lot of experience working with this company over the years, but you went deep into researching it for this series. What’s the most interesting thing you learned about ILM while making this series?

Well, that was something I hoped, I didn’t know, but I hoped. It seemed to me being on the outside of it and being around it for so long that this community that makes up ILM – and now it includes people my age to people who are very young – that community has been infused with that kind of generosity towards each other. It is a team sport. And I suspected that. I hoped so.

I wanted to know if you go back to the original people and follow that history to the present day, what would you see? And what I saw is people who got an idea in their head, very young, what they wanted to do, and then found themselves in the perfect place to do those things. So it’s astonishing to see a 10-year-old Ken Ralston making a movie. And he ends up here, where 50 years later that’s what he did with his life.

Speaking of people, I know, as a reporter, it’s sometimes difficult when you ask people to remember things from decades ago. And sometimes you ask two different people about something, you get two different sometimes conflicting stories. So what was it like talking to the creative types, like a Phil Tippett or Dennis Muren, to get their memories of big events and effects and things like that?

Well, that was my main goal. I would prepare for every interview. So I knew a lot about that person and who was there at the time, who was there with them, who were their friends at the time, who they now consider a friend 40 years later. It’s pretty amazing that they could work together and do hard work for so long and really feel like this is a friendship that will last forever. I love that feeling, the generosity of affection between them. And I kind of hope that’s what it was. And it turned out to be much more than that.

It looks like they were pretty good at documenting behind-the-scenes stuff and pictures when they made these early films like Star Wars, Empire, and Raiders. What was it like going through that archive?

I had a great producing group from Imagine, and the freelance producers who came on and the research people and the archivists. They are astounding and as you say Lucasfilm is probably the most well documented business like this ever because George Lucas decided when he was going to make A new hope that he wanted a good record. When he made American graffiti, he wanted there to be an overview of the process. And he, with full commitment, always had people documenting it. And we had access to things that no one has seen. And it’s kind of exciting when you see it.

I love it when they talk about an effect and then you see when the effect was first drawn and how it changed. And I think that is incredible. I think these people are amazing. And Phil Tippett says, “Yeah, they said they wanted these kinds of creatures. So I sat down and did some of these things in an hour.” And you see these incredible drawings, any of which could have become Tauntaun. And you should say “Wow.” If I spent my whole life, I could never draw a picture like that.

Listen to the full conversation with Lawrence Kasdan as well as our interviews with Pedro Pascal and Comic-Con cosplayers on EW’s new Star Wars podcast, Dagobah Dispatch.

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