Disney+’s Behind-The-Scenes Documentaries Are Its Greatest Treasure

Light & Magic

by Ben Travis |
Updated on

Ever since Disney+ waded into the streaming wars, its biggest selling point has been its weapons-grade IP. You want a weekly Star Wars show, or an all-new Marvel Cinematic Universe story beamed straight into your home? How about the entire Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar catalogue at your fingertips? Disney+ is your place. But for all the whizzbangery of the headlining streaming series (and hey, I love The Mandalorian and WandaVision as much as – probably even more than – the next person), nothing on there has quite captured me like its documentary content, pulling back the curtain on the magic behind the movies we love. They might not look as shiny, but these docs are the real Disney diamonds.

A decade or two ago, special features used to be a major selling point of DVD releases – entire discs crammed with making-ofs and filmmaker interviews – but after a while that started to die off. In the streaming era, few are filling that gap quite like Disney+. Now, every Marvel Studios production comes with its own Assembled documentary, with cast and creator interviews, breakdowns of major effects sequences, and insights into production design. Star Wars series like The Mandalorian get their equivalent Disney Gallery documentaries. Pixar’s Turning Red arrived concurrently with its own hour-long doc, Embrace The Panda: Making Turning Red. I’ve devoured every one of them – not just because I’m a massive nerd who loves this stuff both as a job and a hobby, but because they tend to be insightful and entertaining in equal measure, offering up surprising tidbits about how the finished products ended up that way.

Light & Magic makes special effects feel special again.

The Disney+ documentary series that most recently reeled me in was Light & Magic – a six-episode deep-dive into Industrial Light & Magic (aka ILM), the visual effects company that George Lucas formed from the ragtag bunch who pioneered groundbreaking VFX techniques on the original Star Wars. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan – co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens, and sole screenplay credit on Raiders Of The Lost Ark – the series ostensibly illuminates the history of an effects house. But actually, it’s doing way more than that: it’s telling the story of Star Wars being willed into existence before your very eyes, with effects conjured from hot glue and dreams, cooked up by monster movie fans and engineers; it’s the story of George Lucas and his ability to imagine the future, invest in it, and make it real; it’s the story of the rising digital revolution that forever changed not just effects work, but the entire machinery of Hollywood and the nature of cinema. It even touches on the rise of Pixar and the creation of PhotoShop.

Most importantly, though, Light & Magic tells the story of people. It’s not just about Lucas’ vision. It’s about John Dykstra and his leadership of the early ILM vanguard (and his gut-wrenching dismissal when the company properly started). It highlights Dennis Muren and Joe Johnston’s wild ingenuity, and John Knoll and Ed Catmull’s bravery striding into a new digital world. It spotlights stop-motion legend Phil Tippett, his mental health struggles and how he channeled them into his work, making AT-ATs walk and Rancors growl – as well as his feelings of obsolescence when Jurassic Park saw his claymation craft becoming overtaken by CGI. It’s Patricia Rose Duignan joining Star Wars mid-production to bring order to ILM’s early chaos, a rare female voice in what began as a very male-centric team. It’s their personalities and specific contributions shine through. At a time when spectacle is so taken for granted and visual effects are perceived as generic and computerised, Light & Magic makes it clear: human hands make this stuff possible, with creative thinking and imagination and technical proficiency. The series makes special effects feel special again.

Turning Red doc Embrace The Panda takes a similarly human tack. Yes, it has fascinating interviews with director Domee Shi, co-writer Julia Cho, and producer Lindsey Collins about the film itself. But Embrace The Panda is even more engaging for its personalised approach – it’s not only a documentary about a near-all-female team creating a major mainstream studio movie (still a rarity), but since Turning Red is explicitly a film about mothers and daughters, it approaches the filmmakers in those terms too. It explores who they are away from Pixar, as children, as parents, several of them as people from immigrant families – how their identities away from the film informed the movie they were making. It pulls back the curtain on a group of weird, funny, wild, creative people – the exact combination that gives you a film as weird, funny, wild and creative as Turning Red.

Equally revelatory is Into The Unknown: The Making Of Frozen II – a rare glimpse inside the tumultuous process of how Disney’s animated behemoths are currently made. In short, they’re made, and then remade, and then remade again, and torn apart, and pieced back together, over and over and over – honing the story, tweaking the characters, scrapping entire narrative detours, adding in songs and taking others out. It’s animatics and storyboards and internal screenings, awkward and complex meetings about how the story simply doesn't work, eureka moments where it all starts to make sense, and a final sprint to lovingly craft each shot once everything else is in place. In its six episodes, Into The Unknown details the year leading up to Frozen II’s release – beginning at a point where the film is far from complete, the story has no ending, and climactic song ‘Show Yourself’ doesn’t even exist yet. Regardless of your love for Elsa, Anna and Broadway-style bangers, seeing the whole thing come together basically at the last minute is a fascinating (and sometimes surprisingly raw) watch.

Disney is currently doing this across its history. Like Light & Magic, six-episode series The Imagineering Story goes way back into the studio’s history to chart the creation of Disneyland, explaining how the technical ingenuity and storytelling craft that made Snow White possible became the blueprint for theme park rides as we now know them. Meanwhile, the Disney Gallery documentaries on The Mandalorian are as contemporary as it gets, exploring the landmark arrival of the immersive Volume video-wall and deep-fake technology. (Note: The Book Of Boba Fett documentary is arguably better than the show it’s about – seeing the way they bring Luke Skywalker back in ‘Chapter 6’ with both Mark Hamill and a young-Hamill body-double is mind-blowing.) Marvel’s Assembled series, while often less technical, always turns up interesting tidbits about creative choices and boast significant interview screentime for the film or series’ leading star.

If there’s any kind of drawback, it’s that there’ll always be an element of self-mythologising when Disney tells the Disney story. Unparalleled access to that archive also means control of the narrative, so you can’t expect a truly objective portrait – John Dykstra’s dismissal from ILM could have been further explored in Light & Magic, while a particularly testy meeting in Into The Unknown finds the cameras briefly turned off. But no other studio – and no other streaming service – is doing this right now, opening the doors to secret and sacred places, showing you the trick behind the magic in a way that only makes the end result feel that much more magical. The people and stories behind those doors? Always entertaining, and endlessly inspiring. For me, these documentaries have become appointment viewing as much as any MCU or Star Wars series. Speaking of which, the countdown for She-Hulk: Attorney At LawAssembled episode begins here.

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