The fact that Williams took realistic 3-D rendering and motion capture and other techniques to the next level over the objections of the award-winning traditional effects masters who happened to be his bosses at ILM makes the triumph of CGI bittersweet. More than one interviewee in the film expresses a variation of “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”
Major special effects figures from earlier filmmaking eras weren’t quite out of a job after Williams’ genius captured moviegoers’ imaginations—ILM boss Dennis Muren, who rose to prominence on the original “Star Wars” trilogy and won multiple Oscars for supervising blockbuster effects, is one of the many masters who basically became managers rather than innovators, not so much learning and adapting to new techniques as overseeing a younger generation of technicians who were actually breaking new ground. But the older techniques—such as stop-motion and “go-motion” miniature puppets, exemplified by Phil Tippett, who oversaw the Imperial Walkers, the Rancor pit monster, the ED-209 battle droid from “Robocop” and other iconic movie creations—would henceforth be rendered and finished as CGI creations even if they were using human actors, animals, puppets, or machines as models. The technology surely would’ve come into Hollywood in a big way eventually.
But it happened much faster because Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy and then Spielberg watched a dinosaur movement test that Williams had cooked up on his own time, after being warned that the effects would be traditional, that put the technology at the center of the first “Jurassic Park” and made it probably the most important special effects-driven movie since the original “Star Wars.” Tippett, who is interviewed in his model shop, seems mostly bitter about CGI in his interviews for this documentary, not just because it cut into his Tippet’s own specialty, but because it made studio heads think of CGI as a kind of “magic bullet” that would lure audiences with the promise of spectacles previously unimagined, but led mostly to bloat, hollow spectacle, and special effects sequences full of unnecessary clutter and unbelievable physicality that lacked the depth and heft of real objects. His feelings are echoed by many of the then-young turks who worked alongside the brash young Williams in the ’80s and ’90s and saw elders like Tippett and Muren as both inspirations and career obstacles (because of their territoriality within ILM).
The movie pays lip service to the idea that there are always three versions of a story—yours, mine, and the truth, basically—but the filmmaking still can’t help somewhat buying into Williams’ story of being an unappreciated genius who was robbed of his rightful credit (and glory) so that people like Tippet and Muren could be praised for the work Williams mostly did. That’s not to say that Williams’ claims have no merit—it’s objectively clear that, in some sense, he truly did get screwed, and his story somewhat evokes that of Millicent Patrick, who designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon only to watch Universal Studios makeup department head Bud Westmore claim all the credit (Patrick, at least, didn’t have to deal with sexism on top of it all).