‘Spaz’ review: Breakthrough behind-the-scenes talent becomes lukewarm document

SXSW: Steve “Spaz” Williams pioneered the movie magic that still makes movies pop today, so why is the film about his rise and fall so indebted to lame movie stuff?

Given its subject matter, it’s fitting that Scott Leberecht’s documentary “Spaz” is so determined to throw the middle finger at the film establishment, but by wielding clumsy narrative tools, Leberecht undermines the idiosyncratic subject matter of its own. movie. The film follows Steve “Spaz” Williams, the groundbreaking and rebellious visual effects designer behind “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Mask,” and more, to construct a lukewarm but inspiring documentary about a talented the meteoric rise (and steep fall) of anarchists in Hollywood.

“I had it all,” Williams laments in the film’s opening voiceover, awkwardly calling out the wide variety of movies that open with the same (and now meme to death) tone, “you’re probably wondering how am I arrived here?” to question. The framing is cliché, setting up an unnecessary narrative artificiality to what is clearly genuine heartache. But once Leberecht puts the narrative in the hands of its engaging subject to chronicle his turbulent life, from his childhood to his time at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic), the documentary finds a more secure footing.

Leberecht, who previously worked in visual effects on movies like “Flubber” and “Sleepy Hollow,” is a fitting ally for Williams. The film’s assortment of home and office videos, along with interviews with industry stalwarts, openly challenge the unfair credit system common in filmmaking, whereby a few individuals gain esteem, presented as singular visionaries, when so much work is the result of team effort. . The result is an empathetic and illuminating image of the early unsung heroes behind CGI.

Williams is, of course, the main overlooked figure in “Spaz,” which often causes the documentary to fall into the same central credit habits it so openly discourages. A beer-hungry Canadian with a proclivity for guns, muscle cars and fast bikes, Williams is a mess of contradictions.

He arrived in Hollywood in 1988 with a rare combination of artistic and mathematical skills, when “Tron” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” still occupied the pinnacle of computer-generated effects. For Leberecht’s purposes, Williams has another talent: he’s a captivating storyteller. The mischievous Williams will likely elicit empathy from film audiences, thanks to his potent blend of brilliance and naivety. You can easily see how his gifts for creation – and his flair for trouble – could astonish and frustrate his bosses as well.

Still, Leberecht identifies several (other) villains. On the one hand: the suffocating corporate structure of ILM, which would rather regulate the admittedly out-of-control Williams than allow him to run amok (one big anecdote involves his banishment from George Lucas’ ranch after trashing the personal office of the director). Williams further blames the practices of an industry that allows individuals like legendary special effects artist Dennis Muren (“Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” and “ET the Extra-Terrestrial”) – that he comically described as “the crazed grandpa in the room who always mumbles about WWII” – to unduly take credit for the work of others.

These are serious charges against a titan and match Williams’ reluctance to rise through the ranks. “He didn’t know what to do. He did not want. That’s why he stood out, ”describes his former partner Adrienne Biggs.

Williams’ understandable bitterness pervades the documentary. And who can blame him? When the designer shares the stories of how his T-Rex design took “Jurassic Park” from an animatronic movie to computer graphics, changing an entire industry in the process (only for others to get credit), this resentment follows. At its heart, “Spaz” is about fair play, while telling the story of how the industry came to today’s heavy use of CGI, an addiction that Williams surprisingly hates.

Some of the film’s most jaw-dropping sequences involve Williams and his former creative partner Mark Dippé describing the innovations they instituted in CGI. A genuine fervor springs from the point of view of the subject that can often propel even the most mundane technical jargon into inspired poetry. These moments often occur in “Spaz”, such as when Williams or Dippé discuss the principles of fluid dynamics used in James Cameron’s “The Abyss” or the metallic liquefaction of a human body, once considered impossible, in ” T2″. These innovations totally changed cinema, and it is truly fascinating to trace the triumphs of Williams and Dippé.

But the cloud from the beginning of the film hangs over the documentary, forcing Leberecht to eventually return to his film’s seemingly awkward opening. The graphic designer’s real pain isn’t lack of credit (even if an Oscar-winning clipped edit of Muren wins, without thanking Williams during his acceptance speeches, stings), but problems with alcoholism. The slightly too slick reveal will likely have audiences wishing for more ‘Spaz’ focused on Williams’ current struggles with alcoholism and the longest journey to get help, rather than tapping on a drip. needle and rush viewers to a hopeful conclusion.

“Spaz” works best when, in the compelling unpacking of the film’s cinematic history, Leberecht also questions the unfair practice of credit and illuminates Williams’ work. He’s a man whose behind-the-scenes talent made every scene unforgettable, and he deserves a bolder documentary than this.

Grade: C+

“Spaz” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking release.

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