Given its subject matter, it’s fitting that Scott Leberecht’s documentary “Spaz” is so committed to throwing a middle finger to the filmmaking establishment, but in wielding awkward narrative tools, Leberecht undermines his own film’s idiosyncratic subject. The film follows Steve “Spaz” Williams, the revolutionary and rebellious visual effects designer behind “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Mask,” and so forth, to build out a tepid yet inspiring documentary about a talented anarchist’s meteoric rise (and sharp fall) in Hollywood.
“I had it all,” Williams laments in the film’s opening voiceover, clumsily calling up the wide variety of films that open with the similarly toned (and now meme’d to death) “you’re probably wondering how I got here?” query. The framing is cliche, setting up an unnecessary narrative artificiality to what’s clearly a real heartache. But once Leberecht throws the narrative back into his engaging subject’s hands to recount his turbulent life, from childhood to his time at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic), the documentary finds surer footing.
Leberecht, whose previously worked in visual effects on films like “Flubber” and “Sleepy Hollow,” is a fitting ally for Williams. The film’s assortment of home movies and office videos, along with interviews from industry stalwarts, openly questions the inequitable crediting system common in moviemaking, whereby a few individuals gain wide esteem, touted as singular visionaries, when so much work is the result of team efforts. The result is an empathetic and illuminating picture of the early unsung heroes behind CGI.
Williams is, of course, the primary overlooked figure of “Spaz,” which often causes the documentary to fall into the same habits of central crediting it so openly discourages. A beer-guzzling Canadian with a propensity 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 height of computer-generated effects. For the purposes of Leberecht, Williams possesses another talent: he’s a captivating storyteller. The mischievous Williams will likely engender empathy from the film’s audience, thanks to his potent mix of brilliance and naïveté. You can easily see how his gifts for creation — and flair for troublemaking — could equally amaze and frustrate his bosses.
Still, Leberecht does identify several (other) villains. For one: the corporate, stuffy structure of ILM, which would rather regulate the admittedly off-the-handle Williams than allow him to run rampant (one great anecdote involves his banishment from George Lucas’ ranch after trashing the director’s personal office). Williams further blames the practices of an industry that permits individuals like the legendary special effects artist Dennis Muren (“Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) — who he comically describes as “the crazy grandfather in the room who’s always mumbling about World War II” — to take undue credit for others’ work.
Those are serious charges levied against a titan, and fall in line with Williams’ unwillingness to climb ladders. “He didn’t know how to. He didn’t want to. That’s why he stood out,” describes his one-time partner Adrienne Biggs.
Williams’ understandable bitterness pervades the documentary. And who can blame him? When the designer shares the stories about how his T-Rex design took “Jurassic Park” from being an animatronic film to computer graphic, thereby changing an entire industry (only for others to receive the credit), that resentment tracks. At its heart, “Spaz” is about fair play, while telling the story of how the industry arrived at today’s heavy use of CGI, a reliance that Williams surprisingly detests.
Some of the film’s most breathtaking sequences involve Williams and his one-time creative partner Mark Dippé describing the innovations they instituted in CGI. A real fervor springs from the subject’s perspective that can often propel even the most mundane, technical jargon into inspired poetry. Those moments happen often in “Spaz,” as when Williams or Dippé talk about the principles of fluid dynamics used in James Cameron’s “The Abyss” or the metallic liquifying of a human body, once thought impossible, in “T2.” These innovations totally changed moviemaking, and it’s genuinely fascinating to chart Williams and Dippé’s triumphs.
But the cloud of the film’s start hangs over the documentary, requiring Leberecht to eventually revert to his film’s seemingly awkward opening. The graphic designer’s real pain isn’t the lack of credit (even though a clipped montage of Muren earning Oscar wins, without thanking Williams during his acceptance speeches, stings), but issues with alcoholism. The reveal, a bit too slick, will likely make audiences wish more of “Spaz” concentrated on Williams’ present-day struggles with alcoholism, and the longer journey of getting help, rather than slapping on a treacly needle drop and rushing viewers toward a hopeful conclusion.
“Spaz” works best when, within the film’s fascinating unpacking of cinematic history, Leberecht also interrogates the unfair practice of crediting and illuminates the work of Williams. He’s a man whose behind-the-scenes talent made every scene unforgettable, and it deserves a bolder documentary than this one.
“Spaz” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.