|Richard Edlund GALACTICA.TV interview|
|Written by Marcel Damen|
|Sunday, 07 March 2010|
Marcel Damen caught up with special effects guru Richard Edlund. He talked to him about how he got into the business, how motion control came about, his special effects work and the filming of the miniatures on both Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, signature shots in his long career and what he's currently up to.
When you started out, you actually turned your photography hobby into your career. How did your parents feel about that, did they support you in that or did they have other plans for you (like taking over the family business) or did they hope that they'd teach you something new in the Navy?
My parents were very supportive of me in high school. I got interested in photography when I was in the 9th grade. A friend of mine lent me this little spy camera, I took some pictures and then he sent them to his father. That kind of put me on the photography trail. I became interested in photography at that point.
I did sport's photography for the LA Examiner. There was this high school sports association. I used to go to football games, basketball games and track meets in various schools in Los Angeles to shoot pictures and have those published in the paper. My mother bought me a 4x5 press camera, which is what I used to shoot with.
When I graduated from high school I was kind of bored with the local scene and had gone on this trip called "A Day in the Navy". It was a promotional day that the Navy had put on in trying to convince young high school students to join the Navy. Boy, they caught me like a fish! I went out and they had a couple of destroyers, a cruiser, there were planes flying over, cannons being fired and depth charges dropped over the fan tail of the ship. It was very exciting, so like the next week I joined the Navy.
I was a high school graduate so I could pick my rate, which was a photographer's rate. I wound up in Naval photoschool and was top of my class because I had a photographic background. The next two years I did duty in Japan. While I was in Japan, I discovered a movie camera in the store room and rebuilt a processing machine to start a photo department -- a lab at Atsugi, the largest airbase in Japan, which serviced the 7th Fleet. We had every kind of photography that was made at that time, so that was a great learning experience for me as well.
Richard Edlund in his Navy days
One of the squad leaders, a full blooded Cherokee Indian, said I should go to USC, because they had a cinema department. I took his advice and wrote letters to the University of Southern California and that's how I wound up there when I got out of the Navy. While I was at USC I decided I wanted a job in the industry.
I had a pretty impressive resume for a kid my age and I was hired by Joe Westheimer. He had an optical house with a couple of optical printers and a little insert stage where we shot inserts for movies. I was a title artist and did a lot of shooting as Joe's assistant.
I also read you played Thing in The Addams Family title sequence?
We were shooting inserts and The Addams Family was shot down the street, about three blocks from us. Joe's old friends from the Army would bring in jobs. They didn't do inserts during the shooting day, because it would take a lot of time. The close-ups took a lot of rigging and they didn't want to do that on the stage, so we would do that in our mock up area and cut it into the movie. Because I was relatively dexterous with my hand, I wound up playing Thing in all the close ups -- sometimes with a black glove, if I remember correctly and sometimes not. If you see the title of the show, that's my hand.
I did title design on a number of shows like Burke's Law. I even did the original title design for Star Trek, that they now reused in the latest movie -- a kind of corny, angular type style.
What were the most important skills they taught you there?
I got to shoot inserts with some of the most famous cinematographers and got many tips from them. I got to work with James Wong Howe and Hal Mohr. Ernie Haller was my favorite. He shot Gone with the Wind. There were numerous cameramen that would come by. I also set up the first matte shot for the famous matte painter Al Whitlock when he had come over to America. I got a lot of great experience from working at Joe's.
I then started listening to Bob Dylan in the late sixties. I left Joe Westheimer to become a rock and roll photographer for a couple of years -- I was a hippie, a working hippie though. During that time I got the idea to do the Pignose amplifier. I went into an electronics shop and I saw a little amplifier about the size of a Marlboro pack and I thought: "Wow, there's an idea for a guitar amplifier." I went over to the wall of speakers and picked a speaker that looked pretty good. I then got a potentiometer, a battery pack, some wiring and stuff like that. I went home and put it all together and it sounded great. I put it in something like an English leather cologne box, a wooden box, and that was the first one.
I came up with calling it the Pignose, which was a mixed metaphor. I built 65 of them myself and gave them away to all the hot rock and roll guys. My partner Wayne Kimball and I had connections in the rock and roll business because we did album covers and graphics for all the rock groups. We got them to The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Chicago and all the hot studio musicians in town. Basically we gave them away to all those guys. We had got a $15,000 advance from a record producer, who was originally going to fund Pignose Industries. I got the copyright on the name and the design patterned, but then he left and it never went anywhere.
Richard Edlund's Legendary Pignose
I then went to San Francisco and spent a year making experimental movies with a friend of mine, about 30-40 minutes in length. Meanwhile Wayne is still down in LA and he'd talked to Jimmy Guercio, who was the manager of Chicago, into funding us to set up the company. So I came back to LA, building Pignose Industries. We built about 50,000 amplifiers and it became kind of a legend. We called it "The Legendary Pignose" because it was already a legend since we'd given them to all these hot guitar players in the years before that.
At a certain point I decided I wanted to get behind the camera again. They offered us a ridiculously low amount to buy us out and I said: "You know what? Forget it." To go in and fight them to get $50,000-$100,000 to split, we'd wind up paying at least 2/3 of that profit to the lawyers by the time they're done. Interestingly, the Pignose, the original little 9 Volt, shoulder strap guitar amp, is still being made.
Too bad you'll never see the money from that though.
It doesn't matter that much to me. That was basically my MBA course on what not to do in business: always pay your lawyers.
Then you started at Robert Abel's company?
Yes. For Bob I started out doing time lapsed clouds for the upcoming Bicentennial. They were also building early motion control equipment.
How did they conceive of putting machine robotics and cameras together?
We basically used an old teletype machine to program it on punch tape. The programs were written by hand and then transferred to punch tape with the teletype typewriter, which they used to use to send telegrams. David Holland and Ray Phinney, who were students at Caltech at the time, build a solid state memory system. It wasn't really a computer, it was a solid state memory system with a digital clock that would repeat absolutely using stepping motors, which had just become available. It was kind of a new product on the market. Interestingly, the technology, the cellar state circuitry, was something that was developed for the space race.
That was sort of my next step. After I'd done some commercial for Bob, I'd become sort of a stable guy at Robert Abel Associates. I got a call from John Dykstra and Gary Kurtz to become the director of photography of the miniatures on Star Wars.
Richard Edlund on Star Wars
Were you more instrumental in developing, or at least applying, robotics and early stepper motors to camera drives?
Absolutely. I designed and build the camera for Star Wars.
Dykstra had been doing selsyn motor driven early motion control moves at Graphic Films for the IMAX movie Voyage to the Outer Planets in 1975. Had you seen this?
No, but I knew about selsyn motors. It's basically a motor where you turn one, which is linked to another one and it turns in the same way. The selsyn system was used to sync sound equipment in the early silent days. It was the only way you could link the camera to the sound equipment, so the sound wouldn't slip in relation to the picture. That technique was used by Con Pederson and Doug Trumbull in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Con Pederson actually worked at Abel's. He was a genius and he didn't want to get any kind of recognition -- always in the back room and "let me do my work" kind of guy. Doug Trumbull on the other hand was a very good tap dancer and wound up getting most of the credit on 2001. Con was a substantial part of the brain on that movie...and of course Stanley Kubrick.
How was your technique different from John Dykstra? What did the collaboration on Star Wars bring about?
First of all, we all agreed the moving shoot concept of doing models photography is okay if everything is moving slow and with a languid motion. But when you have a fast motion of objects, you'll have to mimic what happens with an actual 24 frame/second movie camera. That's what you call motion blur and when the motion blur isn't there, the image shutters and it doesn't look natural. You can see that in the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion movies. When you see bird's wings and they don't shutter, they don't fly languidly. So we agreed that the system would shoot on the fly and we weren't doing a moving shoot kind of technique. John wanted to do his front light - back light technique, so you shoot one pass where you light a white card behind the model, then you turn that pass off, put black velvet on there, light the model and shoot it again against black.
I didn't think that was going to work, because the blurred edge of the negative space image wouldn't be the same as the positive space image. So I said that the only way to do this, was to use bluescreen. I'd done some bluescreen photography with Joe Westheimer and I had experimented with bluescreen in the mid 60s. There was just no other way to do it. Besides that we had to do a lot of model explosions and stuff like that and you can't do that with front light - back light. So we developed a bluescreen process. I got Al Miller, who was our electronic genius, to come up with a way to shoot fluorescents with DC. The most efficient way to light the bluescreen was to use fluorescent lights, because it's very, very blue and it doesn't have any colors in it. The problem was that fluorescent lights flicker. You can shoot stop-motion, motion control with 1 frame/second exposures, but if you try to shoot anything at sound speed or high speed, you have flickering bluescreen which will give you bad mattes. I had Al Miller come up with a technique to direct current in order so we had a DC fluorescent bluescreen.
It was huge, like 12 feet high. It was as big as it could be inside the stage we had. Essentially what we wound up with was a 12 x 20 foot bluescreen, which was just a big light box with very high output fluorescent tubes inside, so I could shoot F16 or F22 at high speed in front of this bluescreen. I had neutral density filters that I could pull down, which were rolled up inside. It was a really nice system and it was on wheels so we could move it around on the set. We had only a 42 foot track and the boom was capable of moving up and down about 8 feet -- 4-5 feet up and 4-5 feet down. It had a traverse action and a rotating action. You could do any kind of move with the camera, since the camera could pan, tilt and roll around the nodal point -- the entrance pupil of the lens. You put the entrance pupil of the lens in the middle of the pan and tilt - otherwise the camera would appear to sweep across something as opposed to pan across it.
All of these things were worked out and it took about nine months before we were even able to shoot any film. The studios were paranoid and thought we didn't know what we were doing. We were all young guys and didn't have any real background, other than doing commercials. We didn't have any feature credits. They'd sent Lynn Dunn out. Lynn was a friend of mine from working on Star Trek at Joe Westheimer's company. In fact, I rotoscoped the original flyby of the Enterprise they used in the first season when they only had one space shot. That was my first rotoscope job. They'd flop it in the series, so they had one for left to right and one for right to left.
Star Wars turned out pretty well, but it was a hassle to program the motion control system. We had a 12 channel motion control system and each motor was programmed separately. I would usually program the track first, then the pan, then the tilt, then the camera roll if that was used, then the model was on a pylon that could rotate and do yaw and turn also. It could bank and turn on its central axes.
Richard Edlund between the Star Wars miniatures
Did you know at the time it was as big a VFX jump as the jump to digital was in the 1990s? Since once Star Wars was a hit, everything had to be done with Motion Control - even if it didn't apply to the job at hand!
That's right. It's a very complicated and difficult system to manipulate, but it was the only way you could do it at the time. Producer Gary Kurtz was a gear head, so he understood what the problems were and he was very supportive of us. I don't think we could ever have build ILM without Gary's support. George Lucas is more of a story guy and he would lose patience if something got too complicated.
I basically set up a system where all the cameras had the same grid chart in the view finder. We had special viewfinders, back in metalized grids which were composited on the ground glass itself. The rotoscope system had 22 field cells, so they were doing 24 inch wide cells to rotoscope the various aspects and do the animation that was necessary here and there.
I also made a bill chart that was scaled for George's cam, which was a flatbed editing machine that he was using in Marin County to cut the movie. We had this chart that he could put on. I could send him a test shot and he could put it up on his cam. He'd say: "I like that, but you move that over this way or faster that way." We'd just discuss the shots.
Which visual effects shots do you feel were the most significant for the whole look and feel of Star Wars?
The most important shot to me was the opening shot. Because if you didn't get the audience with that shot, you were shot. If the audience bought that shot, then you were over the hump. We'd been talking about the opening shot for months. George Lucas was talking about building it on a side of the wall and moving the camera over it; building it big scale. I kept thinking to myself: "We only have a 42 foot track. We're not going to be able to shoot much of a shot on a big miniature like that." We had one Star Destroyer model which was less than 4 feet long, a little over 3 feet long. It was already finished on the bottom and on one side only, because we had limited resources in the model shop and there was a lot of detail on the ship.
So I thought I might do a test and I talked to Grant McCune. I had Grant make that little Rebel blockade runner, about 1.5 inches long, and I stuck a paperclip in the back of it and put it on the front of the Star Destroyer. I asked Grant to put his best detail guy to work on the detail of the bottom of the ship. I did a test where I shot it upside down. The camera was hanging if you've seen the pictures of the camera, so the camera was under swung and that was to me the only way to do it. If we had put it on a regular dolly then we'd be running into stands for the rest of our life. The fact that it was under swung on the boom with a 24 mm lens gave me facility to light and put all the contraptions that I had to make the shots work. I scraped the bottom of the model, the lens was right on the bottom. It was tilted forward so I could change the plane of focus and I could hold the entire length of the model in focus.
I did a shot where I come over this little miniature Rebel blockade runner and then over the model, over the model, over the model. It was a long shot and everybody was just stoned by it the next day, because it looked really great and we had solved the problem of the opening shot. I think I did maybe 3 or 4 takes to tweak it. Then the blockade runner model, which is the first model you see in the movie, is about a foot longer than the Star Destroyer. That one is the one that is actually sucked up in the bottom of the Star Destroyer. So the 5 foot model gets sucked up into an opening that's about 5-6 inches long. In my opinion that opening shot is the most important shot in the movie.
Another great shot is the flying in the trench. The trench was about 40 feet long and I had a forced perspective painting at the end of the trench at different heights. If you flew it at a certain height, the vanishing point would be at that point and if you flew closer to the bottom we'd use another. I think I had three forced perspective paintings at the end of the trench. The trench was about two feet across, so the camera could fly down and get within a few inches of the bottom of the model.
It was difficult to make it look like we were really moving through this long trench. We could only get about 24 frames at that speed going all the way down the trench, so I did four passes and lined up the vanishing point on the four passes to give us a 4 second long trench. I shot always going towards the vanishing point, towards the painting, but if we were going the other way we'd just flop it.
Richard Edlund making the titles for Star Wars
The one that provokes the biggest effect on the audience is one of the cheapest shots in the movie. It's when you see the stars streak and they disappear -- when they go into hyperspace. I shot that in about three hours. It was a test, but it looked great, so that's as far as we went with it. It only lasts about 30-40 frames. We had to cut a shot of the Millennium Falcon really zipping down to a pinpoint. We had a 42 foot track and with the widest lens I had it would only shrink the model a couple of fields in size. It was way too big. We didn't have any zooming capabilities on the printer either. The prints were all done 1:1 and there was no zooming or enlarging.
So I took my old 4x5 camera, which was probably the same one I had back in high school, and with a Polaroid back we shot a color Polaroid picture of the Falcon. This gave me a three inch wide picture of the tail end of the Falcon. I cut it out, put it on a piece of glass, stuck it in front of the bluescreen and did a zap pull back. That shot cost practically nothing to do, but it was the trigger of drama, the escaping, that had the effect on the audience. It's one of those cheats where motion blur is your friend. Motion blur doesn't happen that greatly when you're moving to and from something, you mostly see it when you go left or right.
After the first Star Wars movie was released, George Lucas somehow allowed Glen Larson to use both the ILM team and Van Nuys facility to work on Battlestar Galactica's "Saga of a Star World". What were the biggest differences in time, budget and creative freedom that you were given in comparison to Star Wars?
I think the first show, the pilot movie, wasn't really good. For budgeting reasons we had to convert the entire system from Vistavision to 35 mm. And Robby Blalack split with his optical printer so we didn't have that to do composites on. I had to bring in a new printer and find a new optical crew, which was terrible. The only guy that was any good in the optical department was Bruce Nicholson. After we'd finished Battlestar Galactica , I hired him as the head of the optical department at ILM. Another good guy was Conrad Buff, who was an assistant editor at the time. I went to him for anything I needed and he'd make it happen.
Richard Edlund on Battlestar Galactica
The second and third shows were much better. The ice planet shots were great. We did that with 1.5 feet models and micro balloons, which I probably still have in my lungs! They're basically tiny little micro glass bubbles. It gave us the ability to do scaled snow for the crash landing of the models. The model would hit this snow dune of micro balloons and they would disperse in the air like powder snow. I also liked the shot of the exploding mountain.
As the directors didn't know what they were doing or what they asked for, we could design the shots as we wanted. This gave us a lot more creative freedom. We came up with some pretty neat ideas which bore fruit on The Empire Strikes Back. Even though Battlestar Galactica was a rip-off of Star Wars in many ways, it didn't hurt Star Wars that much. Glen Larson didn't shy away from plagiarism. He "borrowed" where ever he could, as did George Lucas. C3PO is a dead ringer for Maria in Metropolis.
Can you talk a bit how you achieved some of the special effects shots on Battlestar Galactica, like the turbo boost from the vipers?
That was John Dykstra's great idea -- to use liquid nitrogen. It was incredibly difficult. We were talking about doing that on Star Wars, but we shied away from that because we had to get 365 shots done and it didn't work out time wise. We then tried it on Battlestar Galactica. You basically pump liquid nitrogen through these tubes at the back of the model. Liquid nitrogen is very cold. It's the evaporator in an air-conditioning system, inside the condensing coil. It looked cool.
Richard Edlund on Battlestar Galactica
How did you solve the scale difference between vipers and raiders attacking the battlestar?
We had little tiny versions of the ships. I remember Dennis Muren did this shot where you have the Galactica flying by and this little viper over the front and you have the shadow of it going over the battlestar. Those kind of things make it believable to the audience. Those things we started doing on Battlestar Galactica and even did better on The Empire Strikes Back. Battlestar Galactica turned out to be an educational holding pattern for a lot of the people of the crew. Though I started out with a new machinist, a new optical guy and a new editorial department.
When we started on The Empire Strikes Back we moved all the parts of ILM out of the building at Valjean Ave, Van Nuys up to Marin County. We brought in some great new people like Thaine Morris who did all the rigging, Richard Conrad, Bruce Nicholson, Neil Krepela who was in charge of mattes. We found Michael Pangrazio who was a very talented matte painter. Of course we still had Joe Johnston and Nilo Rodis-Jamero in the art department. Lorne Peterson took over the model shop with Steve Gawley.
I've read you bounced a laser on the Saturn Award you won for Star Wars, to create the Nebula, the Nova Megagon? Of all things you could use: a Saturn Award you won for Star Wars was used to create an effect on Battlestar Galactica?
Now that I think of it, that does sound funny. Yes, I used the award to bounce a laser onto surfaces and smoke to create that red Nebula they wanted. I was looking for a surface with a certain kind of quality to bounce it off on. That was a nasty laser. I could light my Camels with that 1 Watt laser.
Richard Edlund on Battlestar Galactica
After the first Stars Wars came out several of the ILM crew including you, John Dykstra, Grant McCune and Dick Alexander were considering to start up a special effects company. When working on Battlestar Galactica John Dykstra did just that and left to form Apogee. Can you shed some light on what happened?
Towards the tail end of our work on Battlestar Galactica we talked about putting a company together and continuing on. But the bridges between John Dykstra and ILM were burnt and he wouldn't return to do The Empire Strikes Back while I would wind up as the effects supervisor on it. I did join Apogee, but I told the guys I'd be called to supervise The Empire Strikes Back and if that happened I'd do that. It was a career move I couldn't pass on. Of course that call did come and I sold out my share of Apogee.
Richard Edlund with one of the Ovions on Battlestar Galactica
Do you know why Apogee didn't continue on the visual effects on Battlestar Galactica?
I don't know. During the filming of Battlestar Galactica the Universal people were taking a lot of pictures of the equipment and they were copying drawings. The idea was that they'd build their own ILM, which they did. They called it Universal Hartland. At Hartland they copied all the techniques we had resurrected for Star Wars. They did the remaining episodes of Battlestar Galactica there and continued on doing Buck Rogers and Galactica 1980. Universal simply wanted their own department and even hired some of the guys from ILM, like Peter Anderson and Dave Jones who were the head of the model shop.
I've read you were pretty angry that they copied all your equipment over there.
It was annoying to me. I actually caught them taking pictures. They were stealing my work and ideas. We had given blood to do Star Wars. A lot of our best ideas went into that movie.
We made a magnificent new camera up at the new ILM. It added plus or minus 10 feet of booming capability, we had a 100 foot track and a tiny little camera that Bill Hill had designed. My idea was to start with just a film magazine and build a camera around it. Bill made it as small as possible so you could get as close to the miniatures as you could. This camera was only 6 inches wide and it was on the same pan-tilt-roll Trojan helmet they already used on the first Star Wars.
Over the years you've made so many great movies. What signature shots are you most proud of in making?
There are so many. I liked the Poltergeist ghost coming down the stairway. That's one of my favorites. I also liked the imploding house at the end. On Return of the Jedi the run through the inserts of the Death Star was a really nice scene. The Marshmallow Man in Ghost Busters, walking down Broadway. The concept and shot design in 2010: The Year we Make Contact makes it still one of the best looking space movies ever done.
Steven Spielberg and Richard Edlund on Poltergeist
We had a trailer full of young genius guys. It was one big mad house. We'd have to shoot a scene and then composite it so it would be visible in the video village. That way we could tell if things like the eye lines worked. We also had a motion control laser that followed his foot movement around in take A and we could play that back in take B. The laser would move in sync with the motion control camera and we'd use a stand in that followed that so Michael's eye line was perfect. So it looked like he was looking at himself and playing against his previous performance. It was all invisible to the rest of the crew. They didn't know the nightmare that were going on in the trailer to make all this happen.
Multiple Michael Keatons on Multiplicity
It was part of the deal. I wanted Harold Ramis to be comfortable in shooting this. Michael Keaton was really good and we very rarely did over three takes. That also important when you're doing comedy. You can't tell the same joke too many times before it doesn't work anymore.
You were doing great, Award winning work at ILM, yet you had the courage to leave all that and start Boss Film Studios. Can you talk about your feelings and reasoning for doing that?
ILM started changing in a way that wasn't comfortable for me. It just became claustrophobic and I felt like I was in the foreign legion. I also thought it would be nice to start my own company and control my own destiny. I had some colleagues that felt the same way, but at the time you either worked at ILM or you didn't have a job. In my mind I already was considering on leaving and putting together some sort of deal with Ridley Scott to do Legends. But then when I was lifting a heavy rack to the top of my landrover I crushed a disc in my spine. Though I was in great pain, Ridley and I still met up and planned on working out some scenes in forced perspective, but then they pulled the plug on the project. Blade Runner came in at $28 million while they had a $6.5 million effects budget and they expected this project to come in even higher. So rather than using real actors shot at forced perspective they now used a casting service in London that had dwarfs, giants and various misshaped and odd looking people for hire.
All of a sudden the job I had planned for me and 7 other guys at ILM who were also ready to jump ship with me, didn't come true. I wound up in the hospital for ten days with this herniated disc, they now couldn't operate on because of the swelling that now had to go down. While I was in the hospital Peter Hyams called to do 2010 and Ivan Reitman to do Ghost Busters. They were 6 months apart in release, so I thought I could do both of them, since they weren't really competing with each other. One was MGM and the other Columbia, so I called my old buddy, producer Jim Nelson to help out. I went out to LA the day after my operation like nothing ever happened and spend about a month with lawyers to get these two studios in bed with each other. It wasn't easy, but they went for it since they figured they could save money.
By the time the lawyers were done, we only had 10 months left to do Ghost Busters and that's why Ghost Busters looks a bit raggedy edged . Many of the optical composites were take ones. We didn't even have time to do a second take on many of those composites. The optical guy, Mark Vargo, was great. The group came down to LA and it was a fantastic team. We didn't have any competition at the time. Dreamquest was coming up on the outside, but there weren't competing with us yet.
In 1985-1986 we often had 5 projects running at the same time. Boss played out for a number of years. We did about 30 movies like Die Hard and Cliffhanger. In 1997 I decided I wanted to do some other things. I wanted to write but I never had the chance when I had 200 creative people to manage.
Richard Edlund's Boss Film Studios
At Boss you also made the transition from analogue to digital. Was it difficult for you to get into the whole CGI thing?
Yes, we did that too. We had a commercial division. My very talented producer and I were like the good cop - bad cop at Boss. I had a fantastic team where everybody was a crucial member and nobody ever split on me. In the 90s when we'd changed to digital the industry was constantly stealing people from companies, but they all stayed even though they were offered more money at times.
It was difficult monetarily to get into the CGI. The sad part was that this photochemical system that I had boot strapped and was worth $10-$12 million, suddenly dropped to 1/10 of its value, while I had to again invest millions in workstations and software. In those days each workstation had to have a 9 gig stack, which cost $30,000 at that time. Now every little hobby camera has 9 gig. You basically had to amortize everything over a 10 month period. You couldn't keep up with it and by 1997 I got out.
I never wanted to become a businessman. I got into movies because I was a creative person. In order to do the visual effects I wanted to do, I had no choice than to become a businessman. I had to make $300,000/week to keep the company going, which meant big projects footstep after footstep. Whenever I missed a step my reserves would be eaten up quickly. It was a precarious business, but creatively exciting. I kept it going for 15 years and In 1997 I closed the company gracefully.
Since then I did a project with Harold Ramis, called Bedazzled. I did Angels in America and Charlie Wilson's War with Mike Nichols. I have had the chance to work with the likes of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Hyams, Benny Harlan and a lot of other interesting directors.
Back in the day you were spending weeks on making special effects for movies with models, animation, motion control, blue screens, matte paintings. You won Academy Awards for effects every 16 year old can now make in merely a few hours on his home computer using Photoshop and After Effects. Do you think this is a good development since anything is possible or do you think because of this effects have now become some generic job?
To some degree it has become a commodity. On the other hand, what can be done is often not as good, it doesn't have the heart, as it had in the old days. What we did In the photochemical era, with the limitations we had, was pretty amazing. It required a completely different ingenuity -- to come up with ideas on how to shoot something that is not what it is and to make it look like what you want it to look like. Whether it's a miniature that is very small and you have to shoot at high speed, or some sort of smoke effect you have to turn into a vortex to make a cyclone or a hurricane. You didn't have particle systems or all of these ultra nerd software systems that have come up to help you do that.
What's interesting is that a lot of these people that are digital artists, come from a computer science major, art minor background. Many of them don't have much background on how films were made back in the early days. How some of these great movies that really have heart and work, were done. One of the most important things in movie making is knowing how to cheat. How to get around insurmountable financial problems. If you move your camera around this way then you don't have that McDonalds sign in a shot and if you do it otherwise you'll have to paint it out.
There are numbers of cheats like that -- how you stage the action. On Fright Night we changed a guy into a bat. You see a kid looking at a vampire, then you cut back to the kid and see the shadow of the vampire become a bat and fly out of the frame. You cut the shock of the kid seeing this and the audience gets what's happening because they see it in the shadow. That's all you need it understand it. We had a similar shot where Roddy McDowall changes from a werewolf into a human. There's a chandelier swinging back and forth across him, rapidly lighting him while it moves across while he's changing from werewolf to human. It was done without opticals. He's transforming in the shadow and the audience accepts that. That kind of ingenuity saves a hell of a lot of money. To do these kind of transformations digitally is very expensive, yet it doesn't make it a better movie.
What movie/television series and visual effects have lately impressed you personally and why?
I thought you'd never ask! (both laughing) ...Avatar. There's just no contest. I've known James Cameron for many years and I went over to the set when they were shooting. I saw this godlike system he was using. He had this Waldo cam, sort of like a monitor with handles and switches on it. With that you could make a move into this digital area and you saw a completely digitally built environment. There were apple boxes and planks set up so they could run across these tree branches and the actor with the leotard and all these pin positions. With this camera you could also scale your movements any way you wanted. One step could be one step, 3 inches or 30 feet and you can see on your monitor what you're doing. Then you push another button and you could zoom back 50 feet in the air. The environment area is about 80 feet one way, 50 feet the other way and it's about 80 feet high on the big Howard Hughes stage.
Within this space you could build up your environment and have your actor go through it. It could all be tweaked. There are about 30-40 people on the stage that do various functions on work stations. Upstairs, in the lab, there were another 60 people working on shots. That was just to get these shots to a polished preview state, where you could see how the action and the facial performance of the actors worked. The actor also has what looks like one of those mics on the front of his head, but this one has a camera, so you get the body and facial performance at the same time. They used this for the most part during facial capture. It's as high tech as you could possibly be today. Fantastic!
Did you see the movie in 3D?
Yes. There was a special screening for the Academy Visual Effects Committee at 20th Century Fox. I saw it at ideal conditions.
Do you think that's the future? Doing films in 3D and maybe even moving it on to holographic movies later?
If that's possible, they'll do it. The storyline and characters are more important than the way they make the movie or the effects they use. James Cameron is like Bach playing his organ. He knows how to play it. It's basically the story of Pocahontas, but it brought tears to my eyes. He pulls of a love story between these strange looking aliens, which you quickly get used to when watching the story. It doesn't bother you.
How do feel about George Lucas going back to the old Star Wars movies and replacing some of your old special effects with new computerized improvements?
When I went to the premiere of the Special Edition at the Fox Village Theatre, George was there. I told George: "I've heard you changed a lot of things and there's all these rumors about reshooting the opening shot... It's your movie and you can do with it what you want. It's not like someone coming around 40-50 years later, colorizing Shirley Temple." and he said: "You know Richard, there's that shot of the landspeeder..." and he didn't have to say anything else, because there's this one shot that's such a stinker in Star Wars and I can't stand it. Gary Kurtz shot this plate of the landspeeder taking off in the desert and you could see the tires under it. We had to get rid of the tires. This is pre-digital and I tried to rotoscope the tires underneath it and tweak the animation of the rotoscope so it didn't vibrate. Then I very carefully repositioned the sand area adjacent to where the tires were supposed to be and put that in the area. I almost had it perfect. If I'd done two or three more takes it would have been perfect, but George had sent it to Disney and had them rotoscope it. They tried doing a color match but didn't quite get the match; it was a little on the pink side, but that's what wound up in the movie. I'd nudge anybody who I'd see the movie with at that point, so they look away from the screen.
Anyway, that shot was so bad and he said he was happy he could replace that. He then added: "Didn't we get carried away?" and that's right. One of my favorite Alec Guinness sequences, when he does the mind game on Mos Eisley that gets him and Luke in the Cantina scene, I always thought was such a great performance. In the Special Edition there are these robot chickens plucking around in the foreground and all these monsters are stretching themselves in the background. I feel they lost the scene there, since they added too much.
Even though there are many flaws in Star Wars, I still like it. They've now cleaned up a few matte lines here and there, since we didn't have the matte system down very well yet on that first Star Wars. I was at odds with Robby Blalack over the film stocks he was using. We had so little time and often had to move so quickly, that I didn't push as much as I should have. We remedied that in The Empire Strikes Back which had very good mattes. I've actually not seen the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. The Empire Strikes Back as visually seen is my favorite movie of the three.
Have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica series on TV?
I've seen bits of it. It's amazing how much can be done in the cut and paste era. It's pretty slick. We're talking about 30 years of difference in time.
They also removed some of the scifi element like lasers by replacing them again by bullets. How do feel about that development?
I haven't seen enough of it to notice it. The lasers have now become kind of a cliché. If I had a visual problem on Star Wars, I could put a laser in there and it would distract the audience away from the problem. Back then it was a great trick to have up your sleeve. The young film makers of today don't have enough cheats like that, because they don't spend time looking at the old masters and how they had to do things, before you could fix anything in post production.
What are you currently up to and what are your future plans?
I'm writing. I've sold my Forever War project to Ridley Scott and I'm looking forward to that being made into a movie. I'm looking for a new project, but it's a very difficult time for Hollywood right now. Movies will possibly never be made in Hollywood again. It's too expensive and the idiocy of the state legislature for letting that happen is beyond my comprehension. If you make a movie in Michigan, you get a 40% kick back. They're doing the same thing in New York. Canada has a fully developed infrastructure and all the TV is moving up to Canada now. We did a lot of shooting for Charlie Wilson's War at Paramount, but that's because Mike Nichols is an old time director and doesn't want to fly up to Canada and shoot there.
When you have states or countries that are offering kick backs people move there. That's how Star Wars was made. It was made in England, because they made a tax deal with Fox and it was of the best things that happened to George Lucas in retrospect. He built himself in the British Film industry with British actors which gave a weight and solidity to the movie. It's all developing and the international box office is much larger than the American box office now. It's completely a flip-flop from the days that I entered the business. The international market at that time wasn't that big at all.
How about photography? I saw on your website you're still doing that.
Yeah, check out my online gallery at RichardEdlund.com. I still enjoy doing that, but there's just no money in it other than doing it as a hobby. I've got so many different interests and it's hard for me to settle on one. It's why I still enjoy doing visual effects so much, because it's made up of so many different disciplines.
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