The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

A Conversation With Richard Edlund, ASC

Interview by Bob Fisher

October 22, 2007

Edlund has earned four Academy Awards® for his visual effects work on Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Return of the Jedi (1983), and six other nominations for Poltergeist, 2010, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist II, Die Hard and Alien 3. He also earned three Scientific and Engineering Awards, and in 2007, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the coveted John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation to Edlund in recognition of his significant contributions to the Academy. Edlund has also earned an Emmy® for creating visual effects for the original television miniseries Battlestar Galactica, and an additional nomination for Mike Nichols’ Angels in America. His other memorable films include Fright Night, Solarbabies, Ghost, Species, Multiplicity and Air Force One. His next film, Charlie Wilson’s War, is slated for release in December.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Fargo, N.D., but I mainly grew up in Fergus Falls, Minn., and Montebello, Calif., where my father was in the truck body business.

When and how did you get interested in photography and/or movies?

I studied photography in high school with a very supportive teacher. I had a passion for taking pictures of high school sports. I was only 15 years old when the Los Angeles Examiner was regularly publishing my pictures.

What did you do after high school?

I enlisted in the Navy. After basic training I was assigned to the Naval Photography School in Pensacola, Fla. That was the next phase of my education. Afterwards, I was very lucky to get sent to a Navy base in Japan.

When did your interest shift from still to motion picture photography?

It was an accident, or maybe it was meant to be. I found a Mitchell high-speed movie camera in an unopened box in a storeroom at the naval base. A marine sergeant encouraged me to experiment with the camera. He also advised me to enroll in the USC film school after I completed my tour of duty in 1961. When I got out, I buckled down and finished three years of college in two and then decided to get a job in the industry.

What did you do after graduating from USC?

I was hired by Joe Westheimer, ASC. Joe began his career at Warner Bros., where he eventually headed the optical department. After the studio closed its visual effects department, Joe opened The Westheimer Company, which provided opticals, titles, inserts and visual effects services for the Hollywood studios. I spent five years with Joe. He was brilliant and more than willing to teach me everything he knew. It was also an opportunity for me to meet many great cinematographers. Looking back on that experience, it was when I learned how important it is for visual effects to be invisible to the audience.

What was the next step in your career?

I took a detour. In 1968, I moved to San Francisco and worked as a freelance still photographer. I took lots of pictures of rock-and-roll performers. At least 15 of them were used on record album covers. In-between those jobs, I worked on experimental movies, and I invented an amplifier called Pignose that’s used by guitars players. They sold thousands of them, but I never saw a penny. That was another lesson.

When, how and why did you get back into visual effects?

In 1973, Robert Abel offered me a job working with him on the use of motion control technology on very innovative television commercials. We did everything in-camera. It wasn’t unusual for us to make 80, 100 and as many as 150 passes of the same negative through the camera adding new elements. We were able to create very dense, rich-looking images. It was basically animated graphics that we were doing for 7UP and other commercials. If we made one mistake, we had to go back and re-shoot the whole thing. It was incredibly complicated, but it wasn’t a totally new idea. I remember coming across an optical printer that had been used to make composites on The Ten Commandments at Howard Anderson’s visual effects facility at Paramount Studios. I was fascinated and tried to convince Bob Abel to buy it. I also met Gary Demos who was still a student at Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology). He had a vision for scanning film into the digital realm, manipulating the picture data and outputting it back onto film with no generational loss. I thought that it was a great concept. Our paths have crossed again many times since.

What was the next step in your journey?

In 1975, John Dykstra asked me to join the special effects team that he was building to create visual effects for a film called Star Wars for a young director named George Lucas. The company was at a facility being built from scratch in Los Angeles. It was called Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). We would finally be able to have a decent budget to try out all of our crazy ideas.

Is it possible to describe that experience and how it affected you?

t was like learning to think in a new language with infinite possibilities. I was working with a great bunch of people, and learning valuable lessons. The main lesson was that there aren’t any unbreakable rules. You have to trust your instincts. That’s what makes filmmaking interesting. At the end of that project, George Lucas wanted to move ILM to Marin County in Northern California. I worked with John Dykstra for a while as visual effects director of photography for the original three-part television miniseries called Battlestar Galactica. Then, in 1978, George Lucas invited me to join ILM as visual effects supervisor for The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars trilogy.

Was the visual effects work on that film optical or partially digital?

It was to be optical for a few more years, but I met with Gary Demos and John Whitney, Jr. to discuss the possibility of designing and building a high-resolution digital film printer. We had an extremely high resolution picture of the Golden Gate Bridge looking back towards San Francisco. It was clear as a bell in the middle of summer with a clear, perfect blue sky. Our idea was that we would scan and transfer it to a high-resolution digital file. Then, we would manipulate the data and add computer-generated elements and record back out to film. We didn’t get the printer made in time for that picture. After completing The Empire Strikes Back, I visited NYIT (New York Institute of Technology), and met the people who were to become the computer division of Lucasfilm. The main man, Ed Catmull was the team builder of what was to be sold off to Steve Jobs—Pixar—and currently Ed has become the CEO of Disney.

You created visual effects for other memorable films that are considered milestones today, including Poltergeist and Return of the Jedi, but in 1984, you moved to Los Angeles to head what became Boss Film Studios. What motivated that decision?

Maybe it was chance, or it could have been destiny. I met Douglas Trumbull at a Women In Film luncheon in Los Angeles in 1983. Doug is a brilliant filmmaker who has been a major force in the movie industry. He had established a visual effects company in Marina del Rey on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It was called Entertainment Effects Group (EEG). Doug told me that he was ready to move on and concentrate on developing Showscan. When he offered me the opportunity to take over the studio, I embraced it. I put two major studios in bed together—MGM and Columbia, who would share much of the overhead on their two movies that came out six months apart—2010 and Ghostbusters. Then, with a workable budget, I put a great team together and within a few months we had completely rebuilt and staffed the company that was renamed Boss Film Studios.

Boss Film Studios got off to a flying start in 1984. You earned visual effects Oscar nominations for two hit films that couldn’t have been more different. Ghostbusters was a really funny comedy, and 2010 was a science-fiction drama.

I had some tremendously talented people working with me on two great films. Ivan Reitman directed Ghostbusters, and Laszlo Kovacs (ASC) was the cinematographer. There was also a great cast. I shared that Oscar nomination with John Bruno, Mark Vargo and Chuck Gaspar. 2010 was directed by Peter Hyams who was also the cinematographer. Neil Krepela, George Jenson and Mark Stetson shared that Oscar nomination with me. 2010 is a story about a joint U.S.-Russian space journey to the planet Jupiter. Our mission was made difficult because our audience had already seen real outer space footage brought to us by NASA, but Peter Hyams wanted to make the audience forget they were watching a movie.

How did you do that?

Everyone contributed. There were some 300 visual effects shots that had to be seamlessly integrated with live-action, including miniatures, matte paintings, optical composites and digitally-enhanced computer graphics. We shot all visual effects plates and the elements of the scenes in 65mm format, so that we could reduce more than two to one when duplicating and therefore achieve very high-resolution optical composites. As I have said, the public had seen many NASA images in outer space. For example, they knew intuitively there is no fill light in space, which with all the resultant blue spill on objects and space-walkers made bluescreen photography very difficult.

We still remember the incredible experience of sitting in a theater and watching images of the spaceship approaching Jupiter with images of the planet growing larger in the window. It was like being there at that moment. Why was it so believable?

That was both a technical and creative challenge. Richard Terrile, an astronomer, who worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratories, provided astute technical advice concerning what Jupiter looked like. He was also our liaison with NASA. Richard got us access to image data of pictures of Jupiter taken during the Voyager 2 space probe. The public had seen some of those images on television and in newspapers, but they were somewhat distorted by Jupiter’s atmosphere and space noise and radio interference. We needed to make the images much more believable and dynamic on the cinema screen.

How did you achieve that so convincingly?

It began with a lot of research by brilliant people. NASA provided us with a ‘snakeskin,’ which was a replicated strip of the planet’s surface that was created from computer-enhanced imagery collected by Voyager 2’s photo sensors. It was like a photographic Mercator map of the world. John Whitney, Jr. and Gary Demos had organized a company called Digital Productions where they had a Cray XMP supercomputer, which was quite revolutionary and very expensive in those days. In fact, it was one of only four in existence. We used image processing technology to manipulate NASA’s data to create photographable digital displays of the planet. It took nearly the entire capacity of the computer to process each frame. We used close-in, higher resolution images provided by NASA as visual references. We scanned and digitized the image information to reduce noise and grain. We created three overlapping VistaVision frames to record each of 12 different 65 mm film elements that are seen in the movie.

That is an absolutely fascinating verbal snapshot of how a marriage between artistic instincts and evolving digital technology added a new dimension to your palette. Boss Films Studios created visual effects for another 40 major motion pictures through 1997, including such hit films as Legal Eagles, Masters of the Universe, Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, Batman Returns, Last Action Hero, Waterworld, Heat and Starship Troopers. You were visual effects supervisor for about half of those projects. We are sure that you have equally fascinating stories about every one of those projects, but let’s get a broader picture. You have concentrated on moviemaking as a freelance visual effects supervisor since 1998. Your most recent project is Charlie Wilson’s War, which is scheduled for release in December.

Charlie Wilson’s War is my second project with (director) Mike Nichols and (cinematographer) Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC. The first was the HBO miniseries Angels in America. One of our missions on that film was to help create the aura of fantasy when the angel is composited into scenes and make it feel believable. Charlie Wilson’s War was a totally different challenge. The film is based upon a book about how a real congressman named Charlie Wilson influenced a secret war conducted by the American government to support rebels who resisted the Russian army after it invaded Afghanistan. Our job was to enable Mike and Stephen to create shots that would have been impractical or impossible with straight live-action cinematography. It was a total team effort.

Victor Kempster, the production designer, did an incredible job of recreating a Las Vegas set just the way it looked in 1983 with picture windows looking out on the strip (a bluescreen). For the strip itself, we created a 3-D animated matte painting for the background, with blinking lights, neon, traffic, etc. We added a myriad of details and even eliminated one hotel that rubbed Mike the wrong way. In Morocco, we filmed plates in a refugee camp with 800 extras. We later expanded the camp to make it seem as though there were thousands of tents and hundreds of thousands of people.

With all of those Oscar and Emmy awards and nominations on your mantle, you must have a lot of young filmmakers asking for your advice. How do you answer?

I tell them not to be hypnotized by technology and all of the new tools. There were fantastic films made during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s that should be studied by young people to help them understand how to make movies that tell compelling stories. The subtleties of filmmaking that make it an art haven’t changed. I have been re-reading 19th century British, Russian and French novels during the past several years. In those days, people read and discussed novels. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 1,400 pages and I couldn’t wait to turn the next page. We came into the silent film era at the turn of the 20th century. Audiences watched the films, read the subtitles and listened to the music. Film evolved to color and sound and widescreen formats. A great film should pull the audience into the story. I still remember how the audience booed when Darth Vader came on the screen in Star Wars. It was thrilling. We have television and other alternate theaters today with even smaller screens, but it is a different experience. I realize that we are going to be watching movies in many different ways. But, I think Marshall McLuhan was right when he wrote that the medium is the message.

You have the podium. Are there any other issues on your mind?

There are important issues to be resolved for the future. The evolution of digital intermediate (DI) technology provides tremendous freedom. The question that it raises for me is how are we going archive the digital files for tomorrow’s audiences? We need to understand that so we don’t lose our heritage.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the art form?

I am very optimistic, because I am still seeing some spellbinding and artful movies being made, though in the U.S. those most interesting releases tend to be clustered at the end of the year. I believe that from watching movies, many people get their sense of what is beautiful and what is ugly, and what is wrong and right in the world. And I am not diminishing the value of great movies being made for television. I loved Angels in America—Bravo to HBO. It was a great human story, artfully performed and filmed, but in the end I believe that movies seen in theaters are a larger-than-life experience.