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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERCULTURE

Visual Effects Pioneer Tells How Digital Showed His Studio Who Was Boss

October 20, 1997|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Edlund may be mostly unknown to the moviegoing public, but he's something of a celebrity in the behind-the-scenes world of special effects.

The winner of four Oscars, Edlund left George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic in 1983--after playing a key role in the "Star Wars" trilogy--and launched Boss Film Studios, his own shop based in Marina del Rey.

Edlund built his company before the digital effects revolution, when optical printers were more efficient than Cray computers. It was a time when visual effects shops were filled with slouchy geeks who drank Sanka, not artists in Gap jeans sipping cappuccinos.

Then, in the '90s, the visual effects industry became cool. Computers evolved as a powerful artistic tool. Competition in the once-sparse field grew intense. And Edlund, 56, watched his company lose millions of dollars--"too much to think about," he says.

In August, the boss closed Boss, citing increased competition from other large shops and a booming boutique industry. As the company prepared to auction off its equipment, Edlund talked about Hollywood history, what went wrong at Boss and why the visual effects community should pay heed to his mistakes.

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Hollywood rewards actors for their performances, writers for their stories and directors for their visions. But the role of visual effects artists has mostly been hidden.

It's true. Special effects go back to the turn of the century, with [French magician Georges Melies' film] "Voyage to the Moon." Hollywood didn't want to talk about their movie tricks, all this industrial sleight of hand.

They still don't. Not really. Because special effects isn't about ticket sales or big box-office openings. It's about making films that people say can't be done. It's about spaceships and aliens and light sabers and thousands of things you can't see but want to believe. . . . [Back in the '70s] I remember I had these fantasies about how to do new things with unwilling technology. We had to trick the camera and the equipment to make it do what we wanted.

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Like how?

Take "Star Wars." At the time, we were layering strips and strips of film together to get certain composites.

I remember George [Lucas] saying, "Let's figure out the simplest way to get the image onto film." He had this idea of men, dressed in all black, running around an all-black set and carrying black poles with model spaceships perched on top of the sticks. We would then film the scene and somehow, magically, all you would see would be these little ships moving jerkily around a dark background.

Obviously, that technique doesn't work. But the concept was right on.

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You were using digital tools at the time too, right?

Yes. "Star Wars" was the first feature film to use a computer to control the effects camera. We boot-strapped all the equipment together. None of it existed. So we'd take a piece from one camera and a bit from another and hope it worked. It was a matter of using old technology with the latest optical tools and even newer ideas.

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Why did you leave Industrial Light & Magic?

After "Return of the Jedi," I knew a lot of the top people would go, and I wanted to be with them. George knew it was coming; he knew I was looking at locations in Los Angeles.

[I hired] friends and friends of friends. The talent pool was tiny but so was the competition. There was IL&M and DreamQuest and a couple small shops. There wasn't a lot of competition because the field required such specialized equipment and techniques.

Forget throwing a bunch of PCs in a room with a handful of animators. We needed engineers and photographers and traditional animators and modelers. We needed hands-on people who could create tools and break them apart. We needed optical printers that took up entire rooms. We needed a lot of space.

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And a lot of money?

Yes and no. Yes, the equipment was expensive. But the overhead was lower back then. You weren't constantly looking to [Silicon Graphics Inc.] for the latest, greatest machine or to some tiny software firm hawking the best program to make virtual fur. Your desk wasn't filled with resumes from kids right out of college demanding six-figure salaries.

I admit I'm not a money man. I'm not a businessperson. I'm an artist. I've always been more interested in making the best movies in the time we've got than in the business aspect of starting up a company.

All I know is that until we completely jumped into the digital world, we were profitable.

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So you hate digital.

Not at all. The photo-chemical systems were always frustrating for me. So unfriendly, especially when dealing with color. You find yourself hovering over a light table with strips of film for hours, just to make sure the color's right. Is this red the same red as these 300 other frames? Is the camera steady or did it jump in frame 173 and 192?

Look, digital's been around for a long time. Everyone thinks Hollywood's love affair with computers started with "Terminator 2," but that's so wrong.

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