STAR WARS.

Mitchell

The current interest in Star Wars triggered my locating this piece, written quite a few years ago, I have a vague memory of posting this picture of my Mitchell here at some point long ago.

Tues. 26 Nov. 2002 – from an email to Bill Jones.

Bill: OK, here’s a tale that evolves from an item in one of the Photoshop books that I’m currently reading. I was surprised to discover that Photoshop was initially created for movie special effects by two blokes at George Lucas’s special effects shop: Industrial Light and Magic, it’s close by here in Marin county. Once it was an operable piece of software it was bought and developed to it’s current state by Adobe Corp.

Back in the late 60’s I was teaching film and photography at Cal. State University, Long Beach and also going to UCLA film school. My interest in the following was because I was independently working to achieve similar results to those in 2001 for my Masters thesis film. I used a darkroom in the art dept. and had lots of conversations there with an art student friend Jamie, who was a creative wiz plus he knew computers and electronic wiring circuits insideout. [an extreme rarity at that period]. He often described in detail how processes that were incredibly time consuming could be easily controlled by computers; much of it went over my head but I was always intrigued since it was what I was doing manually.

In 1971 Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001 was released and because, in part, of the psychedelic culture of the time plus the totally original special effects in the film it was an enormous success with the youth [plus me!] Douglas Trumbull got the Academy award for the effects and in the trade magazines he described how he’d developed a device he called a “slit scan projector” that was responsible for the unique effects, I learned everything I could about the design and worked to create something similar for my thesis film project at UCLA. Briefly, the effects were achieved by re-photographing every single frame of effects film through a moving slit-scanner and manipulating several parameters simultaneously, ie: camera travel, camera speed, f stops, light settings, apertures and the switching of cameras, lights and projectors on and off. It was all done manually and individual frames could take forever and remember we need 24 per second for movies. Mechanically it was similar to a huge lathe bed with three components, the projector, the slit-scan and the recording camera all synchronised and capable of moving independently along and across the bed. There’s a not very good piece on the process at Wiki, the examples there are not very informative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slit-scan_photography

My friend Jamie contacted Trumbull and they met whereupon Jamie laid out his ideas for using a computer to control all of those parameters: the way he described it to me was that you could load the camera and the projector, write the program and plug everything in and switch it on and go home at 5 o’clock. Next morning the entire sequence would be finished and all that was necessary was to unload the exposed film, take it to the lab and prepare for the next evenings “shoot”! The means to achieve his ideas was based on using numerous very precise “stepping motors” – electric motors that were programmable to perform absolutely accurate and minute degrees of rotation that would control component movements to very precise measurements: solenoid switches and timers that could trigger equipment on and off and a computer program, that he of course would write, which triggered everything. Trumball was sold on the idea and he and Jamie formed a partnership to produce motion picture special effects. This lasted for a couple of years and then they separated each forming independent special effects companies. I’m not totally sure of the chronology of this, but at some point there Jamie enticed his art student friend Wayne to join him, which he did.

Somewhere along about here my situation evolved: I went from teaching to a full time position as the director of Media Development for the university. This led in turn to my involvement in a film production, a co-production with WGBH -TV in Boston to produce a Nova documentary about the development of liquid fueled rockets by the Germans prior to and during WW2: it was titled “Hitler’s Secret Weapon” and was produced for the Nova series on Public Television, it was also shown on BBC and West German TV. When I was editing the film I needed some graphic illustrations of cross sections of V2’s to show the interaction of the various components. The word was put out and resulted in a student named Joe Johnson joining us and creating not only the needed diagrams, but also an illustrated brochure of the history of the German rocket program, the rocket bug had bitten him also!

At about this point Douglas Trumbull, cashing in on his special FX Oscar, chose to write and direct a science fiction film that dealt with a huge space freighter hauling the equivalent of Yosemite National Park in several enormous geodesic domes through space to preserve the animal and plant species after the earth became so polluted it could no longer sustain life. The film was “Silent Running.” The sets for the interiors of the space freighter was the aircraft carrier “Valley Forge” which was mothballed in nearby Long Beach harbor: the spacecraft was also named the “Valley Forge.” Re-enter Wayne Smith who was then involved with the special effects in the film.

I think this part is close to accurate but I’m not positive. Wayne needed all sorts of help so he started calling on his art student friends, the Design dept was rapidly depleted by students choosing high paying jobs making movies rather than sticking around to graduate. At some point thereafter when the Valley Forge sequences were finished, a student, John Dykstra, got into a heated argument with the professor in class and was promptly expelled from the University! The next thing I heard from John was when I went in to use the darkroom late one Saturday night. He would sneak back on weekends to see his friends and I bumped into him when I took a break. He told me that he had got a job as the special effects supervisor on a B grade science fiction movie. He, plus several former students friends, were working in a warehouse in the San Fernando valley and were doing some “real interesting stuff” – “I should come and see some of the FX they were creating!” Plus, he knew that I had a 35mm Mitchell movie camera [the industry standard] and could he borrow it? They needed something with that precision for the effects they were creating. So I loaned it to him. The next time I saw it it had been modified extensively: the lens plate now took Nikon lenses and the motors had been discarded for precise stepping motors! Somehow I’d never got around to accepting his invitation to come and see what they were up to and the next time I saw John it was on TV, he was accepting the Oscar for special effects for “Star Wars” – the B grade science fiction movie he was working on! It’s not generally known that the core nucleus of Lucas’s special effects dept at ILM were all art students from Cal State Long Beach with no prior knowledge of film or FX.

Star Wars was such a huge success that George Lucas chose to move the entire special effects unit to his Marin county HQ – Industrial Light and Magic and at some point thereafter I mentioned to a friend in the publications dept. at the university that I was visiting friends in Marin County that weekend. The friend was writing a piece for the university magazine on one of our alums who was working at Industrial Light and Magic: Joe Johnson! Could I see him and take some pics for the article? So of course I did and also got the guided tour of ILM and met several old friends there. When I asked Joe what he was up to these days, he told me that he had a screenplay that he was working on, no big deal, nothing much, just a childrens story. He wouldn’t elabororate. About a year later I got a phone call at the university, it was Joe. He wanted to know if he could get some of the WW2 rocket footage that I’d used in the documentary plus some of the interview with Werner von Braun, I told him “Sure, he could have anything he wanted” He wasn’t very forthcoming about what he needed it for and I didn’t push it. The next time I saw his name was on a review of a just-released movie, he had writer/director credit, the film was “The Rocketeers!” a big enough success that Joe now has several more director credits to his name.

So here I am 30 years later and just down the road from ILM, pursuing a longtime interest in learning how to use Photoshop to digitally do all those things that I spent hours struggling with in all those all-night darkroom sessions plus those eons spent modifying a lathe bed and endless hours trying to tune a 16 mm film processor and a 16 mm printer! And little did I know then that my Mitchell might have played some small roll in the establishment of the Lucas empire and the subsequent development of my current interest, Photoshop.

That might be more information than you thought you needed to know re. Star Wars and special FX.

3 thoughts on “STAR WARS.

    • Yeah, still here. Wish I’d known you were in town, we could have set a record for the smallest, furthest west Spill social!

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