Highlights from the VFX Rock Stars Panel

Pete Vilmur | May 26, 2007

Today, host Jay Laga’aia invited several members from the Star Wars saga’s stable of visual effects artists to the Concourse Stage for a one hour discussion on their contributions to the various Star Wars films. On stage were John Knoll, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, and Richard Edlund.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

Early Influences

Knoll: I had a whole series of hobbies that I did because I lived in a cold climate – I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it was fairly cold for a good part of the year, so you spend a lot of time indoors and develop indoor hobbies. I got into photography and had a darkroom in the basement so I could learn to process and print my own film. I used to build models and do stop motion films. So I did the same sort of things that have often led to people getting into this industry.

Tippett: I got started off like most of us as a kid watching crappy horror movies. I think most of us were really taken by the Ray Harryhausen pictures. We pretty much learned in our own garages and our own backyards and bedrooms – you know, setting things on fire and ruining our parents’ tools — learning how to construct things on our own and kind of making it up as we went along. And at one point in time people hired us and we got paid for it.

Muren: There was no industry at that time – there wasn’t any opportunity to look ahead and say, hey, when I’m in my twenties I can get a job doing this, because there wasn’t any. But then George and Steven Spielberg came along – the baby boomers grew up and they wanted to see these movies, and we were ready for them after doing this stuff in our garages for years and years.

Ralston: Mainly it was the work of Ray Harryhausen. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad seared my mind and did something to me – I became really fascinated with how it was done. It was also his work ethic – this is just one guy who is creating Jason and the Argonauts and the skeleton fight. That was a real inspiration for me. I was just like these guys – in my garage trying to do claymation with an 8mm Bolex. Somewhere down in California there’s a wall in someone’s garage still covered in fake blood, I’m sure.

Edlund: I started out in photography in 8th grade and had a darkroom in the garage. Later I started taking pictures for the sports section of the Herald Examiner during high school. After the Navy I got a job with Bob Abel and started working with early motion control using an old teletype machine to program the camera. So there was this group of us who were just poised and ready to do a movie like Star Wars and were kind of pining for the opportunity, and here it came. Luck had something to do with it, but we all had chops and we all had the means in our experience to do this.

Pre-digital Days

Muren: The nice thing about [making Star Wars] was that it was a very touch and feel industry at that time. You could feel the models whether we were shooting them or picking them up and mounting them – the model makers feel them and feel the weight of them and have a real connection with the objects they were working on. I think it affected the way we thought about the shots – the fact that they were more real. It’s very difficult to have that same experience in CG.

Tippett: We worked on our feet all the time. We stood up and moved around a lot. We touched real things – we were burned by lights, we cut ourselves with Exacto blades. We worked in some dangerous situations where bombs went off and there were intense electrical supplies so you had to be aware in a real human kind of way as opposed to an artificial environment where you can change things however you want.

Ralston: We were able to cross a lot of lines there and do a lot of jobs – if you were capable of doing it, no one was holding you back. And you had a lot of authorship on the work that was being done on the movie – you felt personally involved with what was being seen on screen.

Edlund: It’s not the same kind of gestalt – you know, you had the models from last year still hanging from the ceiling, but now it’s workstations and computer-generated material so it’s a completely different kind of ingenuity. It’s certainly not less – it freed us up from this incredibly cumbersome process of photochemistry. It’s like going from being a blacksmith to a neurosurgeon.

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