Second unit photography: miniature and optical effects unit (A New Hope)
Interview: July 2019
In the mid 70’s you joined ILM to work on Star Wars. How did you get this job?
I had met with George and Gary at the beginning of the production when they were interviewing visual effects people. George got back from shooting the live action in England, and because the signature (very hi-tech at the time) motion control effects system was being constructed not a frame of film had been shot. Panicked, he called me up to head up a second unit effects unit to shoot puppeteers in black suits “flying” miniature spaceships on black rods. Not surprisingly this did not work out very well. So my unit moved on to do some of the signature explosions in the show.
Why didn’t you return to work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi?
After Star Wars came out, George moved ILM north to San Rafael to avoid Hollywood and all the “rules” that when with it. Half of ILM moved with him and the other half stayed in the same building and broke off to form Apogee (editor’s note: a VFX company).
What do you recall of your meetings with George Lucas?
I found George to be very organized, the man knew exactly what he wanted but not always how to get it. He gave me marching orders and then left me alone to figure out how to do it. I’m not sure that I even watched dailies with him as my unit was at another location across town. He must have liked what he saw because our unit moved to bigger and bigger stages and we shot bigger and bigger explosions.
You’re one of the first crewmembers of ILM in the 70’s. What was it like working there back then in Van Nuys?
As I was not part of the main unit, I did very little work on Valjean. However, as I was friends with almost everyone there and because they had a full machine shop, I spent many weeks there with my full race Mini Cooper machining parts and fabricating equipment. So, I got to experience the entire production process without really being involved.
Which shots/scenes were you responsible for? And are there good anecdotes you can share regarding creating them?
My claim to fame is that I blew up the Death Star. When I think back to the first day of our unit, I remember Joe Viskocil, our powder genius who constructed all the miniature bombs, I realize we were just a bunch of unsupervised kids running the orphanage. Joe came in the first morning and there was a huge explosion and a cloud of smoke coming out of the little room on wheels that was used to load film. Luckily there was only a loss of hair and a rash on Joe’s arms. It was an interesting way to start. But it never really got any better as the explosions got bigger and better, I remember running around the stage wiping burning napalm from my arms after one of our larger explosions. Later, looking at pictures of our shoot, I see that our only fire protection was a single hand held fire extinguishers. Ahh! simpler days.
What was the hardest effect to create while working on A New Hope?
Although I was not involved, I would say the Landspeeder was one of the hardest. In a non-CG world getting rid of the wheels putting in heat ripples and suspending it in shot where we didn’t see the whole craft.
However, the construction and first extensive use of motion control is obviously the most significant innovation of the movie.
Which effect from A New Hope are you most proud of?
Blowing up the Death Star, who wouldn’t be?
Today CGI has largely taken over and there are less practical effects. Is this –in your opinion- a good or a bad thing?
My favorite Visual Effects are when they based on live-action elements and then enhanced with CG. Whether based on miniature or full scale live-action, I like the organic feel of these kind of shots. Shot which are entirely CG still have an uncanny valley feel to them, even with the unbelievable advances in CG effects.
I read that you knew about Joseph Campbell before work on Star Wars started and you were happy George Lucas got a spiritual message out. Do you think that’s something modern Star Wars lacks after George left in 2012?
I think the Joseph Campbell influence fell away almost immediately. Any discussion of the “Force” became more about superhero (Jedi) powers and less about an elemental interconnectedness of all beings and all things. But the whole franchise is based on “A New Hope” and as such this philosophy unavoidably underlies everything. Thanks Joseph.
My final question: You blew up the Death Star, not Luke Skywalker. I guess you should have gotten that medal?
Yes. But what I don’t talk about so much is that, I also blew up Alderaan. I guess all that loss of innocent life, cancels out any medal I might be entitled to for the Death Star.