Visual Effects (original trilogy & prequel trilogy)
Interview: December 2019
Lorne Peterson worked on the first six Star Wars films, was one of the original members when Industrial Light & Magic was founded in the mid 70’s and won an Oscar for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In December 2019 I had the following interview with him at the EchoBaseCon.
You’re one of the first crewmembers of ILM in the 70’s. What was it like working there back then in Van Nuys?
I was only hired for two months and I knew a lot from industrial design. It was it was a wonderful experience; we all became friends. I was only twenty-nine years old the day I started, and a lot of us had gone to the same colleges. Some of us knew each other from one college or another and friends were brought together. So, it was it was very much like to be almost in college art department but with more money. Way more money.
You are also featured as Rebel in the Yavin 4 scene. What are your memories from the filming of these scenes?
Well, you know, that it wasn’t supposed to be me originally. There were just natives in Guatemala and one of them was going to be the tower. But he was too stiff. You know, he wasn’t a good actor. Not that I’m a great actor. I was of the three of us who went down to Guatemala the only one that didn’t have children. I wasn’t married, no children. So, I volunteered to work on the tower. You know, we only had three wires down now, and you have to stay really still for a while. Let it go so it wouldn’t go like this. (makes a back and forth gesture) I’d spend for hours and hours up there waiting for the sun to be just right, in the costume and with the helmet. It was a fun adventure. It was a little bit like Indiana Jones. We flew into Guatemala and then they put us on a military airplane, the DC-3. No pain at all. It had the seats and instead of sitting like this you sat against the side of the window. The seats were just made out of scraps of fabric, so there were bags of stuff on the inside. They were transported into the jungle. It was not a commercial flight, but it was a fun.
George Lucas had spent a lot of his budget on effects, but it took quite some time before ILM had produced an effect that was usable. I read that at one moment the pressure became really high. How did you experience this?
Yeah, it was very high. You know, when he came back from England, we’d hope that there were more of those special effects done than there were. The reason that a lot of it wasn’t done yet was we were still building the equipment, the cameras and the rudimentary computers that were used at the time. So they were actually built on the premises and so there were two shots that we did right at the beginning to show George that they were possible to do without going through a lot of optical processes and that was the detail of the gun firings, the large gun like this firing on the Death Star. And then the other one was the drop of the escape pod with R2-D2 and C-3PO. They showed me a sketch of it and they said, I needed to make the model quick so I made it in a week.
After the huge success of Star Wars, the expectations for the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, must have been big. Was this the case and can you tell something about your experiences when ILM was suddenly becoming THE effects company?
Well, it was pretty unusual because we didn’t expect it to happen. There was no expectation that it would become a blockbuster. My partner and I and the people at ILM, we rented the equipment back from George Lucas and did Battlestar Galactica. George wasn’t really happy about that, doing a film that was a little bit similar to Star Wars. But we had to make money, but then Star Wars did make a lot of money. So then George Lucas asked six of us to move up north to start over again in an empty warehouse and so that’s what we did. We went up, there weren’t even walls inside the building. We laid out two by fours like where we wanted the rooms instead of doing a drawing. We just basically took a bunch of two by fours and made different rooms in the hallway and then had the carpenter start to build after that.
Ok, what is your favorite moment or memory regarding working on the Star Wars movies?
Yeah, well, that’s a little bit hard. There are so many memories over 40 some years. Like I said, I was only hired for two months and the reason I was stayed on longer was that because I work in industrial design, I knew of a material called Superglue. Now everybody can buy superglue but you could only get it industrially at the time. When I arrived, the first few days they were using a five-minute epoxy, which you had to keep mixing over and over again. So I took a pencil and I cantilevered it over the edge of the table, then put a little drop of superglue and then I moved my hand and it stayed there.
Everyone asked how do you do that? I said, we have to get this stuff. It makes it much faster and stronger and better. So that’s the reason that they never said “well we only hired you for two months and you have to go”.
From the beginning you’ve worked closely with George Lucas. How would you describe him?
He’s maybe the contrast of Steven Spielberg. George is a really quiet, relatively quiet person and he certainly knows what he wants. But usually the set is set up that there isn’t as much activity. He’s concentrating on what exactly he wants. Spielberg is somebody who… activity can happen all around him and people with clipboards, telephones, telling you’re your mother or wife is calling. Do this, do that. And then he’s happy to do that. George Lucas is different. He would like more contemplating to himself what it should be.
How was it to work with Lucas?
Well, I use an example that when we were doing Empire, I had saved a bunch of questions for him about the models and he was coming to the model shop that day, so I wanted to ask him what he wanted on this model, what he wanted with that. I started asking the first question, and he stopped me. He said, well, that sounds like your job to me. It was like, that isn’t what he wants. You didn’t think of that as his job. He already hired me because he liked what I did and you do whatever you want. “I like whatever you want to show” is a real joy to work with. You didn’t feel he was micromanaging anything.
You have created a lot of models for the Star Wars movies. Which one stands out for you personally?
The Millennium Falcon was a real favorite because that was one of the first models I worked on. But then also Slave I because what had happened at that time, the model shop was getting bigger and bigger and I was having less time than I could actually put my hands on a model. When Slave I came along, I really liked the design of it. So I said, well, I’m going to split off and devote more of my personal time to working on it with two other people; Ease Owyoung and Samuel Zolltheis to do that particular model. I was really satisfied with the look of it.
Is there any model that when you look back, you’re thinking, well, I should have made different.
I never quite thought of it that way. Granted there are some ships that were in the distance, the fleet ships that were less important. It’s just like if it was going to be close to camera, I would have done more work on them. But they were far away from camera and it wasn’t as important.
You have been in the effects business for more than three decades. You have witnessed the evolution of effects, from models and stop-motion to CGI. What is your own opinion regarding this evolution and where will it go the next 10, 20 years?
I was very worried right at first and other people were worried that everybody kept hanging around and there were books like What color is your parachute or How to change your career? when CG first came along. But it didn’t work out that way. I mean, Dennis Muren said one time “I think the model shop has maybe two or three years left and that’s it”. That was 25 years ago so it actually worked really well. There was a real hand-in-glove relationship because they did opticals a lot better. They could combine images here and there seamlessly. Whereas in optical, it took a lot of work to get an almost perfect shot and the many times that bluescreen would show up around the edge and the mattes would show up, that kind of thing. So that worked really well. But it is true that CGI kept getting better and better. But it did kind of push the envelope even for the model shop, because the model shop, if you’re in the presentation they started doing bigger environmental models and with a lot of action involved in it. We were still doing really satisfying things. I’d say right now some films like Transformers are almost more just a cartoon. They don’t rely much on reality. But there are other films where they tried to be seamless, that it just doesn’t show at all. It’s pretty good. I still like the look of a model and a model shot, the atmosphere, the feeling that it’s actually there. Sometimes CG seems like a different world, that it just isn’t the same world that we live in. But it depends on how much time and money they spend on a shot.
What do you think of the effects of the new modern Star Wars movies?
I still would have preferred real shots with the Millennium Falcon. The one thing that stands out in my mind as the biggest problem for me was the red sand. Was that in The Last Jedi? Yeah. I just thought how could how could sand be white on the top and then red below? Normally things oxidize with air on the top. So it’s more likely that something underground when exposed to air would be rust red, but not red red. It looks like a cake. When the ships would fly over, I didn’t like that at all.
I think it was done for the dramatic effect.
Yeah, and also, I think it was a pity that they darkened the X-Wing because the way that we had made the X-Wings, we’d made them light so the oil drips, the aging and everything showed up on the light grey. When you make the model darker grey, it disappears. You don’t get to see all that kind of thing.
They look brand new.
Yes, they don’t need to look that way.
I prefer the old ones as well. So, there’s an incredible list of movies you have worked on. Star Wars, Indiana Jones. Which one is your favorite?
Oh, my God, I don’t know if I could pick one. One of the last ones I did was the series of Pirates of the Caribbean films and that was really satisfying to work on those ships were a lot of fun. But not every project was a lot of fun. Some of them had to be faster, late nights and all the tough and hard work to do, like the Executor. We did the Executor it had to be done in seven weeks and we just worked around the clock. We slept for five hours and then got back to work.
That was one of the biggest models.
I think, of that kind of models. Yeah, it was about three and a half meters long. Something like this. It had a lot of technical problems to solve like how do you cantilever something so narrow and thin out long and not have a droop and that kind of thing. It was made out of a honeycomb aluminum that they use in airplanes to the bulkheads and things like that. They’re very, very light, but strong and that’s how we made it.
It looks like a masterpiece.
I think we calculated that it had something like tens of thousands little lights that were etched into brows. We didn’t we didn’t have to make each hole. It was like a miniature neon behind these brass panels that have all these little holes etched through the brass.
Well, 200.000 might be too many, but I know it was like tens of thousands.
Regarding your work on Star Wars: how do you back at the movies and your time at ILM?
I sometimes describe to somebody it’s as if you walk around in the world and it’s a bubble that you walk with. I think I’ll probably be rotting in my grave and the people are still watching Star Wars, that kind of thing. Very few human beings ever get to experience something like that. It’s a body of work, of accomplishment that like travels with me all the time. So, it’s really an unusual experience.