With miniatures, blue screens and an artist’s eye, Richard Edlund helped create a universe that has captivated audiences for decades.
The multiple Academy Award-winner who oversaw special effects in the original “Star Wars” trilogy is joining Chapman University in Orange this semester as a distinguished artist and educator.
The 77-year-old Los Angeles native is a trailblazer in the field of visual effects, laying the groundwork for its evolution during a long career behind the camera with iconic films “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Ghostbusters,” “Poltergeist,” Die Hard,” Battlestar Galactica” and the original “Star Wars” trilogy, among many others.
“His experience in the industry is really unmatched,” said Bill Kroyer, a Chapman professor and animation and visual effects program director. “Not only for the length of time, but the variety of work he’s done — the excellence of these shots he’s done in landmark movies of the last 40 years.”
As a Pankey Distinguished Artist, Edlund will hold biweekly meetings to help scholarly filmmakers with developing projects. He will also teach each week in Kroyer’s Digital Arts Industry Insiders class, which analyzes the history of visual effects.
Edlund started in the field in 1964, graduating from the University of Southern California and going right to work on his first big project, “Star Trek: The Original Series.”
After a few years of experimentation, what he terms his “hippie” years — which included working on experimental films in San Francisco — Edlund joined the visual effects company Robert Abel and Associates to work on commercials.
These jobs prepared Edlund for the career-changing event that came next.
In 1976, Edlund was approached by special effects legend John Dykstra to work on a science fiction film called “Star Wars.” He was hired to work with George Lucas’ infant Industrial Light and Magic visual effects company, joining a group of young industry hopefuls, many of whom had never worked on a feature film.
The first film is considered a landmark in many respects, especially with regard to visual effects.
“We were inventing our way around corners all the time,” Edlund said.
As an example of the ingenuity exhibited during the filming, the special effects team developed a better way to shoot moving objects.
“Leading up to ‘Star Wars,’ the only way you could shoot miniatures was by a move-and-shoot technique where you shot stills of the ship and then you moved it and shot another still,” Edlund said. “The problem with that is if the ship is moving quickly, it stutters across the screen.”
To eradicate the disjointed movement, images needed to blur when they moved in the film. A human eye captures movement in a similar way.
“We invented a motion control for ‘Star Wars,’” Edlund said. “That was to enable the camera to be moving when it was shooting so that we could get motion blur.”
Another important part of the technology for the original “Star Wars” trilogy was Edlund’s resurrection of the blue screen process, which allows for characters to appear like they are in the snowy terrains of Hoth or the lush forests of Endor.
To make the visuals look real, the crew figured out how to eliminate matte line shots, which are the transition line between the live-action shot and the background. The presence of matte lines can make the shot look “phony.”
“It was trying, difficult and exhilarating at the same time because we were accomplishing things that had never been done,” Edlund said.
After “Return of the Jedi” came out in 1983, Edlund left ILM to start Boss Film Studios.
“The digital world was beckoning and I was beginning to become frustrated with the photographic process because we pushed it about as far as it could go,” Edlund said. “I could see that digital was going to be a big opportunity to do things that never could have been done.”
The company would go on to be nominated for Oscars for seven movies, including “Alien 3,” “Ghostbusters” and “Die Hard.”
The studio closed in 1997. Edlund told the Los Angeles Times at the time that he was “paying for today’s projects with tomorrow’s profits, and [he] can’t keep things going this way.”
Now, Edlund is one of the biggest names, among many legendary figures in the film industry, to take their expertise to Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
“Richard has been continually evolving and developing through the technological evolution in the last four decades,” Kroyer said. “In that respect, he’s always been on the forefront.
“The entire industry for the last 40 years has been made on what you might call movie magic. And think of the guy who created most of those techniques, it was Richard Edlund. He was there at the birth.”