A true pioneer in the age of modern-day special effects, Richard Edlund oversaw the creation of visuals that defined fantasy/sci-fi films for a generation of moviegoers, including the original "Star Wars" (1977) and its sequels "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983), as well as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) "Poltergeist" (1982) and "Ghostbusters" (1984). Edlund helped build George Lucas' legendary Industrial Light and Magic effects company from the ground up, before moving on and opening his own effects company, Boss Film Studios. A photographer at heart who began his career shooting primitive rock videos with a 16mm camera outside of Los Angeles, Edlund was at the very forefront of a wave of artists who pushed traditional optical effects to their zenith before the arrival of computer-generated imagery. While his films varied, Edlund's work was often characterized by crisp, cool clarity of image, as evidenced by his work on slick blockbusters like "Die Hard" (1987) and "Ghost" (1990). A multiple Academy Award winner, Edlund remained active on several committees and advisory boards, and was honored by the American Society of Cinematographers. For true fanboys and girls of a certain age who devoured every issue of Starlog and Cinefantastique throughout the 1970s and '80s, the name Richard Edlund was well known and well regarded as one of the premier visual effects masters of all time.
Edlund was born Dec. 6, 1940 in Fargo, ND but grew up in California. In high school, he was inspired by a photography and chemistry teacher to pursue the former course as a serious hobby. Edlund built a darkroom in his garage, became photo editor for the yearbook, and began shooting local sports for the L.A. Examiner newspaper on weekends. After graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and while stationed overseas in Japan, he developed an interest in motion pictures. Returning home, he enrolled in the University of Southern California's School of Cinema, taking classes at night while working during the day. Soon he grew confident enough in his abilities that he hit the streets and found a job working for a photographic effects company headed by Joe Westheimer, who would serve as his mentor. Edlund assisted in providing optical effects, titles and other visuals for commercials and television series such as "The Outer Limits" (ABC, 1963-65) and the original "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69); he also performed camera duties as well as occasional stand-in work - it was his hand that often substituted for the disembodied "Thing" on "The Addams Family" (ABC, 1964-66).
Aside from his day job, Edlund was also a self-described "working hippie rock n' roll photographer," doing photo sessions, shooting concerts and album covers and directing early versions of music videos for bands such as The Ventures on the desert outskirts of Los Angeles. During this time, he met and was hired by visual effects expert Robert Abel, who was making strides in the area of streak photography, multiple exposures and animated, flashing graphics with star filters, familiar to anyone who watched television in the early 1970s. Edlund helped create such effects for commercials for 7-Up, among others. Then came along a job that changed Edlund's life - "Star Wars" (1977). Word about the film was already spreading like wildfire through the tightly knit but growing special effects community of Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, and Edlund was familiar with the project when he was called in for an interview with the movie's effects supervisor John Dykstra. Asked point blank what role he would like to have on the ambitious project, Edlund answered simply that he wanted to be director of effects photography. The job was his.
When he walked in the door of a converted warehouse in Van Nuys, CA that would serve as their base of operations, Edlund saw a big empty room with a card table and a telephone. He and his crew faced a daunting but exhilarating challenge - not only would they generate the more than 300 visual effects shots for the movie, but they would also have to build the camera and mechanical equipment needed to accomplish those effects from scratch. From such auspicious beginnings Industrial Light and Magic was born. Edlund and his colleagues were given precise instructions from Dykstra and writer-director George Lucas on what they hoped to capture onscreen: space battles with all the verve and excitement of barnstorming airplanes, inspired by real aerial combat footage, all of which would be in stark contrast to the slow-moving and deliberate effects of sci-fi films of the day. Work commenced on the design and construction of model spaceships and vehicles, Dykstra perfected his groundbreaking motion-controlled camera dubbed the "Dykstraflex," and Edlund concentrated on photography and optical printing, the process whereby different pieces of film were combined onto a final negative. Convinced that only the highest-quality cameras would avoid the often poor quality of continued "dupes," Edlund scoured Hollywood for all its dusty and remaining Vista Vision cameras, popular in musicals and other widescreen epics of the 1950s and '60s. The cameras were unique in that film ran through the gate sideways, allowing for a greater surface area for each frame of film, resulting in clearer images all around.
Several crews worked multiple shifts, rotating 24 hours a day to complete the effects shots on time. Edlund remained particularly proud of the movie's signature scene, a lengthy opening shot of a massive Star Destroyer looming overhead, seemingly disappearing into infinity. Edlund and Lucas were anxious about the scene, which they knew could either make or break audience expectations for the rest of the film. Edlund accomplished the shot with a relatively small three-foot long model turned upside down, a camera tracking over the surface, its lens coming so close that the paint was nearly chipped off along the way. Edlund's proficiency with the camera allowed the entire model to stay in complete focus, a critical and often overlooked aspect of miniature photography. One of the last sequences to be completed, the shot was an astounding success - the seemingly infinite starship disappearing onto the horizon brought a sense of epic sweep and romance to the jaded audiences of the day and forever transformed fantasy filmmaking. The shot was even shown at the Academy Awards, where the film earned an Oscar for visual effects.
The box office blockbuster spawned scores of imitators, which was a boon for special effects artists, who suddenly found themselves very much in demand by a Hollywood still mystified by the processes involved. Edlund was quickly hired again by Dykstra to contribute effect shots for the original television series "Battlestar Galactica" (ABC, 1978) which incorporated very similar effects and technology, before getting another call from Lucas to rejoin the Star Wars series with "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). This time the company moved north to Marin County, near San Francisco, and although Edlund was reluctant to leave Los Angeles, he plunged full force into rebuilding ILM and meeting a new set of challenges. Eager to explore new ground, the action for the film veered away from outer space and now required Edlund and his camera crew to portray Snowspeeders zipping over the icy plains of Hoth, effectively placing white objects over a white background - a terrific headache at the time. Edlund pushed optical compositing to its limits, supervising the construction of a costly new optical printer just for the film. Again the work paid off, as "The Empire Strikes Back" was a smash hit, and again Edlund and his crew earned Oscars for their efforts.
Having conquered the interstellar reaches of outer space and ice planets, Edlund turned his talents to earthbound yet supernatural directions with the George Lucas-produced, Steven Spielberg-directed "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). When Harrison Ford's archeologist Indiana Jones digs for the Ark of the Covenant, overhead are stormy skies filled with heavenly disturbances, an effect Edlund created by floating chemicals in a glass tank separated by layers of salt water, resulting in eerie cloud formations. Another scene involving a jeep full of Nazi soldiers plummeting off a cliff was done with miniatures and puppets against a matte painting. But the most memorable sequence by far was the explosive ending, where Nazi villains get their just desserts by gazing into the forbidden Ark. To create the floating apparitions who drift among the bewildered soldiers, puppets covered in tattered cloth were pulled through water to create a wispy, ethereal effect. The result was both eerie and convincing; such water-based techniques were put to use again the following year with Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist," a modern-day ghost story aimed at mature audiences that nearly earned an R rating. Edlund and ILM pulled out all the stops, creating wispy ghosts and also demon-like creatures that bordered on disturbing. The crew also created stormy skies and a tornado, as well as the seemingly impossible feat of depicting the suburban home imploding into nothingness during the finale.
After "Poltergeist," Edlund and the ILM crew focused on the last of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, 'Return of the Jedi" (1983), again outdoing themselves with space battles even more complex and awe-inspiring than what had come before. By that time "Jedi" was completed, Edlund, who had grown restless at ILM and its Northern California location, was considering whether to start his own company, something he was reluctant to do only because he lacked formal business experience. Edlund was mulling the idea over while in the hospital recovering from back surgery when he received a call from director Ivan Reitman about a supernatural comedy he was putting together which would become "Ghostbusters" (1984). Edlund was excited by the idea, and also took a call from director Peter Hyams, who was planning "2010" (1984), a sequel to "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). Excited by the challenges of both projects, Edlund decided to form his own company, calling it Boss Film Studios, and assembled the staff and equipment largely from fellow effects guru Douglas Trumbull's dismantled Entertainment Effects Group. Drawing upon his experience building ILM from the ground up, Edlund constructed his company from scratch, creating a model division, a machine shop, a matte department and an optical department.
His first two films featured breathtaking effects. For "2010," Edlund and his staff created some of the industry's first computer-generated images, depicting the planet Jupiter collapsing upon itself, its bands of clouds swirling under cosmic forces. Tasked with ensuring a sense of absolute realism in contrast with the fantasy space epics he had previously worked on, Edlund chose to depict the mysterious moons of Jupiter with relatively low-grade video cameras to better replicate the grainy imagery TV viewers were accustomed to from actual space flight transmissions. But the remainder of outer space shots, if not the film itself, shared the grace and beauty of the original Stanley Kubrick masterpiece. "Ghost Busters" was a different story. Edlund was tasked to create visuals for a movie that was one-part comedy/one-part horror, filled with scary ghosts and supernatural beasts, juxtaposed with comedic dialogue delivered by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Drawing upon his experience on "Poltergeist," Edlund created spectral creatures that were scary to behold, including the opening scene featuring a mild-mannered librarian who transforms into a truly terrifying ghost, setting the tone for the rest of the film. At the same time, Edlund's crew perfected more comedic beasts, such as a grinning green "Slimmer" who stuffs himself on snacks, envisioned as a cross between comedian John Belushi and something out of "Scooby Doo," and the towering Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, whose all-too-cute face suggests something more sinister. Both films announced to the filmmaking community that there was a new game in town, and that Edlund and his crews were a force to be reckoned with.
Soon the company was commissioned to provide effects for films such as "Die Hard" (1988) where Edlund's matte artists provided memorable shots including villain Alan Rickman plummeting from the roof of the infamous hijacked skyscraper. Edlund also contributed effects for "Ghost" (1980) and "Alien 3" (1992), as his company moved steadily away from film and toward emerging digital technology. On Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" (1992), Edlund relished using computer animation to create bats and penguins and to improve upon effects such as the Batmobile's shield apparatus, which had utilized hand-drawn animation in the first film. Despite his life-long devotion to traditional photography, Edlund had grown frustrated with its limits while digital technology promised much greater freedom and flexibility. Embracing the new tools with renewed vigor, Edlund transitioned completely toward digital compositing with the Sylvester Stallone mountain-climbing actioner "Cliffhanger" (1993).
Digital effects took another leap forward with the Michael Keaton comedy "Multiplicity" (1996) a film which required several cloned versions of its star to occupy the screen at the same time - a relatively simple effect that would have been all but impossible to achieve with any kind of moving camera work, before the advent of digital compositing. By "Air Force One," (1997) Edlund was crashing entirely digitized jumbo jets into the ocean. But a byproduct of the increase in digital technology was the host of new effects firms which came into existence as a result, which foreshadowed the decline of full-service effects facilities like Boss Film. By 1997, after completing sequences for "Batman & Robin" and "Starship Troopers" that year, the company closed its doors. Edlund's visual effects work was intermittent but no less significant after his company folded. He supervised the awe-inspiring visuals of angels and other heavenly beings for the 2003 miniseries "Angels in America" (2003) for director Mike Nichols, and worked again for the director for "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007). Edlund remained very active in the effects community, serving on the Board of Governors for the Motion Picture Academy as well as the science and museum councils. In 2006, he received a special commendation by the Academy of Motion Pictures, and was honored by the American Society of Cinematographers with the President's Outstanding Achievement Award at a 2008 ceremony.
By Matthew Reynolds