Monday 25 September 2017

My FantasyCon Schedule (and great weekends past!)

I thoroughly enjoy the FantasyCon experience (I've written reports for most of them) from my first in September 2000 in Birmingham up to last years bash at Scarborough.  Back at my first, I went in knowing about three people but by the time I left I knew a load more and most of those friendships are still going strong.  This year, it's in Peterborough, I'm once again going along with Sue Moorcroft (it's the closest venue to us so far) and I'm really looking forward to it.  Unlike last year (and the fantastic Hersham Horror Books launch party, which I was part of with my novella The Factory), I don't have anything being launched but I am on a panel and here's my schedule for the weekend.
Hersham Horror Books novella launch, Scarborough 2016
from left - Phil Sloman, Stephen Bacon, me, James Everington

Saturday 30th September
Horror: Mastery and Apprenticeship - 10am, Panel Room 1
Helen Armfield (mod)
(panel) Ramsey Campbell, Phil Sloman, Mark West, Nina Allan, James Everington

A lot of my friends are on various panels over the weekend so I'll be attending plenty of them

Launches in the Broadway Suite
Saturday 11am: Newcon Press (Ian Whates)
Tanith By Choice, edited by Ian Whates
Visionary Tongue edited by Storm Constantine
& Newcon Press Novellas Slipcase Set

Saturday 4pm: Hersham Horror Novellas (Peter Mark May)
Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence by Richard Farren Barber
Monstrous by Charlotte Bond
Bury Them Deep by Marie O' Regan

I'll definitely be at these two but also trying to fit in as many more as I possibly can.

There's also the disco of course, 8pm on Friday night (again, I'm not sure why it's shifted from Saturday) and I plan to hit that dancefloor (as part of the regular Rhythm Crew*) and boogie through until we're thrown out!
(*the Rhythm Crew is a fluid bunch but stalwarts are Phil Sloman, James Everington, Peter Mark May, Steven Chapman, Carrie Buchanan and Vix Kirkpatrick)

The full Fantasycon 2017 programme can be found here.

And here are some wonderful memories (click on the location & date for my event report) of FantasyCon's past, great times shared with great friends...

Walsall 2005
from left (front) Marie O'Regan, Matthew Holness, Gail-Nina Anderson
(back) me, Rob Rowntree, Lisa Negus, David Price, Paul Kane
Nottingham 2008
from left - me, Simon Bestwick, Gary McMahon
Nottingham 2010
from left - Gary McMahon (hiding behind an ARC for his novel Pretty Little Dead Things), Shaun Hamilton (obscured), Stephen Bacon (the first time I met him face-to-face), Simon Marshall-Jones, me, David Price, Simon Kurt Unsworth
Brighton 2011
from left - Stuart Young, David Price, Terry Grimwood, me
At the Alt-Dead launch, from left - Stuart Hughes, me, Dave Jeffery, Steve Lockley (obscured) and Stuart Young.  Peter Mark May is on the right (picture by Selina Lock)
The fantastic FCon Disco
from left - me, Peter Mark may, Laurel Sills, Lee Harris, Paul Melhuish, Rob Spalding (closest to camera)
In the dealer room with Selina Lock, me, Richard Farren Barber, Stuart Young
At the Hauntings launch, me and Alison Littlewood mess about, Paul Kane and Adrian Tchaikovsky act professional.  Stuart Young looks on, wondering if he's made a sound investment...
from left - Stephen Volk, Gardner Goldsmith, Paul Finch, me
from left - Steven Chapman, Neil Bond (displaying his autographs from Joe Hill), me, Ruth Booth
In the dealer room (again), since Drive had just been launched (and I was recovering from my heart attack)
from left - Steven Chapman, Phil Sloman, Jim Mcleod, me, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams, Christopher Teague
Sue's great idea for a group shot
from left of the middle bottom - me, Steven Chapman, Neil Williams, Sue Moorcroft, Stephen Bacon, John Travis, Terry Grimwood, James Everington, Steve Harris
At the disco with my boogie brothers - from left - Peter Mark May, me, Phil Sloman, Steven Chapman
(blurry image because my phone had been in my pocket and the lens got a bit misted up!)
Gathering in the convention centre to say our goodbyes on Sunday morning
from left - Paul Woodward, Phil Sloman, Gavin Williams (kneeling), me, Alison Littlewood, Jim Mcleod, James Everington
In the bar, on arrival - from left - John Gilbert, Sue Moorcroft, Neil Williams, James Everington, Priya Sharma, Phil Sloman, me, Lisa Childs, Ross Warren, Wayne Parkin, Cate Gardner
The Pizza posse (some of us doing jazz hands for some weird reason - photo by Sue)
Lisa, me, Laura Mauro (obscured), Ross, Phil, Gary Couzens, Peter Mark May, Wayne (obscured), James, Richard Farren Barber, Steve
The FantasyCon Boyband publicity shoot went well - Richard, Steve, me, Wayne.
In the bar with Alison Littlewood, Gary Fry and Gary McMahon - sarcasm not pictured

There'll be a full report next week (as always) but, if you're there and see me, make sure to say hello!

Monday 18 September 2017

Need You Tonight, at 30

Need You Tonight, the first single from Kick, was released on 23rd September 1987.  Recorded at Rhinoceros Studios in Sydney in 1987, it was written by Andrew Farriss & Michael Hutchence, produced by Chris Thomas and mixed by Bob Clearmountain at Air Studios in London.
It was the only INXS single to hit number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for twenty-five weeks (going on to sell six million copies).  It became the band’s highest charting single in the UK, reaching number 2 when it was re-released in 1988 (and stayed on the charts for fourteen weeks), having only achieved number 58 on its original release.  It peaked at number 3 in Australia (with twenty-four weeks on the chart), hit number 2 in Ireland and Canada, number 3 in New Zealand and was a top 10 hit in Belgium and South Africa.  Following the screening of the Never Tear Us Apart mini-series, it re-entered the Australian chart as a download for three weeks in February 2014 and peaked at number 28.

Need You Tonight was one of the last songs written for the album.  When Chris Thomas compiled the songs they had he felt, as also happened with Listen Like Thieves, that something was missing and suggested Andrew & Michael go off to write some more.  As that last occasion had yielded their first worldwide hit with What You Need, they agreed to spend a fortnight at Michael’s apartment in Hong Kong.

In late June “I was working on this thing at home,” said Andrew in interview, “and I wasn't sure what it was, it wasn’t exactly what was going on a lot on the radio, either.”  He was worried it was something he’d heard before, that it “was kind of weird, even 1970s-sounding.”  He realised he needed to capture it but his taxi, to get him to the airport in time for his flight, had arrived.  Telling the cabbie to hold on, he quickly recorded the riff and chord sequence on tape and set up a “groove on a drum machine and it was all getting very technical.”  When the cabbie knocked on the door, Andrew “thought he was going to [go] and I had this moment of paranoia, like ‘Don’t leave!’”.

Arriving in Hong Kong, he went straight to Michael's apartment at the Watson Estate and played what he had.  "He loved [it] and said, ‘Give me a pad and a pen.’ He sat down and wrote the lyrics in something like an hour.  Michael was always naturally gifted in his ability to articulate his thoughts poetically on paper.”

Mediate was written as a stand-alone song but Chris Thomas decided to link them (they share the same bpm) and whilst on some compilations the two songs appear together, Need You Tonight often appears on its own (something Mediate rarely, if ever, does).
Richard Lowenstein was a longtime collababorator with the band, starting with Burn For You on The Swing album and his video for What You Need had helped propel the song to being a big hit (it was very popular on MTV).  On that, he and Lynn Maree Milburn - his animator and partner - had started using a technique involving a collage of photocopied and hand-tinted pictures over moving images.  Chris Murphy, INXS’ manager, gave him a pre-release cassette of Kick and asked which song he felt would make the best video.  Lowenstein said, in interview, there were “some good songs but if you make Need You Tonight the first single, I can make you a landmark video.”  When told it would take three months to make, Murphy wasn’t happy but he deferred to the director.  “It was more conscious than other videos I made,” he said.  “It spoke to me with all the funk and syncopation and clean sounds. I knew I could do something with all those rhythms, Michael’s sexy, I said that’s the one.”

The effects were created by cutting up 35mm film frames and photocopying them, before relayering those images over the original footage.  “This was before scanning,” said Lowenstein.  “Colour Xeroxes were just coming onto the market and you could get [them] to move like a picture. We had the very first video layering computer, it was a real novelty at the time.”  As it was, Lynn Maree Milburn ended up mounting more than 3,000 colour photocopies.

The rat, which got its own thank you in the liner notes for Kick, was called Plague and belonged to Michael’s brother Rhett.

Need You Tonight was nominated for eight awards at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards, making INXS the nights biggest nominee and winner, taking home five of the trophies (for Viewers Choice, Video Of The Year, Best Group Video, Breakthrough Video and Best Editing In A Video).

The song was issued on vinyl and CD, with a lot of variation depending on the territory.  Some of the 7” singles had I’m Coming (Home) as the b side, others had Move On or the Need You Tonight (Mendelsohn 7” mix).    With the 12” single, some had Mediate and I’m Coming (Home), others had the Need You Tonight (Mendelsohn extended mix), Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down The Mountain) or New Sensation (extended mix).  The UK CD had Need You Tonight (Mendelsohn 7” mix), Move On, Original Sin and Don’t Change, Japan only had I’m Coming (Home) and Germany got the Japan version plus Mediate.

This performance was shot at Summer XS, Wembley Stadium, 13th July 1991 - a concert I was lucky enough to attend - and later released on the "Live Baby Live" DVD, directed by David Mallet.

Happy 30th, Need You Tonight (where did all that time go, eh?)


Monday 11 September 2017

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 3) - The novelisation

Having seen the film and read the comics, my other big exposure to Star Wars in 1978 was the novelisation “by George Lucas” that I convinced my Dad I was old enough (at nine) to read.  He bought me the Sphere paperback (subtitled “From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker”with the flash “A spectacular motion picture from Twentieth Century-Fox!”) and I read it eagerly, going back over my favourite bits and thoroughly enjoying the “16 pages of fabulous colour” that used images from the pressbook (a fact I wouldn’t discover for some years).
Sphere paperback 1977, cover art by John Berkey (scan of my copy)
In an effort to drum up interest in the film (as he’d done with Marvel, which I wrote about here), Lucasfilm’s Charles Lippincott (whose official title was vice president of Advertising, Publicity, Promotion and Merchandising for the Star Wars Corporation) approached Ballantine Books in 1975 with a view to them publishing a novelisation.  They agreed and Lucas initially offered the ghost-writing job to his old friend and USC classmate Don Glut, who turned down the publishers terms - $5,000 up front, with no royalties or credit.  "For the next few years,” he later said in interview, “I kept kicking myself, like Lugosi after he turned down Frankenstein” (he later accepted Lucas' offer to write the novelisation for The Empire Strikes Back).  Ballantine then suggested Alan Dean Foster who had made his first professional sale to Analog Science Fiction And Fact in 1971, selling his first novel, The Tar-Aiym Krang, to Ballantine Books in 1972.  Of the Star Wars job he said, in interview, “My agent got a call from Lucas' lawyer of the time, Tom Pollock, as someone thought I might be the writer to do the novelisation of Lucas’ new film. I already knew his work through THX 1138 and American Graffiti. I accepted the offer to meet with George, and did so at Industrial Light & Magic (which I wrote about here), then in a small warehouse in Van Nuys, California.  We hit it off well, I got the assignment (for two books), and that’s how it happened.”

Foster met with production staff in December 1975, where he was given a script, some of Ralph McQuarrie’s pre-production art and a tour of Industrial Light & Magic.  He was also shown some special effects footage, which fired his imagination.  “Between the 16mm reel and McQuarrie’s art I felt I had a good idea [of what the film would look like],” he later said.  “But I was doubtful everything that was on the page would actually end up on screen. I was pretty stunned when it did, and then some.”
Sphere paperback 1977 back cover (scan of my copy)
Foster began work and was given a reasonable amount of freedom to flesh out the backstory of people, places, planets, aliens and technology, though he was told that nothing “should noticeably contradict anything that appears in the film”.  There are differences, of course - some of them are normal to novelisations, where the script used isn’t the final - or shooting - version or fall foul of editing decisions made further down the line.  In this case, Red Squadron is Blue in the novel, Grand Moff Tarkin joins Darth Vader in torturing Princess Leia in her cell  and there’s more activity from Luke’s squadron as they attack the Death Star.  Other changes include the Droids gaining an apostrophe - to ‘Droids - and being referred to as mechanicals, the Stormtroopers board the Tantive IV through the ceiling, Luke’s landspeeder has an enclosed cockpit, Obi-Wan Kenobi lives in a cave (and smokes a pipe) and three aliens attack our heroes in the Cantina (Ben cuts one of them in half).  Alderaan’s destruction isn’t described (and Ben doesn’t sense it), the Stormtrooper guarding the Millennium Falcon (TK-421 in the film) has the call sign THX-1138 and Chewbacca has bright yellow eyes (though he does get a medal at the end).

The book includes a prologue - and opens with “Another galaxy, another time...” rather than the now famous “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...” - and even though Palpatine is mentioned (he wouldn’t appear in the films until The Empire Strikes Back), he is the "latest in a succession of weak-willed Emperors whose power has been curtailed by scheming bureaucrats".

Scenes on Tatooine between Luke and his friends Biggs Darklighter, Camie and Fixer at the Tosche Station are included and work well, giving Luke and Biggs’ later conversation before the Battle Of Yavin a sense of poignancy.  Jabba The Hutt also appears - the sequence was filmed with Declan Mulholland as the intergalatic gangster (and later used as the basis for the poor CGI effect in the Special Edition) - but Foster doesn’t specify if Jabba is human or not, describing him as “a great mobile tub of muscle and suet topped by a shaggy scarred skull”.

There is also this wonderful exchange.

[Ben says]“I understand you’re quite a good pilot yourself. Piloting and navigation aren’t hereditary, but a number of the things that can combine to make a good small-ship pilot are. Those you may have inherited. Still, even a duck has to be taught to swim.”
    “What’s a duck?” Luke asked curiously.

Foster completed the novel in six weeks, handing it to his editors in May 1976.  He had several meetings with Lucas and Lippincott over the summer, discussing story changes and other details, before handing in his final draft which Lucas reviewed and agreed.

Published in November 1976, Foster wasn't credited on the book as per his contract.  "It was George's idea," he said later, "I was merely expanding upon it. Not having my name on the cover didn't bother me in the least. It would be akin to a contractor demanding to have his name on a Frank Lloyd Wright house.”

Sphere paperback, 1978
Knowing he had a big world to explore, but with no guarantee of the films success, Lucas wanted a story in place he could shoot relatively cheaply, utilising sets and props.  Foster, contracted for two books, was called into a meeting and told “go write the sequel novel.”  He used similar locations, incorporated elements that were cut from the original scripts and focussed on Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa since Harrison Ford hadn’t signed up for a sequel and nobody knew if he’d return for a low-budget film.

As it turned out, of course, Star Wars was a huge success and The Empire Strikes Back followed in 1980.  Del Ray published Foster’s novel, now called Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye, in hardback (on 1st March 1978) and paperback (on 1st April 1978) and it was published in paperback in the UK by Sphere on 27th April 1978.  It effectively takes place between the two films (becoming the first entry in the Star Wars Extended Universe) and the lineage between Luke and Leia clearly hadn’t been established, since it features romantic tension between the pair.

Foster was asked to write further adventures but he refused, though he continued to write sci-fi novelisations - including The Black Hole, Outland, Krull, The Thing, Aliens and The Last Starfighter.  He returned to the Star Wars universe in 2001 with the prequel novel The Approaching Storm and also wrote the novelisation for The Force Awakens in 2015.

Foster kept his involvement with the novel secret until the news was broken in Dale Pollock's biography of George Lucas, Skywalking.  "I had a contract where I couldn't say I was the author and had to lie to a lot of people about it,” Foster said in 1986.  After Skywalking, “it seemed foolish (not to mention impossible) to continue denying involvement. My agents requested and received a release allowing me to admit my participation.”  For his part, George Lucas was always open about the fact Foster ghost-wrote the novel and later gave him full credit.
first edition Ballantine paperback, art by Ralph McQuarrie
The Del Ray paperback featured artwork by Ralph McQuarrie (as did Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye).  Contacted by George Lucas on 19th July 1976, McQuarrie began working on sketches straight away.  “I knew this was something that was going to be a point of sale item,” he said in interview.  “I wanted it to have a good first reading - Darth Vader in full size.”  He worked on several concepts and Lucas approved the final design on 28th July.  McQuarrie started work on the painting on the 29th July and finished it on 3rd August.  When the novel was reprinted to coincide with the film’s release, McQuarrie’s artwork was replaced by John Berkey’s painting, which was used until the Special Edition tie-in’s in the 90s.
Ralph McQuarrie concept sketches (from
George Lucas had long been a fan of John Berkey (he used some of his art as inspiration) and as well as some production art (he conceptualised the Death Star), the artist was also tasked with creating several paintings.  One of these was included as a poster with the soundtrack album (it includes several Millennium Falcon’s), another was used as cover artwork for the novel (and when the trilogy was released on DVD, Berkey’s paintings were used on the insert chapter listings).  Perhaps explaining the multiple Falcon’s, Berkey admitted in interview in 2005 that he had “yet to see Star Wars.  I suppose I should see it one of these days.”
art by John Berkey
The first edition paperback was published on 12th November 1976, over five months before the film opened in the US.  Hype was clearly building because it sold out its first print run of 125,000 copies in February 1977 and by May, when the film opened, Del Ray (a new imprint of Ballantine Books, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy) struggled to keep up the demand.  A hardback edition was published in November 1977, with Berkey cover art while the UK paperback was published by Sphere Books on 8th September 1977.  To date the novel has been re-printed over 60 times and sold millions of copies (approximately 50% of those reprints and revenue came from between 1976 and 1979).

Alan Dean Foster, who was born on 18th November 1946, continues to write.

Ralph McQuarrie (13th June 1929 - 3rd March 2012) contributed production art to many films.  He died of complications of Parkinson's disease and Lucas said of him, “His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph's fabulous illustrations and say, ‘do it like this’.”

John Berkey (13th August 1932 – 29th April  2008) was known for his space and science fiction themed work.  He died of heart failure.

Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
Alan Dean Foster interview with SFF World
Alan Dean Foster and the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, by Andrew Liptak - the Del Ray covers
John Berkey details at Kitbashed

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday 4 September 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 9) - A brief history of ILM

When George Lucas met with Twentieth Century Fox executives in 1975 and described how he wanted the space sequences in Star Wars to look - “I want to do quick cuts, there’s a lot of rhythm, a lot of pace” - they couldn’t understand how he was going to achieve it.  Nor, at the time, could he though his vision led to the formation of a special effects company that would go on to revolutionise the industry.

So for the ninth entry in the Star Wars At 40 thread, I’m taking a look at the formation of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
The ILM crew, in front of a section of the Death Star, outside the Van Nuys buildings.  John Dykstra is lying down holding the dog
As Lucas and his producer Gary Kurtz began looking, it seemed that special effects had become something of a lost art in Hollywood, with few specialists left to turn to.  Kurtz had started his career supervising the cheap and cheerful effects in Roger Corman films and grasped what Lucas was after immediately.  “George wanted spaceships that operated like cars,” he told Dale Pollock in Skywalking.  “People turned them on, drove them somewhere and didn’t talk about what an unusual thing they were doing.”  Fox’s in-house effects department was no longer operational and production executives believed the effects couldn’t be done within the time (2 years) and budget ($2m) but Lucas approached Douglas Trumbull, famous at the time for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Trumbull was interested but declined, as he was committed to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but suggested his assistant John Dykstra.

In the early 70s, computer-controlled cameras had revolutionised the making of TV commercials but nobody had used them extensively in film before.  Dykstra, familiar with the technology, was keen to put together a young team of effects technicians to devise their own equipment and find new ways to utilise it.  Kurtz found him an empty warehouse on an industrial park next to the airport in Van Nuys, California and in July 1975, Industrial Light & Magic was created as a subsidiary of Lucasfilm Ltd.
6842, ILM's home in Van Nuys (and blowing up a bit of the Death Star)
The name “just popped into my head,” Lucas said.  “We were sitting in an industrial park and using light to create magic. That’s what they were going to do.” The company is called the “miniature and optical effects unit” in the credits.

Dysktra gathered together a group of industrial model makers and designers, architects and engineers who were, crucially, “a  lot of young kids, basically.  Very few of them had worked on a feature film before.”  This meant they didn’t know the rules, the same ones that led industry veterans to say ILM were crazy to try and accomplish the workload of 365 effects shots in less than two years.

The location wasn’t glamorous.  Model maker Steve Gawley told “there was no interior, our walls were two-by-fours [with] Visqueen stapled onto them. Every once in a while we’d get crazy with the music - the big record was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours - and you’d have to turn it down because the walls were plastic.”
Working in the model shop on the Blockade Runner.  Grant McCune is to the left of the picture, facing front with dungarees.  Steve Gawley is in the centre of the group at bottom right, with Joe Johnston to his left.
The warehouse was slowly transformed into a production facility, with an optical department, a rotoscope department, a model shop, two shooting stages, metal and woodwork shops and offices.  The animation, editing and art departments were upstairs along with a screening room.  “We did everything,” Dykstra said.  “We built and designed the models - from Ralph McQuarrie’s basic designs - and we built and designed the facility that was going to be used to photograph them and we built and designed the optical printers that were going to be used to composite them and built and designed the camera and built and designed the environments, all of the backgrounds and stuff and then did all the matte paintings and all that… It was pretty much a new facility.”

Dykstra’s plan was for a computer-controlled camera system that would give the illusion of ‘real’ screen movement and after six months of round-the-clock work, ILM had its first Dystraflex camera.  The motion-control system was programmed by the cameraman and allowed him to pan, tilt and track around a model while keeping it in focus, with the breakthrough being its repeatability.  To get the highest resolution image possible, it used old Vista-Vision cameras, which had been created by engineers at Paramount Pictures in 1954 but, by 1976, had fallen out of use due to their expense (meaning ILM could pick them up cheaply).  By linking the system to a computer, it could repeat identical movements as many times as necessary, allowing effects sequences to be built up layer by layer, like a music track.  The first pass might be the spaceship, the second the Death Star, the third pass a starfield, the fourth an oncoming TIE fighter and so on.  By using the Dykstraflex system, the illusion Lucas wanted was complete - none of the ships in Star Wars ever moved, only the camera did, but the sequences were more dynamic than had ever been seen on screen before.
The Dykstraflex system - the camera is mounted onto the arm, which is controlled by the chain and runs along the rails.  The computer remembers all of the motions and can replay them as many times as necessary.  Here, a shot featuring TIE fighters is built up.
To help convey the speed and movement needed, Lucas cut together a film reel of dogfight battles he’d culled from war movies like Battle Of Britain (1969) and The Bridges Of Toko-Ri (1954).  He gave this to Joe Johnston, who designed the storyboards, so that each shot could be duplicated by X-Wings, Y-Wings or TIE fighters.

The ILM staff grew to almost a hundred at its peak, with an average age of twenty-seven.  Among that original team were Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Joe Johnston, Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson and Paul Huston, all of whom would go on working for ILM for decades to come (Huston and Gawley are still there and Muren is now the overall Visual Effects Supervisor).  Grant McCune (who also came from Trumbull) continued to work with Dykstra.  The environment encouraged people to try disciplines outside of their training as Paul Huston said, in interview, “I joined in August 1975 after graduating from architecture school.  I designed and built the wings of the TIE fighters, the Death Star Cannon, and the end portal of the trench that Luke's torpedo goes in to blow up the Death Star, I worked on the Y-wing and X-wing fighters, the sandcrawler, the 3 foot white Star Destroyer, Luke's Landspeeder and the Death Star surface.”

ILM’s staff worked long and erratic hours, sometimes showing up at 10pm or 3pm and working through, dressing in shorts, t-shirts or less.  Part of this was because the building didn’t have air conditioning.  “It was sweltering in the daytime,” John Dykstra told Cinetropolis, “so we mostly shot at night when the temperature was cooler.”  When a model was lit, sometimes with 6,000 watts worth of lighting, temperatures inside the building could reach 130 degrees.  Across the car park was a surplus store and someone found an old escape slide from a 727 plane.  “You could put a little Wesson oil and water on there,” Dykstra said, “it made for a hell of a good Slip ‘N Slide!”  Lorne Peterson remembers “somebody found a big water tank, and we filled it with cold water. We’d dip in during break time.” The facility soon acquired the nickname ‘the Country Club’ because of its lack of dress code, time clock and organisation but the crew were firmly behind Dykstra and what they were doing.
In the model shop, with (from left) - unknown, Jon Erland, Dave Jones, Paul Huston
“We had a great crew of young unknowns,” Richard Edlund, who was lead cameraman and would go on to form Boss Films in the 80s, told Dale Pollock.  “They had good ideas and hadn’t had the opportunity to put them into practise.”

The ILM modelshop, led by Grant McCune, constructed more than seventy-five models, all of them with an astonishing level of detail and attention.  The blockade runner (which I wrote about here) even had a scaled-version Playboy pin-up in its hammerhead cockpit.  To aid the realism, Dykstra introduced the concept of kitbashing (which I wrote about here). “My job,” said Paul Huston, “was to add details to the basic form of the model to make it look as if it could be functional and be the correct scale for what it's size was in the film. It involved making things out of plastic that looked like plating, mechanical systems, plumbing, landing gear, laser blasters, vents, injectors, ducts, fuel tanks etc. Some of the parts were scratch built and some were scavenged from plastic model kits.”

As production continued in England, a stressed and under pressure Lucas was aghast to discover that ILM, having spent half their budget, only had three shots to show for it.  Dykstra was still experimenting with the system and the background footage that was sent through (for rear projection work) wasn’t up to standard.  “It was terrible,” Lucas told Dale Pollock.  “I knew it wasn’t going to work.  The ships looked like little cardboard cut outs and the lasers were big and fat and looked awful.  We couldn’t use any of it.”  The alternative - which actually became a positive - was to film live-action effects sequences against blue screen, wherein the background could be phased out by an optical printer to be replaced with a matte painting or effects shot.  The main downside was that the system required a lot of light and during the long hot summer of 1976, it made the sets very hot indeed - technicians fainted in the rafters and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) collapsed from heat exhaustion and dehydration.
John Dykstra
Once principal photography was completed in England, Lucas went to supervise the work at ILM though he hated the San Fernando Valley where it was located.  “I wanted to set up shop in San Francisco,” he said, “but there was no film processing lab facility nearby.”  Frustrated at the lack of pace, he was determined to get the unit back on track.  “I don’t want to build a lot of expensive equipment and not get any shots,” he told Dysktra.  “It’s not important how you do [them], it’s important what they look like.”

The two men didn’t see eye to eye on the progress (or lack thereof) and after one particular shouting match, Lucas suffered chest pains as he flew home to San Francisco.  Hospitalised briefly, suffering from hypertension and exhaustion (and questioning why he would ever put himself through directing a film again), he decided he would spend three days a week at ILM, the other four editing.
from left - Richard Edlund, Miki Hermann, John Dykstra, George Lucas, Joe Johnston
Dykstra appreciated that Lucas insulated the ILM team from the studio.  “George did a pretty good job of isolating us from the flack,” he said in interview.  “Gary Kurtz did, too, and I have to thank them for that.  They sent people in to try and straighten us out, but it didn’t really work.”  The studio, of course, was caught because while they didn’t necessarily think Dykstra could make it work, they weren’t sure anyone else could either.  “They spent quite a bit of money on the facility the way it was [and] we were the only people that knew how to do it.”  Relations between Dykstra and Lucas continued to deteriorate though, with John feeling that George didn’t understand the technical work involved.  “I was defensive as hell too,” he told Dale Pollock, “because I was scared shitless.”

Lucas personally supervised the special effects photography and set up a second camera unit.  The first, led by Richard Edlund, worked from 8am to 6pm, while Dennis Muren’s unit worked from 3pm to midnight and this sixteen-hour schedule lasted for almost six months.

Once the initial arguments were out of the way, the schedule began to recover.  Lucas found he enjoyed the camaraderie of the ILM as it reminded  him of his film student days at USC (as I wrote about here) and spirits raised as the effects footage improved.  “Some guy across the stage would say, ‘Oh, another first!’,” Richard Edlund told Dale Pollock.  “Some other new thing had been done that we knew hadn’t been done before.  This was going on every day and was very exciting.”  It was Edlund who shot the opening scene, of the Star Destroyer going over the camera and he grasped its importance.  “If somebody sat down in a theatre and saw this monstrous thing come over the screen and keep coming and coming and they were awed by that, then we had our audience just where we wanted them,” he said.  “But if they laughed, we were dead.”  Edlund shot the opening sequence five times until he was certain nobody would laugh.
The opening shot
Filming the opening shot
The Dysktraflex system turned out to be the saving grace for ILM, as John Dykstra had believed it would be.  “We built cameras using all kinds of weird technology,” he said.  “We built computers. We designed and built our own electronics from scratch.”  The Dykstraflex was designed, manufactured and implemented within four months and following two weeks of debugging worked on the production for eight months, eighteen hours a day, with only three days of downtime.  “It was totally a gamble,” Dystra said, “and it paid off.  It was nice of them to name the camera after me, but it was obvious that every one of those guys made some contribution to the system.”  Lucas also appreciated what they’d done for the film, realising what he’d got for the money spent.

In the end, ILM spent twenty-two months working on the special effects, including the six months required to design the equipment.  The total bill came in at about $2.5m, 25% over budget.

“We were very pleased with the final results,” Dykstra said.  “The guys who were working on it were really happy when they saw the final product because their work figured so seminally in the telling of the story. It was just great.”

At the 1978 Oscar ceremony, Star Wars won for Best Visual Effects and the statue was awarded to John Dysktra, John Stears, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune and Robert Blalack.

After Star Wars was released, George Lucas decided to relocate his effects company to San Rafael in Northern California.  Twenty of the original staff made the move, helping to set the new ILM up at a building on Kerner Street.  The original business sign, Kerner Optical, was left in place for years to come in an effort to dissuade memorabilia hunters - people went through the rubbish at night on the look-out for models and drawings.  The original ILM building - and its equipment - were taken over by Dykstra’s new company Apogee, who went straight into creating the effects for Battlestar Galactica.

From as early as 1978, Lucas decided that ILM would work for other filmmakers and not just him - he didn’t make enough films to cover the overhead and realised the R&D could be done on each job.  His friendship with Steven Spielberg meant that ILM had a strict policy to never turn away the director’s projects.
Since then, ILM has been involved in over 300 films and won 15 Oscars on the way - Dennis Muren has won 8 Oscars, from 15 nominations.  ILM, now fully digital, has been based at the Letterman Digital Arts Centre in the Presidio of San Francisco since 2005 and is part of The Walt Disney Company, following its purchase of Lucasfilm Ltd.

“I always thought that if ILM had run the space agency we’d have colonized Mars by now”
- Steven Spielberg
Joe Johnston works out angles for his storyboards
John Dykstra with an array of model ships
Richard Edlund programmes the Dykstraflex to film the opening crawl
Grant McCune masks an X-Wing prior to painting 
Lorne Peterson with the Millennium Falcon model
John Charles Dykstra was born on 3rd June 1947 in Long Beach, California and studied industrial design at California State University.  Douglas Trumbull, who gave him his first job on Silent Running (1972), then suggested him to George Lucas for Star Wars where Dykstra led ILM and helped design and create the Dykstraflex motion control system.  He then formed his own company, Apogee Inc., which has continued to provide effects for big Hollywood films.  Dykstra has won two Oscars (for Star Wars (1977) and Spider-Man 2 (2005)) and also an Academy Award for Technical Achievement (for the Dykstraflex) in 1978.  He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Visual Effects Society in 2014.

Richard Edlund was born on 6th December 1940 in Fargo, North Dakota.  He attended the USC school of Cinematic Arts (as did George Lucas) and John Dykstra, on the strength of two short films, recruited him as first cameraman at ILM.  Staying with ILM until 1983, he formed Boss Films which became one of the first effects companies to move from miniatures to CGI.  Edlund has won two Oscars (for Star Wars (1977) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)) and two Special Achievement Awards (for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return Of The Jedi (1983)).  He has served as governor for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, chaired the Scientific and Technical Awards Committee for eight years and chaired the Visual Effects Branch.  In 2007 he was awarded the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation for his outstanding service and dedication to the Academy.

Dennis Muren was born on 1st November 1946 in Glendale, California and developed an interest in films and special effects from an early age.  After studying business at Pasadena City College, he was recruited by John Dykstra to ILM as 2nd cameraman and he’s remained there ever since.  A keen pioneer of new technology, Muren led ILM’s move from models to computers with The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2 (1991) and his tests led to Steven Spielberg using CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993).  Muren has won six Oscars (for ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), Innerspace (1987), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993)) and two Special Achievement Awards (for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return Of The Jedi (1983)).  He is currently  the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Director of ILM and was the first visual effects artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame (in June 1999).

This home-movie (without sound) was filmed by David Berry at the ILM building in Van Nuys during 1976 and 1977.
5757 from David Berry on Vimeo.

Skywalking: The Life And Films Of George Lucas, by Dale Pollock
ILM History at
Cinetropolis article
John Dykstra ASC - VFX Now & Then
Inside ILM at
Paul Huston interview

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here