The Illusionists — Richard Edlund

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Richard Edlund

CINEFEX — What do you remember about watching films as a youngster?

RICHARD EDLUND — I remember being in the seventh grade, going down to one of the movie palaces in Minneapolis and seeing The Robe, the first Cinemascope movie. I remember seeing Victor Mature standing on top of a mountain with this green halo vibrating around him. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d spotted a matte line!

CINEFEX — You spent many hours later on trying to keep matte lines out of the picture on Star Wars. How did you get that gig?

RICHARD EDLUND — After I had gotten out of college, I was a rock‘n’roll photographer for three or four years, and then I worked in commercials with Bob Abel, which was where I got involved with visual effects. One day I got this call from John Dykstra, who wanted to talk about a sci-fi movie he was going to do for George Lucas. I jumped in my car, drove out to what was then Industrial Light & Magic, and wound up talking to John and Gary Kurtz. After about half an hour I was given the job as director of photography for the miniatures.

CINEFEX — What did you think when you first read the script for Star Wars?

RICHARD EDLUND — I thought it was a teenage movie. I was a little bit worried about lines like, “Trust in the force, Luke.” I couldn’t think of many actors in America who would have the gravitas to pull off those lines, except maybe Marlon Brando. About three or four months into the project, when we were getting ready to shoot in England, we heard that George had just cast Alec Guinness to play Obi-Wan Kenobi. I thought, “That’s it! He’s the guy!” It was the perfect casting. I realized at that point the film was going to transcend the teenage demographic and capture the adult audience as well.

CINEFEX — So Alec Guinness was the key?

RICHARD EDLUND — Oh, there were four keys to Star Wars. The first was Ralph McQuarrie. He did a series of maybe 12-15 paintings of various aspects of the script, and George used those paintings to sell the project. The second was choosing us to do the visual effects. It was just a great team that John put together. Nobody else at that time that could have done it— you have to remember there was no infrastructure at that time in visual effects. The third thing was the casting of Alec Guinness, and the fourth was John Williams’ music. Those were the four super-critical things.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists