Special Effects Technician. Nationality: American. Born: Fargo, North Dakota, 6 December 1940. Education: Attended high school in California; University of Southern California film school, Los Angeles. Military Service: Made training films while serving in the U.S. Navy. Career: Assistant to special effects technician Joe Westheimer; then worked as cable car driver and photographer; designed Candy Apple Neon lettering while working for Bob Abel; 1975–83—worked for George Lucas's company; founded the Industrial Light and Magic Company; 1983—joined Douglas Trumbull's Entertainment Effects group, the Boss Film Corporation. Awards: Academy Award, for Star Wars , 1977, The Empire Strikes Back , 1980, Raiders of the Lost Ark , 1981, and Return of the Jedi , 1983; Academy Technical Award, 1981 (2 awards); British Academy Award, for Poltergeist , 1982, and Return of the Jedi , 1983.
Star Wars (Lucas)
The China Syndrome (Lumet)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand)
2010 (Hyams); Ghostbusters (Reitman)
Fright Night (Holland)
Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter); The Boy Who Could Fly (Castle); Legal Eagles (Reitman); Solarbabies (Johnson); Poltergeist II (Gibson)
Date with an Angel (McLoughlin); Leonard, Part 6 (Weiland); Masters of the Universe (Goddard); The Monster Squad (Dekker)
Big Top Pee-Wee (Kleiser); Die Hard (McTiernan); Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (Signorelli); Vibes (Kwapis)
Farewell to the King (Milius) (ph—special water unit)
Ghost (Zucker); Solar Crisis (Sarafian) (+ co-pr)
Alien 3 (Fincher)
Air Force One (Petersen)
Desperate Measures (Schroeder)
Cinefantastique (New York), Spring 1978.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1980.
Filmmakers Monthly (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), June 1980.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1982.
Ecran Fantastique (Paris), October 1983.
Film Comment (New York), July/August 1984.
Screen International (London), 15–22 December 1984.
Photoplay (London), March 1985.
On Location (Hollywood), April 1985.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1988.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1993.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1996.
Aisenberg, Adam, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), June 1983.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April and June 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1985.
Cinefex (Riverside, California), no. 25, February 1986.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1986.
Cinefantastique (Forest Park), vol. 27, no. 7, 1996.
Cinefex (Riverside, California), March 1996.
Cinefex (Riverside, California), September 1996.
Variety (New York), 21 July 1997.
* * *
Richard Edlund's career as a special effects expert began when he was hired as part of the visual effects team for Star Wars . The film, a phenomenal critical and popular success, breathed life into the science-fiction genre, and established the director/producer George Lucas as a powerful member of Hollywood's new generation of filmmakers. It was a significant film in the history of Hollywood for other, less apparent reasons as well. With its innovative visual effects, it changed the course of that aspect of the industry. Edlund's career has developed as rapidly as the special effects business itself.
The backbone of the science-fiction film is the matte shot, which can combine a prepositioned live-action sequence with separate footage of painted backgrounds to create the illusion that the characters are existing in another time and place; or matte shots can also bring together several individual components, such as animated sequences, model shots, and shots with miniatures, to create scenes impossible to produce in another manner. Some of the first matte shots were done in the camera, while later ones were produced using an optical printing process. Because of the complex space battles that Lucas planned for Star Wars , neither of these methods were adequate.
The system developed for Star Wars was a combination of producing the mattes inside the camera and optical printing. It was Edlund who helped develop the motion-control camera which was used for creating the in-camera mattes. This camera, linked to a computer, was capable of repeating the same movements with an exact precision. Few viewers realize the complexities of producing one shot of a flying spaceship. The ship, the lights on the ship, and the flame coming from the tail are all shot separately. With the motion-control camera, these components, which must all move on the same perspective, are recorded one at a time on a single piece of film with each pass of the camera. Once this image of the spaceship is complete, it then becomes a component in a larger matte, perhaps of a battle with many ships, assembled on the optical printer. Before Star Wars and the development of the motion-control camera, and other technical innovations, this type of complex process shot was not possible.
Given the complicated nature of the special effects and the time and technology it took to produce them (there were more than 300 special effects shots in Star Wars ), it is no wonder that a different approach to assembling an effects crew was necessary. A large group of experts (including Edlund) was gathered for Star Wars , resulting in the formation of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a visual effects company, where the equipment and crew needed to produce the effects for a given film were housed together.
The success of Star Wars and its sequels, and of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to some extent, caused a renaissance in the special effects industry. Edlund believes that that renaissance is still peaking and that "the new grammar of special film effects is still being developed." Since Star Wars , leaps and bounds have been made in the technology, and Edlund's motion-control camera has been modified and improved many times.
Edlund himself has developed a number of pieces of effects equipment, including a snorkel lens, which is used inside a cloud tank. On big-budget science-fiction or adventure films, visual effects houses have replaced the lone special effects expert as the creators of large-scale effects. After Star Wars , ILM, (including Edlund), went on to do the visual effects for The Empire Strikes Back , The Return of the Jedi , and Raiders of the Lost Ark . On each of these films, Edlund and other members of the ILM crew won Academy Awards for their innovative work. While at ILM, Edlund also headed the special effects unit on Poltergeist . His work for that film was also nominated for an Oscar.
In the early 1980s Edlund boosted his career when he became the head of the large special effects crew for 2010 , the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey . Though he worked with a crew of 100 for 16 months and was associated with the effects house Entertainment Effect Group, he was virtually in charge of most of the effects. For 2010 Edlund made decisions concerning the special type of cameras and camera equipment necessary for the effects shots, the cloud tanks, the motion-control system, how to shoot the mattes, at what camera speed to shoot the miniatures, what size film stock to use, and the effects of the different types of film emulsion for various shots.
At the request of special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, Edlund became the supervising head of Trumbull's effects house, Boss Film, in the mid-1980s. Boss is a completely self-contained effects company, with a number of departments—including a creature department, an animation and rotoscope division, a matte department, and much more—headed by experts in the field. When a studio hires Boss Film, it is in charge of producing all the special and mechanical effects for that film, with each department handling the appropriate effect. Edlund heads the whole creative force.
Because of the complex nature of today's special effects, the large number of people needed to produce them for each film, and their technical nature, it would seem that any attempt to discuss an overall approach to a film's effects would be impossible. Edlund, however, likes to group his films into two categories—those that are complete fantasies, that have little basis in the world as the audience knows it (the Star Wars trilogy, Masters of the Universe ); and those that depend on the audience's familiarity with certain characters, situations, and locales ( 2010 , Poltergeist , and the smash hit, Ghost ). Edlund seems to have a certain fondness for the latter, as they present more of a challenge in terms of making the effects more believable. For example, Edlund went to great pains in 2010 to make the images of Jupiter familiar to the audience by playing off their expectations based on NASA footage from Voyager 2 , which had been shown on television.
In the 1990s, Edlund continues to dominate much of the special effects industry, and has taken advantage of recent developments in digital technology. Films such as ILM's Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park show how fantastical images can emerge on-screen via computer enhancement, and look completely realistic. Edlund and Boss Films have not fallen behind. In 1992, IBM delivered to Boss a $1.2 million Power Visualization System (PVS), whose output data of 100 megabytes per second (roughly 100 times the average Ethernet networked work station), make models and matte shots nearly obsolete. With a PVS to create digital images, anything within the effects expert's imagination can be reproduced on film. Edlund marvels at the new technology: "Suddenly we have a godlike capability." And yet he has not abandoned more traditional methods. For Species , Edlund supervised construction of an animatronic monster equipped with motion sensors. This fierce, agile creature leaps and growls with the speed of a jungle cat. As with many of Edlund's creations, it remains the sole spark of originality in an otherwise mediocre film.
Edlund is a pivotal figure in the visual effects renaissance brought about by the success of techniques and innovations pioneered in Star Wars . Since then, Edlund has moved up the ladder from being one member of a visual effects team to becoming board chairman of one of Hollywood's largest special effects houses.
—Susan Doll, updated by Ken Provencher