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Raiding The Mind Of Richard Edlund

An Interview With Visual Effects Supervisor Richard Edlund, ASC

Playing A Role

FSTD: What are some of your duties as a visual effects supervisor?

Edlund: As a visual effects supervisor, it’s a complex role. First of all, you have to figure out what it is that the director wants to see. Then you have to figure out how to create a shot that will give that effect to the audience. You also have to figure out how to do it within a budget and within a time constraint. And then, you have to deal with all the politics of budget and of interdisciplinary communication. That is, talking to the costume designer and making sure that someone isn’t wearing a pair of blue pants when we’re shooting a blue screen. Or talking to the DP about how much depth-of-field you’re going to need, or what light level he’s going to have to light for. You have to keep track of a lot of things and make sure that all this stuff is not gonna fight you when you start putting the shot together. It was much more complicated and difficult in the photochemical era. It is so easy to “pixel pound,” as we call it today. That is, going in and fixing it in post-production, because you can do damn near anything nowadays. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s always been the case. But then, also, you’re dealing with the temperament of the director. You’re in charge of all these kind of things. Yet today, I lament that the credit “visual effects supervisor” is not policed. In other words, anybody can take that credit now, so the credit of visual effects supervisor gets diluted.

BOSS Film Studios

FDTD: How did you get involved with running your own company?

Edlund: When I finished "Return Of The Jedi" [1983], ILM was not my cup of tea. I mean, it was just a different gestalt than I was personally happy with. I wanted to give a shot to doing my own thing. I made a deal with myself that I would finish the "Trilogy," then I would leave ILM. When the "Trilogy" was finished, I was in complex discussions with Ridley Scott on a movie called "Legend Of Darkness," which ultimately became "Legend" [1985].

Edlund and one of his 65mm cameras

The original idea on that was to shoot Darby O’Gill-style; using forced perspective and cheating eye-lines, things like that, which is kind of like a variation of what they did on "Lord Of The Rings" [2001] in order to get the people to appear smaller. When I was finishing "Jedi," and starting to pack up, I was talking to Ridley, but the project went south for me because [producer] Arnon Milchan was worried about the budget for "Blade Runner" [1982], which didn’t do well at the box office. It was budgeted at about $20 million and went to $28 million or something like that. He was worried that the same thing was going to happen on "Legend." He said we’re not gonna do it Hollywood. We’re going to shoot it in London and we’re gonna use little people. So that’s what they did. They hired dwarves and midgets to do it and that picture went away. During that time, I had accidentally herniated a disc while I was working on my car. I had to go in the hospital to have an operation, and the project had just fallen out with Ridley. I had already made a deal with Trumbull to take over his facility, because he wanted to go off and do something else, so I made a deal with him to take over that facility based on doing the Scott project.

FSTD: You were caught in a tight spot.

Edlund: Yeah. When "Legend" went away, I was wondering, “what the hell am I gonna do now?” I had all these great people lined up and ready to go. And while I was in the hospital, I got a call from Ivan Reitman to do "Ghostbusters." Then, the day after that, a call came from Peter Hyams to do "2010" [1984]. So I put that deal together over the phone, then I had to go down and negotiate it. And so as soon as I got out of the hospital, I swung into action. We had the 65mm gear, but I had to build optical printers and animation stands. My style of effects was completely different from Doug’s, so I could only treat what was there as sort of like a pile of parts. We had to reassemble them and build things like optical printers with telecentric lenses. We built the Super Printer for "Ghostbusters."

FSTD: That was the birth of BOSS Film Studios?

Edlund: Yeah. I ran BOSS for fifteen years and it was quite a project. And it was a company I had to start. I’m not a businessman. I have no formal business background. My background is all photographic and art oriented. But when I left ILM, and in those days in order to do what I wanted to do, I had to have all this fancy photographic paraphernalia. I had no choice but to open up a company. And so I did that, then I aquired and bootstrapped it basically. When the digital thing started happening in the late-’80s/early-’90s, then I had to get into that. And we started with a couple of personal SGI Iris’s. Then we bought an IBM PVS, which was the first parallel processing super computer. That was a million dollars. And it was supposed to be backed up by Wavefront and Alias and all the software we had trouble getting. But the business changed dramatically. And by ’93, I think "Alien 3" [1992] was the last movie I did completely photographically. It had computer graphics elements. Jim Rygiel was there; CG generated shadows and things like that for the character of the creature. On "Cliffhanger" [1993], we did our last photographic composite. Within about a year, the photographic process was dead and the optical printer got turned off, and it was never turned back on. And then I had to get into all these leases and I had 60 SGI workstations. I had to cash flow a quarter of a million dollars a week in order to keep the doors open. This was a lot of pressure as an independent, because there are limited numbers of shows, and the studios know where you’re at and they grind you.

FSTD: You were doing a lot of films, yet it was surprising to hear that BOSS was closing its doors.

Edlund: It’s real hard to make a profit in the effects business. And so I decided at a certain point, looking at the horizon, looking at what was out there and looking at what I might want to do, I decided to close it gracefully. I didn’t want to wait until they put a padlock on the door. So I closed it. That was about four years ago. And now I have been working on developing movie projects, and I have another technology project going; a digital movie studio.

Visual Effects In 65mm And The ZAP

FSTD: What is the job of an optical printer in visual effects?

Edlund: In the “old days,” the optical printer was the most valuable tool you had in visual effects. Because by means of an optical printer, and creating photographic mattes, you can put multiple scenes together in one final composite. There are scenes in "Ghostbusters," for example, where there’s a matte painting, there’s a bluescreen, and the three actors, Danny [Aykroyd] and Bill [Murray] and Harold [Ramis] in the foreground in bluescreen. In the background, you have a matte painting and you’ve got a miniature of the Marshmallow Man

Some of Edlund's awards

walking down the street. Plus, you’ve got animation of the neutrona wands and then perhaps an additional scene of cloud tank sky. All of those scenes shot at radically different scales are composited together in one shot. By using mattes and multiple passes on the printer, you print one element with the mattes to hold out latent the area for the other elements.

FSTD: And this is all done in 65mm?

Edlund: All of the elements are shot in 65mm. Let’s say the front projector would have the scene, and the back projector would have the mattes running on it. Between those two projectors is a camera with an anamorphic lens that reduces the 65mm to 35mm anamorphic. What you wind up with is a 35mm anamorphic composite where all these elements, which were shot in 65mm, are reduced down to 35mm. The quality of our composites was so high, we had to degrade them in order to match the live-action footage sometimes.

FSTD: No kidding?

Edlund: Yeah. When we were running dailies for "Ghostbusters" in New York, they had the Magno Screening Room on 57th Street building that the DGA is in. We would run the 65mm dailies, and then they would do a changeover to the 35mm dailies. Everybody would sigh over the regular dailies. 70mm is just so magnificent.

FSTD: Did you take that composite of 35mm anamorphic negative and then put that into the original negative?

Edlund: Yes, that just intercuts with the original.

FSTD: Would you take that entire 35mm negative and make 70mm prints release prints from that?

Edlund: Yes. The lab would take the original negative, which would be timed, and they would make a 65mm blow-up interpositive [IP] and contact internegative [IN]. Then they would make 70mm prints. And, of course, the reason that the camera is 65mm and the prints are 70mm is because of the soundtrack. They had an extra 2 1/2 millimeters on each side for the mag track.

FSTD: Do you think the projects that you worked on looked better in their finished form as a 70mm blow-up, or in 35mm?

Edlund: I think they looked better in 70mm. The reason for 70mm was two-fold: one was to get more light on a big screen, because the 70mm houses had bigger screens. So if you got more light, obviously, through a 70mm port than a 35mm port, you’d get 15-foot candles on the screen. But probably even more than that, from a distribution standpoint, was the six-track sound that you could get on 70mm prints. That was a very complicated process. You had to make your timed 65mm interpositive, then from that timed interpositive, you had to make 65mm internegatives. From the 65mm internegatives, you’d make 70mm prints without sound on them. Then you would have to take the 70mm prints to another facility, which would put mag-stripe on them. And then you would take the print that has a mag-stripe on it back to the sound facility and have the soundtrack transferred onto that print. When you’re dealing with moving, expensive prints that have to remain pristine from facility-to-facility, you’d have the potential of screw-ups in the mag-striping process and the potential of not getting the picture in sync. And occasionally, the mag-striping would peel off. There were all these “snipers in the trees” in a process like that.

FSTD: Do you feel now that they have 70mm-DTS capability that it is a lot easier (and cheaper) to make 70mm prints?

Edlund: Well, it does, but here’s the thing; Kodak came out with 5244, which is a magnificent dupe stock. I mean, it’s just unbelievable. "Die Hard" is a good example of what I mean. I would see first generation dailies, right, so you get used to seeing first generation 70mm dupes. The 70mm elements-to-35mm anamorphic dupes always looked better than the original. Then they would take that and with 5243, which is the old dupe stock, they would make a dupe. When I’d see it in the theatre, it was a tremendous disappointment because so much of the image went away. Then Kodak came out with the 5244, which was after the death of the optical printer, unfortunately. If we had that stock when we were doing our work back then, it would’ve even looked better! When 5244 came out, at the same time, compatible six-track digital sound on film came out. That basically just spelled the doom of 70mm, because the 35mm dupes were all of the sudden so great and you could get six-track digital sound. 65mm for theatrical release is a goner. It’s unfortunate. Coinciding with that was that Panavision had built two 65mm Panaflex cameras, which were magnificent. I used the first one on "Alien 3" for all the plates. And then ARRI came out with an unbelievable camera that would run 120 frames-a-second. It was a 65mm camera that was quiet at sound speed. Ron Howard did "Far And Away" [1992], which looked fabulous. BOSS did the titles and opticals for it, because we had 70mm printers. We had one printer that was set up for doing composite work, which is the Super Printer. That had the 35mm reduction lens to the camera. Then we had an element printer, which had a zoom lens on it. That was an outrageous machine. It cost about a million dollars. And it was the best 70mm optical printer ever built; maybe the best optical printer ever built. Fantastic machine.

FSTD: Was that the one you got a technical award on?

Edlund: I did get a Scientific Engineering Award for that machine. That’s all surplus now. What happens to that kind of stuff is when you need it it’s invaluable, but when it becomes obsolete, you know it’s just nuts and bolts.

FSTD: With all the digital technology available now, has it replaced or rendered 65mm origination for visual effect obsolete?

Edlund: Pretty much. Going back to "Multiplicity," there’s a whole raft of composites with Michael [Keaton] playing dramatic and comedic situations with himself. For the film, we shot all the plates in 35mm anamorphic. I didn’t shoot any 70mm on that. So at BOSS, we had our own proprietary scanning and recording systems. The quality of the dupes had to be such that you wouldn’t see a difference between intercutting the live-action footage and the

Edlund and a Star Destroyer

composite. And Laszlo Kovacs, who’s one of my best buddies in the cinemagraphic area, and Jack De Govia was the production designer. We had just a great group—I mean it was a fabulous group. Harold Ramis directed the movie. One time, Laszlo was coming over and watching all the dailies and would have his comments about the look of the scene we were doing. He’d say, “Well, let’s change the contrast here.” And one of my favorite lines of his was, “Can you just add an imperceptible amount of diffusion?”

About Other Projects…

FSTD: Can you talk about "The Judas Project," a film a lot of people may not know about?

Edlund: Well, that came at a very good time for us. Jim Nelson, who’s kind of my “godfather,” whom I met when I was a hippie, actually helped me set up BOSS. He helped me negotiate the deals, because he knew a lot of production people. I think it was in ’87 or ’88, and, the Writer’s Guild went on strike. All of the sudden, movie production dried up. I mean, it was a nightmare. During that time, I did three movies that we wouldn’t normally have taken. One was called "Leonard Part 6" [1987], which was probably the worst script I had ever read! Another movie was called "Vibes" [1988], which I kind of liked. And then there was "The Judas Project" [1993]. Jim Nelson had this buddy who was a music publisher, or something like that. He made a lot of money in the music field. "The Judas Project" had a pretty healthy budget for visual effects. It was like this kind of modern day Jesus movie. But it was going to be roadshowed; basically take it out and rent theatres and run it. I guess they did okay with it. It was not a standard type of release, but because the Director’s Guild strike was going on, it wasn’t affected by the DGA somehow. It wasn’t affected by the Writer’s Guild, either.

FSTD: Did you shoot 65mm effects?

Edlund: Yeah, 65mm, and it was an anamorphic movie. Very good looking movie. It had lots of good effects in it.

FSTD: A few years earlier, you did "Masters Of The Universe" [1987].

Edlund: Yeah.

FSTD: And you chose also to use 65mm on that film, even though the aspect ratio was going to be 1.85:1?

Edlund: Yeah.

FSTD: Why was that?

Edlund: At that time, our whole system was set up in 65mm. We had no choice. And "Masters" was another one that had some pretty good effects in it, considering the budget…considering dealing with [producer] Menahem Golan. Jesus, what a character!

FSTD: And "Fright Night?"

Edlund: On "Fright Night," [1985] we had an outrageous crew. It may have been the last movie that John DeCuir did. He is one of the great art directors of all-time. I mean, he did "Cleopatra" [1963]. He did "Hello, Dolly!" [1969]. He designed the MGM Grand Hotel. He was an unbelievable character. He would sit on the plane with a ream of typing paper. He’d be drawing lines like crazy on this and making sketches. And then he’d put it down and then he’d get another sheet, you know. He was a real kind of charismatic guy. And when we got to New York, he’d start pinning these drawings up, like a checkerboard. He’d put one up, then the next, and the next, and then time for the next row and the next row. At the end, it was a detailed perspective drawing of an entire set. It was like eight or ten feet wide.

FSTD: No kidding?

Edlund: You know, pieced together with proper vanishing point. I mean the guy was a phenomenal talent. If you look at "Fright Night," the art direction is fabulous. And he brought his son, John Jr., to kind of give him a credit. But John Sr. did the set-up of the movie. It starred Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowell, who was a really sweet guy and he was on the Academy Board of Governors for a really long time. He died tragically of cancer. We were good friends.

A Poltergeist Story

FSTD: Do you ever sit down with a paying audience and watch some of your work?

Edlund: One that was really fun for me to watch was when I went back to New York to see "Poltergeist" [1982] released. I was in the very back of the theatre. I was with [producers] Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy and ["E.T." screenwriter] Melissa Mathison, who was Harrison Ford’s wife [at the time]. I can’t remember if Harrison was there or not that night. He might have been. We’re sitting in the very back of the theatre, and in front of us was John Simon, the film critic. It was great to watch it, because the audience jumped and freaked out at all the points they were supposed to. It worked like a champ. They were just eating it up. John Simon, however, sat there. I mean it was like he was sculpted out of stone, sitting there, not moving.

FSTD: I guess you can’t please everybody. But films like "Poltergeist" pleased the people who count most—the audience. You’ve had quite a career so far. I’m sure audiences will look forward to future projects from you. Thanks, Richard.

Edlund: You’re welcome. Thanks for your interest!



Special Thanks to Richard Edlund and Kim Doyle


This interview was originally in 2002 posted at


Photos by William Kallay (2002)




Copyright 2004 FSTD


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