Interview with Richard Edlund, ASC


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September 2014

CurrentNews: This is a short list of projects we're working on.

Getting the 2016 Board of Directors elected and certified

2016 Reunion in Tidewater

2017 Reunion in Las Vegas

Interview with Richard Edlund

This is part of an interview Todd and I did with Richard Edlund a few months back.

This is the first in a hopefully long series of interviews with current and former Photographers designed to help tell the story of Navy Photography. The first interview in this series is with Richard Edlund, former Navy Photographer and current industry leader in special effects photography in Hollywood. Todd Beveridge and I shot this interview in Richards office several months ago and you might notice 4 accadmy awards on the shelve in the background.

Richard Edlund

Richard Edlund, ASC

Established his reputation winning four Oscars for the visual effects in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi, with a nomination for Poltergeist. He has received six additional Oscar nominations, three Academy Scientific and Engineering Awards, an Emmy, and two BAFTA Awards.

Richard Edlunds Website

Through the years, there have been many Navy photographers who have gone into the civilian sector, used their Navy photographic skills and have done some great things. Richard Edlund is at the top of that list.

Richard Edlund, ASC, has earned four Academy Awards for his visual effects work on the feature films Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi and six other nominations. He also earned three Scientific and Engineering Awards, and in 2007, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the coveted John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation to Edlund in recognition of his significant contributions to the Academy. Edlund has also earned an Emmy for creating visual effects for the original television series Battlestar Galactica, and an additional nomination for Mike Nichols’ miniseries Angels in America. His other memorable films include Fright Night, Solarbabies, Ghost, Species, Multiplicity, Air Force One and Charlie Wilson’s War.

Richard Edlund

Richard Edlund was born in Fargo, North Dakota and raised in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and Montebello, California. He studied photography in high school and his sports photography was regularly published in the Los Angeles Examiner when he was only 15 years old. In 1959, he began his Navy experience at boot camp in San Diego, shortly after high school. “A” school was easy for this already accomplished photographer. From Pensacola, he was sent to the Fleet Air Photo Center at NAS Atsugi, Japan. This was not only a place of endless hours in the darkroom but also where Edlund began his love of motion picture photography.

Elund said, “The Fleet Air Photo Center was fantastic. We had every piece of photographic equipment known to man. We had a Photostat machine, there was an 11x14 Deardorff camera, process camera with arc lights. The beauty of it was that you were allowed to check out any camera equipment that you wanted for training. I was pawing around in the hot locker one day and I discovered that there was a brand-new 16mm high-speed Mitchell that somebody had ordered and had never been opene,d so I took that out and started experimenting. Joe Wilcox, Bill Gagden and I formed the U.S. Navy Motion Picture Production Team.”

He also adds, “I found an incredible book in the base library called the Grammar of the Film by Raymond Spottiswoode which was published in the 1930’s and it was basically a treatise on the silent movie, so that was my bible!”

Star_Wars_1 Star Wars-2

Richard Edlund_2

Capitalizing on the initiative of his young photographers, Atsugi Photo Center OIC, LTJG Sims Howell put them to work on official business.

Edlund explains, “Howell asked us to shoot some representative footage, just panning shots or whatever of Japan, which he could then send back to the Naval Photographic Center because the photo officer was supposed to do that every year and it hadn’t been done for some years. So, he reinitiated that and based on that, we got two weeks of basket leave and he helped us get a Navy station wagon and we made deals with 8x10s around the base for this and that and headed off to Tokyo and Kamakura.” He says of the experience, “I was shooting like low angle with a wide angle lens like Gregg Toland-style, angst shots and sketchy lighting and we actually had a really good time.”
During his off-duty hours, Edlund studied the Japanese language and culture developing a love for the country and its people, which continues to this day. He had made over 60 trips to Japan.

At the end of his tour in 1961, Edlund left the Navy and enrolled in the University of Southern California Film School. Even though attending Brooks Institute was his first choice, a Marine sergeant that was stationed with him in Atsugi informed him about the USC program. Shortly after starting classes, he was pleasantly surprised when his Atsugi OIC, LTJG Howell, joined him at USC. However, Howell was a part of the Navy’s program, not a civilian student like Edlund. After leaving USC, he decided to stay in Los Angeles and get a job in the industry. After some time looking for work, he was hired by Joe Westheimer, ASC. Joe owned and operated the Westheimer Company, which specialized in opticals, titles, inserts and visual effects. While there, he had the chance to work on the hottest shows and meet many of the finest cinematographers of the day. He also learned many important techniques and made some great contacts during his five years with Westheimer. While insert shooting, he became one of the original hands for the character “Thing” in the TV show, The Addams Family. It’s Edlund’s hand in the title sequence. While working on the opening sequence for Star Trek, he created the unique lettering for the title.

In 1968, Richard Edlund was restless and decided to pack it all up and move to San Francisco. There he became a hippie Rock and Roll photographer. When he wasn’t shooting bands and album covers, he was working on experimental films. In his spare time, he invented a portable, battery-powered guitar amplifier that he called “Pignose”. It is considered the first portable electric guitar amplifier and is still used by guitar players today. In 1974, he decided to move back to the L.A. and got a job with Robert Abel who owned and operated a special effects studio specializing in TV commercials. This is where he really started experimenting with motion control cameras and where he met Mike Dykstra. Dykstra was another visual effects experimenter and was talking about a potential project with a young director named George Lucas. Edlund was very interested in the challenges the project presented. Dykstra realized that Edlund had the abilities and creative passion that he needed on his team. If the project took off, Dykstra promised to make Edlund the Director of Photography for Visual Effects and in no time, he did just that. A move that would change Edlund’s life.

Star Wars_3 X-wing

Richard Edlund became a key figure in this newly formed visual effects group that they dubbed Industrial Light and Magic or ILM. He tirelessly found the cameras and hardware needed to create a computer-controlled camera system that would allow a set camera move to be recreated over numerous passes perfectly, time after time. This was something that had never fully been done before and led to the creation of the Empire motion picture camera system and a beam-splitter optical composite motion picture printer. Dykstra and Edlund shared an Oscar for their efforts, the first of many. After Star Wars, Dykstra and Edlund created the visual effects for the TV scifi show, Battlestar Galactica. This project earned them an Emmy. George Lucas then invited Edlund back to be the Visual Effects supervisor of the Empire Strikes Back. His considerable technical challenge on this film was to optically composite miniatures against a white background. He went on to do the visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, and Return of the Jedi.

“Two of the best decisions that I ever made… one was to join the Navy and the other was to quite my job as a commercial photographer and to take the job as the Director of Photography for miniatures for Star Wars.”

In 1983, Edlund left ILM and founded a visual effects company called Boss Film Studios, whose initial project was the film, Ghostbusters. Until its close in 1997, Boss Film Studios produced visual effects for thirty-plus movies; notable among them 2010, Die hard, Ghost, Poltergeist 2, Cliffhanger, Batman Returns, Alien 3, Species, Multiplicity and Air Force One. The company achieved ten academy award nominations over a fourteen-year period. Richard Edlund has served as a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for decades, chairman of their Visual Effects Brance since its inception, and as chairman of the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Committee. Currently, Edlund is also actively serving on the boards of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and the Visual Effects Society (VES).

Richard Edlund_3

In January of 2008, the ASC presented him with the President’s Award in recognition of the contributions he has made to the art and craft of filmmaking. Richard Edlund, ASC, continues to build his credit list as a freelance visual effects supervisor and director. He is also a passionate digital still photographer. When asked about his Navy experience, “Two of the best decisions that I ever made… one was to join the Navy and the other was to quite my job as a commercial photographer and to take the job as the Director of Photography for miniatures for Star Wars.” He also added, “What I learned in the Navy and what the Navy was able to show me has followed me all through my career.“