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VFX Legend Richard Edlund

VFX legend Richard Edlund reflects on Ghostbusters, Poltergeist and the state of the industry

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Mar 21, 2018

Looking back at some of the greatest visual effects in film from the '80s through the '90s, you'll often see Richard Edlund in the credits as the visual effects supervisor. Working in tandem with filmmakers and the artists at his Boss Films VFX house, Edlund helped bring to the screen classic scenes like the Nazis face-melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Slimer floating in a hotel hallway in Ghostbusters, and the multiple Michael Keatons in Multiplicity.

Now at the age of 78, Edlund still supervises for VFX houses like DuMonde Visual Effects, but he's more likely imparting his VFX wisdom to the next generation of professionals and students via his work as member of the Governor's Board of Visual Effects or teaching in Southern California at Chapman University.

We recently sat down with Edlund to talk about his career highs and lows, as well as the state of the industry he helped build.

As a returning member of Academy Governor's Board for Visual Effects, you presided over the VFX nominee bake-off in January. Was there anything that struck you, or impressed you about what the cream of the VFX artist crop are doing today?

Richard Edlund: I think the transparency of it is the most important thing. I mean, it's gotten to the point where we, the professionals who spent their careers in [VFX], can't tell what was done in the shot. Because anything can be done. So basically, we require now that they send in before and after shots so you can see, for example, Johnny Depp on top of a mock-up of a train roof in front of a green screen and that he's reacting to a tennis ball on a stick. I'm talking about The Lone Ranger a couple years ago, which was a movie that probably should have won Best Visual Effects, I think. Because it was not only great visual effects, but it was also (special effects supervisor) John Frazier built that train full size, so it was a tour de force of visual effects aided and abetted by great, great special effects.

You compared your craft back in the day as being blacksmiths, making things out of nothing. Filmmakers today seem to be integrating more practical effects with CGI. Have you seen some recent great examples of that shift?

The thing is that it is possible to do anything digitally. But it takes a lot more people and a lot more money. in some cases, it’s over a hundred million dollars on digital effects for a movie. The visual effects budget supersedes the actual production budget. But the thing is, that when Jim Cameron spends a hundred million, or a hundred and twenty million on the visual effects for Avatar, they just keep giving him the money because they know it's going to make over a billion dollars. It's kind of like counterfeiting money. (Laughs)

Does it make you sad that there are less artisans who know the old-school techniques, like your Boss Film artists used to do? Or is there a little bit of a resurgence of those retro skills?

Well, I think that certain directors do like to continue to use miniatures and real things. I think Chris Nolan is one, and Steven Spielberg is another one. There are directors that like to integrate that kind of stuff. Like I just mentioned, The Lone Ranger is another example of really great use of physical, real effects and the augmentation thereof by visual effects. Set extensions and what all, there are a lot of set extensions that were done in the Star Wars prequels, for example.

I'm not much of a fan of those, by the way.

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Well, you worked on the original Star Wars: A New Hope, so you get to judge. Speaking of which, when you are watching VFX heavy films, or one you worked on, can you separate yourself from seeing the work and just enjoy it?

I absolutely can separate. If I can't separate myself then I'm fed up with the movie. You know what I mean? I remember going back to see Multiplicity (1996), which I did years ago. I had a friend of mine that was sitting next to me and I was explaining what we did visually then we got lost in the movie and forgot about all the agonies of doing the visual effects. It was pretty much a perfect movie. There were no failure shots in the movie. It's just that, unfortunately, it was released on Olympic weekend and [former president of marketing and distribution at Columbia Pictures) Sid Ganis had just left. The new publicity people didn't want to see the last guy's work make a lot of money, and so it was sad because it was a really neat movie.

You are now an artist in residence at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts teaching the digital arts course. What's important for you to impart to the next generation of VFX students intending to go into the field?

Well, the one thing is lacking in a lot of the young computer artists is that they really don't know the movies beyond The Lord of the Rings. They can't go back further than that. To not be able to see and appreciate the steps that brought us here is really a shame. The thing is that the more you understand about how these old movies were made, and the tricks that were used to make them, the better the filmmaker that you're going to become. I like the idea of pushing the days when it was important to be able to suspend disbelief.

I remember there was a great story I heard about (stop-motion pioneer) Willis O'Brien on the way to the screening of King Kong. In the scene of Kong climbing up the Empire State Building, Willis O'Brien was paranoid because he knew he had to move the wool on the monkey's back between frames, and he was worried how it was going to look. He was sitting behind a couple of executives in the screening, and as Kong is climbing the State Building, the one executive leans over and says, "Hey, Bernie, that monkey's really pissed. Look, his fur is bristling!" (Laughs)

That’s brilliant. So, what films are you exposing your students to as great examples?

I showed Star Wars the other night and I've already gone into Species and Poltergeist. Species is not so much a classic, but Poltergeist is. The thing is, it's now come out as general knowledge that Tobe Hooper did not direct Poltergeist. It's obviously Steven-directed.

It very much has a classic Spielberg movie aesthetic.

Yeah. One of his better ones, too. Anyway, then they go ahead and they make another Poltergeist with the same story. I said, "What's in their brain?"

You owned the effects house Boss Films until you dissolved it in 1997. Since then you've seen the VFX industry go through some hard times in terms of consolidation, and companies moving to other countries so they can afford to do what they do and stay afloat. How do you feel about the state of the industry right now?

I'm sad about what it is happening. The fact that we're in this tent-pole era when any given day Marvel's got like over a thousand shots in the pipeline. And various places and producers are fighting to get into the various companies, like Double Negative and WETA and MPC. The thing is that visual effects have become a commodity.

I'm worried that with AI, it's going to be even more so. When AI comes in, rotoscoping will disappear because it'll be possible to generate mattes without artists outlining them. What's happened is that, in a sense, the industry is being overpopulated by incredible talent because there's lots of schools, including Chapman and Full Sail and SCAD and NYU, UCLA, USC. I've been to a number of these schools and it's amazing the talent of these young people that are all of a sudden going to wind up having to work burger-flipping wages business is overpopulated. The studios are masters at screwing people and they will continue to do so because they've got a hundred years of experience in doing it.

Do you think unionizing is going to be a way for these artists to make a living wage?

It's too late.

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There are so many different guilds that never unionized and now they suffer for it.

Right. One of the problems I came across was that I was a union shop, and I had to become a union shop to do Ghostbusters in 2010 because these studios were funding me. I started out being a slick-walled company where nothing stuck to the walls, it was all pass through. Studios cosigned the checks and almost everything was a negotiation along the line.

When we finally got to doing six bid shows, by that time, I was still a union shop and I had to have Teamsters sitting around in the front office reading paperbacks. I had extra people on the crews, on the stage, because you had to have a gaffer and the grips. It wasn't like non-union shows who had real small crews where everybody wore various hats and you didn't have a 100-people standing around on the set. Basically, I had to tell the union to take a hike at that point because they weren't helping me. I was having to bid against garage shops that won bids as a result of that, personally I wasn't able to compete. And I got a pittance for retirement from the union. It was ridiculous.

Looking back on your incredible career, what projects stand out for you as some of your favorites, maybe even for unexpected reasons?

Yeah, Multiplicity was one of my favorites. Angels in America was one of my favorite projects. Working with Mike Nichols and the cast and Emma Thompson, it was really a lot of fun to work on the movie. Basically, I got called in to fix it. I was interviewed right up front, and I thought I had the gig, and they decided to hire this cheap guy. Therefore, I was able to come in and fix almost every shot in the first part that they had shot. It had to be redone, plus doing the second half.

Working with Nichols was great. First of all, it was not difficult. Mike didn't like to shoot more than eight hours a day. I was staying at the Algonquin in Manhattan, so it was this great classical hotel right in Midtown. We were a block from Times Square. I'd go out at night and shoot pictures on the street. I'm a street photographer.

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So, you had a good gig during the day with a good director, and then time to do your personal art at night, which is perfect.

Right. And I could go into the Blue Bar after shooting for an hour or two, and then order a martini and Photoshop the pictures and I'd have a print file ready to print in the morning.

What others stand out for you?

Ghostbusters was a favorite. It was difficult working with Ivan (Reitman), but it was a lot of fun. It was the maiden voyage of Boss.

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Everybody always has their nightmare project in their career, even if the end product was great. What was yours?

Well, Poltergeist was one of the most difficult because it was the first project that I did which was not a fantasy. Raiders was not exactly a fantasy, but we did have ghosts and all that and it was happening in 1936 and the Nazis were fair game. You could do anything to the Nazis you wanted. You know? But with Poltergeist, it was in the house next door. Everything we did had to look real to your neighbor. You didn't have to suspend disbelief. It had to look real and it had to work. So, what does a ghost look like?

And the thing is we had to rush into production. The first day of production, [director] Tobe (Hooper), who'd been hyped by Steven, was like strutting around. Steven even brought him over when we were shooting Raiders and was bragging about Tobe going to do Poltergeist, you know. So, on the first day of production, Tobe said, “I think maybe I'll start with this. Maybe put the camera here."

Then [cinematographer] Matt Leonetti — this was a breakout movie for him — would move the camera there and set up in four minutes. Then Tobe starts talking to the actors, and then they'd get in to talking about life back in Texas. Then he'd come back and say, "You know what? I think I'm not going to do that. Let's place the camera over here." Then he's got another actor he's going to go shoot the sh** with. By noon he hadn't turned on the camera yet.

So, the executives are pacing the floor, because in the movie business nobody gets paid until the first shot is in the magazine. Basically, the executives are waiting from the first AD saying, "Okay, we got our first shot." Then all the checks get released. By noontime, they call Steven and say, "Steven, it's noontime and he hasn't turned on the camera yet." Steven's preparing E.T., and so he drops that and immediately comes over and sets the camera and says, "Okay, we're going to do this shot here."

Steven is great because he says "You're going to come up to the door and you're going to turn the knob." And Steven had snuck around to the back of the set and grabbed the knob and as soon as he felt JoBeth William’s finger on the knob, he yanked it. She reacts with the perfect scream. Those are the kind of touches.

Also, we had rushed into production because there was a Directors' Guild strike brewing. If that would have happened, you'd have to stop production and everybody goes away and then you start again. You have to re-crew. It's just extremely expensive, nobody wants to do that. So basically, we had to finish shooting by a certain date. We didn't have time to go through the design phase, so Steven and I were coming up with ideas as we went along for how we're going to do the visual effects.

Is there anything that you wish you had from today's technology to apply to a film you did in the past?

Everything! In fact, what's funny, you know the old morph? The morph technology that came out in like the early '80s? Well, we were trying to figure out how to morph things for years before that, using dissolves and every kind of Vaseline and all these tricks. All of a sudden, the morph technology came out and pretty soon you could buy it down at the corner computer store for $29.95. That's kind of happening now, and it's going to get worse. If worse is the right word, because I mean when AI starts kicking in, I think it's going to change the industry enormously. When the studio realizes they can save a lot of money by going this way, they will.