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‘Star Wars,’ Lucas Firm Born in Van Nuys Warehouse

The outer space dogfights and exploding Death Star from the original “Star Wars” may have been set in a galaxy far, far away but one need not look that far for where those images were created. In an industrial building on Valjean Avenue in Van Nuys a motley band of cameramen, model makers, animators, artists, students, engineers and even a nuclear physicist came together to create not only the stunning visuals for a classic American film celebrating its 30th anniversary this month but they also launched the most famous of visual effects companies and in the process reinvigorated a stagnant segment of the entertainment industry. Industrial Light & Magic is closely identified with the northern California backyard of its founder George Lucas yet its roots are in the San Fernando Valley. While Lucas directed the live action portions of “Star Wars” in Tunisia and London, a warehouse near the Van Nuys Airport became the birthplace of the Millennium Falcon, the X-wing fighter and that deadliest of Imperial weapons, the Death Star. “We went out and harvested a whole batch of technologies from other arts and sciences and brought them to bear in the motion picture industry and it was a watershed for lots of people,” said John Dykstra, the effects supervisor. “The success of the film generated a huge desire for that kind of product.” The advances in visual effects started by “Star Wars” and ILM cannot be overstated, said Larry Ross, a life-long fan of the film. “It was such a huge leap forward, not just for the popularity of the genre but literally the possibility of what could be done with film,” said Ross, owner of Blast from the Past, a collectables and movie memorabilia store in Burbank. The first home of ILM can best be described as part film studio, part laboratory, part fraternity house and all oven especially during the summer months when the temperature determined the work schedule. First cameraman Richard Edlund recalled that in 1975 he walked into a building containing only a card table with a telephone. Over the next two years, the space would house a model shop, machine shop, electronic shop, animation department, editing room, the shooting stage with the 40-foot long track for a camera, and a screening room that may or may not have had a piano used to provide the score for screening dailies. Effects pioneers Inhabiting this space was a crew of about 100, both men and women, in their late teens to late 20s, many with award-winning careers ahead of them but at that moment spending their days and nights charting unknown visual effects waters all on the dime of 20th Century Fox. “It was a miracle in a sense that the collection of these folks produced a kind of alchemy that was responsible for changing how the effects in motion pictures were going to be made thereafter,” said Jon Erland, one of the model makers. Lucas hired Dykstra as effects supervisor after his first choice Douglas Trumbull (for whom Dykstra worked) turned him down. Dykstra in turn assembled the crew that came from diverse backgrounds. Erland and his business partner shut their effects company down to work exclusively on “Star Wars.” Edlund was making commercials when tapped to join the team. John Stears honed his effects skills on multiple James Bond films. Al Miller had been a nuclear physicist in northern California. And Peter Kuran was all of 17, a student at Cal Arts, who came to Dykstra with a 16mm demo reel that broke and fell apart when it ran on a projector. Seeing that Dykstra wasn’t terribly impressed Kuran suggested he work for a week. If he did well then Dykstra could hire him and if not then he would leave. “He liked that idea,” said Kuran, who made $160 a week at ILM and now owns his own effects studio in Valencia. The crew spent nearly a year designing and building the equipment needed to bring to life the vision Lucas had for his film. The centerpiece was a computer-controlled motion control camera (the “Dykstraflex”) that allowed for multiple passes of the same shot. The effect, Dykstra explained, was similar to that filmed by gun cameras used in World War II a moving camera following a moving plane. Industrial technologies Erland, meanwhile, used industrial technologies such as injection molding not normally employed in the making of miniatures. The animators, however, were not as lucky to be on the cutting edge. One piece of equipment used by Kuran dated back to the 1950s film “The Ten Commandments.” To outsiders what took place in that warehouse was as bizarre as the Mos Eisley cantina. Studio executives scratched their heads. Union officials were bewildered. “There were significantly smart people there that you couldn’t understand what they were talking about half the time,” visual effect artist Jeff Okun recalls of his visits to the Van Nuys studio. “What we were doing was new territory so we developed new words to describe what we were doing,” Edlund said. Once useable shots were filmed and screened it dawned on the crew that all their hard work was paying off and that maybe this space fantasy from the man who did “American Graffiti” would be good after all. As filming continued, a stampede of people rushed to the screening room to view the dailies. “The enthusiasm grew by leaps and bounds,” Erland said. When 13-year-old Ross viewed the finished product at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in 1977 he was wowed by the opening the title crawl followed by the large Star Destroyer coming in over the heads of the audience and firing laser cannons at the escaping blockade runner. “You hadn’t seen it like that before,” Ross said. That opening, Edlund explained, resulted from an experiment of attaching a 2-inch model of the blockade runner with a paper clip to the star destroyer and pulling the camera back. Once he realized the effect he was going for worked, it was recreated with larger models and an iconic opening scene was born. “If that shot didn’t work you were in trouble,” Edlund said. “That launched the movie.” “Star Wars” grossed $221 million in its initial North American release, making it the biggest blockbuster of its time. Lucas got the glory as a generation’s storyteller; stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher got their faces on magazines, cereal boxes and myriads of toys but it was the effects artists accepting a gold statue come Oscar time. After “Star Wars,” ILM abandoned Van Nuys for San Rafael up north. Dykstra, however, operated his Apogee, Inc. from the Valjean address for another 16 years. Edlund worked on the two Star Wars sequels and later started his own company. Erland now runs Composite Components, a traveling matte technology company. Kuran dropped out of Cal Arts when working on “Star Wars” became a full-time job, a decision he does not regret.

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