An Adventure in Movie Making
Industrial Light and Magic as it was in 1977 was a far cry from the huge, multi-divisional movie making empire it is today. ILM, as most know, was founded by George Lucas in 1975 to develop new optical-effects techniques for Star Wars that were unlike anything that was done before. To accomplish this, Lucas assembled a team of young experts and set them up in a warehouse in Van Nuys, California. Twentieth Century Fox funded the Star Wars special-effects house with $2 million. With most of the budget going for the development of new technology and miniatures, there was very little money for anything else. Thus, they made the most of what they had while working long hours in, at times, extreme heat. We’ve all heard stories about the first ILM crew with the unorthodox working environment, the hippie attitude, the unenforced schedules, the goofing off, the makeshift ‘dunking’ tub in the parking lot and the panic stricken studio executives at Fox. Yet, in the end their efforts would blow audiences away and revolutionize the movie industry.
It is important to remember that for 5-25-77, ILM of 1977 is first and foremost a plot element in the story that Patrick Read Johnson as writer and director was telling. Recreating ILM on the soundstage had to be done in a way that best tells that story. Yet, at the same time both Patrick and I wanted to represent it truthfully to a point in which it tells something of the extraordinary people who worked on Star Wars in a way that celebrates their achievement.
Because my new position was unexpected, I did not bring my large collection of books, videos and DVDs with me to use as references for creating the original ILM. The best reference I had, of course, was Patrick’s first hand account. But, Patrick also had his own similar collection, and he supplied me with some of his books to refer to. I was happy to see that most of them were the same books I had back home. Because mine weren’t personally autographed by Gary Kurtz like his, I was trying to be extra careful with them.
From the moment I first walked in the building I could see why Patrick chose this warehouse to represent ILM. It closely resembled the Van Nuys facility according to the photos and documentaries I had seen of it. The first thing we did was discuss the overall layout. With the notes Patrick made I drew a floor plan of the stage area mapping out all the major set elements, model placement and how the camera would be tracked through the scene.
To turn that drawing into a functional movie set required a lot of ingenuity and a lot of hard work. I would enlist the talent and skills of the crew to make it happen. Leigh had put together a team that was assigned to assist me in anything I needed. I mentioned before that this portion of the soundstage was used for storage. Little could be done until the huge, heavy items taking up much of the space were relocated. I had the displeasure of giving my team the unpleasant task of moving all that heavy stuff. The dedication those guys put into clearing that area was nothing less than inspirational! All together it took more hours than I care to count, but they tackled the problem head on and got it done.
Meanwhile, I began by focusing my attention on finishing the Dykstraflex motion-control replica. In every reference I saw of this pre-home computer contraption, one detail stood out more than others that I had to mimic...cables, cables and more cables! There were tons of cables taped all over the thing! As computers of the period go, the real thing must have been a nightmare to engineer. For props and set dressing, I had what looked like a large pile of junk at my disposal. In there I found spools of cables in varying thicknesses. Trying to make it look like the reference photos, I attached cable after cable to the motion-control rig. I got to a point where I thought I just might have enough of these cables on it, but to ensure the right look I added even more. I’m sure I must’ve put between 150 and 200 yards of cables on it in several layers. I then found interesting looking objects to double as electronic and mechanical gizmos. In a way, this was like kit bashing on a large scale using old discarded objects and junk.
Much of what I had to do to create ILM was what ILM had to do to create Star Wars. To me, this was actually a good thing, as it added to the authenticity of the set. It had to have that thrown together look. All of ILM’s budget went into effects and not furnishings. This can be seen in photos of ILM at the time. Work benches were nothing more than pieces of plywood or doors placed on sawhorses. For our model shop, I would collect as many sawhorses not in use that I could find and asked the crew to create several more. To save time, I had the tabletops of the Future General model shop set, which had been shot earlier in the week, separated from their legs (model supplies and all) and transferred to the ILM set where the sawhorses were positioned and ready to receive them. The Future General set also had a huge metal shelf that was full of supplies and model kits. That had to be disassembled and relocated to the ILM model shop set, where it was reassembled and restocked. For additional set dressing, we put copies of Star Wars Storyboards on the walls of the model shop. Some of that heavy equipment that had previously been stored in the building actually made it in the scene, posing as model-making machinery.
We had ordered two bluescreens that were, of course, very important to the ILM set. One of them was used for actual bluescreen shots for other scenes in 5-25-77. That one––the larger of the two––covered much of the back wall where the Dykstraflex motion-control rig was positioned. The smaller one was used purely as set dressing, and was positioned in an area closer to the “entrance” to our ILM facility.
Patrick reserved an area of the set where he wanted me to set up my Deathstar Surface Panel models. I had three of them at two feet square. I described the first two, which I made out of wood and other materials. The original Deathstar Surface was made out of hundreds of foam castings. Patrick’s script called for one foam panel to be picked up and tossed. I didn’t know this when I built my first two, so I had to quickly create a foam panel on the spot. I had Rob build me a 6 foot by 2 foot table at about 3 feet high that I set the panels on. In an open space in front of this table, Patrick asked me to position fluorescent ping-pong balls on pedestals where his friend, John Knoll of ILM, and Visual Effects Supervisor for Star Wars: Episodes I-III, would fill in that space with computer generated Deathstar surfacing. I measured an area that was 16 feet by 10 feet, and set the ping-pong balls at each corner on pedestals. Again, Rob came through with the pedestals, which, in the final scene, will be the actual legs of imaginary tables with the Deathstar surface added later in post production.
Other elements were needed such as a six foot square crate that would house the 5 foot Millennium Falcon model (added later in post production, courtesy of John Knoll). Once again, I asked Rob and he built one for me in record time.
With these and other set elements in place, it was then time for me to bring out the rest of the Star Wars replica models. One by one I put them in position around the set. I had the un-built models fill the model shop work benches. Each table was designated as the X-wing table, the T.I.E. table, Y-wing and so on. I reserved two tables for the Breakaway X-wings; One on which they would be standing in a row where the actor playing John Dykstra would snatch one up as he walks by, and the other where he would smash the model to pieces against it. That second table I nailed to the saw horses so that it would stay in place when the X-wings met their doom.
I had the Star Destroyer, Escape Pod, T.I.E. Fighter and Hero X-wing all mounted on stands and positioned in specific areas of the set. When it came to the huge Blockade Runner, it was decided that the yard-long mounting rod it came with was much too low for filming, so we improvised to bring it nearly twice as high. As I mentioned before, the size and weight of this fragile model made such a task very difficult.
I don’t know if it was luck or planned, but Wasili’s Landspeeder arrived from Amsterdam with no time to spare to take its place on the set. I was looking forward to seeing it since the day Wasili first contacted me about building it. Believe me, I was not disappointed! The word around the set when I brought it out was, “Wasili rocks!” I set it on a table in an area of the set reserved for it. As set dressing for the ILM model shop, I had several model kits of all kinds that I positioned at every station. For the Landspeeder, as an inside joke, I placed a model kit of a ‘76 Ford Pinto next to this replica of Luke Skywalker’s worn-out hot-rod, since a real Ford Pinto was the beat-up ride to 5-25-77's main character, ‘Pat Johnson.’
Finally, after days and nights of long hours, little sleep and a lot of hard work, the Industrial Light & Magic set was complete. I felt a sense of relief and great accomplishment. Making the best of what limited time and resources I had, I tried to be as accurate as possible, and yet, I felt it equally, or even more important to capture the ‘essence’ of ILM for the sake of the 5-25-77 story. In the end, as one who wanted to see this project done right, I was quite happy with the result.
With great pride in what was accomplished, I went to find Patrick to tell him that ILM was ready. He’d been waiting a long time to hear those words. Even though I was happy with it, ultimately I knew it was Patrick who needed to be happy, and I could tell right away that he was. As he walked into the set he had a look on his face that revealed why he wanted to make this movie in the first place. Together we walked through the set as ideas for shooting the scene seemed to come to him spontaneously––ideas that would enhance his original plan. As we came to specific models, Patrick would say, “Wouldn’t it be really cool if the camera came through like this...” With laughter and high-fives we couldn’t wait to shoot the scene based on these new ideas! He was like a kid in a candy store, and someone who was in his element. The enthusiasm he displayed when he first shared his vision for this scene with me many months before was reprised as he could now see and walk through this finished set. It was ‘creativity in action’ for Patrick, it was fulfilling as an artist for me, and it was a whole lot of fun for both of us! It was what I imagined movie making should be all about.
Shooting the Scene
With as much as has been written about Star Wars by fans and film critics, I believe it all can be boiled down to one word – FUN! Star Wars was meant to be an enjoyable movie experience. For those of us who were fortunate enough to be around when the film first opened in 1977, the fun and magic of seeing Star Wars for the first time was a unique experience that has never quite been duplicated by any other movie release. The reason for this has to do with the fact that no one had ever seen anything like it before. It was fresh, it was positive and it took the nation, and the world, totally by surprise, going on to become a world-wide cultural phenomenon.
If you are one of those younger Star Wars fans who was not around back in 1977, and often wondered what it was like for those of us who were, 5-25-77 should give you a good idea. As a movie maker, Patrick’s goal was to shoot the ILM scene in such a way that would try to capture a portion of that ‘original fun’ that Star Wars instilled so that audiences of today can sort of experience, or re-experience it in a fresh, new way. He would do this through the eyes of 5-25-77’s main character played by actor John Francis Daley, who did a magnificent job throughout the entire film as young ‘Pat Johnson.’
In the story, young Pat tours the ILM facility with a sense of awe and wonder. He sees the models and a rough cut of the film. He realizes he is the first to learn just how special, and how much fun this new Star Wars movie will be before anyone, as it was not yet in theaters. Being an enthusiastic teenage sci-fi geek, Pat can’t wait to share his life-changing experience with his family, friends and classmates. But, how do you explain what a T.I.E. Fighter, Millennium Falcon or a Wookie is to people who have never heard of such ‘nonsense?’ Such is Pat’s dilemma, a dilemma that further isolates him as the town weirdo! That is, until Star Wars is finally released!
That is the story behind the scene. Now we were about to shoot it. All the months of building models and recruiting model builders, and the long days of hard work putting the ILM set together came down to this––this was finally the moment for which I was introduced to the world of movie making.
In this scene I was looking forward to being an ILM extra. Earlier in the week I had already been in the Future General scene as one of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters model makers.
In the Future General scene I worked with actor, David Shin, who was wonderful as Greg Jein. Now I was going to play an ILM crew member and work with actor Dan Behrendt, who did a fantastic job as John Dyskstra. I was very impressed with both David and Dan, as they were only on hand for their scenes and that’s all, while the rest of us had been continuously on set day after day. I thought how hard it must be for these actors to arrive on set for one day and jump into character cold like that. I especially felt that way about Dan who, as Dykstra had to spew out a lot of techno-babble that few people are meant to understand non-stop as the camera rolled. On Star Wars, it is said that George Lucas’s one direction was, “Faster and more intense.” Dan would have to proceed under similar direction from Patrick for this scene. I talked with Dan before rehearsals to fill him in on what Patrick was looking for from the Dykstra character. I told him to just think “caffeine.” This gave him time to mentally prepare. He said it took him a lot of practice to memorize his difficult lines before coming to work that day. I only had to correct him once when referring to the Escape Pod as an Escape ‘Capsule.’ Not that it was necessarily wrong to call it that, but I could see Star Wars fans everywhere nitpicking over it. In the end, though, Dan pulled off his lines brilliantly.
Because of the pacing of the scene, several rehearsals were necessary to ensure every mark was hit at just the right time. After rehearsals, when John Daley and Dan were finished in hair and wardrobe, we were ready to shoot. All the actors and extras took their places around the set. There were model builders at the work stations, “filming crew” at the motion-control unit and people ready to carry props here and there, all of which brought life to our “tribute” to Industrial Light and Magic. I also took my place as an ILM technician. As the camera and actors pass me, I am supposed to be removing my Escape Pod from a stand. It may not win me an Oscar, but I couldn’t have been happier about what I was doing.
Of course, I was still on the job as the “model guy,” so I had supplies on hand ready to repair the foam Deathstar Panel that Dan would toss take after take. I was glad that I only needed to do minor repairs once or twice, as it held up pretty well. I also had to go around the huge set to reposition models that get moved during the scene.
The scene also involved Scott Alexander’s breakaway X-wing Fighters, which were now poised and ready to be smashed to bits. Between takes, someone asked me if I cringed every time one was destroyed, especially after all the hours I put into repairing them. It really didn’t bother me because, like the foam panel, that is what they were there for. True, the X-wings were expertly crafted and beautifully painted by Scott, and would have been a valuable addition to anyone’s collection. But, they were specially made as, and meant to be props that served as tools to tell a story (although, I must confess, I did keep the pieces of one of them as a souvenir, and even rebuilt it).
One by one, take after take the X-wings were utterly destroyed. Like shattering a champaign bottle against a new vessel in a christening ceremony, the last X-wing came crashing against the table signifying the end of the scene, and with it, the end of principle photography on 5-25-77. I can honestly say that if the final scene is anything like the fun we experienced shooting it, then audiences will thoroughly enjoy it, and Patrick will have accomplished his goal!
[In 2008, 5-25-77 was screened as '77 at the Hamptons International Film Festival. When the audiences saw the ILM scene, a collective gasp of excitement could be heard throughout the sold out theater. With a big smile on my face, I leaned over to whisper in my wife's ear, "I did that."]
The day after the ILM scene was shot, I spent many hours packing all the models on loan to us for the return trip back to their owners. In the midst of this, Patrick came to the set with the one model he kept with him the entire time––Greg Jein’s priceless study model of the Mother Ship. Patrick asked me to give it some additional support for the trip home to Greg. I told him I would take care of it for him.
It seemed fitting that he handed over to me this object of great value that he had so carefully guarded, and was then able to walk away confident that it was in capable hands. It sort of typified what had happened over these nine months on a larger scale. For Patrick, the ILM experience was such an important, pivotal moment in the movie and in his real life. He handed the ILM set over to me with the same confidence and trust, and I did my very best to take care of it for him. At first I wondered how Patrick could take such an important set for such an important scene and entrust it to someone with no movie experience. But when I think about it, right from the beginning all he asked of me was a single model, as he expected nothing else. But, seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity before me, I refused to settle for just that. As a result, in the nine months he had known me, Patrick could see that I was someone who could get things done. And I usually got things done quickly and inexpensively while maintaining a high quality standard. I said at the beginning that I was determined to make the most of this opportunity. By working hard and giving it everything I had I did just that. I got way more out of this than I could have ever imagined. At the wrap party Patrick and I took turns thanking each other. He thanked me for helping make his dream of 5-25-77 come true, I thanked him for my movie making dream come true.
So, what was movie making like? For me it meant long eighteen to twenty hour days, day after day with about three to four hours of sleep per night. I lost ten pounds in one week, as I hardly thought about food. My feet were killing me from being on them all day, and my hands always seemed to be chapped and bleeding as a result of the cold weather and the kind of work I was doing. I never worked harder on anything in my career and I was completely exhausted when it was all over. And, yet, as hard as it was, I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it! When you get the chance to do something you always wanted to do, but never thought you would, and when your heart and soul are so passionate about something that time stands still, then nothing else seems to matter. I was at home on the set. I never felt so alive in my career doing anything else. Sometimes people with dreams say, “If I only had a chance!.” Well, Patrick gave me that chance, for which I will always be grateful. I can honestly say I gave it everything I had and made the absolute most of it. I was told by people in the business that you either have what it takes or you don’t, that you either love it or hate it. For me, I can’t wait to do it again, and again, and again!
Thus, my work on my first movie was finished. It was truly a unique and awesome experience. I met a lot of incredible people and made a lot of wonderful friends whom I look forward to working with again in the future.
So, if you go to see 5-25-77 when it comes out and you happen to see a goofy looking guy with long black hair and beard in the model shops of Future General and ILM, that would be me... having the time of my life!