Episode 335 — VFX Legend Richard Edlund — Part 2


Episode 335 — VFX Legend Richard Edlund – Part 2

Richard Edlund is a four-time Academy Award visual effects winner for Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He is VFX Supervisor, Producer and Cinematographer. Richard was also nominated for Poltergeist, 2010, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Die Hard and Alien 3. He’s won three Academy Technical Awards, the British Academy Award for Poltergeist and Return of the Jedi. He earned an Emmy for creating the visual effects for the original television miniseries Battlestar Galactica and another nomination for Mike Nichols’ Angels in America. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with their John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation in recognition of his contributions to the Academy. And the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) presented him with their esteemed Presidents Award in 2008. He has also received top accolades from the Visual Effects Society, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, and numerous other organizations.

In 1975, Richard was one of the first visual effects artists to join fellow VFX enthusiast, John Dykstra for a startup he called Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). This team of filmmakers began their work on a movie called Star Wars. When the new technology and Star Wars franchise clicked, Richard moved to Marin County to supervise visual effects for the next two episodes of Star Wars, as well as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist

In 1984, he took over the equipment amassed by Doug Trumbull’s Entertainment Effects Group and retooled the 65mm visual effects company, renaming it Boss Film Studios. Boss Films became a star in the visual effects world, when company simultaneously produced the comedic visual effects for Ghostbusters, created a hybrid technology integrating NASA’s digital images of Jupiter into a key sequence in 2010. Boss’s pioneering VFX technology went on to create stunning imagery for over 40 features, including Die Hard, Ghost, Poltergeist 2, Alien3, Species, Multiplicity, Air Force One. Masters of the Universe, Cliffhanger, Batman Returns, The Last Action Hero, Waterworld, Heat, Starship Troopers and a slew of other high profile projects, including pioneering Bud Light Superbowl spots. The company achieved ten Academy Award nominations over a fourteen-year period.

Richard is a twenty-two year Governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, founding member of the AMPAS visual effects branch and is chair of the Branch Executive Committee, also chairman of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council. He also serves as a board member of the VES and on the Board of Directors of the American Society of Cinematographers. 

Richard is a frequent lecturer at industry organizations and universities across the world including USC and Chapman film schools. His 1977 Oscar for Star Wars is currently on display at the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

In this Episode, legendary Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor, Producer and Cinematographer Richard Edlund talks about his work on some of the most influential films and their groundbreaking VFX sequences: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters and Die Hard.


Richard Edlund’s Website: https://www.richardedlund.com/about.html

Richard Edlund on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0249430/



[04:06] Richard Edlund Talks Raiders of the Lost Ark

[28:48] The Most Memorable Sequences on Ghostbusters

[35:53] Behind the Scenes of Big Trouble in Little China

[42:46] The Iconic Sequences of Die Hard



Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 335! 

I’m sitting down with one of the godfathers of visual effects Richard Edlund to talk all things Ghostbusters, Die Hard, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Big Trouble in Little China – and so much more!

I’m really excited for this Episode. I’ve had Richard on the Podcast before when we talked about the original Star Wars and his other revolutionary projects (www.allanmckay.com/329). It was a massive honor to get him back on the Podcast. 

Please take a few moments to share this Episode with others. 

Let’s dive in! 



[01:09]  Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[57:53] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!]



[04:06] Allan: Thanks so much for coming back to the Podcast, Richard! I was curious if you wanted to recite some of your stories working on Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Were you involved in the big finale of the film?

Richard: On Raiders, I was on the scene for every scene of the movie except for the bit they did in the Middle East. I was actually directing a few scenes (I never got the credit for that). It was a lot of fun working with Steven [Spielberg]. He had just come off of 1941 which bombed. And it was a very expensive movie. George said that it was a b-movie we were making, so Steven should only do 2-3 takes. “None of this 15 takes stuff!” Everyday, the shots he couldn’t get, he should tear those pages out of the script. Steven didn’t like this at all. Howard [G. Kazanjian] who was the producer had to enforce this. 

The other thing about it was when we got to England, the British crews were used to working 8-hour days. If you wanted to work another 30 minutes, you had to pull the crew. If one of them didn’t want to do it, you had to do it the next day. In Hollywood, 12-hour days are short days. But Steven was able to get over this whole b-movie business. Before you knew it, he had the crew working 10-12 hour days. And they were fine! It was a lot of fun. Kathleen Kennedy at the time was a budding Associate Producer. Frank Marshall was the Producer. This was Kathy’s trial by fire and she was great! 

The thing is I’m a shotgun guy, I go shooting quite often. I got a collection of British shotguns. Steven was a really great shot. This was something you didn’t want to talk about. He and I went shooting one day and we each shot 500 shells. We had a good time. I had to shoot a scene of the ark cased in a wooden crate at the bottom of the ship, and there were rats down there. And Steven was saying, “You’ve got to get a shot of a rat cowering.” I thought, “I’ll work on that.” Thankfully, the rat wrangler told me one of the rats had an ear infection, so I shot that rat’s [expression]. I had a VistaVision camera turned upside down on a skateboard to get lower angle shots. We were pushing that around on the floor. There was another shot of a crate with a nazi flag on the side of it burning. Later on, I rotoscoped that and did a fire rendition for a composite. And that was a fun shoot! 

In the end, we had to work on ghosts. What does a ghost look like? We weren’t in a fantasy world. I did a test before we went over. There was going to be a scene where the Ark was going to be wrapped with animation and these bolts of energy were going to penetrate the nazis. In order to set that up, I came up with a rig that the nazis would put under their shirt with a goose neck, with a projection bulb that would light their faces and give that light effect. That would make the animation more successful. I also discovered a flash bulb that was used for high-speed cameras, and it would last for 2 seconds. It had a sound as well. I had one of those and an asbestos pad on their back. When it went off, it could burn off through the cloth. Each nazi had a cord coming down his arm with a switch. Each of them would hit their own flash bulb. And it would also turn on their spotlight on their face. I told everyone to time themselves. And to enhance this, I came up with a glass filter that was 4 X 5”. It was a spinning disk that put grooves into the filter. When we turned it upside down, the flare was not straight across. It was curved. That was the wrath of God filter. I got the shot! 

And all this preparation, we only had one take. The pressure was on. And everything worked and it was a great shot! And this was right before the fire. The flame was done by a master rigger who could put stuff together with whatever was at hand. We did a lot of work together. We had these aluminum sheets that we sprayed flat black. We could then “train” the fire based (it always goes up so you turn the camera to do the shots we wanted). 

One of the other scenes was when the Ark opens up, there is one shot of the island where you see the cloud and a hole appearing in it. In some tests, we were shooting in a cloud tank. It’s a 6-ft square tank that’s filled with fresh water and you float the salt water on top of it. Basically, you put a piece of plastic down and put the salt water on top. Then you carefully roll the plastic and you have this flat inversion layer. (And the camera is underneath.) You squirt white paint. And that’s how we shot clouds. One day we were shooting clouds and there was this fire hose that drains the tank. While we were draining the tank, someone stepped on the fire hose and suddenly we saw this hole appear. It was a happy accident. Sometimes you learn from that and you use it. It was extremely effective! In the analogue days, you had to use all the elements and everything you shot. And then, there was a shot looking down at the Ark (which was a matte painting), and the camera is shooting from a 20-ft ceiling. And our rigger came up with an idea to build a miniature of the Ark and a low pressure shotgun shell that would blow it up. I was up on the ceiling shooting at 300 frames / per second. I had to pull focus. We did two takes and we used the first one. And it was so much fun to work on all these elements!

We also used rods with a wedding vale trailing off, swimming around in the water and then we played it in reverse. There were many elements like that! When we were shooting in London, Steven had spent an entire day shooting these complex scenes with this rabbi that had come from Israel. He was coaching him. Steven spent a lot of time doing that and we had one day left to shoot all of the, “Don’t look, Marion!” scene. Harrison had done so many takes, he finally said, ‘Fuck it, Marion! Go ahead and look!” So we had one day to shoot that scene. We did the long shot. Then above that, there was a matte painting of the sky and the rest of the island. I had to cast Marin County guys as nazis. I picked out pieces of the set to ship back to Marin, so we could do the closeups there. We turned a miniature set upside down where the pilot comes roaring toward the camera. That all worked out great but there was one cut where Steven wanted to see the nazis in the fire. We did that in miniatures. You probably saw maybe 12 frames of that. But that’s all you need! You need to capture that moment and it makes it look real. We shot quite a few takes of that to get one that looks good.

[25:06] Allan: I love how creative you had to be especially back then to trick the audience and to get the idea across!

Richard: It was a different kind of ingenuity that was required from visual effects projects. I just went to see Ghostbusters last night. When we did our Ghostbusters, we had $5 million for the effects. We had spent about a month working with Harold and Ivan rewriting the script that Dan [Aykroyd] had started. Dan’s script was 300 pages. It was way more than what we could’ve done! He had this fixation about the Statue of Liberty tumbling down and coming alive. We thought at that time to do water effects (which was really difficult). Water is water and a water drop is the same no matter what high speed you use. We compromised and came up with the Marshmallow Man. We went to New York and did our pre-production. We did rooftops and there is all kinds of stuff on the roofs in New York. Mark Stetson built a lot of buildings we could use in miniature. The way we broached the Marshmallow Man visually was with a groan. It’s the footsteps. And then behind the building, you see a glimpse of it. Then the camera cuts. 

[28:48] Allan: I love that! It’s such an iconic film! In terms of other sequences for Ghostbusters, are there any that stood out?

Richard: There is the shot of him heading down Central Park West. That was in miniature. It was a huge set! In scale to Marshmallow Man who was 50-ft tall, or something like that. You cheat scale and size. Central Park West is about 40 feet long. Then there was Central Park. It was all miniature. The guy inside the suit was about 5’3”.

[29:12] Allan: Were there any ghosts or slimer sequences that you want to talk about? 

Richard: First of all, I left ILM in 1983. And it was fairly positive. I was going to work on a show with Ridley. I’d gone over his storyboards and came up with a VFX budget. But I ended up at a hospital in Marin Country because I’d picked up this wrack off of my car. 

[31:14] Allan: Your back! That’s right!

Richard: I was in a hospital when I got a call from Ivan to do Ghostbusters because the Ridley project fell through. Then I got the call to do 2010 (and that was about a $10 million budget). 2010 was coming out in November and I could put the two studios in bed together to rebuild my own studio [which I took over from Doug Trumbull]. There were a lot of cameras but [Doug’s] style of effects is completely different from mine. I didn’t get the green light on either project for over a month! By the time we finished working on the contract, I had 10 months to rebuild the studio, design the effects, and complete the staff. I had 2/3 of the core group. I had to design and execute the effects in 10 months. I wouldn’t be able to do it without the fantastic team I had! But the problem is: Once the studios saw you could do that, they expected that the next time! Only faster and cheaper! 

Ghostbusters was a lot of fun. I saw the Afterlife last night, it was an outrageously fantastic project. And when the credits rolled, there were over a 1,000 people working on those effects. We had just 150-180 people and a fraction of the budget!? 

[34:44] Allan: I imagine with an IP like that, there wouldn’t be too much of a problem!

Richard: But it’s great! And the thing is I talked to animators. They used all those ideas. The ideas we came up with on a creative front were in keeping with Ghostbusters. It’s a really fun movie!

[35:21] Allan: I imagine it’s a huge ode to the original. How does that feel for you? 

Richard: I feel great about it! It’s funny, it’s fantastic. All the characters are great!

[35:53] Allan: I’d love to talk about Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter is such a genius as well. Were there any sequences that stood out in that film?

Richard: It was like the second wave of projects at Boss. I had to come on a budget. It was less than $2 million to do that project. Everything had to be sandwiched into that. Being an indie studio was difficult because I didn’t have a lot of extra money behind me. Whatever money we made, if another project didn’t come in immediately, I had to pay the crew. I had this fabulous family of technical artists that if I couldn’t pay them, we’d disappear. If we had a month or two of nothing happening, that would be the end of us. It was fun working with Carpenter. He knows what he wants to do. We didn’t have a lot of sets. The guys built about a 4-ft high platform on a stage. And the background was going to be black. All the effects were done as we were shooting. Lo-Pan was a great character! When they were pushing the lights off their fingers, that was a lot of fun. And there was a lot of creature work on that film. Steve Johnson was running it. We had a really great team! And some of the characters were laden with bicycle cables. So we had guys / lever operators controlling them. And all of that was coordinated by Dick Clark’s son (who was the Assistant Director). Whatever it took to do the project, we figured it out! In the analogue era, if you didn’t know how to do something, someone on your team did. We all interacted. After a few shows, it was like a ballet team. It was great! In the cast, Kim Cattrall was great! Carpenter made his cast into a family. When you’re producing your film, you have to get your Art Director and your Cameraman, and all these departments that have never worked together before. This family has to be created. If the Producer doesn’t work on their chemistry together, you have a really throbbing group. 

[42:46] Allan: You’re a VFX Producer on Die Hard. Can you talk about that one?

Richard: I called myself a VFX Producer because of some things with the DGA. After Ghostbusters, I had a quarrel with them because of the credits. When I did Fright Night, DGA declined my plea to get full credit. I sued them and I brought on my attorney. We were fighting against the head lawyer at DGA .And we won the case! Any credit with VFX was considered to be a technical credit. The DGA has a lot of power. They said that my credit was technical. I said it was a creative credit. I had a deposition that was 2” thick. Everything we brought forth was put down on paper.

[45:57] Allan: Tying it back to Die Hard, did it make more sense to lean into the Producer title?

Richard: We had 5 projects and I was involved with each one. My approach was to have the DP and Art Director on every project. They were incredibly talented people! I was juggling the credits. 

[47:17] Allan: What was the most memorable sequence in that film?

Richard: One of the coolest ones was Alan Rickman falling back from the camera. On Die Hard, it was super real. It had to look like it was really happening. In that scene, Rickman had to fall onto this big blue balloon. The balloon was lit strongly from both sides. We shot that scene at 12 times the speed. As he’s falling away in real time, he falls 20 feet away. The focus has to be sharp. At 270 frames a second, I’m shooting it at a wide open aperture. So we had to build a fluid head on a tripod that had an encoder on the side of it and a pistol scope with a laser dot in the middle. The guy off camera would tilt the camera down, the camera would change focus. We built this rig and it was a one-take thing. Stuntmen won’t fall backwards. They have to see where they’re going. And besides, you’d recognize that wasn’t the guy. We did two takes with Alan and we used the first take. 

[51:24] Allan: Can you talk about the fact that [Director John McTiernan] wanted to drop him on the count of two?

Richard: That’s a directorial trick. Steven did that on Poltergeist. The idea was that JoBeth was going to reach for the door knob where the ghosts were running amok. Steven touches it and she freaks out. It worked. These are tricks that we pull off. Joel Silver was the Producer. He was a wild man. One of the shots was when the helicopter crashed into the top of the building and blew up. Thaine Morriss, my pyro guy, was on the roof and the helicopter was a remote controlled one, I think. It was supposed to hit the side of the building and fall over, but it landed on the building. Thaine grabs a broom and pushes it over the side. Then it explodes perfectly. The next day, I hear Joel’s voice, “Edlund! That shot is totally legitimate!” That was a great shot! It was a pretty small budget for that film. 

When we had to blow up the third floor, Joel had done everyone to endear himself to the landlord of the Fox Tower. And they were going to sue him for not following the agreement. Reghan’s office was in that building as well. I didn’t have any problems with McTiernan with the shots. When we had to blow up the floor, Mark Stetson built an armature in scale to the building. We shot it from the same angle in miniature. We built these buildings in a parking lot. Thaine pyro-ed it with green shotgun powder. 

[56:04] Allan: It’s such an iconic film! I used to live in Santa Monica and my balcony would look over at the Fox Plaza.

Richard: That shot of Rickman falling away, they had a stunt guy on the descending rig. We cut away from Rickman to him.

[57:30] Allan: It turned out great! Thank you so much for coming back to the Podcast! I appreciate your time — and all these incredible contributions you’ve made! 

Richard: Alright, thanks!


What did you think? I hope you loved this Episode. I want to thank Richard for coming back on the Podcast. It’s been such an honor! It was an amazing experience.

Definitely, take a few moments to share this Episode.

Next week, I’m sitting down with Jordy Vandeput, the Founder and the Co-Host of one of the biggest YouTube channels about filmmaking and video editing Cinecom. Until then –

Rock on! 


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