Revisiting Cinefex (13): Return of the Jedi

Cinefex 13 - Return of the JediI reckon the front cover of Cinefex issue #13 must have shot off the press like a rocket, featuring as it does a dynamic still of the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy (AKA that most famous of pirate ships, the Millennium Falcon) speeding through the innards of the second Death Star. Open the cover and there’s a rather more sedate black and white shot of Jedi master Yoda, looking as inscrutable as ever. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, this issue’s 72 pages are devoted entirely to the closing chapter of George Lucas’s Star Wars saga: Return of the Jedi.

  • Jedi Journal (edited by Don Shay)

When I first set out on this retrospective odyssey through my back-issues of Cinefex, I remarked on the journal’s clutter-free format: no editorial, no advertising (not in the early days at least), just the facts, ma’am. It’s a simple concept, and a versatile one too. In the issues I’ve reviewed so far there’s been a creditable mix of articles ranging from coverage of then-current blockbusters, to retrospectives on prominent practitioners, to reports on the growing impact of computer technology on Hollywood. The single extensive article in issue #13 rings the changes yet again in that, although edited by publisher Don Shay, it hands over the actual writing reins to the VFX artists themselves.

The artists in question are ILM’s Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston, each of whom supervised a more or less equal share of Return of the Jedi‘s visual effects. According to this issue’s introduction, they each ‘recorded a month-by-month account of the work as it developed and changed.’ I don’t know if the journals were written exclusively for Cinefex, or if Shay negotiated access to material that was already being produced; either way, the format promises an intriguing insight into what really went on behind the Star Wars scenes. Does the resulting article live up to that promise? Let’s find out.

Return of the Jedi

It’s Richard Edlund who kicks things off with his initial round-up from February 1982, before ILM had really got going on the project. Edlund – who summarises his role at ILM as ‘architect of the whole photographic system’ – gives us a technical run-down of all the equipment upgrades that have been made ready for Jedi. These include tuning up the quad printer that was built for The Empire Strikes Back, revamping the motion control system and refining the field motion control technology used briefly on Raiders of the Lost Ark and more extensively on Poltergeist. He’s particularly excited about the new multiplane matte camera, which he describes as ‘a real locomotive.’ Edlund’s descriptions are a little like those exploded diagrams you get in technical manuals: precise, in-depth and ever-so-slightly obsessive. If you were handy with a spanner, you could probably build a complete visual effects facility just using his notes.

rc13rjEdlund goes on to discuss videomatics (an early form of pre-vis using crude models and hand-held video cameras) and muses on whether they’ll get to do the lasers and light sabers with CG (they didn’t). There’s a real sense of anticipation here, of an experienced team building up both resources and energy for a big push. And a sense too that Star Wars is something special. As Edlund puts it, ‘the real raison d’etre [for ILM] is Star Wars‘ – the implication being that all those recent little projects like Raiders and E.T. and Poltergeist were just warm-ups for the main event.

As the article progresses, Edlund’s reports are interleaved with those of Muren and Ralston, creating an overlapping narrative of the pressure-cooker environment that ILM became through the course of the production. As well as detailing their own work, the three men refer frequently to what their colleagues are up to. Occasionally this leads to repetition – the only flaw in this otherwise effective format – but that’s more than made up for by the immediacy of the text.

One of the things I enjoyed about this issue was the number of times I read about problems that had never really occurred to me before – for example, establishing and maintaining the relative sizes of the various spaceships, particularly as they fly through the Death Star tunnels. The models are all built to different scales, and there are variants within each type (the X-Wing variants, for example, range in size from eighteen inches to four feet). The tunnels themselves are different again. It’s all about trajectories and angles and focal distances and, according to Edlund, it takes ‘a certain amount of schoolboy math’ to calculate the correct size ratios. ‘You’d think that there’d be a mathematical relationship,’ Edlund adds, ‘but it’s just too subjective for that.’

The development of the speeder bike sequence makes for a good read too. Using puppets for the bikes and figures was an early decision, inspired in part by the success of the E.T. flying sequences. But the team’s plans to use a miniature forest for the background plates (more learning from E.T.) soon proved unworkable. Dennis Muren lists the various ideas they considered and discarded. ‘We even looked into a jet-pack – one of those things you strap on and it takes off,’ he says. How cool would that have looked on the ‘making of’ documentary?

Eventually they found a way of generating high-speed footage in the Eureka woods using an undercranked camera on a Steadicam. Muren describes the process of plotting the inevitable bumps in the resulting plates frame by frame on a Moviola, then programming those imperfections into the motion control camera, so that ‘the bikes didn’t look they were just pasted onto the scene.’ He also notes that the speeder bike shots in the trailer ‘just don’t work without sound effects,’ and cites this observation as the reason why in the final film the soundtrack makes extensive use of effects and is devoid of music.

But it’s not just opticals; there’s plenty about the various animation effects too. Actually, it struck me how comprehensively ILM had left stop-motion behind at this point. Puppetry and go-motion were very much the order of the day, and it’s clear that this was not only a conscious decision for those concerned, but an exciting one too. Talking about the Rancor sequence, Muren says, ‘The footage we’re getting is just amazing … I’ve never seen anything like this before.’

Three men talking about one of the biggest effects films ever made cover a lot of ground, and I’m only here to scratch the surface. Needless to say, through the course of the article we learn all about the production of those big matte shots Edlund was craving, and the long, long shifts spent by Ken Ralston and his crew filming endless spaceship elements for the final space battle – and going stir crazy enough to replace some of the tiniest, most distant craft with ‘tennis shoes, wads of gum – things like that.’ There are horror stories of processing labs chewing up film and frequent references to the ILM facility being a ‘nuthouse’, especially as the final deadlines loom. And there’s a name that keeps cropping up: George Lucas.

In the documentary From Star Wars to Jedi – The Making of a Saga, Mark Hamill comments at one point that, during the production of Jedi, ‘George was everywhere.’ That’s true of this article too. ‘George … knows every frame of the picture,’ says Edlund, ‘and he’s over here at least twice a day for dailies.’ Referring to the space battle, Ralston remarks that, ‘George has really been working himself to death on this film.’ And Muren tells us that, ‘by the time he’s through, the whole film will have a very definite rhythm that’s all George’s.’ It’s telling that the film’s credited director, Richard Marquand, gets barely a mention, while George’s name is on pretty much every page.

(I’m going to take a quick aside here and note that I’m writing this article in the same week that George Lucas has claimed to be retiring from big-budget movie-making (I say ‘claimed’ because people with his level of fame say this kind of thing all the time). In fact, he seems a bit jaded with the whole business. In an interview with The New York Times, he’s quoted as saying, ‘my movie, with my name on it, that says I did it, needs to be the way I want it.’ The remark is his response to all the bad press he’s had over recent years regarding his persistent tweaking of the Star Wars films. I’m going to stick my head above the parapet and say I’m on George’s side. Do I agree with all the changes he’s made? Of course not. Do I defend his right to make them? Absolutely. Nor should we be surprised by his actions, when the very commitment which made the original trilogy so popular (strike that, which enabled him to make the films at all) was evident from day one – and nowhere more evident than in this issue of Cinefex. The truth is, Lucas has been badly served by many of his so-called fans … but, wait, I’ve just caught myself heading badly off topic, so I’ll save the rest of my thoughts on all things Star Wars for a future post. For now, back to Jedi!)

By and large, the tripartite approach to Jedi’s effects seems to have been a smart move. It certainly got the work done. And by all accounts the three supervisors responded well to the arrangement: in his entry from 16 February 1983, Ralston comments that ‘it’s neat at this point … seeing how Dennis’s sequences cut to mine, mine to Richard’s, and so on.’ Later he notes that ‘there’s been a nice kind of competitiveness on this film.’ When planning the production, was George aware that such a healthy rivalry would develop at ILM, no doubt to the benefit of the film? I’m sure of it.

The pictures

The pictures that accompany the article are no less compelling than the text. I like the spread on pages 16 and 17, which show the Rancor puppet in its miniature set. It’s a classic set of images showing large numbers of grown men crowded round a cramped model under blazing lights. As always, animator/puppeteer Phil Tippett somehow manages to look simultaneously uncomfortable and serene. And there are some great shots of the matte painters at work on some of those grand vistas, including the Death Star docking bay and the Ewok village.

As for my own memories of Return of the Jedi … well, I saw it in London within a week or two of its first release. I’d heroically avoided reading the novelisation so, although I’d seen a heap of stills and trailers, I came to it quite fresh. I loved the Tatooine scenes, felt it slumped in the middle, tolerated the Ewoks and was totally wrapped up in the grand finale. As for the effects, I remember being more than satisfied, particularly with the forest battle and the chase through the Death Star. Most of the original effects still hold up well today, proving that ILM had reached the peak of the photochemical art. At the beginning of his first journal entry, Edlund says, ‘an effects facility is like a Stradivarius … Once you’ve come up with a design … you’ve got to learn how to play it real well.’ The difference is that Edlund, Muren and Ralston are not only the fabricators of the instrument, but also the musicians who play it. When faced with the monumental challenge of Return of the Jedi, that particular trio made a hell of a lot of sweet music.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

Comments

  1. Hi Graham —

    Thanks for another fine Cinefex entry.

    “Jedi Journal” was our first and only attempt to do something of this nature, and it could not have been done without unfettered access to every aspect of the production as it came together. As you can imagine, everything about “Return of the Jedi” was top, top secret during its production; but by then, I guess, Cinefex had won its stripes with Lucasfilm and ILM, and I was given full access to everything. Given that, I thought it would be interesting to cover the film as the work unfolded, rather than our usual look-back at the end, to see what was planned, what worked and what didn’t, and try to capture the excitement rippling through the halls of ILM during that period. Richard, Dennis and Ken were game; and it was agreed that I would call them every month or so and interview them at length about what they’d been up to since our previous session. I would then transcribe each session, delete my questions, and mold what remained into something more closely resembling a journal entry. No blogs back then.

    To comment on a couple of your comments …

    “As Edlund puts it, ‘the real raison d’etre [for ILM] is Star Wars‘ – the implication being that all those recent little projects like Raiders and E.T. and Poltergeist were just warm-ups for the main event.” In a sense, that’s correct. I don’t know if George had a long-term plan for ILM; but it was widely acknowledged at the time that he began taking on non-Lucasfilm projects in order to keep his crackerjack effects team on the payroll between “Star Wars” projects. And I’m sure many of those projects provided funding (on someone else’s tab) for R&D that would later be used or expanded upon in his own productions.

    “It’s telling that the film’s credited director, Richard Marquand, gets barely a mention, while George’s name is on pretty much every page.” I don’t know what the dynamics were between Lucas and Marquand, but Lucas is and was a very hands-on producer, and the film certainly carries his imprimatur. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that Marquand left the show after principal photography — or at least took a big step back — and George oversaw all of postproduction, which was the focus of our Cinefex coverage. I always felt a little sorry for Marquand. “Return of the Jedi” is certainly his most famous film, even though he gets little credit for it. His best film, in my mind, is “Eye of the Needle” — one of my all-time favorite thrillers, which holds up splendidly, even today. Marquand died of a heart attack in 1987, four years after “Jedi,” at the age of 49.

    Don

    • Thanks for revealing how the article came to be written, Don. And yes, it’s a shame Marquand isn’t associated with Jedi in the same way, say, that Kershner is with Empire. Sad too that he died so young.

  2. Gus Cadore says:

    Nice retrospective on ‘Jedi Journal’. Reading it takes me back to the days of reading the issue when it was first published and getting a real kick out of it, and also seeing the movie in the cinema when it was first released. It was the good old days, pre-Web, when movies weren’t hyped, trailered and marketed to death so much that seeing the actual film wasn’t almost an anti-climax. On an aside, I agree with you Graham about the vitriol that George Lucas has received over the years regarding his handling of the Star Wars originals and his direction/writing of the Prequel Trilogy. I think that people have lost sight of the true value of the man’s vision, creatively and technologically (can I say that?). The explosion in genre product over the years since 1977 can in my opinion be credited to his efforts bringing Star Wars to the screen, the creation of ILM and pushing for more efficient means of making movies. It’s a shame that the same people who bitch about him can’t seem to get past the crap and give the man his due. Anyway, nuff said and congratulations on getting a writing gig with Cinefex. How cool is that? 🙂

    • Thanks, Gus. Glad you enjoyed the article. I remember queueing in line to see some movie at the cinema simply so I could watch the JEDI trailer again. Can’t remember the movie. Remember the trailer like it was yesterday. Mixed feelings about the film itself – it’s still the weakest of the original three, despite the bravura three-way final battle. EMPIRE is still my favourite. Still, STAR WARS was a big part of my life during those years, and it’s with tremendous fondness that I look back on it now.

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