CGSociety :: Artist Profile
1 October 2009, by Renee Dunlop
While he has won Oscars for VFX and worked with the best operators in the industry, Richard Edlund has been a photographer of the US Navy and of renowned rock and roll bands.
He's the inventor of the Pignose Amp, a hippie street car driver, USC instructor, and self-proclaimed "Japanophile", a country he's lived in and visited roughly 60 times. He's had an amazing life of luck and opportunity. "And it still keeps going."
That it does. Edlund fills his spare time on the boards of ASC, the Academy, and the VES and as a member of the Academy Technology Council, chair of the Academy Scientific and Technical Awards Committees, co-chairs the ASC Technology Committee and heads its Enlightenment Subcommittee though he credits chairman Curtis Clark, ASC, for doing the brunt of the work.
And he just had a one man show of his still photographs at the Leica Gallery in Salzburg, Austria. "I'm really into the digital world, I love digital still photography."
Photography was a love affair that began in the ninth grade when a friend lent Edlund a Minox spy camera. He enjoyed his clandestine photography so much he bought a contact printer, paper and chemicals, and by the tenth grade had purchased a 4x5 press camera and enlarger. He worked for the school paper, a stepping stone to the LA Examiner's high school sports section where he had a chance to rub elbows with seasoned press photographers.
By 1959 Edlund's photography career was already flourishing and about to point him in a new direction. He was just shy of eighteen years when he was hired to take "grip and grin" photos for Navy recruitment.
He spent the day at sea surrounded by two destroyers, a cruiser, a submarine, with cannons firing, 20mm guns gunning, depth charges dropping, and airplanes buzzing overhead, impressive enough to convince him to join the Navy too. He signed up within a week.
For many, this would mean months on sea rations or swabbing decks. Not Edlund. Even when he fell asleep by the pool resulting in a severe sunburn that could have had him court marshaled (a soldier is considered Navy property) a sympathetic warrant officer took pity and let Edlund spend his days healing in the comfort of his air-conditioned office.
There, Edlund passed his days recuperating and honing his skills reading advanced photography books. Even when his orders came, Edlund landed a plum assignment: two years in Atsugi, Japan where he was stationed from 1959 to 1961. It was a great time for Edlund. The yen was 360 to the dollar, and he was living the good life as a second class photographer making $200 a month, big money in Japan at the time, staying at the fanciest hotels and seeing the best shows. But he wasn't just wasting time. "When I was in Japan, I was running the art department at the photo lab and started shooting aircraft accident reports."
He was also making a documentary under the guise of training, which gave Edlund the ability to check out whatever equipment he wanted. With a brand new 16mm Mitchell camera, a rebuilt processing machine, splicer, a moviola, and reversal film, Edlund started a motion picture department in the lab. He made many trade deals to help his cause, swapping less than perfect rejected photos for such filming necessities as a Navy station wagon and additional photo equipment.
Edlund's love of photography had continued to grow, so when he returned to California he enrolled in photography courses at USC. However, living back in the States didn't offer the financial status Edlund had enjoyed in Japan, and the cost of his education was becoming prohibitive. Instead of finishing his senior year, Edlund took a job at an optical house working with Joe Westheimer.
There he spent the next four years doing everything from sweeping the floor to hand lettering main titles for television. He rotoscoped the original Enterprise flyby for Star Trek, set up lights and shot inserts for TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Wild, Wild West, and The Addams Family. He even played "Thing" from The Addams Family. That is Edlund's hand in the title sequence.
It was at this point in his life, Edlund enjoyed his first life changing recognition. A drummer friend whose rock and roll band was performing on an old restored schooner asked Edlund to do a photo shoot of their performance. The rock band backed by the vintage environment provided some beautiful shots. For many, the tale would end on that happy but mellow note, but it happened that the groups' agent shared an office with Mark Gordon, the manager of the rock band The Fifth Dimension.
Gordon saw Edlund's shots and loved them, and wound up hiring Edlund to fly to Las Vegas and shoot an album cover for the band. With that simple twist of fate, Edlund became a successful rock and roll photographer, working casually as his economy needed from around 1967 to 1972. In that time he shot publicity shots, album covers and posters, as well as recording sessions and performance shots for 'The Fifth Dimension' and other bands like 'The Grass Roots', 'The Association', Warren Zevon, and 'Seals and Crofts'.
It was a good time for Edlund and his creativity continued to flow. During these 'hippie times' Edlund came up with the idea for a portable guitar amp, which he dubbed the Pignose, a name inspired by the volume knob design resembling, you guessed it, a pig's snout.
"I was at Pacific Radio getting something for one of my little projects. I looked into the display case and there was this amplifier about the size of a cigarette pack. I got it, picked out a speaker that looked pretty good, a potentiometer and a battery pack. It was a found invention that sounded fantastic." Again, his luck intervened. One day Edlund got a call from Wayne Kimble in LA, telling Edlund to "get down here, I've got Jimmy Guercio who is going to fund the Pignose!"
The Pignose amplifier.
Martin Guitar Company put the Pignose on the market and since Edlund and Kimble knew everyone in the rock and roll business, they were able to distribute the Pignose to musicians like Frank Zappa, George Harrison, Mick Taylor, Keith Richards, and of course Warren Zevon, who was the first to record using the amp, using it on his second album.
"Everybody who was anybody in the record business got a free Pignose." Unfortunately, even those that sold were too close to free when it came to lining Edlund's pocket. After a year, he was bored making amps, and he began looking for something that would satisfy his first love. To be behind the camera.
Shooting a job for Robert Abel, 1973.
The Boss Film staff shot. 1989.
Richard Edlund frames up a memorable shot for 'Star Wars'.
Fate was laying the path towards film.
It was around 1973 when Edlund joined Bob Abel's company, working on commercial spots that won Abel many Clio Awards.
While there, Edlund and Richard Taylor designed the "Candy Apple Neon" look and Edlund built a motion control camera "out of surplus parts from a store in Pasadena called C&H Sales, a technology surplus shop where inventors would go to kluge together parts for an idea which would later on wind up back at C&H being cherry picked for parts for another invention.
I made a big hot 'pizza oven' light box and machinist Dick Alexander and I put together a motion control camera on a twelve foot track, it was like a horizontal animation stand." Edlund used this for his 'animated light' projects in a process he affectionately termed 'Photomasochism'. "You would go into sensory deprivation for twelve hours and shoot little pieces of artwork, changing filters and other optical tricks for each frame.
You couldn't forget a thing if you did you were back the next day and night shooting it again. It was only a two or three second shot, but it was 100 passes, just a nightmare." But it did look great!
Then 'Star Wars' came along, and that particular nightmare was about to give way to a dream. "I got a call from John Dykstra to come over and talk. I didn't know him yet, but we all knew of each other because at the time there existed a cadre of wigged out photographic experimenters.
I knew what he was doing and of course they knew what we were doing because we were doing the flashiest commercials on the air." Edlund wound up taking the job for a little fledging film company that later became known as, you may have heard of it, Industrial Light and Magic.
He gave Abel three months notice. "I said was going to go work on this SciFi movie called 'Star Wars'. When I delivered the news I was going to leave, I think I was making $350 a week, not very big money. Bob kept giving me these massive raises to try to buy me, so by the time I was ready to leave I was making $750 a week, and I had to take a drop in pay to do 'Star Wars', but I'm so glad I did!"
The drop in pay didn't last, nor did the risk of jumping to a new company, obviously. Edlund went on to work on some the industries most memorable films. Just some of the highlights are:
'The Empire Strikes Back', 'Raiders of the Lost Arc', 'Poltergeist', 'Return of the Jedi', 'Big Trouble in Little China', 'Die Hard', and 'Species'. After seven years with ILM, he created Boss Films where he worked on 'Ghostbusters', '2010', 'Alien 3', 'Air Force One', 'Ghost', and 'Multiplicity', "which is my all-time favorite project. The shots are perfect; Michael [Keaton] was great."
Shooting a job for Robert Abel, 1973.
In 1984 he earned visual effects nominations for 'Ghostbusters' and '2010', the latter requiring the facility to push the evolution of hybrid visual effects, integrating NASA images of Jupiter in the space approach scene. 'Ghostbusters' was no easy feat either.
To bring the blockbuster film to the screen, he needed to restructure the company, find additional artists and design new equipment, then deliver nearly 200 complex shots in less than ten months. 'Alien 3' was his last film using the photo-chemical process for optical composites and was their first addition of a single digital compo
Studio set up for 'Ghostbusters'
Richard Edlund and Sigourney Weaver discuss an 'Alien 3' VFX shot on set.
"Then I closed the company and became freelance. Since then, I did 'Bedazzled' with Harold Ramis, 'Angels in America' with Mike Nichols, 'Stepford Wives' and 'Anamorph'. And a return engagement with Mike on 'Charlie Wilson's War'."
Edlund's life of experience took a little boy with a spy camera to a leader in photography and visual effects. He's traveled the hemispheres of the world and of his brain. He's as comfortable cracking a wacky-weed joke as he is about his stance as a staunch republican and proud capitalist. And all these views and experiences combined have made an indelible mark on an industry that he first experienced when it was almost as new to the world as he was.
In a memory that still makes him laugh. "I do remember seeing my first matte line in 'The Robe'. "When I was living in Minneapolis, I went down to the Radio City Theater, a movie palace in Minneapolis filled with lugubrious Rococo, maroon and gold gilt, the fancy carpet woven to fit the room. You don't want to take acid in there," he joked, momentarily sliding into his hippie day humor. "Victor Mature was standing up on top of the mountain, and he had a vibrating green halo around him and I wondered, what the hell is that?"
I think it's safe to say he knows that answer now.
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