Multiple Academy Award winner Jonathan Erland ’57 talks to Matt Wilce about his groundbreaking work in special effects and the science behind the art of motion pictures.
“The first of the live action film coming back from England didn't look really very good,” says Jonathan Erland ’57referring to his initial impression of the original StarWars - A New Hope (1977). Erland had been recruited to join the team working on the film by the now legendary visual effects artist John Dykstra. With no visual effects shop able to handle the work required to bring GeorgeLucas’ space opera to the screen, Dykstra createdIndustrial Light and Magic (ILM) and went looking for talent. “Dykstra approached my old boss, who didn’t want to do the job and so he offered up myself andLorne Peterson [who later won an Academy Award for the visual effects in Indiana Jones and the Temple ofDoom (1984)],” Erland says. That was the kick start toa career in visual effects that led Erland to pioneering work, peer recognition and multiple Academy Awards culminating in his receiving the Gordon E. SawyerAward this year.
Star Wars wasn’t Erland’s first foray into special effects—he was tasked with making miniatures and explosions for the battlefield scenes in a student film Brief Armistice while attending the London Film School. Working behind the camera was counter to Erland’s desire to bean actor and he had already attended the prestigiousRoyal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, whose alumni roster reads like an awards show recap.His contemporaries there included fellow Oscar-winnersDame Judi Dench [Philomena (2013), Skyfall (2012),
Shakespeare in Love (1998)] and Vanessa Redgrave[Foxcatcher (2014), Atonement (2007), Murder on theOrient Express (1974)]. “The school’s not well known in the States but it is like Julliard,” Erland says before commenting that it must be pretty unusual to have three future Academy Award winners attend at the same time.
“Vanessa was from the beginning a formidable, determined, performer with a very strong will,” Erland remembers. They performed on stage together in TheMerchant of Venice, Vanessa playing Portia and Erland taking the roles of Lorenzo and Launcelot Gobbo. “She was—at least then—also a little reluctant to act, as she had intended to have a career in dance. When she grew to a height of 5'11" (the same height as me at the time)she was told she was too tall for the ballet. She did, however, get to dance in Isadora (1968) [the biopic about Isadora Duncan].” Frustrated by not being allowed a career in dance, Vanessa concluded she might as well go into the family business of acting. “I also appeared with her in a revue at Central called Imogen Brown in which she played an African queen—deliberately accentuating her height with high heels,” he adds. Erland played the juvenile lead as well as designing the lighting for the show.
“While I never appeared in a production with Judi, we did dance together in a class rather spectacularly,” Erland recalls. “We were both quite mischievous and got quite carried away dancing a polka which resulted in everyone else in the hall with their backs flat up against the wall as we careened wildly around the floor. Unlike Vanessa, Judi was neither reluctant nor frustrated—she relished the theater and acting. It was clear I think to everyone that both Judi and Vanessa were going to succeed—one through sheer determination and the other through sheer joy.”
It was bad timing to pursue a stage career in post-war London as audience numbers were in decline and the “luxury tax” extended to live theater, making an already financially precarious profession even more so. Erland decided to try his hand across the Atlantic, but shortly after his arrival in New York, the theater union, Actors Equity, changed the rules regarding “alien” actors in the United States, effectively thwarting his prospects of employment. Rather than give up and return to England, he decided to continue his education at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. At Goodman he was able to produce and play the lead role of Jimmy Porter in the then hit play Look Back in Anger. Eventually, the Equity policy was overruled, but in the meanwhile he was able to appear in a number of roles for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in nearby Toronto during the heyday of live television drama, including Octavius’ officer in Julius Caesar (with William Shatner as Marc Antony) and the title role Ronald Fry in The Hostage. Moving to Los Angeles, he appeared in The Man From UNCLE, as well as parts in stage classics such as Hamlet, Volpone, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream and Troilus and Cressida. Thanks to his brother Paul, his knowledge of the technical side of theater productions was ultimately what led to a career in visual effects.
Looking at the 1953 Chochin, you might have thought Paul Erland ’53 would be the brother looking for a Hollywood career. Described as “tall, dark and handsome,” a “sophisticated introvert” and a core member of the Science Club, Paul was four years ahead of Jonathan at ASIJ. Jonathan remembers that although the Occupation had ended,
Tokyo was full of military personnel from the United States, Britain and Australia due to the war in Korea. A trip to Kyoto and a visit to a silk factory were standout memories for Jonathan, who admits he lost contact with his eighth grade friends. “Paul has kept in contact with more people,” he says. Paul remembers his brother as being fascinated by theater from an early age. “Our mother made us a small Punch and Judy stage, which became my four-year-old brother’s pride and joy. It was supposed to be for marionettes but he turned it upside down and made papier-mâché hand puppets,” Paul recalls. “He was stage director, playwright and all the actors. Until he went on to boarding school he dedicated his life to performing for everyone who came into our house.”
When the family left Japan, Paul went to the United States to join the Air Force, inspired by a field trip with Mrs Richardson’s science club to Tachikawa Air Force Base where he saw F-86 fighters being prepared and taking off for sorties in Korea. Jonathan and his parents returned to London. After leaving the Air Force Paul went on to study mechanical engineering at El Camino College before joining an industrial design firm. When IBM invited Charles Eames to design a pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, which featured an Ovoid Theater and animatronic displays, Paul’s firm was involved in realizing Eames’ vision. Needing someone with both technical expertise and a theater background, Paul invited his brother to work on the Eames/Saarinen project, eventually leaving him to finish the job while he took up his place to study architecture at the University of Oklahoma.
By the time that John Dykstra was putting together his ILM team for Star Wars in 1977, Erland had developed greater expertise in industrial design processes. His experience with injection molding plastics and industrial strength model making was key to producing many of the elaborate spaceship designs required for the film. “Normally you can go rent cameras and everything you need to make a movie,” Erland says. “But on Star Wars we spent a great deal of time in the beginning building all of the equipment—including the camera—that was going to be needed.” For the first few months there wasn’t much for the studio execs to see despite the million dollar effects budget. “The only shot that the studio saw early on was the one shot in the whole movie that didn't involve anything sophisticated—although it turned out to be one of many people's favorite shots— which is the escape pod jettisoning from the blockade runner,” Erland recalls. Achieved with black velveteen on the floor, a model escape pod falling out of the bigger blockade runner model and a camera lifted up to the ceiling on a forklift, the ingenious shot was done without blue screen or motion control.
Star Wars “was almost an orphan film, the studio didn’t really have faith in it,” Erland notes and it wasn’t until some of the effects shots started to take shape that the execs agreed to increase the VFX budget to $1.5 million. “As we started to shoot miniatures of the Death Star and all of that, and we saw more and more coming back from London it slowly started coming together,” Erland says. “It began to dawn on us pretty much all at the same time, that this wasn’t going to be a complete dud, it was actually shaping up into an interesting looking movie.”
Erland and some of the rest of the team thought that they might be able to supplement their modest salaries by making an investment in the picture. “Some of us were thinking, well maybe we should buy some studio stock if it's going to be a good movie. A few of us asked George Lucas if he thought that was a good idea,” Erland says. Lucas confidently told them, “There's no way this movie will be to be able to make any impact on the stock of a big studio. They have masses of movies, this is just one little movie in their lineup—can't do a thing for them.” History proved Lucas wrong.
It wasn’t until the cast and crew screening at the Academy that Erland got to see the finished picture. “When the movie ended there was absolute pandemonium. People were jumping up and down, cheering. I’ve never seen another first screening like that since,” he says. “We knew it was a good movie, but whether it was going to be a hit or not we didn’t know.” Once the picture was released and people were lining up around the block, it was clear that audiences loved it as much as the crew. “I was going to say we finished the movie just in time for its release, except that it really wasn't completely finished when it was released. It was screened at [Mann’s] Chinese Theater and, so at the end of the day we’d get the film back, improve shots and so forth and then send it back to them,” Erland recalls.
Following Star Wars, Erland continued to work with Dykstra joining his company Apogee, Inc, where he created effects for films such as Battlestar Galactica (1978), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Spaceballs (1987). “This is a bit more interesting, after all, than designing soy sauce bottles,” he told TV Week at the time. In addition to his work on individual films, Erland was also pursuing research and he would go on to author 20 papers for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineering (SMPTE). One of his breakthroughs was the development of new bluescreen technology for the movie Firefox (1982), a story about a pilot who is sent into the Soviet Union on a mission to steal a prototype jet fighter.
Clint Eastwood, the movie’s star and director, was insistent that the titular jet be a glossy, shiny black, which proved problematic for the effects shots of the model plane. “The conventional way of shooting that would be on a blue screen stage. But if you put that thing in front of a blue screen, basically the shiny black areas reflect the bluescreen and appear as holes,” Erland explains. “We suggested that we could make him a nice matte black plane, but he said ‘Oh, no. Its got to be shiny.’ So we tried for a long time to make it work using the bluescreen and doing crazy things like putting matte black paper on the plane and making a pass that way but it was terrible,” Erland says. He had to find a different way to make the mattes—the different elements composited together to create a completed shot. Motion control, where a computer-controlled camera can make the same precise move over multiple takes, allowed Erland “to turn the bluescreen process inside out and I coated the miniature Firefox planes with an invisible fluorescent paint. Then instead of having the blue screen behind reflecting on the plane we would do a pass with the plane illuminated with black light so that the plane was now glowing.” Another pass under regular lighting allowed Erland to composite the two together and eliminate reflections from the surface of the plane. The technique became known as reverse bluescreen and Erland, and his colleague Roger Dorney, received a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy for their innovation in 1984.
“As with most of the VFX shows I’ve worked on, I didn’t have a great deal of direct contact with the director. Mercifully, John Dykstra had that duty. In the case of Clint Eastwood, my perception was that he was quite frustrated with the process of visual effects. It was not his forte and I don’t think he ever got comfortable with the very painstaking pace required,” Erland says. “However, and in spite of the foregoing, he did support the research that I needed to do to solve the problem presented by his selection of the glossy black jet fighter that had the title role in his movie... While he didn’t know, or perhaps even care to know, the details of the problem, he evidently did understand that we had an extremely difficult problem to solve and that we were very much in a cliffhanger situation. So, for that, I’m very grateful to him.”
Erland went on to receive further recognition from the Academy, receiving a Technical Achievement Award in 1985 for the design and development of the "Blue Max" high-power, blue-flux projector for traveling matte composite photography and his work on an innovative design for front projection screens and an improved method for their construction. He shared the award with his colleagues, Donald Trumball, Stephen Fog and Robert Bealmear. After serving as Director of Research and Development for Apogee Productions until the company closed in 1992, Erland formed Composite Components Company with his wife Kay, a former social worker he met “pre-Star Wars.” In 1997, the couple received a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy for the development of the Digital Series Traveling Matte Backing System used for composite photography in motion pictures. Further recognition of Erland’s extensive body of work came in 2012 with the Academy’s John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation. This year, his many contributions to the development of cinema technology were recognized when he was presented with the Gordon E Sawyer Award and an Oscar statuette.
Erland’s relationship with the Academy goes deeper than merely being the recipient of its awards. Erland joined the Academy in 1984, and was later invited by its president, Karl Malden, to chair its visual effects committee. At the time there was no annual award for visual effects, although the committee could submit nominations for an award. “The directors had a branch and the cinematographers had a branch, but at the time we didn’t,” Erland explains. “More and more visual effects films were being made and so when I was chair of the visual effects committee I lobbied to have a branch created.” He was successful and in 1995 a visual effects branch of the Academy was formed.
“Simultaneously I was also looking to reestablish what used to be the Research Council. When the Academy was founded [in 1927] they did a lot of research into technology with sound, lights and everything to do with movie making.” In 1932, the Academy had created the Research Council which continued to operate in various forms through the mid-1970s, before turning things over to the Producers Association. By the time Erland was chairing the visual effects branch of the Academy there was a research vacuum and he successfully lobbied to have the Academy recognize the importance of technical research for the industry. Thanks to his efforts the Academy’s Science and Technology Council was established in 2003.
As Chair of the Council’s Research Committee, Erland initiated a study of the newly emerging solid state lighting—LED’s, which promised significant energy savings. In spite of massive funding by government and private industry, the new lights exhibited serious deficiencies in performance leading to inaccurate color rendition and what he described as, “chromatic chaos.” The Council’s efforts, joined by a growing chorus of criticism from others, eventually resulted in significant improvements in the quality of LED’s. He also proposed a new index, called the Spectral Similarity Index (SSI) as an alternative to the familiar CRI (Color Rendering Index) as an improved method to assess the color quality of LED’s.
With the Academy's mandatory nine-year term out for all its committees, Erland went on to found The Pickfair Institute for Cinematic Studies, which takes its name from film pioneers Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and their home of the same moniker. The Institute’s goal is to conduct and promote research into the history and heritage of film to advance the evolution of movie making. Erland sees an opportunity to learn from the early silent-era filmmakers and provide current directors and cinematographers with the freedom to explore variable frame rates—something that was easily achievable with early hand cranked film cameras. “The cinematographer who was hand cranking was basically the master time itself. He was subtly changing the rate at which he was cranking and changing the timeframe that you were watching,” Erland explains. “That palette that the cinematographer had in the silent days was lost because sound imposed a 24 frames per second speed that you could not alter... I'm saying that now we can have all of that back again in the context of modern production even with the sound.” Erland has also developed a solution for how to screen silent films, which were shot at 16 frames per second, on digital projectors that previously couldn’t project below 20 frames per second.
It’s clear from the way Erland talks about these projects that even after a lifetime in the film business he’s lost none of his passion to innovate and develop new technologies. As the Academy’s second president William DeMille said in a 1929 quote used by Erland in his acceptance speech for the John A. Bonner Medal: “If we don’t get the science first, you ain’t gonna get no art.”