Being a part of Team Star Wars

Working on the original 1977 Star Wars was undoubtedly an amazing experience, but how cool would it have been to be a part of both A New Hope and Tron?

Well, visual effects expert Harrison Ellenshaw indeed worked on both films, and his list of credits also includes The Black Hole (matte painting effects), and Empire Strikes Back (matte painting supervisor and miniature and optical effects unit), among others.

Not to mention his father, the late Peter Ellenshaw, was a major pioneer in visual effects, combining live action and animation like never before with Mary Poppins, as well as working on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Absent Minded Professor, and many others.

Having written extensively about Star Wars, I spoke to Harrison about working on it, and in his own words here are his recollections:

“I was working at Disney, I was head of the Matte Painting Department there. It was not very common that people working at Disney would work on outside stuff, but I had done some matte paintings and effects on The Man Who Fell to Earth about a year or so before Star Wars came along. It was not without precedence that people at Disney would work on outside stuff, but it just didn’t happen that much.


“So when ILM was set up in Van Nuys, the associate producer on Star Wars at the time, Jim Nelson, came over because he knew that we occasionally worked on outside stuff. He told me about Star Wars, showed me Ralph McQuarrie’s drawings, and asked me if I was interested. I enjoyed American Graffiti, and thought Star Wars sounded like fun. I kept working at Disney, I was working on Pete’s Dragon at the time, and I would go over to ILM at night, so I was basically working two jobs.


“Star Wars really created the Golden Age of visual effects. Matte paintings were used throughout the ’20’s and ’30’s into the ’40’s. Then the studio systems began to break up. Cameras became lighter, film stocks became faster, so people could go out of the studio and shoot on location. You didn’t use visual effects and matte paintings as much because you went to the place. And fantasy films weren’t necessarily big hits, so effects kind of went away. The notable exception of course was 2001, but that’s typical of Kubrick. He certainly would never be considered a mainstream director.


“So when Star Wars came along, it was considered, even by George, as a sci-fi kind of B movie. He wanted to make it because he liked the genre. He didn’t want to make it to get rich and famous, he wanted to make it because he liked telling that kind of story. That’s part of the genius of Lucas and Spielberg is they didn’t invent a new genre, they just refined the old one. Up to that point, sci-fi movies were the only place where you really used a lot of effects animation because you couldn’t take these light cameras to planets and galaxies far, far away. Visual effects, like so much of filmmaking, gets its reputation good or bad based on the critical or commercial success of the film.

“We were watching the imagination of people that for some reason generally didn’t touch mainstream culture. So sci-fi movies up until then were just considered kind of Saturday matinee kind of fodder, and real discerning people would never be caught dead admitting they liked a sci-fi film. Star Wars changed all that. It became a phenomenon that went beyond film and film audiences. It became a social phenomenon, which exists even today.


“When I was working on Star Wars, George was very secretive about the movie. No script pages were out there, nobody could see the cut of the film, or even sequences of the film. In fact, I sometimes got very frustrated because I’d say, ‘Well George, I’d like to cut this matte painting, put this composite in, and see how it works,’ because that’s very important when you’re doing visual effects. You don’t want to just be kind of working in a vacuum. And George would say, ‘No, don’t worry about it. I’ll let you know if it doesn’t work.’ So we didn’t know what we had or what we were working on.


But there was the trailer for Star Wars that was made up probably about four, five, maybe six months before the film came out. We would run this trailer over and over and over in the screening room whenever we’d get kind of down, when we were working long hours and things weren’t working. We’d run this trailer, it was magnificent, and theaters were responding very positively to it.


“There was the buzz and the feeling at ILM that yeah, this is gonna be pretty good. Nobody in their wildest dreams, George as well, would have imagined what happened when it was released. George would preview the film up in San Francisco, he’d come back and I’d say, ‘How did it go?’ He wouldn’t say it enthusiastically, he’d go, ‘It went pretty well.’ I asked him, ‘What do you think it’s gonna do?’ He said, ‘If things go the way I hope, it’ll do James Bond type business,’ which was really good.


“Three days before the opening, the cast and crew screening was at the Academy Theater, which was pretty new at the time. There were almost 1,200 people there. And I tell you, that theme came on and we just went, ‘Whoah, this is gonna be big.’ As a matter of fact, a friend of mine called me after the screening and asked, ‘How was the screening of that film you’ve been working on?” I told him, ‘Oh, it went really well.’ And he went and bought 20th Century Fox stock and made a killing!


“I’d take my friends to the Mann Chinese, and I’d nudge them when my shots would come up. People would come up to me, ask me about Star Wars, and say, ‘Oh, this is so cool.’ Even if I hadn’t worked on it, it was the topic of conversation, it was the headline, it was on the cover of Time Magazine. People wouldn’t say, ‘Have you seen it yet?,’ they’d say, ‘How many times have you seen it?'”