The Story Behind 5757 (random thoughts)

1976 me, parking lot, ilm

1976 me, parking lot, ilm

5757 is a home movie I shot while working at Industrial Light & Magic on the very first Star Wars film.  At that time, Industrial Light & Magic was located at 6842 Valjean Avenue in Van Nuys, California. The phone number was something like 989-5757. When anyone answered the phone, the standard greeting was “five seven five seven”, hence the title 5757.

In 1975 and into early 1976 I was wallowing in the graduate film program at CalArts ostensibly studying film graphics. To cover tuition, I taught the Optical Printer class and the Oxberry Camera class. These classes were previously taught by one of my Mentors, the legendary Pat O’Neill, who left teaching at CalArts in 1975. Another friend from CalArts, Adam Beckett, had managed to land a job as animation supervisor on a new science fiction film directed by George Lucas, creator of American Graffiti. Beckett himself was a legend at CalArts known both for his unique psychedelic and sometimes erotic animated films (which also featured ground breaking Optical Printer and Oxberry Camera magic) and for his larger than life personality.

Actually, I had heard about Star Wars from a Time Magazine article published in 1975 (something about renewed interested in Science Fiction). There was a brief mention in the article that George Lucas’s new film was to be Star Wars, which he described as “a spaghetti western in outer space”. This really interested me, because not only was I a science fiction film fan, but I was a nut for Sergio Leone films. Later, when I actually read the script for Star Wars, I was picturing spaghetti western actors in key roles. Warren Oates as Han Solo. Think about it. (For whatever Star Wars is, it is NOT a spaghetti western in outer space. Still waiting for that one.)

Anyhow, knowing Adam Beckett, having a feeling that this might be something special, I began to lobby for a job at this new effects shop, set up specifically for Star Wars: Industrial Light & Magic. Finally, in early 1976, Beckett got me an interview with John Dykstra, and (hallelulah!), I was hired into the Rotoscope & Animation department for the princely sum of $180 per week.

1976 me, ilm screening room

1976 me, ilm screening room

At that time, the Rotoscope & Animation department consisted of Beckett, Mike Ross and myself. A couple of weeks after I was hired, 18 year old Pete Kuran joined the group. Beckett & Mike Ross were animators, Kuran could do anything. I faked it, doing mostly camera work. The cameras we were using were old Bell & Howell 2709 cameras from the silent movie days, the hand crank cameras. They were modified to accommodate the VistaVision format, and motorized. When we opened up the cameras to service them, we found that they were inscribed with initials and dates by the service men who had previously worked on them. All the dates were pre 1920. We would shoot tests every day, working late into the night, and then one of us would deliver the film to the lab in Hollywood so we could get back the results the next morning. I logged 80 hours of work in week 3.

After a few weeks, when I became more comfortable in the job, I began bringing my Super-8 film camera in to film some “home movies”. I had been shooting Super-8 movies since my High School days. At this point, I should acknowledge the question many pose after “being subjected” to any of my old Super-8 home movies: Dave, you went to film school, you worked professionally in feature films: how can your home movies be so incoherent and poorly filmed!? Consider: how do you shoot in low light conditions using Kodachrome II, which has an ASA of 40? My solution was to increase the length of exposure, and decrease the frame rate of the film. I was using a Nizo Super-8 camera, which gave you the ability to shoot at 6 frames per second with longer exposure times, thus giving you a work around in low light situations. The trade off  is the streaky and stepped look of the results (I had a Bolex Super-8 projector which you could slow down to 6 frames per second). But, I will confess, I loved the trippy, “distressed” look of Super-8, and rather than try to mask it, I embraced it. No apologies.

I never edited any of my Super-8 films after I shot them, other than to splice the rolls together. Editing was too tedious. The Super-8 camera was like a sketch book for me: I edited little collages right in the camera, and the Nizo camera I used gave you a lot of control over this. There was a built-in intervalometer, where you could vary the frame rate, and a single-frame trigger. I still have my trusty little Nizo S-800!

1976 me in the ILM cold tub

1976 me in the ILM cold tub

5757 may give the mistaken impression that working on Stars Wars was one big party at ILM. Quite the opposite. It was exciting and stressful, and many close friendships developed which last to this day (for many of us, it was our first big job in the film industry). So whenever we were celebrating something or another (usually somebodies birthday) was when I had time to get out my camera. The water slide thing in the parking lot happened to be on a day when it was intolerably hot (other than the Optical Department, there was no air conditioning). Everything else is quick sketches here and there, as best I could manage.

As to my own fate, I moved out of Animation & Rotoscope onto the Camera & Stage department for a few months where Dave Robman and I mainly assisted Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren or Ken Ralston. We also shot star field and matte painting backgrounds. After that, I was recruited into the Optical Department by Robbie Blalack, who I also knew from CalArts. By that time, stress levels were high, as we had a lot of composites we had to deliver in a short amount of time, so we had to keep the department running 24/7. I worked the night shift on either the so-called “Anderson” Printer or the “Praxis” Printer. The “Anderson” Printer was acquired from Howard Anderson Company, and was kluged together on an old lathe bed used to manufacture rifles, supposedly. The camera was built by Paramount and used on the 1956 version of  The Ten Commandments (which was shot in VistaVision). Supposedly, the famous “parting of the Red Sea” scene was composited on this printer. Some years later, after the printer had been moved to ILM’s new location in San Rafael, California, I met Paul Lerpae, who was one of the Anderson Printer Operators on The Ten Commandments. Currently, the “Anderson” Printer is on display (as a museum piece) in a stair well in the new ILM facility in San Francisco’s Presidio. The “Praxis” Printer was owned by Robbie Blalack, and originally used on the 1969 Science Fiction film Marooned. It had been donated to CalArts, but was unsuitable for student work. Blalack convinced the school to sell it to him, and he built a business (called “Praxis”) around it. The “Praxis” Printer had to be modified to accept VistaVision elements and the camera was laid on it’s side, in order to accommodate the conversion of VistaVision elements to the anamorphic Panavision format in which the film was shot (a special lens was rented from Panavision). The Optical Printers used on Star Wars were very specialized and basic, and unlike conventional Optical Printers, they were locked off, meaning you could not move the image around on x-y-z axis, which sometimes presented challenges. Also, both cameras lacked a variable shutter, making it extremely difficult to fade in or out on an element.

The Optical process was slow and tedious. All exposures had to be carefully determined through extensive testing called wedging. It would take days to get a final composite. Everything had to be carefully aligned, and a lot of preparation was required to get the elements ready for the camera. Cleanliness was important, dirt and scratches were a constant source of vexation. One mistake in the process could render a composite unusable. It is very difficult to explain the Optical process to anyone without having their eyes glaze over as you drone on monotonously about stuff like processing gamma, reciprocity, mattes and matte lines, film stocks, steadiness tests, synchronization, film perforation dimensions, density, transparency, color timing, etc ad infinitum. What? You read this far?!?!?

In 1997, there was a 20 year “reunion party” of sorts, which unfortunately I was unable to attend. By that time, I had transferred the unedited footage of my home movies to video tape, and I quickly edited the footage to send down for the party. For music I used the theme from the 1950 movie Ivanhoe by Myklos Rozsa, for this was the “temp” music that Lucas used on the rough cut for Star Wars as the opening theme. I think you can clearly hear how this music may have inspired John Williams in creating the Star Wars theme we all know so well.

I created a new edited version more than 10 years later, working from a slightly better video transfer and eventually posted it on Vimeo, and named it 5757. I gave no hint in the description or the tags that the film had anything to do with Star Wars (I was a little wary of the films marginal quality, and a possible negative reaction from Lucasfilm). I then sent out the link to a handful of old ILM buddies to enjoy. Within 3 days, the film was viewed over 7,000 times, making it by far and away the most successful film I have ever made!

Finally, this last year or so, I had the original film retransferred directly to HD. I reformatted the 4:3 images to fit in the 16:9 format (creative cropping), and worked with the color timing (I should say wrestled with the color timing), in some cases dropping color altogether to better see some of the previously hidden imagery. And from this, I re-edited creating a longer, more personal version which includes some footage from my personal life outside of ILM (all of the ILM stuff is over by 16:12, but several ILMers appear in the footage that follows).

When I was working on Star Wars, I had a nagging fear that the effects were never going to live up to the rest of the film’s production values. I had a recurring dream that I was attending the cast and crew screening, and that, yeah, all the effects we produced at ILM were in the film, but there were other effects which were way WAY better than ours done by some mysterious other entity. Perhaps a vision of the future? I dunno. My favorite scene in Star Wars? The “binary sunset” on Tatooine. Really!

Can’t get enough of 5757?  You might want to check out Scenes From Galactica, behind the scenes of the making of Battlestar Galactica at “pseudo-ILM” (same facility, much of the same equipment, much of the same crew headed by John Dykstra).