Paul Huston interview | ILM | Star Wars

Paul Huston
Visual Effects (original trilogy & prequel trilogy)
Interview: March 2010

How did you get started in the movie business?

I was hired as a story board artist to help with the first set of effects storyboards for Star Wars.

You have been at ILM since 1976 if I’m correct. How did you get started there?

I was hired in August of 1975. A teacher of mine at the University of Colorado had left to work as part of the group that formed the first ILM, and he told me to come by and see him after I graduated from architecture school. They were looking for people to help and at that time there weren’t many people in LA that were interested or experienced in visual effects, strange as that may seem today. I had worked really hard in this teacher’s classes and he knew I was interested in effects and graphics. I was in LA with my portfolio, looking for work, and I went by to see him at the warehouse in Van Nuys and luckily enough they were just crewing up and I got a job.

For A New Hope you were one of the model makers. Which models did you exactly work on?
And how did you approach the job of making models of starships?

I designed and built the wings of the TIE fighters, the Death Star Cannon, and the end portal of the trench that Luke’s torpedo goes in to blow up the Death Star, I worked on the Y-wing and X-wing fighters, the sandcrawler, the 3 foot white Star Destroyer, Luke’s Landspeeder and the Death Star surface. I detailed about 1/3 of the original Millennium Falcon that became the freighter that is overtaken by the white star destroyer in the beginning shot of the film. I detailed the main cockpit area of the Millennium Falcon. I built and prepped the exploding versions of the TIE fighters, X-wings and Y-wings.
My job was to add details to the basic form of the model to make it look as if it could be functional and be the correct scale for what it’s size was in the film. It involved making things out of plastic that looked like plating, mechanical systems, plumbing, landing gear, laser blasters, vents, injectors, ducts, fuel tanks etc. Some of the parts were scratch built and some were scavenged from plastic model kits.

How was the atmosphere at ILM back in the ‘old days’; especially before A New Hope (when everything was new) and after A New Hope (when ILM suddenly became THE special effects department).

Well it wasn’t really that different. Both places had very small crews, everyone knew each other, and everyone was very excited to be working on such fun movies. Most of the people were artists and technicians, everything was very informal and although everyone took the projects seriously, almost no one was very serious! There was a lot of joking and partying and playing around between the bouts of hard work.

After A New Hope came The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. For these movies you were respectively model maker/camera assistant and chief model maker. For which models were you responsible and can you share your memories regarding your work on these movies?

For Empire I built the 8 foot white Star Destroyer, literally built the whole understructure, mounting, wiring and cooling systems, external skin, about 90% of the detail, and did the paint job. I designed and built the structure of Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer, designed and installed the neon and tungsten lighting systems and supervised the detailing. I translated Ralph McQuarrie’s painting of the Probot into drawings and built the animation size version of it with help from Lorne Peterson. I built the Cloud Cars with Tom Rudduck. I designed and built many of the space craft that were part of the fleet around the hospital ship at the end. For A New Hope I had been a camera assistant shooting TIE fighters and the Death Star Trench on the Dykstra flex with Doug Smith, and for Empire I continued on the camera stage as an assistant for Don Dow shooting Snow Speeders, cloud cars and matte paintings of Cloud City.

For Return of the Jedi I was in charge of the large scale Walker project which included the set on which it was shot. It was fun building an all-metal somewhat large scale (1″ to the foot) model and a set for it, complete with painted backing.
As far as I know, that was the first outdoor miniature set used in the Star Wars movies. We built and shot it outside in sunlight with a high speed camera. I had built a rig that would release two logs to crush the Walkers “head”, and since it was near Thanksgiving, we put a pumpkin in place of the Walker and smashed it, getting the whole thing on film.

If I’m correct you became a matte artist after the Star Wars trilogy. What made you decide to make the change from models to mattes?

I continued on in the model shop for many projects after the Star Wars trilogy, including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but I had formed friendships with Mike Pangrazio and Craig Barron on Empire and they kept getting me involved in matte department projects, which were always a lot of fun. The matte department was very small and frequently got to do entire shots from design to delivery. That really appealed to me as there was so much to learn that way that I could never learn just being involved in one part of the production process in the model shop. So I started doing matte photography and building models for matte shots. I have painted since I was twelve years old so of course I was interested in the matte painting part of it as well and as time went by I had the opportunity to do paintings.

You were responsible for the new Mos Eisley scenes and Ben Kenobi’s hut in the special edition. How big was your own input for these scenes?
And can you describe your work on the special editions? I read that you started 3 years in advance, in 1994?

Ben Kenobi’s hut was my design since there was no plate or original photography to start with. I built a model and photographed it, and photographed a model of Luke’s landspeeder to use as source material.
An art director, Ty Ellingson, drew a storyboard that I based the design of a shot of Mos Eisley, the one with the large crashed space ship in the center. The shot of the rearing creature with Mos Eisley in the background was from original photography, so it was more of a set extension with buildings made from various miscellaneous plastic and paper parts, including paper coffee cups. The shot of the land speeder going down the street was a complete 1/2″ to the foot model made of foam core. The buildings in the far background are a mix of things, some cg, and some painted trash cans. I worked with John Knoll to do the shot of the Millennium Falcon taking off from the landing pad. In all of these shots I built and photographed the models and did the matte paintings.

I didn’t start three years in advance to actually do these shots, but in 1993 I believe, we started working on the Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series for George, and tried out many techniques for working with digital matte paintings that I later used for the special editions.

You once said the following regarding working on the special editions:
“Doing million dollar work on a shoestring budget.”
What did you exactly mean with this? Was the budget really that tight? Why was this?

Prior to the advent of digital tools it was very difficult and expensive to do photography and compositing for motion pictures. On the special editions suddenly it was possible to do things much faster and consequently spend much less money. Or spend the same amount of money and do much more! Also, I like making dramatic statements.

When the Star Wars prequels came you were responsible for the digital mattes. How much was your work different than for the original trilogy and how did it feel to get back to working on movies that started it all?

As far as the work, it wasn’t a dramatic change since the tools and processes evolved over a period of years. The big change for me came in 1990 when I started working with Photoshop on commercials and Young Indy. By the time we started on Phantom Menace it was an entirely different approach with seemingly endless possibilities. It was very exciting. One of the biggest opportunities was to do matte paintings with almost unlimited camera movement. I was able to exploit this possibility extensively in the Pod Race, where Jonathan Harb and I did 70% of the backgrounds.

At the time, and still today there is controversy concerning the quality of digital techniques versus the so-called “traditional techniques”, which is kind of ironic since visual effects has always used the most current technology to solve imaging problems. Imperfection is a characteristic of early attempts, perfection comes later with further development and more widely diffused knowledge. Personally I love the excitement and feeling of possibility of the first invention.

I liked the “used future” concept of the first trilogy where everything is old and beat up. The prequels exist in a shinier and newer world that to me is less interesting visually, but perhaps more suitably conveyed using the cg techniques of the time.

You have been in the effects business for more than three decades. You have witnessed the evolution of effects, from models and stop-motion to CGI. What is your own opinion regarding this evolution and where will it go the next 10, 20 years?

What is happening right now is very interesting in that we are moving into an integrated virtual world where there will be less and less awareness of the processes that the computer does and more direct creation without being concerned with disk space, file compatibility, rendering times, color space, memory, processors and processes etc. Cloud computing, unified simulation environments, simulated virtual lighting and massively parallel processing along with advances in input modes and standardization of file formats and programs that allow for cross program and cross platform translation will allow the artists to concentrate mainly on the forms and textures and colors that they are trying to create without worrying about technical limitations that will become obsolete. Of course they will have to worry about other problems that will come with the new solutions as they always do! I expect that there will be a trend towards more practical photography as well at some point when 3D printing becomes cheaper and more widely available, allowing people to create costumes, sets and props of very high quality and low cost. Increases in resolution and transfer rates will make media much more dynamic, believable and exciting. Graphics will follow Moore’s law along with the computer chip to more, better, faster.
I have been expecting for some time that individual artists or very small groups of artists would be able to make their own films, much as James Cameron made Avatar, but with the help of thousands of computers and sophisticated programs verging on artificial intelligence rather than thousands of other artists.

There is criticism on CGI sometimes. People often say that the old effects with models, mattes, stop-motion etc were more realistic than CGI, which can sometimes look like a videogame. This was said for instance about the Star Wars prequels. What do you have to say about this?

This is not an inherent quality of CG, that it looks like a video game. It is only at this stage in its development that people can recognize the difference between real photography and CG. As research continues and solutions and awareness develop, CG will become indistinguishable from actual photography. Some product and architectural visualization still images are at this stage now, and it is only a matter of time before this will develop in film. The Star Wars prequels were at a very early stage of use of cg in films, that by the way was investigated by George Lucas and Gary Kurtz for A New Hope. They commissioned the rendering of a still image of an x-wing fighter that had all of us in the model shop quite scared for our jobs. Gary saw the looks on our faces and said “Don’t worry, it’s hideously expensive!”

How is it working at ILM these days? You are one of the few that is still there since the seventies, are you a mentor to the younger crewmembers?

ILM for me is all about learning and expanding my skills. That’s why I love it. Nothing has changed. You go away for a week and come back and there are ten new things to learn. Thirty years ago it was blue screens, film stocks, industrial tools and materials, photo-electric gadgets, today it is lighting and physical simulations, compositing painting and 3d software, rendering and asset management. The thing that is constant is the concern for a cool image and that drives everything.
As far as being a being a mentor to the younger crew members, I like and try to be if they want it, although most of them think of me as an ancient relic from a distant past! A long time ago in a galaxy far away if you will.

You have a really incredible list of movies you have worked on. Which movie are you most proud of? And why?

I’m really proud of everything to tell you the truth. I have been incredibly lucky to be part of the golden age of visual effects and I have to pinch myself every day to make sure I’m not dreaming.

Regarding your work on Star Wars: how do you back at the movies?

All the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films were fantastic to work on. It was a very special time to be working in effects. The first trilogy was particularly exciting because it was new to me and everyone else. It was a very small group of people and we had incredible amount of freedom as long as we could solve the production problems and get things done on time. I had to invent things literally every day. I would wake up in the morning thinking about how I would solve the things I had in front of me that day, how I would direct people in the direction we needed to go, how I would overcome logistical and mechanical and artistic and communication problems. At times it seemed impossible, but now I look back at it as a wonderfully dynamic, exciting and rewarding time.

What are your current projects? And will you be working on the Star Wars live action series?

The next projects I’ve worked on to hit the theatres are The Last Airbender and Iron Man 2. I did a little work on Avatar.
We’ll see about the Star Wars live action series.