Exclusive: interview with Stewart Barbee, cameraman of Star Wars – Return Of The Jedi
We live in the age of Star Wars. Well, that sounds a bit obvious, but really, since the first legendary episode came out in 1977, Star Wars has dominated the world. Now that the saga has rediscovered its vigorous magic and success with The Force Awakens, this statement has never sounded truer. The release of this new episode, produced by Disney and directed by J.J. Abrams for the first time, has reignited the passion far and wide around the globe with everyone wanting to say their piece, including us. And so, we asked ourselves, why don’t we consult someone that had an active part in the earlier years of this world-renowned legend? Someone who has breathed the air on the set in the glorious days of the first trilogy, in a period in which the world and film worked in a much different way than they do now.
The Force Awakens, with its energy and brilliance, fearlessly revokes the spirit of that earlier period, while also treasuring the lessons of the last four decades and projecting itself toward a very promising future. This is where Stewart Barbee comes into play. Stewart, an effects cameraman, has had a long and multi-colored career ranging from documentaries to action-packed films (Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan and The Right Stuff, to name a few) and as the special effects cameraman for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), he also worked on the Return of the Jedi.
We reached out to him and asked if we could interview him. He accepted with enthusiasm, answering our questions that span from his experience on the set of the Return of the Jedi to his impression of the more recent use of digital technology in the world of cinema and of course his thoughts on The Force Awakens! In the body of the article you will also find photos from the backstage of Return of the Jedi that he has shared with us.
Mr. Barbee, can you please describe how you became affiliated with Star Wars?
I was hired at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) as an effects cameraman in the early 1980s. ILM was the division of Lucasfilm which produced the special effects for all Star Wars films. ILM began in Van Nuys, California in 1975. After the first Star Wars film, George Lucas moved the company to San Rafael, CA in 1978. He took over a building on Kerner Blvd and this became ILM until the company moved to the Presidio in San Francisco in 2005.
The sign on the front of the ILM building said, “The Kerner Company” and remained this way for all the years ILM existed there. This kept people from wandering in off the street and trying to get a peek at ILM activities and helped the company to keep a low profile. Most people had no idea of what was going on there. I got myself hired during the production of Star Trek II, which mostly involved explosions of star ships for the space battles, etc., although, I also got to film the model of the Enterprise for many of the effects scenes including the warp speed effect. This was very complicated and is a whole other story in itself.
Since I was a local cameraman with years of experience including combat photography during the Vietnam War as well as lots of experience in high speed motion picture photography for sports, I was perfect for the job. I didn’t get jumpy when things blew up and I knew the ins and outs of the high speed motion picture game. So I went to work doing effects for Star Trek II and then started working on Return of the Jedi under the first wizard of Star Wars effects, Richard Edlund, who was primarily responsible for the amazing effects that started the Star Wars revolution. It might seem twisted, but it was fun blowing up all those starships.
What was your task on the set of The Return Of The Jedi?
As an effects cameraman, I would mount a Photosonics high speed 16mm camera on a low plate, pointing straight up from the stage floor. We would mount extra thick optical glass in front of the camera lens and cover the camera and me with several layers of duvetyne (fire retardant black cloth). The pyrotechnic crew would then make different mixtures of substances and chemicals for different effects, color, size, duration, brightness, sparkle etc., which would be placed into balloons and hung by piano wire from the stage ceiling. When the lights were out and the camera was rolling, the pyro guys would explode the devices and then immediately switch on the lights and the grips standing by with fire extinguishers would run over and put out the fire which had dropped directly onto me and the camera.
Needless to say it was an exciting way to spend the day. The daily viewing of these explosions in the screening room brought lots of “oohs” and “aahs” from everyone as they were spectacular. Once we got an explosion that looked just right we would then recreate it using the 35mm VistaVision camera. The reason for this was economical as the 16 mm 4 perf camera was way less expensive to operate than using the 35mm 8 perf VistaVision camera.
This technique, shooting tests in 16mm and then switching to 35mm for the final scene, saved a ton of film and processing costs. I operated in this manner for weeks on end. After this I moved on to shoot effects for Return of the Jedi, which was in full production at that time. Interestingly, the working title for the movie was Revenge of the Jedi until just a short time before its premiere. Someone suggested to George that a Jedi warrior would never take revenge and voila, the name of the movie changed overnight. Some of my favorite memorabilia are the jacket patches and movie poster, which I still have, that say “Revenge of the Jedi”. These are real collectors items, I suppose.
What was the hardest scene to shoot on The Return Of The Jedi?
The most difficult shot that I was assigned for Jedi was the scene where the Ewoks release the logs from the tree tops and they swing down through the forest and simultaneously crush a Walker. We constructed a set that looked like the Redwood forest. The log we used for the effect was in reality made from a cardboard tube about ten feet in length as were the forest trees. It was also tapered and larger on the end that faced the camera.
This was to force the perspective to make it look larger and longer. We attached a fine piano wire to the small end and attached the other end of the wire to a step motor which we hung from the rafters at the top of the stage. In this way, we were able to remotely let the log down from the top of the stage in tiny increments, a step at a time, hence step motor. Our first attempts looked promising as we had the correct lens size, camera angle, lighting, etc. We filmed the log swing at a very slow camera rate, frame by frame and stepping the log lower between each camera frame exposed. The problem was that each time we lowered the log by a step, the large (or camera end) of the log, would wobble a tiny bit. This was very perceptible when we viewed the shot in the screening room at normal speed.
This is 24 frames a second. It appeared as though the log was shaking as it swung through the trees. In fact this would never happen with a tree that weighs several tons. In reality, a tree would swing relatively smoothly because of its mass. So we had a major problem on our hands. We tried many different camera speeds and shutter angle combinations. We also experimented with adding weight to the log and different step motor speeds, sometimes waiting minutes between steps for the log to stop wobbling before taking the next step and camera exposure. Nothing we tried seemed to work. We spent days experimenting, and between each shot attempt we would have to reverse the step motor and pull the log back up into the rafters and reset the shot for another pass. On one of these occasions resetting the log,
I noticed that the log did not seem to wobble as the motor pulled it up into the rafters at the top of the stage. I had the stagehands lower the log and pull it back to the rafters several times while I had everyone on the stage crew watch the procedure. We were all convinced that there was no wobble and that the log moved as smooth as silk as it was being pulled up, as opposed to the wobble as it stepped lower.
Convinced, I devised a plan. We would shoot the scene in reverse. I also decided that I wanted the log to swing past the camera lens and in order to get the proper angle I had the stagehands tilt the forest set almost 45 degrees from the stage floor. This changed the camera angle and worked to perfection. I had my camera assistant run a full magazine of unexposed film through the camera with the lens cap on as not to expose the film.
We prepared the camera to shoot in reverse and then pulled the log past the camera, through the forest set, and up into the rafters. So in reality, we filmed this scene in reverse or backwards, tail to head. Upon screening the film as it was projected, head to tail, we had a wonderful result. Absolutely no wobble, the shot was accepted and edited into the movie. “Voila!”
Which scene was your favorite to shoot and why?
Really, I don’t have a favorite. Every shot I did was interesting and unique in its own way. One of the most fun, however, was the shot of the demise of the Emperor in the scene where he falls down the shaft inside the Death Star. The background in this scene was a matte painting and a separate element. The Emperor, as he falls away, is actually a fully detailed and articulated doll about 18 inches in length which was wire operated by a puppeteer to move the head, arms and legs. In order to accomplish the effect of his falling we had to make the camera rush away from the doll to create the effect of falling.
We set up a dolly track on the main stage. I had the grips lay the track diagonally across the stage to maximize the distance we could travel. We put the doll in front of a large Blue Screen in one corner of the stage and had the dolly track running away from the doll all the way across the stage to the opposite corner. For technical reasons we had to shoot this scene in real time, 24 frames per second. We used a wide lens so we could start close to the Emperor Doll, and in order to force the perspective. Then on cue, four grips would push the camera dolly away from the doll and to the far side of the stage as fast as they could run.
The camera would of course, accelerate away from the articulated dolly and it would appear as though it was falling away. This was all very good except that by the time the camera dolly, with me operating and the assistant onboard to pull focus, got to the far side of the stage we were traveling at a high rate of speed. As you can imagine, the camera dolly weighs some hundreds of pounds and with the addition of the camera, operator and assistant, this created a lot of mass. So the problem was how to stop the dolly, with camera crew, from crashing into the stage wall at the end of the track.
We made a stack of empty cardboard boxes in the corner and then placed soft foam sheets in front of that to take the impact if we went too far. We also stationed an additional six or so grips at the end of the track to catch the rig as it approached. We made a couple of test runs at half speed and then did a few takes at full speed. This was thrilling to say the least as I was traveling backwards across a dark stage at high speed all the while trusting that we would be caught and stopped before we slammed into the corner of the stage. We came within inches a few times, but the shot came off perfectly and nobody was hurt.
Are you a fan of Star Wars? The Old Trilogy or New Trilogy?
I really was amazed when I saw the original Star Wars for the first time as most of us were. None of us had ever seen anything quite like it before. And, the special effects were so, well, special. This was a combination of very imaginative filmmaking, George Lucas, the ILM Crew and technical equipment, and the VistaVison process. The New Trilogy, being produced not with live action effects but mostly computer effects, just never came close to the look or feel of the original three films.
Have you seen The Force Awakens? If so, were you pleased or disappointed in how Disney carried on the Star Wars legacy?
Because I was asked to participate in this interview, I took the opportunity to go see the new film. After seeing most of the prequel and being more or less under impressed with it, I was skeptical of what Disney may come up with.
After all, Disney has its own brand and way of film production. Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, Fantasia, Cinderella, etc. I honestly didn’t think I would be impressed with it any more than with the last three Star Wars films. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you have asked me this question and that it prompted me to go see the film. Wow, I was knocked out, totally entertained and entirely pleased with the result.
To me, to my eye, this film was very much like seeing the original Star Wars back in the 1970s. I was totally pleased with the storyline and the effects. I think Disney did a wonderful job on this movie. It is very unlike me to want to see a film twice, but I enjoyed this film so much that I fully intend to go see it again in order to catch anything I may have missed at my first viewing. I ran into one of my old ILM buddies at the gym the other day and he was as excited and please as I am.
It looked to us that Disney has gone back to doing some live effects, I think this was with the explosions because fire is so difficult to duplicate in CGI rather than entirely computer generated effects. Anyway, it appeared to be a perfect mix of old and new.
In the early eighties, did you imagine the Star Wars saga would endure and grow the way it has in the last decades?
I always felt that the Star Wars story would be popular but I had no idea that it would become as big of a phenomenon as it is today. Star Wars was groundbreaking because of the way the effects were produced, and also because it took an age old story of good versus evil and moved it out into space, which is of course, the new frontier. The storyline itself is as old as mankind, but the way George produced the effects is what really set it apart from everything else.
I mean the story was really just another standard B movie, but with the addition of its unique effects, it became something else altogether and set the trend for everything that was to follow to this day.
Generally speaking, what do you think about the switching from practical to CGI effects?
Call me a dinosaur, but I have always been a fan of live film effects versus digital or computer effects. I understand the thinking and reasoning for the switch, but my eye can still see and tell the difference.
To me, film has a totally unique look, a feel that will never quite be duplicated with computers, at least in my lifetime. One frame of color film is made up of three layers of emulsion. Contained in the emulsion are millions if not billions of light sensitive silver halide particles of all sizes and shapes. Each of these particles are affected by exposure to light. So, it follows that one frame of film can hold an almost infinite amount of information.
The CGI world or computer world operates in megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes, etc., it is just so totally different I don’t know how they can even be compared. Analog is analog and digital is digital. Analog, emulsion, is like a continuous line starting horizontally and continuing in a smooth curve to the vertical, the other, Digital, consists of ones and zeros in a line that looks like a stairway of horizontal and vertical steps to achieve the same end. They may be similar in the end but never really exactly the same.
What do you think of the modern blockbusters? Do you have a favorite director working in the business today?
As far as blockbusters go, I think George Lucas and Steven Spielberg changed the B movie world forever with their early special effects films. It seems that what would normally be a B movie now has to be made with millions of dollars worth of special effects in them. I would love to see the film industry get back to producing good solid films without all the spectacular effects. My all-time favorite motion picture personality is, hands down, Clint Eastwood.
I was fortunate to have worked with him on two films, during my career, in which he not only acted but directed. They are Dead Pool and True Crimes. It turns out that Mr. Eastwood, as a producer, director and actor is the most professional and loyal person I have ever worked for in the film business. I am not the only one who thinks this way, as many of my peers have expressed this view as well. On more than one occasion I was working with him on a multiple camera setup where he was satisfied with just one take, the first take, and we would then move on. This was so unlike most directors who would do multiple takes even if all concerned agreed that the take was good.
I think this is due to insecurity which seems not to be an issue with Mr. Eastwood. When the take is good and camera and sound agree, he is comfortable and secure enough to move on. He also was extremely loyal to the crews, many who have been with him for years. I also like his movies. He has produced so many and they are always entertaining and simplistic. So in my estimation, he is the best of the best and I only wish I could have done more productions with him and his company, Malpaso Productions, during my film career.