We look back at the four decade anniversary of ‘Return of the Jedi’ with Industrial Light & Magic’s production supervisor on the film, Patricia Rose Duignan.
When the Industrial Light & Magic Disney+ documentary Light & Magic was released last year, befores & afters got the chance to sit down with Patricia Rose Duignan and Hal Hickel for a fun podcast looking back at ILM.
Now, for the 40th anniversary of Return of the Jedi–which is this week–Duignan is back at befores & afters for an equally entertaining conversation about her time as ILM visual effects production supervisor on the film. It’s a role that would see her manage hundreds of shots, and of course 1000s of shot elements that all had to be optically composited back then.
We discuss why Duignan decided to return to ILM for Jedi, how the show was split between four main supervisors (Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Richard Edlund and Phil Tippett), what a dailies session was like at the studio back then (including how George Lucas coined the term ‘Could Be Better’ or CBB), Duignan’s own appearance in the film as a Rebel extra, how the production was so secret that she only learnt for the first time that Luke and Leia were siblings by accident, her thoughts on getting more women into the industry (back then and today), and her experience at the film’s premiere.
Let’s go back to San Rafael in the early 1980s…
Returning to ILM
b&a: You’d previously worked at ILM on A New Hope, what made you come back?
Rose Duignan: After Star Wars, I was in LA. I was married at the time to a musician and he wasn’t ready to leave LA and I wasn’t ready to come up and work on Empire. I saw this photograph of a woman on the cover of Time magazine. I was working on Battlestar Galactica. It was a woman handing off her baby to her mother and reaching for an M16 rifle. And, I thought, that is so interesting that they are integrating the volunteer army with men and women. So, I went undercover through basic training. I go to DC. I convinced the training generals to let me do it. I come back and my diary is optioned by Michael Douglas and Phil Berry, who was an Emmy award-winning producer. I was on the creative path to be the creator of this movie of the week about integration of the army.
But, it didn’t turn out even close to how I wanted. So, I call up George Lucas and Lucasfilm, and I say, ‘I’m ready to come back to ILM.’ I moved up to San Francisco and took on Wrath of Khan. It was like coming home, Ian. It was so many of the same people from the ILM Model Shop in Van Nuys, Lorne Peterson and Steve Gawley, and all these guys that had worked with me on Star Wars. I fit right in. Coming back was so great because you’re working with the smartest people in the world. The most brilliant people in the world.
b&a: You really seemed to manage a huge production, here, with Jedi. How did you do that? Where did you start with just getting shots out the door, basically, and managing all these people?
Rose Duignan: Well, I think Star Wars was a good example, where I came in and the team had nothing done. It was when George returned from England and there was nothing to show him. They had spent all that time making the equipment and getting ready. So, back then, I worked with George Mather and we came up with a system to organize. I’m just very organized. Last weekend at the 40th reunion for Return of the Jedi, everyone was reminding me; they used the term ‘mother hen’ and they were thinking I would be so offended by that. I love that term, because a mother hen, there’s no ego involved. It’s not like you’re cracking the whip. You’re just like, ‘Okay, what do you need? What do you need? What do you need to get this done? What do you need to get that done?’
b&a: When you came back for Jedi, it must have been a huge post schedule and a huge film. I seem to remember it got split into three creative areas: Dennis, Ken, and Richard. But, there were other parts of ILM, obviously, that needed to be managed. What did you feel were some of the overarching things you did to help make it happen?
Rose Duignan: We did divide the show. There were actually four effects supervisors. I don’t know if Phil Tippett gets the credit as an effects supervisor, but he did the whole creature shop and all the creature sequences. We were very thoughtful about how we divided the show. Dennis Muren, we gave him everything artistic. Ken Ralston got the space battle because he is a machine. I don’t know how many thousands of elements he created, but he had a day crew, and he had a night crew.
Actually, we went to night crew early. That was one trick to keep it on track. I remember one particular incident. There was a challenging time in November. The film came out in May, obviously, but we had to be starting to finish with reels by February. And so, in November, that’s just three months before we have to be done, George Lucas went through all the boards with Joe Johnston and his editors, and they cut about 25% of the shots we’d already delivered or were in the process of delivering. 25% of our work went down the toilet, and now we have no time! So, where any departments hadn’t gone to night crew, we went to night crew. I was always looking for how to get done in a rush before the things were due.
In that November meeting, George not only eliminated 25% of the show, he added another 25% of work. And there was one shot in particular, it was a huge shot, SB81–I’ll never forget it–Space Battle 81, there’s endless TIE fighters flying to camera, it was like a hundred element shot. I went over to the editing room where George and Duwayne Dunham were editing, and I said, ‘You know what, George? I can’t guarantee that we’re going to be able to deliver this huge shot by this date.’ It was in a reel about halfway through. George was like, ‘Okay.’ And, he took it, because he wears both the director and producer hat.
I then remember going back to my office and, moments later, Dwayne barges into my office saying, ‘You can’t tell George Lucas no.’ And I said, ‘Well, I didn’t say no. I just said I can’t guarantee it.’ And, I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to go ahead and try to do that shot, but I can’t guarantee it.’ We did. We delivered it. But, those were the kind of challenging situations we had.
The origins of ‘CBB’
b&a: I want to paint a picture of what it was like in the early 80s at ILM to be part of a dailies session then. I think VFX artists love dailies. They get to see what other people are working on. They, obviously, get their own work critiqued. It’s probably nerve-wracking as well, because it’s being reviewed and critiqued. But, can you paint a little picture of what that was like?
Rose Duignan: Oh, that’s a really good question. We would have dailies every morning, and then also at night. But, before the morning session, which was always at 9:05, I would get to work and I needed to fill the downtime because we would get word to George who was next door in the editing room, ‘Come on over, we’re about to do dailies.’ Sometimes he’d be there in five minutes, sometimes it would be ten. Occasionally fifteen. So, I had to fill that time, and this is where I overcame my fear of public speaking.
The screening room had 75 seats. Every seat was full every day. I would fill the time, whether it was five minutes or 15 with things I had read in the newspaper. I knew nobody else had time to read a newspaper. I would keep people informed on public affairs and public events and what was going on. And, anything absurd that I would find in the paper, I would share with the group.
At dailies, George would turn to me and ask me, ‘How many finals do we need today? How many elements do I need to accept?’ And, I would tell him, because we would figure that out, ‘Here’s how many we need to stay on track, and here’s how many elements we need, and how many shots that will be finished, and blah, blah, blah.’
George was very aware of our timing and the money being spent and the crew’s work. He was very respectful. Some days they would show a shot, and it would come out of optical. It would be all the elements together. And, one of the optical photography guys would say, ‘Well, in the bottom left-hand corner there’s a mistake, so I’m going to redo that shot.’
George would say, ‘If the audience is looking in the bottom left-hand corner, we have lost them. So, let’s just call that a CBB.’ That stands for Could Be Better. And so, then I would reach my goal pretty much every day. He would cooperate and give us what we needed in terms of acceptance. And, even if guys wanted to reshoot something or said there was a mistake and that they needed to correct it, he wouldn’t let them. One optical printer stayed up all night to redo a shot that had been a CBB. And, he showed it so proudly the next day in dailies. And, George said, ‘Wait a minute, I already finaled that shot yesterday.’ And, the guy said, ‘Yeah, I stayed up all night. I redid it.’ And, he goes, ‘I’m not putting it in the movie.’ Because he wanted a very strong message. Now, did he cut it in the movie? Maybe, I don’t know…
b&a: We should do an investigation to work out if it’s in there…
Rose Duignan: I’ll leave that to you. You’re the journalist.
b&a: I love the CBB thing, for some reason I really latched onto that when I first heard about that years ago. And, we have this video podcast called VFX Notes where our logo even has the initials CBB in it, because I just love it so much.
Rose Duignan: It’s a great concept, because it allows you to final something that isn’t perfect or isn’t exactly as you would’ve liked. And then, if there’s time, you go back. And, we did have a little time, so we did go back and address some of the CBBs that were a little more CBB-ish than you would want.
b&a: Dailies sounds like it was a big part of your day, twice. But, I also want to paint a picture of what your day was like during the height of post. What did you do? Did you just try and visit as many people as possible? You’re obviously managing things very much on paper. There wasn’t the option of a computer spreadsheet I’m guessing?
Rose Duignan: I dreamed of computer usage in those days, because we did have neighbors. Pixar was our CG department, at the beginning. Every stage area, every camera guy, every optical person, had a binder of storyboards, because all the shots were boarded. We had to eliminate shots and put new shots in every single day. So, my day would start with talking to editorial: ‘We finaled this, we cut this…’. I hate wasting people’s time, and if someone had been up all night shooting an element on a shot that was eliminated that I knew about, bad on me. So, we worked very hard to get the word out on any changes from editorial, immediately.
I think that it is so smart to have immediate communication so that you can save man-hours. I think, in a way, I was the head cheerleader because I would go department to department, and I would bring dinner to the ‘Optical Dogs’, as they called themselves. It was the night crew, and I would make sure they were fed.
I would also go to the Model Shop all the time. I would take a look at stuff. Anyone who needed anything, I would just try to get it for them. Supporting their work–because really that’s your job as head of production or production supervisor on the effects. I was just there to make sure that they didn’t waste their time and that every element was shot for a reason and that it made it into Optical in a timely manner. But, again, everybody was so brilliant and everybody was so nice that I don’t remember any fights.
b&a: I was going to ask you, I was just thinking that you basically had the four VFX special effects superstars of the day: Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Richard Edlund, Phil Tippett, doing that work and trying to get the best possible result. Was there ever any creative tension, I guess, not necessarily between them, but just in maybe trying to outdo each other, that you had to manage?
Rose Duignan: Yes. As you know, Richard Edlund left after Return of the Jedi and he started his own company called Boss Film. I don’t know whether that’s Boss, ‘I’m the boss’, or boss, ‘I’m cool’. He was the top dog next to John Dykstra on Star Wars. So, when he came up to do Empire, I think he felt like he was the new top dog. And, Dennis Muren was like night crew on Star Wars and he and Phil Tippett are best friends, always have been, always will be. So, there was no friction there. Ken Ralston was Dennis Muren’s assistant on Star Wars. So, on Jedi, we had such confidence in Ken, ‘Yes, do the space battle. You’re an animal, just do it.’ He’s the guy that shot potatoes for Empire and got away with it. He was just a great leader. His crew would’ve died for him.
Dennis was a great artist. He did the speeder bike chase sequences and anything to do with what Phil had shot. So, there was no tension there. The only tension was that Richard Edlund felt like he deserved all the best cameras.
Laurie Vermont was Richard’s coordinator, and so we worked it out between us, and I let her deliver the message to Richard that he gets whatever camera he wants, but he doesn’t get the two best cameras in the house. And that if something goes wrong with the best camera in the house, we will pull the other camera away from Dennis or Ken. But it never had to happen. Richard just wanted to be sure to get the best. He’s a very dedicated person.
Women in the industry: then and now
b&a: You mentioned Laurie Vermont there, and I wanted to ask you about women at ILM back in the early 80s. I’m guessing there weren’t too many. I know there was Laurie, and Patty Blau, and you. And I remember reading about Barbara Gallucci being in the Model Shop.
Rose Duignan: Yes, Barbara was the first woman in the Model Shop. The day she entered the Model Shop, she started to work with all these power tools–because her whole home is filled with power tools, I mean, her art involves working with power tools–so, she’s very comfortable. All the men in the room stopped what they were doing. I think they were concerned for her safety. And, she came to my office one day and said, ‘These men, they’re all trying to baby me. They don’t understand that I have this equipment in my house.’ I brought in the two leaders, Lorne Peterson and Steve Gawley. They talked to the Model Shop, and the Model Shop got the message. She even threw a party at her house, this artistic workshop she was living in, and the Model Shop got a chance to see all of the power equipment in her house. They got the picture [laughs].
Unfortunately, women in the visual effect industry are still not where they need to be . One of the things that I am seriously working on is the next generation of female visual effects artist. We go out to every high school in California every two weeks with a speaker, virtually. So, 300 or 400 students are listening in to these speeches, and I’ve gotten a lot of women to be part of these presentations. We’re recording everything. So, it will be available worldwide to high schools and colleges that are interested in visual effects.
I had Hal Hickel who of course runs animation at ILM. I had Jean Bolte who is a texture painter, she is so good. USC and Women in Animation did a study about women in the visual effects industry, and the number of women of color who are visual effects supervisors is very low, so I know it’s something that the industry is actively working on.
There’s a lot of women in production who are organizers and there are a lot of female artists, but they’re not taking the lead positions. And, the reason in the study that they came up with for why there aren’t as many female leaders is that these women have children and it’s an extra 10 hours a week to be the lead. And, they’re already working 50 hours a week minimum. Well, I’m a huge fan of job sharing, Ian. You can give the studios their 16 hours a day, but it’s not one person.
We simply need more women in the industry. In my day, I was called production supervisor, but all these other production coordinators were really producers, and they should have moved up to that level.
b&a: I certainly hope more women can be part of the industry. I think there’s a challenge just getting in at the beginning and being part of the industry in general because, for some historical reason, they don’t think they should be there.
Rose Duignan: They don’t even know that there is a job. And, that’s what I and the Visual Effects Society are really trying to do, is plant a seed in their heads that, say, your parents are going to be supportive. You’re going to be really successful, make a decent living. There’s a lot of benefits now post-COVID to working in this industry. I loved being at the office and being with people and interacting with people. I’m an extrovert. But, a lot of people get a lot of work done at home, remotely. And, I know that ILM is striking a good balance in that hybrid model… I think that’s the ideal scenario. And, I hope to see the future industry go that way. In addition to job sharing, I would love to see job sharing.
Rose’s star moment
b&a: Rose, you are in Return of the Jedi, aren’t you? As an extra in a matte painting shot of the Rebel hangar?
Rose Duignan: [laughs] Yes! How did you even know? That is so funny. I have never picked myself out, but at the party last weekend, Ed Hirsch, who was a project manager at ILM, who is in it with me, pointed it out again. We’re both dressed as Rebel Alliance people and we approach a ship that gets painted in and I do the gas and he does something else, the windshield maybe. I have to rent that movie and take a look at it because I literally completely forgot that we were in it. I’m in the movie. That’s probably my claim to fame.
I have a photo of me and Ed in our uniforms, and I’ve got an expression on my face. I’m trying to look like an actress. I remember one time in the screening room, it was that scene, and I was trying to direct it at one point, get all the extras to do what they were supposed to do. And, George uses one of those pointers, and he points it at me and jokingly, and he goes, ‘This is what you call directing?’ And, everybody laughed and I put my arms around his neck and shook him a little. But, I think that’s why we got along. I treated George like a normal human being.
b&a: I’d read somewhere, relating to the secrecy of the film, that you might have walked in on a screening one day and discovered something.
Rose Duignan: None of us were given a script. One day I walk into the screening room to deliver some information or something, and they’re screening that reel, where it’s revealed that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are brother and sister. I’m at the back of the theater just going, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ And then, George sees that I’m there and he says with a laugh, ‘I’m going to have to kill you.’ I said, ‘I won’t tell anybody. I swear.’ And, I never did. I never told anybody. No. We were all sworn to secrecy.
b&a: What was your memory of seeing the full film for the first time?
Rose Duignan: I remember seeing Return of the Jedi in San Francisco, and the first person out of the theater was Francis Ford Coppola, who spoke to George. That’s what I remember, strangely.
Let’s face it, with Star Wars, none of us knew it was going to be this big epic thing that was so impactful to our society. I mean, George made these films because he believes young people need something to believe in. And, it doesn’t have to be religion, but the Force is that something. I think he really made it for young people. And, that’s why the parents all loved it. My parents loved it. They said there was a whole feeling there, after seeing Star Wars, that it was like the old days of serials that you would watch in front of a movie at the theater. I think George really captured that in all of his movies.
They were all very dramatic, very operatic. We just had a great time making them and then being a part of it. If I could go back, I would. It is one of the few times in my life that I would go back to, because you just felt so productive and you were working with the best and the brightest and the stuff was amazing. I mean, you know what the optical process is like–Jesus Christ, who can do that? Line it all up and every element has six elements, and, oh my God. I don’t know how they did it, even now. Even having been part of it, I don’t know how we did it.