Imagine your high school reunion, except you all made Star Wars together.
On May 27, 2017, a unique gathering took place at a small production studio just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Known today as 32Ten Studios, it had been the home of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) for nearly three decades, from the creation of The Empire Strikes Back to Revenge of the Sith.
Veterans of the original trilogy of Star Wars films, including model makers, cameramen, optical technicians, grips, and production coordinators, even a few actors and puppeteers — the magicians and dreamers that championed a revolution in moviemaking — came together for a reunion celebrating the 40th anniversary of their debut effort, Star Wars: A New Hope, or as it was simply known at the time, Star Wars.
The gathering was chiefly organized by Rose Duignan, a veteran producer and early trailblazer at ILM. Rose began as a production staffer on the original Star Wars, working at George Lucas’ side during his visits to ILM’s studio, then located in Van Nuys, California. “Who knew that we would show up here 40 years later to share this amazing event?” Duignan would proclaim to the adoring crowd of attendees. “I am just so grateful.”
With hugs and smiles abound, reminiscence filled the main stage at the 32Ten facility. This night was for reflection and enjoyment, to pick up where their last meetings had left off. Filmmaking is often so arduous that the chance of a reunion hardly enters the mind once a project has eked its way to completion. But the laughter that swirled through the crowd was testament to the unique bond shared by this group.
“It’s almost like a piece of magic just happened,” Michael Quinn told StarWars.com. A puppeteer and actor who played Nien Nunb among other characters in Return of the Jedi, Quinn later worked at ILM himself. “Everybody in here did something that hadn’t been done before. In theory it’s not possible. How could you do that? But they did it, and they’re all here.”
Towards the evening’s conclusion — after the attendees had posed for an awe-inspiring group photo — a handful of veterans came forward to share their reflections with the crowd of friends and loved ones.
“All of us changed the direction of filmmaking,” declared Robert Blalack, who first established the Optical Department at ILM and had traveled from Paris in order to attend the reunion. “Because of you, visions that were once completely impossible are now within reach. And you know it wasn’t always like that.” Remembering those early days on Star Wars, Blalack would jokingly add, “We discovered that building ILM from scratch during production was like jumping out of a plane and stitching up the parachute during free fall.”
John Dykstra, the pioneering visual effects supervisor who spearheaded the ILM efforts on the original film, was making his first visit to the facility that evening, and he brought his Academy Award for Star Wars along with him. “If there was one component of the group we had on the first Star Wars, it was that we worked together,” he said. “The people in each department knew what was going on in other departments and made an effort to improve their work in order to improve what everyone was doing. There was great enthusiasm and joy.
“It was a truly life-changing experience and in my entire career that is what I most treasure,” Dykstra would conclude, perhaps defining for all in the room the meaning of their accomplishments. Together they had created something the world had never seen, and together they celebrated 40 years later. In both inspiration and practice, their legacy has made its way into nearly every imaginable kind of film and media production happening today.
Photos by 32Ten Studios, Rose Duignan, Don Bies, and Hector Cruz.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer, historian, and filmmaker living in Marin County, CA. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley, is a lifelong Star Wars fan, and volunteers at Rancho Obi-Wan. Follow him on Twitter @losnorcal.