Friday, 6 April 2018

40 years on: Star Wars at the Oscars – part two

George Lucas at the 1978 Academy Awards.
Would he ever need to get out of his seat?

It was one of the most surprising Oscar nights ever. The 50th Academy Awards were held amid protests and controversy, with the top prizes going to a film whose director was not there.

Last time, we saw how Mark Hamill and the droids helped lighten the mood after some gasps and boos at a controversial speech by Best Supporting Actress winner Vanessa Redgrave. Now, it's on to more of the competitive awards – and a few early wins for Star Wars.

Star Wars wins the Academy Award for Best Sound

Mickey Mouse followed the droids of Star Wars on stage to present the award for the Best Animated Short. No one could have known back then that mouse and robots would have a lucrative future together.

Then, after the award for Best Live Action Short, it was on to the prizes that Star Wars was competing for.

William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck, two greats of Golden Age Hollywood, came on stage to present the award for Best Sound. It was the second time that evening that Star Wars was in line for a sound award, since Ben Burtt had just walked away with a special achievement Oscar for his special sound effects.

Burtt has become so associated with the sound of Star Wars that I doubt that many fans could name the people whose names would actually go on the Oscar statuettes. They were: re-recording mixers Don MacDougall, Ray West and Bob Minkler and production sound mixer Derek Ball. MacDougall would also have earned an Oscar (along with three colleagues) if Close Encounters of the Third Kind had won, while the other nominees were The Deep, Sorcerer and The Turning Point.

It was Stanwyck who opened the envelope and announced that Star Wars had won.

MacDougall, West and Minkler took to the stage, with Ball absent, and a nervous MacDougall went up to the microphone, starting with a joke about his sweaty hands. "I'd certainly like to thank George and Gary for all they've done for us. They gave us an opportunity," he added. He thanked another re-recording mixer, Robert Litt, and the film's Dolby sound consultant, Stephen Katz as well as "all the wonderful mixers who aided us in the early stages of our work; and all of you. Thank you very much." West then approached the mic just to say: "I'm deeply grateful. Thank you."

We rightly recall Ben Burtt's astonishing sound effects for Star Wars, but it's easy to forget that Dolby Stereo was a pretty new phenomenon in 1977, and few films had ever had a sound mix as rich and powerful as Star Wars. It was a well-deserved award. 

Star Wars wins Best Special Visual Effects

Joan Fontaine hands out the Oscars as John Stears
prepares to speak for the Star Wars winners

Can you imagine a time when there were only two films in the running for the visual effects Oscar? These days, it seems there's a new effects spectacular every other week, but in 1977, there was a straight fight for the Academy Award between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars

Joan Fontaine was the presenter, and she seemed a little under-rehearsed as she struggled to pronounce the names of Star Wars' nominees, who were: production and mechanical effects supervisor John Stears, miniature and optical effects supervisor John Dykstra; first effects cameraman Richard Edlund; chief model maker Grand McCune; and composite optical photographer Robert Blalack.

It was no surprise that the winner was Star Wars. It had set new standards in the industry, after all. But achieving those incredible effects had not always been a happy process. And although the winners took part in an enthusiastic group hug, I think the footage of that Oscar win contains a hint of the tension that surrounded the effects.

After handing out the awards to the excited winners, Fontaine said: "Who's going to speak for you? Somebody's gotta say something." 

John Stears – the Bond movie veteran who had been responsible for practical effects like the droids, the landspeeder and the trash compactor – duly stepped up.

"Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is a fantastic feeling to be up here with these guys, fantastic guys, a wonderful American crew. And please don't forget the British guys that worked with me just to make it possible to be here. And thank you, Gary and George. Fantastic. Thank you," he said.

It hadn't been easy achieving the effects of Star Wars, with the miniatures and optical effects being done on a different continent from the live action footage. The crew at Elstree had been frustrated that they couldn't use back-projection techniques for the cockpit sequences because the shots hadn't arrived from California on time. Lucas had been shocked at how little footage had been finished by the time he got back to Industrial Light and Magic after principal photography, and he and Dykstra had fallen out.

Against that background, perhaps it's not surprising that Dykstra was going to have his moment.

Fontaine was already attempting to lead the award-winners off the stage and the orchestra was playing the Star Wars theme when Dykstra stepped up to the microphone. Fontaine whirled around and headed back to the centre of the stage as Dykstra was already speaking.

"I'd like to thank Mr Kurtz and Mr Lucas and the thousands, literally, of technicians who made it all possible, because that wasn't done on a sound stage," he said.

"And I'd also like to thank Doug Trumbull who started me in this business. Thank you," he said. Trumbull was Dykstra's rival that night, having led the effects team on Close Encounters.

There was no stopping the effects team now. Richard Edlund came to the mic to say a simple "Thank you so much", and Blalack gave yet another speech, thanking not only his Star Wars colleagues but some industry veterans. "I would like to acknowledge the visual effects workers in the past who made our achievements possible, in particular Bill Reinhold, Jack Caldwell and Paul Lerpae," he said. "From the Star Wars production I'd like to thank Paul Roth, Jamie Shourt, John Dykstra, George Lucas and Gary Kurtz. This is ours. Thank you." 

Star Wars wins Best Art Direction

The next group of Star Wars personnel to be honoured were all British. After the Best Documentary title, and a special award for the invention of the Steadicam, it was onto Best Art Direction.

The award was presented by the perhaps unlikely combination of Greer Garson, who had won an Oscar for 1942's Mrs Miniver, and Henry Winkler, who was a TV phenomenon at the time as the Fonz in Happy Days.

Garson enunciated the names and film titles in the kind of theatrical British voice no one has any more, and she pronounced Star Wars with the emphasis on the second word, the way some Brits did before the American form took over.

The other nominees were Airport '77, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Spy Who Loved Me and The Turning Point, but the names Garson read out were those of the Star Wars crew: production designer John Barry, art directors Norman Reynolds and Leslie Dilley, and set decorator Roger Christian.

Barry gave a short and modest speech. "We are very pleased to accept this beautiful award on behalf of all our friends and compatriots who worked so hard to make the sets of Star Wars a success. And there's one man whose name should be engraved on this above everybody else and whose name should be on every frame of Star Wars, and that's George Lucas. Thank you, George."

There is precious little footage of John Barry, so this appearance is one to be treasured. He would die suddenly, barely a year later, while directing second unit on The Empire Strikes Back.

  • Next time: A fashion show heralds more wins for Star Wars as the we head towards the main awards. 

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