One of the seminal figures in the establishment of Industrial Light & Magic, Robert Blalack passed away on February 2 at the age of 73. Everyone at Lucasfilm mourns his passing, and joins the industry in celebrating his contributions to the craft of visual effects and filmmaking. Our hearts go out to Mr. Blalack’s family and the entire visual effects community.
As the supervisor for composite optical photography on Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), Blalack was responsible for establishing ILM’s first optical department in Van Nuys, California, including the acquisition of cameras and optical printers for the compositing of visual effects shots. By piecing together separate film elements of starships and laser blasts photographed by the ILM crews, these tools actually made the effects audiences would glimpse onscreen.
Among these tools was Blalack’s own customized Praxis Printer and the historic Howard Anderson Optical Printer, the latter originally built at Paramount Studios and now on private display at Lucasfilm and ILM’s San Francisco Headquarters.
A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Blalack was among the first recruited by visual effects supervisor John Dykstra in the summer of 1975. Known as Robbie by most of his colleagues, he helped recruit others to the growing Star Wars crew, most of whom, like Blalack, were under 30 years of age. Among these was animation supervisor Adam Beckett. Another Cal Arts alumnus was optical printer operator David Berry, who remembers Blalack:
“I first met Robbie in 1971 at CalArts. Although we did not really socialize much, the film school was small and you knew who everyone was and what they were up to. We had a lot of mutual friends, including Adam Beckett. Beckett, Blalack, and Pat O’Neill were the kings of the optical printer. Pat O’Neill was our teacher and mentor. Blalack was pretty focused back then, and he could be intimidating if you rubbed him the wrong way. He did not suffer fools gladly. After he left CalArts, he managed to purchase a non-functional optical printer that was donated to the school (it was a custom job that was used on the film Marooned). Robbie got it working and established his business “Praxis” (along with Bruce Green, another “CalArtian”).
“The Praxis printer was eventually used to do all the ILM composites on Star Wars (after a lot of modifications),” Berry continues. “Although I knew Robbie, and knew he was doing the opticals for Star Wars, I was much closer to Adam Beckett, and it was through Beckett that I was able to get an interview with John Dykstra, and get hired to work in the rotoscope department. Eventually, Robbie invited me to work in the optical department for the final six months. He was a good leader and he really stood up for everyone in optical. He was open to suggestions and he always solicited our input. He must’ve been under intense pressure, I can only imagine, but he held up well. He was totally committed to Star Wars. And, he set me on my career path, and I am grateful that I got to express that to him.”