June 13, 2010
The first interracial kiss on TV seems to come from Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 variety show Movin’ with Nancy, but the first scripted interracial kiss on tv, the one that is etched into our popular imagination comes from Star Trek when Lt. Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, famously kissed William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk in 1968. We might agree that Science Fiction, while it is often criticized as being formulaic and downright cheesy, continues to make some rather radical statements as is evinced in this year’s underdog blockbuster District 9. And while Pictures in a Row is not currently in development on any Science Fiction extravaganzas, we can say that our history extends from this future-leaning genre.
In 1955, Westheimer Company was one of the most respected visual effects houses. For 30 years its studio doors were open to industry. Providing Hollywood effects for The Empire Strikes Back, The Heart is a Lonley Hunter, Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Dynasty, and Lassie, among others. The Westheimer Company was an important presence and industry training ground in the field of visual effects. Founder, Joseph Westheimer, was born in Los Angeles and grew up playing on the Warner Brothers lot where his aunt was a secretary to production manager Bryan Foy. At the tender age of 15, Westheimer began working as a studio messenger and then he eventually moved to the prop department. After obtaining a degree in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, Westheimer went back to Warner Bros where he got a job in the special effects department—at the time the largest department of its kind. At Warner, Westheimer worked with other top special effects people including Edwin DuPar, Hans Koenekamp, and Warren Lynch. After starting the Westheimer Company, he continued to actively develop new special effects styles, propelling him to win an Emmy Award in 1968 for Individual Achievements in Cinematography and winning an Academy Class III Scientific or Technical Award in 1975 “for the development of a device to obtain shadowed titles on motion picture film.”
Westheimer also trained respected effects editor Richard Edlund, who is reported to have done everything at the studio from sweeping the floor, to rotoscoping the USS Enterprise, to playing “Thing” in The Addams Family title sequence. After four years studying under his “mentor,” Joseph Westheimer, Edlund went on to join George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic team and win two Academy Awards for Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981) and two Special Achievement Awards for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
Imagine, if you will, watching the USS Starship Enterprise flying across the night sky, all the intergalactic characters it holds and all the places it would go. Now imagine that 11-foot long and 200-pound model sitting in what is now the Picrow stage. The model, designed by Walter Matta Jefferies and built by Richard C. Datin Jr., signifies both our film world past as-well-as our imagined future. Visual Effects make their way into many films these days, but it would seem that they started out in genre, which is to say that they began in action, science-fiction, and horror flicks. What is unique about VFX in cinema and television is that they show us what we can only imagine, they make these fantastical realities come to life, and they creatively provide us with new ways to see the potential of film as well as the world itself. From the miniatures that were shot here on Seward Street to the computer graphic lighting and texturing that comes into the scene in post-production, VFX has come along way and with no small thanks to Westheimer and his studio’s pioneering work.