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Pew pew! Dayton-native pioneered special effects for Star Wars, Indiana Jones and more

A man wearing a tuxedo stands behind a podium with one hand in his pocket and another near an Academy Award Oscar statuette that's on the podium.
John Berry
John Berry
Dayton-native David Berry accepting his Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in the 1985 movie "Cocoon."

If you’ve seen any of the Star Wars, Star Trek or Indiana Jones movies from the 1980s, you’ve seen the work of Dayton-native David Berry.

He was on the forefront in the early days of famed special effects firm Industrial Light and Magic. He won an Academy Award for the 1985 movie "Cocoon," and has worked with filmmakers George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard.

WYSO's Mike Frazier recently spoke with Berry at the Berry Foundation’s offices about his career and what sparked his interest in filmmaking — and some trivia. Legend has it that one of the asteroids in "The Empire Strikes Back" is actually a potato. Berry confirmed that it's true, although he said he's not sure which space rock is actually a spud.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

David Berry: I was attracted to old science fiction movies, like "King Kong," "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," Twilight Zone TV, that had a lot of effects. And I was really fascinated by what went on behind that process. And then, later, when I was in prep school in Michigan, I was lucky enough to be part of a program where you could take filmmaking in lieu of taking an English class. So I took that class my junior year in prep school. And actually, that’s the first time I shot films in a super eight camera. And we made them and showed them to each other in the class. And that's probably when I got officially hooked on filmmaking.

Mike Frazier: How did you end up at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) and working with the Star Wars films?

Berry: I had two friends that knew some people who knew some people that were working on an outer space movie called "Star Wars." It was a low budget film at the time, or medium budget. It was a $10 million film. So it had about a $1 million effects budget, I think. And, that was the only way I could do it, and that Lucas could get the control that he wanted — was to start his own effects company. I had a really close friend who headed up the animation department who was supposed to do all the laser beams in the film, and I got hired on by him. I had an interview with John Dykstra, the superviser, and I got hired, and the next day, I was working at Industrial Light Magic for $180 a week.

I worked on the first three Star Wars films, the first three Indiana Jones films, three Star Trek movies, an assortment of other films. "Cocoon." "Back to the Future." I worked on every film that ILM did the first 10 years because I was in the optical department, which was the final step of the effects process. Everything had to funnel through the optical department, where all the separately filmed elements were composited onto one piece of film.

It involves taking two pieces of film that were filmed separately. The most common example would be an actor filmed in front of a blue screen and then, going through a photographic process to remove the blue screen from the scene and replace it with a background of your choice to make it look like somebody was flying in a spaceship, as opposed to standing in front of a blue screen or putting the actors in a different environment, or even in a completely fabricated environment.

Frazier: Tell us about "Cocoon" and how that won an Academy Award for you.

Berry: "Cocoon" had good vibes in that it wasn't a film that featured exploding spaceships and violence, shooting and killing. And I think, the Academy members who voted for it were on the older end of the demographic scale, and they kind of appreciated that it was kind of a film about old people and the fountain of youth. And I don't underestimate the effect that that had on voters in the Academy. I mean, it's not to downplay the effects. The quality was really good, but the technology has evolved a long way since then. So those effects could be done by a 13 year old kid on his iPhone with the pressing of one button to get an effect just as good.

Frazier: What advice would you give to young filmmakers today?

Berry: I guess my best advice would be there's no excuse for not making films now, because you can make a complete film in your iPhone alone or your Android or whatever type of phone you have, to a much better level of quality than we were able to do with super eight films, even 16 millimeter films. Also challenge yourself to learn about the editing process. Because, like anything else, I believe in the 10,000 hour rule. The more you do it, you get more adept at it. Keep a film diary and make films every day, make a film, and one day go out and challenge yourself to make a lot of films just to learn about what works and what doesn't work in the editing process.

I think it's the most powerful medium of our age. And when you see how people's thoughts and feelings about things are so manipulated by film and the greater media empire, TV news. Every film is biased, but how much you can powerfully affect society by just watching a movie or watching a documentary. It never ceases to amaze me.

A chance meeting with a volunteer in a college computer lab in 1987 brought Mike to WYSO. He started filling in for various music shows, and performed various production, news, and on-air activities during the late 1980s and 90s, spinning vinyl and cutting tape before the digital evolution.