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Robert Blalack, Oscar-Winning ILM Co-Founder, Dies at 73

The visionary visual effects artist helped develop ‘Star Wars’ production pipelines that forever changed the filmmaking industry.

Robert Blalack, a pioneer of visual effects artistry who co-founded Industrial Light & Magic, has died at the age of 73. Blalack died of cancer at his home in Paris, on Wednesday, February 2. His wife, writer Caroline Charron-Blalack, informed The Hollywood Reporter of his passing on Monday.

Blalack is best known for his work on Star Wars, which utilized digital motion control photography to create the illusion of scale with small models and slow-moving cameras.

VFX supervisor John Dykstra tasked Blalack with building the VistaVision facility that was used during the making of the film. Together with the ILM team, Blalack developed the brand-new VistaVision photographic optical composite and rotoscope animation pipelines that mass produced a record-setting total of 365 VFX composites for George Lucas’ sci-fi epic.

For his groundbreaking efforts, Blalack received the 1978 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which he shares with John Stern, John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, and Grant McCune.

Blalack first met Dykstra during the production of a documentary about Douglas Trumbull’s VFX house, Future General Corp. The two joined forces with Lucas soon after, launching ILM after Lucas had discovered that 20th Century Fox’s own effects department was shut down and therefore not usable for the making of Star Wars.

“We discovered that building ILM from scratch during production was like jumping out of a plane and stitching up the parachute during free fall,” Blalack recalled at an ILM reunion in 2017.

In the early ’80s, Blalack produced the visual effects for PBS’ 1980 doc series, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and shared an Emmy with Chris Dierdorff, Dan Nosenchuck, Dan Pinkham, Chris Regan, Nancy Rushlow, and Larry Stevens for his VFX work on ABC’s 1983 telefilm, The Day After. The film, which followed a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, became the highest-rated TV movie in history at the time of its airing.

Blalack’s illustrious body of work included such seminal titles as The Blues BrothersAirplane!, Altered StatesCat People (1982), and RoboCop (1987). He was also a key contributor to a number of theme park attractions -- providing motion control miniature photography for the 1996 motion-simulation ride Aliens: Ride at the Speed of Fright, and directing live-action sequences for the 1998 Busch Gardens simulator ride Akbar’s Adventure Tours.

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Max Weinstein is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is the Editor-at-Large of 'Dread Central' and former Editorial Director of 'MovieMaker.' His work has been featured in 'Cineaste,' 'Fangoria,' 'Playboy,' 'Vice,' and 'The Week.'