Growing up in Marin County, Bill Kimberlin remembers his mother taking him to visit the set of “Blood Alley,” a 1955 Cold War adventure set in China starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall, back in the days when set security wasn’t so tight.
“We walked onto the set — there was a big pile of boulders to one side, and I bumped into a boulder and it moved,” Kimberlin recalled. “And I thought ‘How could it move? I barely touched it.’ And then: ‘Oh, I see. It’s fake. This is all special effects.’ That got in my brain.”
And how. A quarter of a century later, not far from the old location of the “Blood Alley” set, Kimberlin was solving one of the biggest special effects shots of all time. Dubbed “SB19,” it was the 19th shot in the climactic space battle of “Return of the Jedi” that brought the original “Star Wars” trilogy to a conclusion.
That was near the beginning of a 20-year run as a visual effects guru at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic. “SB19,” which has a flurry of spaceships attacking a partially built but fully operational Death Star, adorns the cover of Kimberlin’s memoir, “Inside the Star Wars Empire,” which comes out in paperback on Monday, June 1.
The book details not only his work on such blockbusters as the ’80s “Star Trek” franchise and Steven Spielberg films such as “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” but also his brush with personalities such as Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy, Tim Burton, Ron Howard and Paul and Linda McCartney.
Kimberlin also writes with warmth and honesty about his nontraditional upbringing in Marin County, his student days during campus unrest at San Francisco State University, and his struggling years an an independent filmmaker in the 1970s.
During a recent Skype conversation with Kimberlin from his home in Kensington, he told The Chronicle it was ironic his memoir was being published during a time when the only movie theaters open in much of the United States during this coronavirus pandemic are drive-ins, which are so important to his life.
“My mother would take me to see ‘War of the Worlds’ or ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’; when the polio (epidemic) hit we had to go to drive-ins,” Kimberlin said.
Later, Kimberlin scored his biggest success as an independent filmmaker with his documentary about drag racing culture, “American Nitro,” which made most of its money on the drive-in circuit. That was during an era when drive-ins were a legitimate way for cult and independent films to find a following.
“The studios would call them ‘ozones,'” Kimberlin said. “Regular theaters were called ‘hardtops’ and drive-ins were ‘ozones.’ ”
The “ozone” success of “American Nitro” essentially got Kimberlin his job at Industrial Light & Magic. When he screened the film there, he recalled someone saying, “Did George see this?” Soon after, he was hired.
If it seems odd that a documentary filmmaker — Kimberlin’s other film was on the pioneering African American boxer Jack Johnson — would get hired in the special effects department of a film company, Kimberlin said Lucas, and by extension his company, appreciated people who knew how to make movies.
He called Lucas a “real filmmaker.”
“A lot of filmmakers, including Spielberg, you could give them a couple of hundred pounds of film and they couldn’t come back with a movie,” Kimberlin said. “George could. He could shoot it, he could edit it, he could do the sound effects — he could do the whole thing.
“So that meant that he would cut World War II planes in the original ‘Star Wars’ print because he didn’t have the ships done yet.”
The ability to be a total filmmaker really meant you were a problem solver, and Kimberlin said that was key at Industrial Light & Magic. There was no research and development department; the special effects team would be presented with real problems, then they would go about solving them.
Like “SB19.” It was one of Kimberlin’s first assignments at Industrial Light & Magic. No pressure.
“That was the largest, most complicated visual effects shot ever done on an optical printer,” Kimberlin said. “The same type of printer that was used to open the Red Sea in ‘The Ten Commandments.’ … I put together a version I thought would work. Somebody called George, ‘Come over and look at it.’ I ran it for him on the Moviola, and he said ‘Great,’ turned around and walked out.
“That was the highest compliment you could get from him: ‘Great.'”
So that meant Kimberlin could stay.
“You didn’t want to make a mistake,” he said. “You didn’t want to disappoint every little kid in the world. These had become more than just movies. They were social phenomena events.”
Kimberlin’s favorite project, to which he devotes a whole chapter, was “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” a groundbreaking film that married live action and animation. A piece of cake in the computer-animated world of today, but really hard to pull off in the handmade world of the 1980s.
Working closely with director Robert Zemeckis, Kimberlin and his team helped make it into a blockbuster for Disney that renewed interest in animation, won an Oscar for visual effects and in 2016 was selected for the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Kimberlin is now mostly retired, although he runs a vibrant video business with “American Nitro” through a Facebook fan page. He and his wife, screenwriter and computer programmer Beverly Conner (they’ve been together for 50 years), split their time between Kensington and a house in Anderson Valley.
He said he doesn’t begrudge the new era of computerized special effects but is instead proud to be a part of Northern California’s special effects innovation that he traces back to 19th century stop-motion pioneer Eadweard Muybridge.
“Why did this happen in Northern California? Starting with Muybridge and through to (Francis Ford) Coppola and Lucas, they really pulled Hollywood kicking and screaming into the modern world,” Kimberlin said. “Certainly, George did. He once told me that ‘editing on film was like scratching on rocks.’ He was always looking for a better way, a faster way.”
“Inside the Star Wars Empire: A Memoir”
By Bill Kimberlin
(272 pages, $19.95)