Day 71 – Patricia Rose Duignan

Patricia Rose Duigan

Patricia Rose Duignan was a visual effects producer who also served as the Director of Marketing at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). She answered a few questions via email for 365 Days of Star Wars Women about her career in visual effects.

You were a Production Assistant on A New Hope – how did you get involved with this production and who did you work with the most on that film? Was this your first job on a film? 

I had worked on a series of Army department films with a Production Manager named Lon Tinney and he is the one who got hired on SW: ANH and then called me for the PA job. I recall going to the job interview at a very low key industrial building in Van Nuys and waiting in the ‘lobby’ with a kid I thought was a driver and the receptionist. I’d been so impressed with American Graffiti and knew the same director, George Lucas, was directing this sci fi film called Star Wars.

I asked the receptionist if George Lucas was a good guy and nice to work for. She seemed a little intimidated by my question; when I got called into the interview; I was very surprised that the young “driver” seated beside me, followed me into the room. Then, I was introduced to him: George Lucas… I was a little embarrassed that I thought he was a driver. He asked two questions: “Do you take shorthand” I said; “No, but I write fast” and then he said; “Can you start tomorrow?” I said “Yes.”

I was the assistant to both George Lucas, John Dykstra and the head of production a guy named George Mather. Mather taught me a lot about tracking all the elements and how to keep a log of where we are on every shot. All pre-computers, so it was a written record. Dykstra was a hoot and always made the job SO FUN. Lucas would show up about once a week for two days and we’d show him everything and get his input and approvals. We worked really really long hours but we were all very young (I was 24-25 during that time) so these were my friends and workmates.

Patricia Rose Duignan is the woman standing to the right of the man in the black and white striped shirt in this ILM group shot from A New Hope. From the book Industrial Light & Magic: the Art of Special Effects.
Did you think Star Wars would be successful while you were working on the film? Do you remember your initial thoughts after seeing the completed film for the first time?

I knew we were working on something that was VERY different from the run of the mill romantic comedies of the day…I didn’t think about whether it would be a blockbuster; I was just so concerned with delivering shots on time to make the film opening. When I went over to the dubbing studio to bring George Lucas something for signing, the film was opening on Hollywood Blvd. It was madness, crazy long lines with people in costume and such! That was a total surprise to see the intensity of the response. GWL seemed really shocked as well.

Duignan with animator Pete Kuran, George Lucas, and animation supervisor Adam Beckett. Photo from The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler.
For Return of the Jedi you were the ILM production supervisor. What did that role entail and can you share any stories about your experience working on that film?

I missed the production of Empire Strikes Back and the initial rebuilding of ILM up north in San Rafael. I rejoined the team in 1982 when I returned to ILM and moved from LA. I was production supervisor at ILM for Star Trek Wrath of Kahn and then moved into head of production for Jedi. It was a regrouping of ALL the workers onto one film as we had just completed Star Trek, E.T. and Poltergeist simultaneously.

It was a real pulling together of all the talent and we all had one purpose: complete an insane amount of work in a short period of time for ROJ. The camaraderie was palatable. Everyone gave it their all. George continually pushed us and kept adding and eliminating shots throughout the entire process. He was very responsive when told how many finals we needed each day at dailies to keep on schedule. We invented a term called “Could Be Better” a “CBB” was still a final but it went on a list of shots we’d try to redo if there was time.

Duignan in the ILM dailies room during the production of Return of the Jedi. Photo from The Making of Return of the Jedi by J.W. Rinzler.

Many of those shots did get revised and improved. Very late into the production schedule George designed a new shot with over 100 elements. I looked at the schedule and numbers and I just couldn’t guarantee we’d get the shot done in time. So I told him. The editor came back at me; “You can’t say NO to George Lucas!” I told him; “I didn’t say NO, I said I can’t guarantee that we’ll deliver the shot in time.” No one ever said NO to George. In the end, we did the shot and delivered it for the film.

ILM group shot from Return of the Jedi from the book Industrial Light & Magic: The
Art of Special Effects
. Patricia Rose Duignan is seated in the front row.
After Return of the Jedi you were the Director of Marketing at ILM for many years. In your video for A New Hope’s 40th anniversary you mentioned how proud you were to have created the daycare center at Lucasfilm. I’m curious what year that daycare center opened and why you chose to highlight that in your interview.

The year we pitched the Day Care Center to Lucasfilm was 1989 and it opened in 1990. I remember because I had two little kids and I was pregnant with my third child when I stood up at a company meeting and said: “I want to have your babies!” Everyone laughed. In fact, NO ONE signed up for that day care in advance, only my three kids were in it for the first month or two…then, it was booked fully until this day. It is my legacy and that is why I’m so proud of it.

The President of the company Doug Norby was totally behind opening the day care because he KNEW from experience that when employees kids are in a company day care, they will not leave the company! Great investment for companies to have on site day care. The world will not change for women workers who are mothers until companies provide day care. It’s a key factor in advancement. So many women just quit their jobs because it’s impossible to balance work and family. This is a huge problem in our world and equality isn’t possible until we share equally in child care and rearing of these precious creatures.

The Ewok Adventure TV movie was a dream come true for 11-year-old me when it aired in 1984. It was also your first producing credit. Was it a natural transition from your work at ILM to the producer role?

I was pregnant with my first child when George Lucas said to me; I hope I don’t see you around here for five years or so! Meaning, raising my child was the most important task I could do. I agree but the reality of making a living is also a key motivator! Tom Smith, producer of The Ewok Adventure, and my former boss at ILM (he was General Manager) asked me to be Associate Producer. I agreed.

The crew was all the guys I knew at ILM and they insisted on constantly providing me with a chair when on set. They were so protective and sweet to me as a pregnant woman. This was my first Apple Computer on a project; I think it was a IIE model…at any rate, the production wasn’t as smooth as one would have liked. The little girl star had really overbearing parents and I hated to see what a pro she was at age 5 putting on makeup. I recall acting as a second unit director type on several scenes and George ended up making fun of me in the screening room because I had loaded up the horses and Ewok actors with ridiculous props for a trip; like a broom, dustpan, etc. Goofy!

You co-wrote the book ILM: Into the Digital Realm. How did you become involved with this book and why did you want to write it? Have you ever thought about writing another book about the history of visual effects?

I had left ILM due to having a third child as it was just too demanding to work full time with three kids under the age of five; but I didn’t want to just close the door on ILM so I suggested the book and myself as an author. It was a ton of work. But so fun to interview all my friends and dig deep into how the work was accomplished.

I really enjoyed that process. But then, after I turned in the first draft to the editor who had been guiding me with comments like; “Less boring details about the work…more about the human experiences in creating the work,” she left the project and a new editor got assigned. The new editor wanted it to be all about the details of the work and less about the heroics of the crew! Meanwhile, I had just started as Executive Producer of Bump in the Night, a stop motion TV show for ABC. The show was in deep trouble and I needed to really wrangle the team to keep us on track. So, I handed off the book to another writer who could satisfy the new editor. I’m proud of all of my contributions to that book.

It’s hard to find a lot of women in behind the scenes documentaries and non-fiction books made about the original Star Wars trilogy. But it’s clear even from just looking at ILM film group shots that many women worked in Star Wars early on and had an important impact on these films. Did you ever feel like your gender held you (or other women) back in your work with Star Wars films or later on with other projects?

On Star Wars, the only women crew members were in the traditional roles of finance, accounting, secretarial, editorial and production. Because I was so good at organization and leadership I rose through the ranks and became head of production. Once I had children, they accommodated me and I became the Director of Marketing and worked 4 days a week. This was a company that was very flexible about women working and being mothers. We even allowed shared jobs for two women in some cases.

I never found any sexism at all during my time at Lucasfilm and ILM. Maybe I was naive, but I never felt that being a woman was in any way holding me back at ILM. Over time, women came to dominate the production offices and women rose in every department to become key leads. My own attitude was to just do the best job I could do and I have never experienced institutional sexism. When I was young, and working my way up in the commercial world, plenty of sexist behavior that I had to deal with. But at ILM, never.

Can you share names or memories of other women who worked in Star Wars productions with you that casual fans may not be familiar with but made important contributions to these films?

Mary Lind was head of editorial on Star Wars. She and her group of women assistants were outstanding and key contributors to making it all work. So good humored and dedicated and talented! There were no women on stage or in model shop, but I believe there were a couple women in optical lineup. But really, editorial was run by women and they kicked ass!

Note: I didn’t take out this next question so it would serve as a reminder to all that IMDB doesn’t always get it right.

You produced a lot of Star Trek documentaries over the years when you worked for Paramount Pictures. Did you seek out Star Trek projects while you were there or did they seek you out because of your history with ILM?

Actually, my sister Rose Marie Duignan is the Star Trek Producer person whose credits got mixed up with mine on IMDB. My name is Patricia Rose Duignan but IMDB doesn’t distinguish between our two names so…
The only Star Trek work I did was on the first Star Trek Feature and the second one when ILM did all the FX on Wrath of Kahn. I never did any of those documentaries.

Later in your career you joined Kerner Optical which was an effects house that split off from ILM. While there you worked on some extremely effects-heavy films such as Terminator Salvation, Avatar, and Iron Man 2. From that time period was there a favorite or most challenging film you worked on?

I went to business school late in life, got an MBA from a joint program with Columbia and UC Berkeley. It was a very great experience and when I graduated I rejoined the ILM exodus of the model shop and stages, practical effects, Action Miniatures unit. It was amazing to be part of the final push into action miniatures before CGI totally took over the industry. Although, First Man just won Best Visual Effects Oscar and many of those effects were practical.

But basically Kerner Optical went down with the ship. We started out with revenue in 2006 of 18 Million and it slowly shrunk over time whereby in 2011 the revenue was maybe 3M for practical miniature fx. And I was working with the BEST people in the business. But unsustainable, so I bailed and then the company went bankrupt. I would say Terminator Salvation was our biggest gig during that timeframe although the Pirates of Caribbean films were their largest money makers before I got there.

Since this is a project about women in Star Wars I have to ask at some point – do you have a favorite Star Wars film or favorite character? Do you consider yourself a Star Wars fan?

I loved Princess Leia from day one; it was so great to see a female character that was in charge and unafraid. And the latest SW 7 film has a female lead and she was great. I love the Star Wars franchise because the underlying message is for audiences to realize that there is a higher power that exists; The Force. I am a believer.

Have you seen many of the more recent Star Wars films? Any thoughts about them?

Now I didn’t enjoy the all CGI SW films 1-3…I just felt they lacked the humor and the authenticity of the original SW 4-6 films. I love the Disney SW film by JJ Abrams #7. I thought it was great. And I have enjoyed the side story SW Films; Rogue One and Solo: SW story. I like seeing the Universe fleshed out like this.

Do you have any advice for people, especially women, who want to pursue a career in visual effects?

There are so many opportunities right now for artists and technicians in the film business of visual effects. It’s a huge industry that is worldwide. The problem is that workers need to be willing to relocate to foreign countries that offer studios huge incentives financially. This is a terrible curse to living a balanced life. I know many friends who leave their families behind and go for six months to Canada or Asia to work. I hate that trend.

But the future will allow people to work from distant shores and still be able to contribute; meaning work from HOME. But first we have to get a level playing field where some countries aren’t buying the work by offering huge discounts to rich studios. It’s a broken system. Face the fact that this is a calling, not a job. If you are completely dedicated to building your career, then you can make it. But if you want a balanced life…you might want to consider a different industry.

You currently run Hub Project Management. Can you talk a bit about what Hub does and recent or upcoming projects you have worked on?

My current project is two fold. #1 I am working with the Academy of Motion Pix Arts and Sciences to produce an event this summer that has a Star Wars theme. #2 I am developing a prototype for a mobile phone game that will teach women how to avoid sexual assault and coercion. I am working with students from University of Texas in Austin to create this prototype that I will use to raise funds to build the entire game. The game is based on a program called Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge and Act. This 12 hour program is taught to college aged women and has show to successfully reduce the amount of sexual assault by 50% among the women who take the course. Shockingly, One in Five women in college will be assaulted. I want to change this.

Here’s Duignan sharing a story of her ALMOST going to the Academy Awards and the beginnings of the ILM daycare center in a video made for the 40th anniversary of A New Hope.

To learn more about Duignan’s contributions to Star Wars check out J.W. Rinzler’s books The Making of Star Wars and The Making of Return of the Jedi.

Sources: Industrial Light & Magic: the Art of Special Effects, Memory Alpha Wiki, IMDB, The Making of Star Wars, & The Making of Return of the Jedi.

Check out the entire list of women in 365 Days of Star Wars Women in the Women in Star Wars Index. It includes highlights from each post plus notes which posts include new 365 interviews with actresses, writers, artists, and more.

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