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Q and A with Tom Smith

Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.
Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.

The archive of visual effects producer Thomas Smith has been donated to the Ransom Center. Smith worked on the special effects for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1983), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Below, he shares why he chose the Ransom Center as the repository for his papers and why it’s important to preserve these materials.

Why did you choose the Ransom Center as the home for your archive?

I began making 16 mm films right after I was discharged from the Air Force. I worked in this small screen format for 15 years. During the years when I was making documentary and academic films, I often used the good services of many archives, in search of photos or audio recordings for my films. About eight years ago, after working on my last feature film project, Gods and Generals (2003), I made one more small screen documentary. For this, I needed photos of American poet Edgar Lee Masters. I came to the Ransom Center since they were the largest depository I could find of Masters’s material. I was very impressed with the organization of the library, the courtesy of its staff, and the care they showed for the Masters collection. After I retired from working in feature films, I felt there would be no better place for my collection of motion picture scripts, photos, storyboards, and notes than the Ransom Center.

Why is it important to preserve the types of materials found in an archive such as yours?

Nothing is permanent, but a well-organized and well-housed archive is our best bet for preserving documents from the past and keeping them available to future generations. The material I have donated to the archive represents working papers from the motion picture industry from around 1980 to shortly after 2000. Most of it concerns the visual effects work I was involved with. Some of this will be interesting to students and film scholars immediately and some decades from now as it takes on a historical value and in some cases may attract artistic interest.

You’ll be meeting with students during your visit to campus. What can students learn from an archive such as yours?

The collection of my papers represents over 20 years of feature film scripts and story boards. By reading and studying these working documents, they will hopefully get some insight into the enormous amount of planning that goes into the making of a feature film, particularly the ones with visual effects. I was fortunate to have worked on many films students will have seen, films that are part of the American memory of popular movies. Some of these include two early Star Wars films, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Poltergeist. I also produced films for Walt Disney such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and several 3-D theme park attractions, one with pop singer Michael Jackson and another with Jim Henson. This was Henson’s last film. Sadly he died just as we finished the work. For the Jim Henson Company, I produced not only the 3-D film currently running in all Disneyland parks, MuppetVision 3-D, I also produced the visual effects for three feature films. For the Ted Turner company, I produced the visual effects and directed battle scenes for the 2003 Civil War epic Gods and Generals. For the ABC Network, I directed a one-hour special for children, called Ralph S. Mouse. So this is a cross section of work from a variety of films that students may find informative, and there are documents associated with nearly all of them in the collection.

"Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" Visual Effects Producer Thomas Smith donates collection

Student volunteer Carly Dearborn and Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson with materials from the Tom Smith collection. Photo by Pete Smith.
Student volunteer Carly Dearborn and Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson with materials from the Tom Smith collection. Photo by Pete Smith.

Thomas Smith (b. 1938), visual effect producer for such films as Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (1980) and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), has donated his archive to the Ransom Center. Smith was hired by George Lucas as the first head of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and worked on the special effects for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).

The Smith collection comprises 22 boxes and documents Smith’s professional work through the 1980s and 1990s. Spanning from 1979 to 2003, the collection contains special effects storyboards, screenplay drafts, scripts, pre-production research, production materials, newspaper clippings, photographs, and published materials such as fan magazines and cinematography periodicals. The papers also contain material relating to Smith’s time at ILM and Lucasfilm.

The collection will be made accessible once it is processed and cataloged.

Smith will visit The University of Texas at Austin to speak publicly on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m. in KLRU’s Studio 6A in the Communications Center Building B. As part of the Harry Ransom Lecture series, Smith will discuss his life and career. While on campus, Smith will also meet with students in the College of Communication’s Department of Radio-Television-Film.

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