Lucasfilm Portraits by Joel Aron

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Lucasfilm Portraits by Joel Aron

It started on Tuesday, when we had all at Lucasfilm Animation had just been informed that the two tv shows that we were working on, would no longer be in production and a majority of the crew would have their last day on Friday. Some would be staying on, but most would be unemployed. We were the first wave of layoffs in the company, with more that came in the following weeks.

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On that Wednesday, I pulled my friend Andy in to my office so that I could take his portrait. I usually have my Elinchrom 100cm Rotalux light bank setup in my office, and mostly shoot with my 5Dmk3, firing the strobe for random portraits when there is free time. I didn’t have my 5D w/ that day, only my Leica M9-P and the 50 Summicron , that I sling with me nearly 99% of the day. For nearly the last 8 years, there has always been my Leica with me. I had to go with what I had. I quickly grabbed all I could in my office as a backdrop that would work with using my light with its modeling lamp only.. two 9 foot tall matte black design boards. I stood Andy under the light, and shot 4 images. After he left, I started going around grabbing people to come in for portraits. I shot only a dozen people that day. The next day, I did the same sporadic shooting for another dozen people, since most people were understandably not into having their portrait taken. That night, I work on the processing, and posted all of the portraits that I had done so far. Friday morning, I had not even gotten to the door of the parking garage, when I was swarmed by some friends in the design group on our show.. they saw the images I posted, and now wanted portraits.

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When I got to my office, a line was starting to form of well-groomed friends and co-workers that wanted to part of this collection. It was that day that I made the decision to approach this as a project. I cleared my calendar, and spent the entire day shooting portraits in my very small office, 3 minutes at a time, getting to know people who I had only seen in passing, and hugging and crying with old friends who at 3pm would be turning in their work badge for good.

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The end of that Friday is something I will never forget. Nearly 90% of our facility had been to my office for their portrait. I decided to shoot not only the unfortunate that were leaving, but the people who were staying on..as we were all effected too. I was gutted. I held in all emotion until I got home that night and leaned against the kitchen counter with a beer. My wife asked me how the day went, before I could even answer, I melted into a mess of tears.

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A few weeks later, the layoffs hit the games division, LucasArts was closing down, and a large portion of our ILM R&D department were going to let go. I had not thought about portrait sessions, but a call came on the day they found out. I was asked to come for two days, and shoot. For two solid days, non-stop from 9am to 6pm, I was shooting. I had constructed a replica of my office setup in the LucasArts sound stage. Drinks were flowing for both days, and rightfully so. Over 200 portraits.

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A few weeks after that, the final wave of layoffs had hit the core group of Lucasfilm. People that I have known for 23 years. It was a smaller group this time, and I absolutely agreed to once again shoot.

For everyone that is and once were part of the company, these are not yearbook photos, they were portraits that captured a moment in the history of a great company, and the challenging turning point in each individuals life. It was an honor to be a part of this moment in their lives. To be a part of Lucasfilm is life long dream for all of us, and to either continue on with the company, or depart, the Force will be with us, always.

A large portion of the series is available on my site: www.joelaron.com with the entire collection available as a book later this summer.

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52 thoughts on “Lucasfilm Portraits by Joel Aron

  1. We here it often enough these days that video is the wave of the future, your work is a indisputable example of why stills will always be a part of our visual language.

  2. Well put, I’m not trying to be a hater. I’m lucky enough to work in VFX..I’m constantly out of work. I’ve been laid off a dozen times or more. Working at one company for 28 years, those are the things that dreams are made of. You could build a foundation for you family for a long time to come. Dreams I can only imagine.

    If you play your cards right, and keep your montly expenses down (Don’t owe people money) you can have a great life in Cali’ working 8 months out of the year.

    When my job in London dies, there wont be any time for portraits…and there is no unemployment for us ex-pats, so I’ll be sent somewhere else on the planet to find employment. Some consider it a curse, I consider it a gift. This is my perspective, they pay me to move around the world and see things I’d never be able to afford as a vacation. Downside, I live on the edge of stability.

    I just wanted to remind some that were feeling bad, to feel a bit less bad. The new xbox comes out soon, there has been no new hardware to require new games really, so things will be on the upswing soon. LucasArts is much different than LucasFilm. LucasArts hasn’t made a really great, money making game in decades. Plus the bay area is one of the few places with multiple game companies within driving distance! Ya’ll will be fine, MORE than fine…you may even find some new inspiration that no doubt took a knock after year 20 or so.

    But this is a photography site so I’ll get off this soap box.

  3. Being unemployed is always a bummer, no matter how well compensated you were. And remember that the unemployed includes not just well-paid geeks with investment accounts, but at least as many support people left trying to pay a San Francisco rent on an unemployment check (which are not that much to live on – they don’t pay for much skiing) . The good news is that the local economy is healthy, but that doesn’t get anyone a job automatically. I always heard that the Lucas companies were amazing places to work. I hope the creative folks can find work doing what they love, and that everyone who desperately needs a job finds one is quickly. The portraits are simply wonderful and will be great mementos for these folks of a special time in their lives. I don’t know anyone who got laid off, but with Lucas retiring and now all of this, it feels like the end of an era even to me.

  4. These are great photos, however I think it’s important to remember that no job lasts forever and these jobs are better than most. All of you hopefully saved some of your large salaries, will enjoy your no doubt generous severance pay and the always desirable California unemployment checks!! I always went to ski in Tahoe when my FX job ended, and I never expected a single individual to feel sorry for me.

    I don’t want to be a buzz kill, but I think it’s good to keep perspective. Great portraits though.

  5. Joel, your craft is impeccable but it is your ability to connect with these folks that makes this set remarkable. Most everybody has “been there” even if perhaps not losing our dream job, and feel tremendous empathy for each.

    Best of luck to you all!

  6. Great portraits and highly emotional story, but will i have to disagree on the processing doesnt make it to me. But we can not all agree on the same things 🙂

  7. Fantastic piece of work that I am sure will be treasured by those who took part and admired by many who see it just as a photographic project. Thanks for sharing these.

  8. Remarkable images. To me, they convey real emotion ranging from despair & shock to acceptance of your colleagues’ new situations and challenges.

    I’d be interested in a copy of that book. Where will its availability be announced?

    Thank you for sharing your work & good luck

  9. Excellent portraits–it puts a face on people that you hear about: “….people layed off from …….Co.”. It’s a shame; it’s been going on for quite a few years now and things are not getting better. If Disney could they’d send all jobs overseas to save money.

  10. Moving, and a tribute to everyone who put their hearts, souls and talents to work at a great company. You WILL be missed.

  11. What a great, very sad, very human and very touching story. The portraits are superb and tell the story.
    This is absolutely worth publishing. In fact it should be a waste if you would not !

    Kind regards, good luck and may the force be with you!

    Kris

  12. Thank you everyone for all of the amazingly kind comments about these portraits!! I am overwhelmed by the response!

    The days of shooting were some of the most intense and enlightening moments of my photographic career. It’s always hard to say goodbye to friends and artists, but no matter what, they will always remain great friends and artists. Dare I quote Obi Wan here? “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” 😉 Rest assure, there will be more work, and everyone will land on their feet.

    I will continue to populate my site with new images, so please keep checking. The book is for everyone at Lucasfilm as a kickstarter project to fund a cost effective way for everyone in the company who wants, to get one… but it will be available to the public. Totally not for profit. Anything left over, I will donate books or give the rest to suport friends in need.

    Even though the mood in each portrait is heavy, we had a great time with each portrait. They were only 2-5 minutes each, and I just happened to catch that1/60th of a second when I asked them what they were going to do.

    My site is…oddly down. One of these days, i’ll stray from 500px, to a more stable portfolio. For now, if you want to see all of the images, you can go to my FB: http://www.facebook.com/joel.aron Add me as a friend, and keep up to date on our new tv series that we’re working on. ..yes.. more Star Wars. 🙂

    Again, I can’t thank Steve enough for posting this. If it were not for him, I would not have my M9-P. Now he’s got me wanting a 50 Summarit 1.5. Grrr!!

    Thanks again everyone for your kind words and support!!

    May the Force Be With You.

    -Joel

  13. Joel your portraits were so moving for me. I recognized a lot of people and for many that I didn’t know, I knew how they were feeling. Thank you.

  14. Sci Fi Friday’s on Cartoon Network were always an event in this house- Popcorn all the way around. One evening I told my Daughter, “Someday you’ll outgrow these shows. BUT I WON’T! This is me, I’m here, and will not ever outgrowing them!” She assured me she would not.

    Tell the company to get on the ball and come out with some new series, Friday evening has become the pits.

  15. There’s something so fascinating about looking into a person’s face in a great portrait. You’ve captured their spirit so well. The faces seem to reflect the realization that things in life can be startlingly fleeting.. and a pride in the work they have done. Excellent, and I wish the best for you all.

  16. Joel, your career is right here—that series is truly excellent. Great work, and the real people captured in a fraught moment—a reminder for all of us that everything can change in a heartbeat, so smell the roses. Thanks for sharing this work; it is brilliant.

  17. Good luck! Wish you and your friends all the best!

    Totally great portraits, full of emotion

  18. Steve, I’ve always enjoyed your blog. Everyone featured photographer has in some way inspired me, but this post — I must say — is the absolute best. Thank you, Steve, and many, many thanks to Joel for sharing the shoot that turned into a project.

  19. Great shots Joel. Just so I have this straight, you used the modelling light not the strobe? If you don’t mind, what type/brand etc? I really like the softness.

    Good luck!
    Huss

    1. Thank you Huss!

      Yes, only the modeling lamp of a single Elinchrom 500bxri, mounted is an Elinchrom Rotalux 100cm square lightbank. In that, is a gold deflector, and the inner diffuse. Light was always at 4.4 power, about 2′ above their head at a down 45 degree angle. Camera was almost always at f/2, 60th/sec. The only other trick, was a window facing the north that was filtered by a 50% diffuse screen.. that’s why some images are more contrasty than others.. was due to the amount of ambient in the room, based on the time of the day.

      thanks again, and so glad you like the images.
      -joel

  20. Hi Joel,
    One of the best posts on Steve’s site. Amazing portraits. They look editorial at the beginning, but once you know the story, the reason why each and every portrait is different with some people not even wanting to look at the lens, it all makes sense. I had a lump in my throat when I came to the end. Tough times.

    Mo

    1. Agree. This is the best post ever, because of the portraits of people — at a time when their world is collapsing. The photos are stunning.

  21. Wow, what great work and yet a sad story. I watched the first Stars Wars movie opening day in the 70’s and have always admired the creativity Lucasfilms always produced. You’ve done a wonderful project providing life time memories for these fellow employees!

    1. Thank you Paulo!,
      The backdrop are literally two of the 9 foot tall, by 4 foot wide, 1/2 inch thick matte black foam core design boards. Usually, they are in my office displaying different ‘time of day’ matte paintings of Coruscant. 😉 I flipped them around, and leaned them against my office door to not only act as a backdrop, but to block the window next to the door. Depending on how quickly I placed the boards when someone would come in for the portrait, I would sometimes get a perfectly flat surface. I kinda like the scuffed nature of them, and if you look close, you’ll see pin holes and spots where other designs use to be posted. So happy that you like the portraits!

  22. Joel – coolest thing I’ve seen in a while. Ah, unfortunately that’s what happens with a big corporate board now running things at Lucasfilms. I hope that Disney doesn’t kill my childhood by turning Star Wars into something unholy … still can’t wait for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX.

  23. awesome! these are great…and a stark reminder of how i hope to gain your knack for portraiture and strobe work some day. really well done. i like the toning too; i think there would be a lack of emotion without it.

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