Jim Nelson, Who Helped Build ILM for George Lucas and 'Star Wars,' Dies at 81
The sound editor, producer and postproduction guru also worked on such films as "The Last Picture Show," "Badlands" and "The China Syndrome" and on dozens of TV shows.
Jim Nelson, the veteran sound editor and postproduction guru who helped put together Industrial Light & Magic for George Lucas to create the original Star Wars, has died. He was 81.
Nelson, whose real name was James M. Falkinburg, died June 18, his family announced in a paid obituary in the Los Angeles Times. No other details about his death were immediately available.
Since beginning his industry career at age 17, Nelson worked on 21 films, 38 TV series — in more than 1,700 episodes — and many telefilms, documentaries and specials.
He served as a sound editor or effects man on Rock Around the Clock (1956), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Head (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Lucas' American Graffiti (1973), The Exorcist (1973) and Badlands (1973). He was an associate producer and unit production manager on The China Syndrome (1979).
He also produced Borderline (1980), starring Charles Bronson; Solar Crisis (1990), with Charlton Heston; and The Seventh Coin (1993), featuring Peter O'Toole.
His lengthy list of TV credits include The Frank Sinatra Show, Shirley Temple's Storybook, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Father Knows Best, Naked City, Dennis the Menace, The Donna Reed Show, Hazel, The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, Captain Nice, Tarzan, The Monkees, The Mothers-In-Law, H.R. Pufnstuf, Love American Style and The Brady Bunch.
From 1975 through 1977, Nelson functioned as the uncredited associate producer of Star Wars, on which he oversaw the administration and management of Lucas' ILM. He helped build the company from scratch in a warehouse on Valjean Avenue near Van Nuys Airport.
"There was no ILM," Nelson said in Peter Biskind's 1998 book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. "There were four walls, no rooms even. We had to build rooms, buy equipment, make equipment, because the equipment that made the film didn't exist."
According to Biskind, Nelson hired a young John Dykstra to work on the film, and Dykstra created a computer-controlled camera that could store specific movements (dolly, tilt, zoom, focus, etc.) so that they could be repeated with precision when needed. That meant actors, model miniatures and animations could later be seamlessly composited in a way that made it look as if they were being photographed at once.
Dykstra's work earned him the visual effects Oscar in 1978, shared with Richard Edlund, John Stears, Grant McCune and Robert Blalack.
"George brought in people meant to crack the whip. Whether they felt like they succeeded or not, I don't know. They wanted to go from zero to 60 in 1.2 seconds, and that wasn't in the cards. Jim Nelson buffered the whip cracking, and we all thank him for that," Dykstra said in a 2013 interview.
Nelson co-founded Edit-Rite, the premier postproduction facility of its time, in 1965. Seven years later, he launched James Nelson Enterprises and expanded into the production of features. In 1984, he helped Edlund found Boss Films and served as a vp and consultant.
His father, Sam Nelson, was an actor and director, and his brother is director Gary Nelson (Freaky Friday).
Survivors also include his wife of 36 years, Barbara; daughters Kimberley and Leslie; grandchildren James and Nicole; and great-grandson Jaden.
Donations can be made to the Motion Picture & Television Foundation, P.O. Box 51150, Los Angeles, CA 90051.