The Force goes north – Retired visual effects designer moves to Silverton

March 2023 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, People
Charlie Bailey, former toy designer for Mattel and model maker, Creature Shop Manager and model project supervisor for LucasFilm.     Melissa Wagoner

Charlie Bailey, former toy designer for Mattel and model maker, Creature Shop Manager and model project supervisor for LucasFilm. Melissa Wagoner

By Melissa Wagoner

You may not know the name Charlie Bailey but chances are you’ve seen at least one of the feature films he helped create during his 31-year career as a designer with Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the visual effects company George Lucas founded during the production of the original Star Wars films. 

“I was the luckiest person in the world,” Bailey said of the chance encounters that led him from working a dead-end construction job during the recession of 1971, to becoming first a model maker for the toy company Mattel, then for ILM. 

“It’s been amazing,” Bailey admitted listing the 77 films – many of which went on to win tech awards, Oscars, Emmys and Clios – along with 28 commercials and four amusement park rides that he worked on during his career. 

“We got an Academy Technical Award that first year.”

But, while the awards were nice, that wasn’t the only thing that kept Bailey working at ILM.

“It was just working with all the crazy people,” he laughed. “And that we never did anything twice.”

Instead, the crew was constantly innovating. 

“The hardest project was Howard the Duck,” Bailey said, referring to the film produced by Lucas in 1986. “We needed a year and we had six months to come up with a duck – life-sized. We developed the animatronics and the head pieces. The prototype was really complex.”

It was also around this time that ILM was starting to explore a new medium – computer graphics. 

“At first it was a real worry,” Bailey remembered. “But a lot of that technology was developed at ILM.[In 1985] Young Sherlock Holmes had a knight that was the first digital character. And before that was [Star Trek:] The Wrath of Kahn with the first computer graphic sequence. People got so interested in computer graphics that it actually generated more work for us and improved our work for ten years.”

Improved, definitely not decreased. 

“It was a minimum ten-hour day,” Bailey confirmed. Adding, “People like us were under a really strict schedule. Nobody ever missed a deadline.” 

Promoted in 1986 to manager of what had recently been renamed the “Creature Shop,” Bailey was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000, completing his last movie, Terminator: Salvation and his last project – the restoration of the Ark of the Covenant prop (from 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark) – before retiring in 2010.

“By the time I retired I was 65 and I was pretty worn out,” Bailey admitted. “And the business had tapered off – computer graphics had caught up to us.”

Then, in 2021 something else caught up to Bailey and his wife Pauli, who were then living in Sonoma, California – climate change. 

“We got tired of the smoke from the forest fires and the drought,” he said. “And we thought, we’ll go north until we hit rain.”

Their travels eventually led them to Silverton where they bought a small home in an unassuming neighborhood where Bailey took up a new kind of design – the home garden variety – and few people know of his illustrious career.

But that seems to be OK with Bailey who, when asked how he likes his new, quieter life, says, “It’s not quite home yet, but I love it.”

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