Born in England in 1939, Jonathan Erland commenced his professional training in the entertainment industry in 1954, studying theatre at the Central School (where fellow students included Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench) and film at the London Film School where he received his visual effects “baptism by fire” on the student film, Brief Armistice, an anti-war, battlefield film set in World War II. After additional studies at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, he began work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during the heyday of live television drama, including such classics as William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, George Bernard Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma, and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
His knowledge of theatre technology made him a desirable asset to the team building the Charles Eames-designed audio animatronic puppet theatres for the I.B.M. Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Moving to Los Angeles, he maintained dual careers in both the entertainment and industrial / exhibit design fields. His eclectic backgrounds merged harmoniously when his industrial design knowledge made him a desirable asset for Industrial Light and Magic, the group formed by John Dykstra, A.S.C., to create the visual effects for the 1977 film Star Wars. He continued his association with Dykstra, serving as Director of Research and Development for Apogee Productions. At Apogee, he received patents and Academy Awards for Reverse Bluescreen, the Blue-Max flux projector and a method for making front projection screens.
The author of some twenty Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineering (SMPTE) papers, he has received the Society’s Journal Award and the Fuji Gold Medal. In 1993, he served as program chair for the SMPTE Technical Conference. He is a Life Fellow of the Society, an Associate of the American Society of Cinematographers and was a founder of the Technology Council of the Motion Picture and Television Industries. He was also a founder, in 1997, of the Visual Effects Society. In addition to serving as a Director for the VES, he has also served on their Technology Committee, and, for seven years, as Membership Chair. In 2006, the VES awarded him their inaugural Founders Award. In 2010 he, along with Douglas Trumbull and Dennis Muren, became the first Fellows of the VES. He was made a VES Lifetime Membership Honoree in 2018.
In 1984, Erland was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and in 1995, as Chairman of the Visual Effects Award Steering Committee, he achieved the long-sought goal of establishing Visual Effects as a Branch of the Academy. He served eleven years on the Board of Governors of the Academy, twenty-five years on the Executive Committee of the Visual Effects Branch and the Scientific and Engineering Awards Committee. He has also served on the Student Academy Awards Committee and the Foreign Films Committee. He was a founding member of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Committee, as well as the Academy Science and Technology Council, where he served on the Executive Committee and chaired the Research Committee, as well as the Solid State Light subcommittee, which presented his proposal for a Spectral Similarity Index (SSI) as a SMPTE paper in 2017.
For the Council, he has appeared in a number of public programs such as “Movie Magic” where he presented the pre-cinema segment; “Minwa-Za Company of Tokyo” a program on Japanese shadow puppetry; “Illuminating the Future: the Arrival of Solid State Lighting” from which his presentation of “The Science of Colour” can be seen on the Academy website. In 2011, at NAB and also CineGear, he presented, “Chromatic Chaos: Implications of Newly Introduced Forms of Stagelight” a study of solid state lighting, which was also presented for the ASC-sponsored International Cinematographers Symposium, chaired by President Michael Goi, ASC. The Council, located at the Academy’s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Studies, is also home to the Esmeralda Stage™. Begun at Apogee in the eighties and updated over time, he designed the Stage to provide a state of the art imaging research laboratory for all aspects of cinema.
In 1993, he and his wife Kay founded Composite Components Company, which specializes in traveling matte composite technology, and in 1996 the Academy awarded them a Scientific and Engineering Award for the Digital Series(TM) of traveling matte backings. In 2008, he received an Academy Award of Commendation for “his leadership efforts (in 1992) toward identifying and solving the problem of High-Speed Emulsion Stress Syndrome in motion picture film stock.” In 2012, Erland was honored with the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation, which recognizes, “outstanding service and dedication in upholding the high standards of the Academy.” The Erlands founded the Pickfair Institute for Cinematic Studies in 2015. The Institute conducts research, e.g. the Creative Frame Rate project, which is aimed at restoring the lost palette of variable frame rates to the modern cinema. In 2018 he received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award (an Oscar® statuette) from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Gordon E. Sawyer Award has been awarded to only 22 people since its creation in 1981. It honors a career of technological contributions that have brought credit to the industry.
More from Jonathan Erland:
Visual Effects Society Founder’s Award Presentation, October 2006 (.pdf)
See the video of the VES Founder’s Award Ceremony
The Tripod Metaphor (.pdf)