Visual effects maestro John Dykstra received his first Academy Award for his work on 1977's Star Wars, spearheading development of motion control and blue screen technologies under his guidance. The same year, he won an Academy Scientific and Engineering Award for the Dykstraflex motion-control camera that made so many of Star Wars' effects possible. His Oscar second came for his work on 2004's Spider-Man 2.
He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Stuart Little and Spider-Man. In addition to receiving an Emmy Award for Battlestar Galactica, Dykstra has supervised visual effects for Firefox, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin and designed the visual effects for Hancock, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men First Class and Django Unchained. Dykstra has made significant contributions over the decades of his career to feature films, commercials theme park entertainment and video games. At the time of this interview, he was working on Seventh Son for Legendary Pictures.
Dykstra spoke to Creative COW upon his receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society, about what happened behind the scenes on Star Wars, how he transitioned to being a VFX supervisor, and what he thinks about the state of VFX today.
I have loved to draw since I was a kid; I was always drawing cars, cartoons and characters. I became interested in photography at 12 or 13 and got a Brownie Hawkeye
. Photographers were glamorous and I loved the idea of capturing reality. And it was a lot faster than drawing. Since then, photography has been an avocation. My dad was a mechanical engineer, so I took lots of things apart when I was a kid. A few of them actually got put back together.
I wasn't sure of what I wanted to study when I enrolled at Cal State Long Beach
. My love of drawing and all things mechanical led me to major in industrial design. This was before there was a film department at Cal State, but I managed to incorporate a couple of 16mm films into my efforts there. I had a dispute with the head of my department at graduation time, which resulted in my being denied a degree, subsequently awarded a degree and later still having that degree "recalled." But that's another story. For me, college was less about the academics and more about interacting with creative people.
Doug Trumbull on Bladerunner
Before I finished school, I went to work for Doug Trumbull
and he introduced me to large format cinematography. Friends of mine worked for Doug -- Wayne Smith, Jamie Shourt, Bob Shepherd and Jim Dow. Doug was hiring student designers and artists out of college to work at his new company Trumbull Film Effects. Along with the guys from Long Beach State, I met people like Bill Shourt, Grant McCune, Dick Alexander, and Don Trumbull. This experience was seminal; I had the opportunity to apply design, physics, and cinematography. Doug [Trumbull] was my mentor. Doug is a great guy who was then and still is always far ahead of his time.
I think, though he's never copped to it, that Doug may have recommended me to George Lucas who was looking for an effects guy for his Star Wars
film. George was blurring the line between a student film and a studio film, and I think he wanted kindred spirits, people of like-minds, to make the film in an unconventional fashion. I was a college kid with a ponytail and I didn't hew to the conventional wisdom. When it came to unconventional, he may have gotten more than he bargained for.
There may have been a disconnect between us. I don't think George realized I would invent a system. He didn't expect an entire facility to be designed. I think he wanted us to be ingenious with existing technology. He was in London shooting while we were developing what ended up being some groundbreaking technologies. We were designing and building optical printers, cameras, and miniatures; as a result, the process didn't produce a lot of film at first. I can understand him being nervous about it; he was helming the show -- and the studio was nervous. A lot of people questioned whether this machine we were creating was even feasible.
When he came back from England, we hadn't produced enough stuff. I admit that we were too involved in the process. The good news is that he had a bunch of people who ate, slept, and dreamed the movie. The crew that was working on the film was completely engaged and worked incredibly long hours. But we weren't working conventional hours. We had a non-air conditioned building in Van Nuys. It was sweltering in the daytime, so we mostly shot at night when the temperature was cooler. Studio executives would come by in the daytime and nobody was on stage shooting. I'm told that certain studios execs referred to ILM as The Country Club. At that time, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, Doug Smith, Ken Ralston were all working there.
Miniatures were built at a scale that allowed two or three concurrently working stages. John, above with the Fleet of X-Wing, Y-Wing and TIE. Fighters used in
the first Star Wars film.
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. Eventually, the work was finished and considering the groundbreaking nature of it, it turned out really well. Could it have been done more efficiently? Of course. We railed against convention. We didn't organize; we didn't have time clocks. We were all friends -- it was a fraternity if you will. It was difficult for the executives and producers outside the environment to understand the way the energy worked and why it worked.
I laud George, [producer] Gary [Kurtz] and the studio: I came up with a hare-brained scheme and they committed to it and let us go forward with it. The scheme required that we invent, not the technology, but the process by which it was used. We moved the object and the camera during the exposure that gave our animation a verisimilitude that was indistinguishable from film of real world motion. We built a tilting lens board on the camera. We built miniatures at a scale that allowed us to have two or three stages working at the same time. To move the camera and duplicate its actions meant that we could shoot elements for six different shots on a stage in one day, because it was a modular technique.
Technology used in a completely new way gave life to the effects. Above, John with the explosive-laden TIE. Fighter about to be
photographed at high speed for the Death Star trench battle.
We developed blue screen technology with high frequency ballasts and fluorescent-lit screens instead of incandescent lights. We started building everything at the same time and it all had to work together. The miracle was that it did. I'm not sure of the dates, but I believe we went from an empty warehouse to the completion of the film in 18 months.
One of the reasons we were able to do it in such short time was that we were a bunch of people who had worked together before -- we all had a shorthand way of communicating. We were all young and 18-hour days weren't unusual. People wanted to be there; we were all pursuing our bliss. We were a group of nerds together with all the resources that nerds could possibly want, and we were all so involved, having fun and enamored of the work we were doing. I think the product reflects that.
After Star Wars
, the mechanical remains of ILM were in Los Angeles, for the making of the effects for the Battlestar Galactica
TV pilot. [Dykstra, along with Richard Edlund and Joe Goss won a Primetime Emmy for Creative Technical Crafts on the show in 1979.] After Galactica
, ILM took the physical plant to Marin and we developed replacement, second-generation equipment for motion control under the auspices of Apogee. That was done in conjunction with Columbia Studios.
The Millenium Falcon
We had a huge research and development unit at Apogee, which is what kept everyone happy but ultimately led to the downfall of the company. We updated everything: lightweight camera booms, ultra-miniature cameras, self-illuminating blue-screen systems, reverse matting techniques. This was in the era when you had to put a physical subject in front of a camera and photograph it as an element to be combined in an optical composite. That, of course, is no longer the case. You can fabricate subjects from individual pixels and you don't need to move cameras and subjects around anymore -- and that was our forte.
We put camera mounts on cars, trucks, motorcycles, we had motion control systems that tracked the movement of the camera through space, we didn't invent motion capture but we had early mocap systems. We were quite successful for quite a while, but we had way too much resource for the work available. The R&D was too big a chunk of the profits.
APOGEE effects specialists David Robin and Don Dow work on this model for Battlestar Galactica. The Dykstraflex can be seen in the foreground.
Apogee ended up closing [in 1992/1993] with the advent of digital imaging. We used computers at Apogee, but when digital imaging started approaching being indistinguishable from film, we would have had to make a huge R&D investment to transition into making images in the computer as opposed to putting a subject in front of a camera. The whole VFX business for movies was in its transition stage.
Although we continued to work on commercials, by the time we closed up shop, we were in an era in which people were making huge investments in computer technology...and then going under. In the 'hammer and tong' days of photography, photographic hardware, camera motion control systems, etc. were useable for a long time. When we advanced to the computer imaging age, new technology became obsolete in a few months. You'd have to put a huge investment into equipment that would become obsolete before you finished a show, and that was daunting. We were clever lads but hadn't grown up in the digital era. I would have trusted the guys in Apogee to replace my knees if it came to that because of how adept and smart and broad they were in their expertise.
The industry became much more one of specialization. We knew computers but computer imaging circumvented a lot of the things that were our area of expertise. You constantly reinvent yourself in this business, and that's what I had to do. With the transition from 'subject in front of the camera' to making images from whole cloth in the computer, visual effects became less about engineering and more about inventing images that supported the story.
Before it was a lot about how to get the image. It was about getting out there and getting your hands dirty. It eventually became much less adventurous. The good news was, when it was adventurous, people hired you because they needed someone adventurous just to get the shot; the shots were limited by what you could do physically.
One of the most critical features of the Dykstraflex (in foreground) was the tilting lens board. Above, the "Rebel Blockade Runner" being hit by a blast from the Star Destroyer in the opening sequence of the first Star Wars film. The Rebel Blockade Runner actually started out to be the Millennium Falcon and got bumped by the round version of the Millennium Falcon that ended up in the film. That round model was affectionately known as the "Pork Burger" around the shop.
Grant McCune (27 March 1943 – 27 December 2010) looking up at the Millennium Falcon, the "Pork Burger" – and final – version.
The ability of digital technology to create images indistinguishable from film of reality meant there wasn't the generational loss of film opticals. All of a sudden, composites became easier and much better. But, even though VFX artists no longer had to understand engineering, they still had to understand physics because the images have to reflect real world physics. As a visual effects supervisor, I would tell digital VFX people to "get out more often" to understand the physicality of the world and how it works. That's what you need to do to create illusions that replicate that physicality.
Personal experience is the best guide or ruler against which to judge the reality of what you create. But my advice wasn't well received, because people liked to work on a box in a dark room. Creating visual effects stopped being about whether you could figure out how to get the shot and more about the shot's design and whether it told the story.
John with the Galactica
It was easy for me to transition to being a VFX designer in the digital world because I have always been a student of the physical world. I ride motorcycles, I can weld, I do all this arcane stuff that we had to do to get the shot in the pre-digital era. So I can look at a digital shot and know that the weight or movement is wrong. The stuff that's subliminal is really critical.
In photography, with miniatures, a subliminal 'gotcha' is depth of field. A real building will be in focus near and far, but with miniatures you have to use a deep f-stop to replicate that. And if you didn't have enough light to do this, one end or the other is out of focus and you know it is a miniature. My experience in the pre-digital world of miniatures helps me to understand how important depth of field is to audiences' "subliminal" willing suspension of disbelief. The list of these subliminal cues is endless and I am eternally a student of real world cues. With VFX, as with all things, the devil is in the details.
I love working as a visual effects designer. I get to design images that entertain and support the telling of the story. I get to work with and learn from artists and craftspeople in many different fields. One of my favorite writer's cliches is "unlike anything we've ever seen before." That line still shows up in scripts. It's a license to invent. How much better can it get?
As to the state of visual effects art, I feel that filmmakers today have an embarrassment of visual effects riches. The focus in general seems to be on "more" and "bigger" instead of unique and evocative. In the early days of CGI and before CGI, visual effects shots cost more and took more time. I think VFX shots and their use was more "considered."
At the same time, we in visual effects are being provided with more powerful tools to create more complex illusions. Visual effects, as a whole, is being treated more like a commodity. Since fitting a demographic became more important than the statement that the film was making, we have seen fewer films that express new ideas or even old ideas in a new way. I think this is a global problem that extends far beyond visual effects and filmmaking. It seems we live in a culture that, for the time being, values quantity of thinking over the quality of those thoughts. Hopefully, once we get used to the growing ease of expression, we will begin to use these tools to express new ideas.
The thing that's so cool about getting this Lifetime Achievement Award from the VES is that these are my peers, the people I grew up with, the people I worked with, the people I learned from. I can't ask for a better life in terms of integrating what I enjoy with what I do for a living.
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Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.
Follow Debra on Twitter @MobilizedDebra
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