illustrious career spanning more than four decades and counting,
special effects innovator John Dykstra cut his teeth working
on Douglas Trumbull's 70s sci-fi classic Silent Running. His
visual effects wizardry on that film landed him his first of two
Academy Awards. About 30 years later, Spider-Man 2 brought
him his second Oscar statue.
member of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, Dykstra was one
of the first special effects artists to employ computers. At ILM he
designed and built the first computerized motion control system
dubbed the Dykstraflex, which was used for many of Star Wars'
other credits include Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Inglourious
Basterds and, most recently, X-Men: First Class (director
Matthew Vaughn’s nuanced, finely rendered prequel) – which was
recently issued on DVD and Blu-Ray. Plus he was a producer on
the 1970s television series Battlestar Galactica, for which
he shared an Emmy.
the 65-year-old Long Beach, California native discussed the state of
special effects in today's computerized film world. While reflecting
on the past, he’s focused on the future.
were there with
which came out of 2001: A Space Odyssey – its director
Douglas Trumbull had worked on Stanley Kubrick’s classic – so your
connection to the technology of filmmaking goes all the way back.
Trumbull [visual effects director for 2001 and director of
Silent Running] is still out there, and I love Doug. I learned
all of my stuff from him to begin with, and he's still doing
pictures like The Tree of Life.
do you think of as your benchmarks? There can be no greater
To be the guy that was responsible for those effects, working with
George Lucas. Let’s face it; it’s the start of the mega-blockbuster
that's so funny about that is the studio didn't think they had
anything that was going to be worth selling. Everybody ran from the
room when it came to assigning responsibility for having brought
Star Wars into the studio and actually produced it. And it
wasn't until they actually saw the film that they realized what they
had. The medium of motion pictures has a component to it where you
really don't know what you've got until you finish it because there
are so many pieces that go into the execution of it. Anyone who
works in film needs to be able to think both tactically and
strategically. You have to know not only what you're currently doing
and how that relates to the other departments around you
collaborating on the same piece, but you have to have a long view
and understand that you don't fall in love with a particular image
or scene execution because there's a much bigger story you have to
pay attention to.
2005 you won the Oscar for visual effects in
How did that feel?
is a pretty interesting accolade because it comes from your peers,
and the fame or the notoriety that comes with the ceremony
notwithstanding, the thing that's really important about it is it's
given to you by a bunch of people who do what you do. So it is a
reflection of the real individual effort as opposed to simply credit
for having worked on a picture that was particularly successful box
office-wise. I'm proud of myself and the people that I worked with
doing Star Wars because it truly was an effort of invention.
We started with an empty warehouse and we built all the cameras, we
built all the devices that move the cameras, we built all of the
miniatures, and we photographed all of the miniatures so we truly
could lay claim to the responsibility for having provided to George
that particular component of his movie, which was really cool.
connection do you feel with the movies you’ve worked on? Though you
must have had a moment with all of them – especially when you get a
chance to reinvent the characters. Which is your favorite?
question about it. Let's be blunt: Star Wars was the most fun
because I was a kid when I was doing [it] and working with a bunch
of my best buddies working in a warehouse, which was essentially a
big super garage, and we really got to expand the boundaries of what
was being done. So that was hard to top. I thoroughly enjoyed
working with Sam Raimi and Joel Schumacher on the Batman
movies and the Spider-Man movies, and Matthew Vaughn was
terrific too. The difference for me was the subsequent movies, as we
moved out of the Batman era into the Spider-Man and
X-Men era, is that we got to put a lot more thought into how the
images that we were creating represented the character, as opposed
to simply how we were going to make those images.
If you go
back prior to digital imaging, you had to put a subject in front of
a camera, so if you wanted to have an exploding galaxy you had to
figure out how to make something that looked like an exploding
galaxy and actually photograph it as opposed to creating a
simulation, which you can now do. So the good news was that when you
did things like that you had a certain investment in the image you
were creating and you got to imbue it with more emotional content
because you had to work so hard to figure out the mechanics of
making the image and you had to take the image apart down to what
the most important components were. Now you have the ability to
create something from whole cloth and the sky's the limit. You can
do pretty much anything you can conceive of. But the onus is on you
now – as opposed to then, actually not as opposed to but as much as
then – on making something that's one, a unique image, and two, that
has something about it that's evocative.
that was fun about the X-Men movie was that we have all of
these characters who in and of themselves had to manifest a power
that reflected a part of their personality. Emma Frost says it all.
The whole business of how she looked as the diamond girl and what
emotional content she carried in her diamond form as opposed to the
content she carried when she was her flesh and blood form was an
important part of that design function. And that's the part that's
really cool. All of a sudden I'm no longer bound by having to fit a
camera into an environment or create a chemical reaction that looks
like a specific thing; I can actually make that visual completely
from scratch. Of course we rely on references in the real world to
make all that stuff have verisimilitude, but there's no limit to
what you can put together. Like the Havoc character, in creating the
energies that came out of him and how it came out of him and what it
reminded us of or hopefully the audience of in terms of the real
world of physics. That's a manifestation of cosmic energy, for lack
of a better term, but that's what they called it. That was fun
making up a visual representation of a thing that nobody really
knows what it looks like.
has your job as a visual effects supervisor changed from those
earlier days and on something like this film where you’re doing such
advanced work? Are you more of a manager or do you get to get down
and dirty and really conceptualize the ideas as much yourself?
has changed from figuring out physically how to do stuff to figuring
out what things should look like. That has always been true, but a
much larger percentage of your effort went into figuring out simply
how to get something done. It wasn't unusual for us to have to bolt
a camera onto an airplane and fly down a canyon or bolt a camera
onto a motorcycle and take it out in an unusual environment or dig a
giant hole, like the sand crawler from Star Wars and find a
miniature landscape environment that looked like some alien surface.
Now those things we did a lot more location scouting, we had a lot
more physical work to do because we simply had to place cameras, we
had to get the right time of day and the right light, and that was
stuff was not something you could just manipulate. So you had to
have an idea in mind and had to figure out how to execute it. My
guess is you got to spend about 25% of your time figuring out the
idea and about 75% of your time figuring out how to capture it.
contemporary filmmaking subsequent to the advent of digital imaging
we get to spend I would say an inverse proportion. We get to spend
75% of our time figuring out what that image ought to look like and
how it integrates into the story and only about 25% of our time
figuring out how to do it because there's so much flexibility in the
computer that it's incredible. Having said that, one of the things
you have to do is you have to keep going back to the touchstone of
reality to make sure that the images that you're creating don't look
synthetic. And that's tough. Computers don't do chaos very well, and
most of the world that we live in, especially the world of X-Men
powers is made from organic things, and organic things are
chaotic just by their very nature.
your work on
could it rival the effects in Rise of The Planet of the Apes
which was one of the great technological steps forward for sci-fi
It's a bit
like apples and oranges. I feel like X-Men was a
character-driven film, but the characters that we generated in our
film were more about the personalities that came from the original
source material. The Planet of the Apes thing they had to
create a complete cast of characters from scratch, and that's not
something that we approached doing, so I think they're two different
things. At this point technology is a one trick pony to me. We've
got the virtual environment of the computer and the ability to
create virtually anything you want to from scratch. So it really
comes down to be less about what the technical advances are and it's
really more about what you did with the storytelling and the
artistic aspect of the creation of the characters.
trying to distinguish our film from another film, I think it really
comes down to saying the approach that we took in X-Men makes
it unique in the sense that our director took each of the characters
through the arc that you always take the characters through, but we
explored a huge number of options as to the way they can be
portrayed. The thing that separates X-Men: First Class from
the other X-Men films is that there's more character
development. Now that's not a visual effect, but visual effects tie
There’s so many franchises –
Spider-Man, Star Wars, Star Trek – that you’ve worked on. How
many have worked on both Star Trek and Star Wars? You
must have some great collectables! At home, do you have stuff or is
most of what you keep stored digitally?
what's funny? I actually didn't collect a lot of stuff. The truth of
the matter is the pleasure was the doing of the work. And it's an
odd thing but I think that anyone who's creative does it more for
the experience than they do for the payoff, so to speak. You keep
the things that mean something to you. They all have memories
attached to them, but you can become a hoarder if you're not
careful. We don't fight that issue trying to keep the quantity of
stuff in our life down to a reasonable level. Memorabilia is great,
but it really comes down to keeping things that have a specific
attachment for you. I had some little bits and pieces from the
original Star Wars and shared them with a couple of people on the
crew of X-Men who were absolute Star Wars fanatics, so maybe I
ingratiated myself to my new collaborators with artifacts from the
huge change that's transpired in that transition between what I like
to consider effects –where you had to put a subject in front of a
camera and photograph it – and the world that we currently live in
where you can generate the subject or the character from the
computer whole cloth. I think that has to do with a feel that we
brought to X-Men – an effort to make the unreal a little more real,
and to make sure that the personality of the powers that individual
directors had was appropriate to what their personality was as it
was defined by the script. That's what I bring from the past. Maybe
that's an advantage I have because I'm more familiar with the world
in a pragmatic sense than a lot of the new artists are who have
worked primarily in the computer.
ago, when I wrote a story on the
movie I got some of the concept artist drawings. Do you have things
don't. So much artwork now is generated in the electronic realm.
Even material that is generated in other media to begin with ends up
being scanned, distributed and published electronically. So sure,
I've got tons of files of sketches, and sketching is a means of
communicating between visual artists that is still critical. The
ability to sit down and draw a sketch of how things relate to one
another in terms of their scale, of their position, even their color
and sharpness and focus is an essential talent to have if you're
going to be working in a visual medium like film.
said that, it still becomes the beginning point. On the film I'm
working on now and on the X-Men and all the way back to Star Wars,
the illustrations and storyboard artists were the people who
initiated the conversation. I mean Joe Johnson and Ralph McQuarrie
in the days of Star Wars. We had tons of board artists on
Spider-Man and the whole business of how that storyboard represents
the action and how the illustrator creates a visual palate, and
that's done in conjunction with the production designer, the
director, and the director of photography to create a look for the
movie is still critical. And a lot of that is still done with a
brush and acrylics or sketches done with charcoal. It's still very
much alive. Do I have a bunch of that stuff? Not so much. I've got
lots and lots of digital media, but digital media is digital media,
and the key to it is that the experience is what it's about. The
emotional content that gets generated over the creation of that
image or through the creation of that image is the really valuable
part, and that's intangible, I can't give that to anybody.
franchises do you still want to work with? Of all these characters
what was your favorite?
Spider-Man, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, Inglorious Basterds.
Inglorious Basterds was really fun. In terms of a character that I really
enjoyed working on I actually had a great time working with the
range of characters on the X-Men movie because there were so many
different personalities with so many different powers that the
challenge was to make each one unique, not overlap, and not have
them either go against what's already been established or change
immutably what they're going to do in the future. It's funny, but
sometimes constraints tend to make the execution of something more
satisfying, and in a way that was really fun. I loved working with
Spider-Man and creating him from whole cloth, but basically
what we were doing was making a duplicate of a human being with
extra capabilities. With the X-Men stuff when they changed
their form, they changed their personality; they changed every
aspect of themselves when they manifested their powers. So that's a
non-answer but that's the answer.
there franchises that you'd like to work on that you haven't had a
chance to, or directors you’d like to work with? What about Tim
Burton or James Cameron?
It's a big
issue of chemistry, and I'm usually brought into environments where
the director hasn't had a huge amount of experience with visual
effects. That's usually where I come in; I become a provider of
options for them and an interpreter. So I enjoy that role. I think
with Tim Burton and with Jim Cameron those guys already know it
inside out. So I don't know, that may be a telling admission, but I
enjoy working with people who are less experienced in that realm
because I end up being more helpful to the final production that
way, and more of the creative component of my thinking gets on the
screen rather than the pragmatic practical solution component.
you get involved with aspects of the storytelling or narrative?
wrote a couple of lines for Spider-Man. In the sequence in
Spider-Man 2 Doc Ock had the power of the sun in the palm of his
hand, which was mine, which I thought was really fun. Different
directors collaborate in different ways, but I feel as though
certainly visually I've made a contribution to all the films I've
worked on. Not in any selfish way, it's just that's what I was hired
to do. It’s always a pleasure to work with other people who have
visual senses that are different than yours because all of a sudden
you get to expand your horizons.
there be a sequel to
Basterds? And will you work on the next X-Men?
don't know that there's a sequel to Inglorious Bastards, but
they are working on a picture called Django right now.
Quentin's working on that. I don't know whether I'll be able to work
on it or not because there may be a scheduling conflict, but it will
be a great picture. Working with Quentin was a real pleasure. He's a
great filmmaker and he just eats, sleeps, and breaths movies; it's
you have a favorite character that you would like to see on the
screen that people haven't even thought of? Even if it's so obscure
that nobody else would ever imagine financing it are there any you
can think of?
Stars My Destination.
been reading a book about its late author sci-fi legend Alfred
Bester. I interviewed him once.
To me it is
a great movie but it will never get made; it's got too much money
against it. But Gully Foyle would be the character I would bring to
The Stars My
Destination. One of the great books of all time. Do you read
didn't just get into this field because you were a tech nut, you're
really a true fan.
don't know that I'm a true fan. I read science-fiction, I read lots
of stuff. I consume a lot of literature. I'm eclectic; I read
you like to direct one of these franchises or do your own story?
working on a project right now called Tales from the Farm,
which is a very simple story about a kid and his unusual coming of
age in a small Canadian town. That is a real challenge because it
means working with actors, and although there is a visual effects
aspect to the film, obviously or I wouldn't be doing it, it really
is more about the creation of characters. That’s a challenge for me
and that's what I look forward to doing, and I look forward to
working on these franchises. I had a great time working with Matthew
Vaughn and with all the people and Fox on the X-Men series,
and I look forward to doing more of that.
real question is… Can you get George on the phone any time you want?
No, I don't
think so. I haven't tried. I have to admit, the possibility exists
that he might take my call, but I haven't tried.
us Let us know what you