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John Dykstra

A SFX Legend's Technological Movie Mastery

by Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 24. 2012. 


In an 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.

A founding 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' groundbreaking effects.

Dykstra's 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.

By phone, 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.

You were there with Silent Running, 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.

Doug 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.

What do you think of as your benchmarks? There can be no greater benchmark than Star Wars. 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 science-fiction movie.

The thing 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.

In 2005 you won the Oscar for visual effects in Spider-Man 2. How did that feel?

The Oscar 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.

What 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?

There's no 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.

The part 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.

How 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?

The focus 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.

In 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.

In your work on X-Men – 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 films?

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.

Apart from 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 into it.

There’s so many franchises – X-Men, Batman, 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?

You know 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 past.

There's a 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.

Years ago, when I wrote a story on the Heavy Metal movie I got some of the concept artist drawings. Do you have things like that.

No, I 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.

But having 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.

What franchises do you still want to work with? Of all these characters what was your favorite?

Wow, that's tough.

You've done 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.

Are 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.

Do you get involved with aspects of the storytelling or narrative?

I actually 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.

Will there be a sequel to Inglorious Basterds? And will you work on the next X-Men?

Well I 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 terrific.

Do 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?

The Stars My Destination.

I had 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 screen.

I loved The Stars My Destination. One of the great books of all time. Do you read science-fiction yourself?


You didn't just get into this field because you were a tech nut, you're really a true fan.

Well, I 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 everything.

Would you like to direct one of these franchises or do your own story?

I am 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.

The 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.

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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 24. 2012.