When Star Wars unleashed the power of the (box office) force in 1977, the cast became instant celebrities and George Lucas was deemed a genius. But for hardcore movie geeks of the science fiction variety, another name stood out: John Dykstra. The entire premise of the movie hinged on the believability of its visual effects, and anybody who could make us accept outer-space dog fights must be a talent worth watching. The 27-year-old visual effects supervisor may have looked like California personified, with his golden beard and unbuttoned shirts, but he was also a technical pioneer, creating the first digital motion control photography camera system, Dykstraflex. The special effects in Star Wars broke new ground in visual design and spawned an entire industry of SFX shops modeled after Industrial Light and Magic. Since those heady days, Dykstra has worked on everything from the original Battlestar Galactica to Inglourious Basterds, winning the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society in 2014. But how did the former plumber get started on the path toward creating whole universes?
Originally posted March 2005
How did you first get interested in creating special effects for films?
I started out as a kid liking to disassemble and assemble things—I took apart a lot more things than I put together. And I like pyrotechnics—I liked to blow things up. It seemed like a natural application of my proclivities to get into the motion picture business where people were paid to do that kind of work. I was heavily involved in photography; it was an avocation from the time I was a little kid—I like taking pictures. And all of that stuff kind of came together.
How did you realize you could apply all of that in special effects?
I was in school in industrial design, and I enjoyed the idea of designing the way things look. I obviously wanted to design cars—everybody who does industrial design wants to design cars. I also knew how they worked. My father was a mechanical engineer, so I had an understanding of engineering processes and materials. I was working as a plumber—actually made a ton of money as a plumber, very good job—and I went and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I liked it very much, really enjoyed it. I really liked the storytelling, the whole business of visuals as a component of the story was a stunning thing to me. That was sort of the point where I decided that I wanted to pursue it, and apply my photographic prowess to motion pictures as opposed to still photography.
I was introduced to Doug Trumbull (who helped create 2001‘s effects) by an associate of mine who I went to school with, and I went to work with him on a movie called Andromeda Strain, and then later on Silent Running. So that was where I started, in Doug’s facility.
What did you create on those movies?
I knew how to build models because I was in industrial design. That’s one of the job descriptions of an industrial designer—you have to know how to make prototypes of things. My photography stood me in good stead; I had done a lot of rock ‘n’ roll photography when I was in college. I was one of many photographers who worked for The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and all of these rock ‘n’ roll bands. So I had an understanding of how to do composite photography because I did a lot of multiple registration negatives to make a new image. And I applied all that knowledge to this new job working with Doug Trumbull. I helped work on the design of the spaceship in Silent Running, then I helped build the models, and then I photographed the miniatures and took stills for some of the background plates. I did a lot of non-real-time moving camera photography of the miniatures for Silent Running.
How did you get the Star Wars gig?
This was at a time when I was working for Doug at a company called Future General. I got a call from (producer) Gary Kurtz and he asked if I wanted to meet with him and George Lucas. I of course said yes, and we met in an office at Universal Studios, one of the bungalows in the back-lot area. We talked about flying airplanes, which is something I did at the time, and about how he wanted this moving camera for all of the photography in Star Wars. He was willing to take a risk with the concepts that I advanced with regard to ways for doing that.
There were a huge number of risks—there were seven or eight things that all had to work right in order for this to happen. If you bet on horses, it was like betting that you’re going to get the Quinella—you’re going to pick all of the winners of all the races in one day. He was willing to take that risk. I’m not sure that I even realized what a great risk it was, but as fortune would have it, we were successful in all of those premises that we set forth. It’s very much like filmmaking always is—you’re always asked to do something that you’re not sure you know how to do. So you make an educated guess as to what you think will work and you hope between that and plan B, that you can end up with a product that’s really good.
As you were making Star Wars, did you have the feeling that this was groundbreaking work?
We took art from many other places, so if we took something from medical science, we generally detuned it. In other words, something that was used to do brain scans, we’d be using to take pictures of miniatures. The old saw applies: This isn’t brain surgery, and in truth it wasn’t. We weren’t taking sophisticated devices and making them more sophisticated; frankly, we were bringing sophisticated devices to a relatively unsophisticated application. So as a result, doing it was really exciting, but it didn’t feel like we were doing groundbreaking stuff because we were taking something that was good to tolerances 1/10,000 of an inch and only asking it to do tolerances of 1/1,000 of an inch. To a machine head, you’re not looking so much at the product as you are at the process, so it doesn’t seem like it’s that groundbreaking.
We were fortunate—we got to harvest all of these great ideas that were out there that nobody in the motion picture industry had considered using because they were sort of hidebound. So all of a sudden we brought this stuff in and we look like heroes. But we didn’t invent it all; we basically co-opted it from other places. The final product does reflect something that we did know, however. I think that the energy of the individuals who work on a project—whether it’s a video game or a movie or a TV show—if it’s collaborative, it ends up in a sum that’s greater than the individual parts. And I think that movie reflected the energy of all the people who worked on it. We stayed there 24 hours a day. We lived and ate and slept that movie. We were enthusiastic, not just because of the movie, but because we had such a great collaborative team. We had a really good time. It was very much a family.
How has the craft of designing visual effects changed since the original Star Wars?
Here’s the weird thing that happened: Visual effects are defined as two or more images generated separately that are combined to look like they were photographed at a single time. When you used to have to put subjects in front of a camera—a miniature, an actor, or an environment—you actually had to photograph it and then put those together in an optical printer, you were always trying to figure out how to mechanically achieve an end result. You had to make a camera look like it’s traveling at 300 mph, but you couldn’t make it actually travel at 300 mph so you had to slow everything down and build devices to do that. So you were constantly engineering. It was really focused on process. You had to invent a process to achieve an end result.
With the advent of digital imaging, and the ability to put things together a pixel at a time, you no longer have to engineer that stuff. So, suddenly, you’re focused on content, product rather than process. And that’s a huge change that’s occurred in the last 10 years. So you go from being an engineer and somebody on set who’s saying, “You can’t do that, we have to build some huge mechanical device to make that happen,” to being somebody who can say, “You know, this would be really great in support of the story.” It’s completely changed the personality of the job.
I love it. I like engineering, but I love the creative input. It’s really a great opportunity. Of course, you have to have directors like Sam Raimi, whom I worked with [on Spider-Man], who invite create input from everyone. As the director, he’s the arbiter of those ideas, but you’re invited to give him suggestions for things that you think would work both visually and as story.
What do you think about George Lucas’ philosophy of constantly changing his finished works, such as the Special Editions of the original trilogy?
It’s his movie, and he can do anything he wants with it. It’s funny; I don’t have any vested interest. If you hew to the philosophy that most works of art are abandoned, then nothing is ever finished. Film, as far as I’m concerned, is my area of artistic endeavor, so I never think of a movie that gets released as being all done—it’s just when they took it away from you. So the idea of changing it or adding to it…. I think it’s self-indulgent sometimes, but if you’ve got the dough….
George can take the film, he’ll add something to it that he thinks improves it significantly, and he’ll re-release it and make back the money it cost to do it. And it gives the people who are enthusiasts for his work an opportunity to see something new and different, whether or not you necessarily agree with what it is he’s put in the movie. He’s somebody who was and is supportive of people who have wild and crazy ideas, so he’s not only an artist in his own right but a patron. Whether you like his work or not is another issue. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the second picture he directed as the first. I thought the first was terrific and I was a little disappointed in the second one he directed, as a movie.
How do you make your visual effects work as part of the film’s story?
The thing I like most about visual effects now is that we get to design visuals in support of the story. In the first Spider-Man, at the end of the movie, Peter Parker had to deny himself a relationship with a girl that he’s in love with. The very next thing that happens is that he’s swinging through the city. The movie was on a downer when he walked out of that cemetery, and what we had to do was figure out a way to turn it around in about a minute and 15 seconds, and go from being in essentially a depressing moment into a moment of elation. So we had to get across the point that even though there’s a responsibility and difficulty that comes from supporting humanity, there’s also an upside: you get to swing through the city. I felt like that essentially visual moment contained an enormous amount of emotional content. I’m very proud of that.
We always tried to get an emotional response before [CGI], but you were always limited: “Well, you can’t wear a blue shirt, you can’t move the camera, and you can’t do this or that.” Now you can do all of those things. It’s an embarrassment of riches because you have directors who don’t necessarily understand the process and who think that more is better. You end up with so much stuff going on the screen that you don’t know where to look, and that’s what I consider self-indulgent.