Special-effects and VFX artist John Dykstra has been named the latest winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society, an honor that will be officially bestowed in a February 12, 2014, ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Dykstra is best known as special photographic effects supervisor on Star Wars, where his team at the earliest incarnation of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in a warehouse in Van Nuys, CA, developed the Dykstraflex motion-control camera system — for which he and his co-inventors received a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in addition to the Visual Effects Oscar he shared with John Stears, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune, and Robert Blalack. But he's worked on an enviable slate of films including Silent Running, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Spider-Man and X-Men: First Class, among many more — and Spider-Man 2 earned him a third Oscar. As you can imagine, he has some stories to tell.
Here's a quick look at Dykstra's career, in his own words, as they have appeared in a number of different publications, in print and online, over the years. Each quote is linked to the article or interview where it originally appeared — including a fantastic piece he wrote for American Cinematographer magazine back in 1977 that detailed the enormous amount of work that went into a single shot for the original Star Wars. If you want to know how it used to be done, before CG, that's the one you want to read.
On the challenge of Star Wars (1977):
In June of 1975, I was contacted by George Lucas and Gary Kurtz with regard to my supervising the photographic special effects for Star Wars These first meetings with George and Gary outlined effects scenes that involved spacecraft engaged in acrobatics that any stunt pilot would be proud of: three or four ships performing rolls or loops while firing lasers at each other in the classic "dog fight" tradition. All this was to occur while being viewed from a camera platform that itself needed the fluidity and freedom of motion of a camera plane. This visual concept was a far cry from the locked-off camera approach to spacecraft miniature photography seen in the space classics of the past. This was a challenge, to say the least. (American Cinematographer, July 1977)
On the early days of ILM:
When we did Star Wars, it was me and a bunch of my friends, all guys from the fringe of the motion picture business …. We all got together and got this warehouse [in Van Nuys, CA] and it became like a super-garage. We were all people who were friends and did things together. We rode motorcycles and flew airplanes and surfed and skied. We all had talents because we had all come from film-based environments — Doug Trumbull's facility and Bob Abel's and a variety of other places in Hollywood. When we came together and did that, we had a great time doing it. I can't think of a better avocation. So if [Star Wars] had been a total flop, it still would have been a raging success for us. (Denofgeek.us, November 2008)
On building spaceship models:
We built the facility, we built the models, we did injection molding machines and vacuum-forming machines, and all that technology was put to all of the models. I think they were insured for $30,000 apiece. That's probably what it would cost to build one from scratch, if you sat down to build an X-wing with some plastic and model kits. That's probably pretty reasonable, too. They had a lot of articulation and they had little motors that made the wings X in the scene where the wings opened, and they had an air umbilical that went into them to provide for the lights and the engines in the back and all that stuff. So they were pretty articulate little beauties. (Fantasy Film Journal / republished at originaltrilogy.com, July 1977)
On Caddyshack (1980):
When we were brought in, they had a movie that didn’t have anything but a sock puppet for a gopher in it. And we decided that characters needed a little more room to move. Harold Ramis worked with us and a few other people [and we] came up with the idea for a mechanical gopher. We worked with some engineers and puppeteers [and] they figured out how to make him have a personality. (Screenrant.com, August 2011)
On space-vampire sci-fi-horror epic Lifeforce (1985):
I worked on a project called Space Vampires in England and it was my least favorite project, probably because of the hidebound nature of the British technicians at that time. I don’t think that's necessarily the truth anymore but I got an awful lot of "We don’t do it that way here." You would ask for something and they would say "Right, mate." And then they show up the next day with something that wasn’t at all what you had requested and didn’t fit with the rest of the design of the illusion — but it was how they knew how to do it. So that was a frustrating time. (International Mentoring Network Organization, undated)
On motion-control work in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002):
The thing I think that’s critical in Spider-Man, in terms of using motion control, was that the camera became part of the personality of the character. Very specifically, in “spider sense”, where you were experiencing directly his sensory input, and how he was isolating things out of the environment and defining them. And I think that the other camera move that is an offshoot of motion control is the [virtual] cameraman that we created for Spider-Man. (Ain't It Cool News, March 2003)
On creating the movie-theater fire in camera in Inglourious Basterds (2009):
We worked hand-in-hand with the special effects guys and we came up with chemistry to make a screen that would be opaque and flat enough to be able to project onto and get a credible image, and, at the same time, burn in a consistent fashion. Not only in terms of how quickly it consumed but also how quickly you could ignite it. So we worked and worked and worked on getting control of the burning of the screen. In parallel with that, Lester Dunton, who was in charge of specialty projection, and Wassili Zygouris, who was the projectionist supervisor, figured out how to get projection that was bright enough to compete with the actual fire. So we also worked on the materials component of the screen burn to see if we could find something that would burn less brightly and with more color…. Not only did we have to burn the screen in sync with the projected image but we also had to create the fire that existed behind the screen once the image had been consumed. So from my point of view that was also a big undertaking. It was incredible: we had a big set on stage in Rudersdorf, which is a cement factory in the Eastern part of Germany. And we had this great big rostrum set up, and on the rostrum there were around 15 technicians each with their own set of values running to a giant propane gas tank outside. And that whole package, then, was choreographed timing wise to the projected image… And the wall of fire was divided into component pieces. It was quite amazing, but I stood 30 feet away from it and I got what they call sunburn from the radiant heat. (Animation World Network, August 2009)
On George Lucas's "special edition" edits to the original trilogy, including alterations to Dykstra's effects:
God love him! He should tweak it until his heart's content. You never finish a movie. It is always pried from your grasping hands. There is always something you can fix. Does it always make it better? Mmm…That is questionable. I think executing something, you make decisions as you execute, in terms of priority. Sometimes those priorities are formed by more than just whether or not it was a good technical execution. (Movieweb, September 2011)
On Douglas Trumbull and practical effects work:
I think of Douglas as a true artist. Have you seen The Tree of Life? You see his stuff has an organic quality to it and there’s something about fine art where the artist’s emotional content – or at least a philosophical point of view – shows up in their work. To me, that was one of the important parts of visual effects back when we did it with subjects in cameras. There was a process by which you have to bring together the emotional content and the physical practicality of creating that content. It’s like a translation – turning Sanskrit into an English format is one thing, but capturing the essence of what the Sanksrit had to say in an emotional context is a completely different thing. I think that era of mechanically figuring out of how to bring a particular evocative image to the screen was a really important part of my education, and something Doug captures and exemplifies is the ability to interpret mechanical things into something that has emotional content. (Screenrant.com, August 2011)
On where his ideas come from:
I get ideas from everything. I get ideas while walking the dog. There are ideas everywhere. In fact, that's part of the funnest things about being a visual effects designer – you can incorporate stuff from listening to some science broadcast where you hear about magma that forms tubes underwater and brings to mind an idea for the execution of some creature that you want to develop. The cross-fertilization that happens in everyday life and visual effects design is critical. In fact, people who come to me in the contemporary environment and say, “I want to become a visual effects designer. What should I do?” I say, “Get out more.” The tendency is for so many people to be involved with the box and their primary source of visual stimulation that you [must] get out, go, and do some hiking. Fly a plane. Ride a motorcycle. Do something where you come in contact with your environment in a much more aggressive, much more present way. I think that's critical to making stories and images that come off a two-dimensional screen in a way that affects people. (High-Def Digest, August 2011)