Thirty-four years ago, John Dykstra’s motion control effects for STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE played a crucial role in changing the filmmaking landscape. Without his Dykstraflex camera, some of the most memorable sequences in the history of the medium – e.g. the final assault on the Death Star - would’ve never been completed. Dykstra’s innovations were so mindblowing, he was given a special Scientific and Engineering Oscar the same year he won Best Visual Effects for STAR WARS; basically, one Academy Award was insufficient to honor his genius.
After STAR WARS, Dykstra formed his own visual f/x company called Apogee, which delivered fantastic imagery for the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, FIREFOX, LIFEFORCE and INVADERS FROM MARS. Six years ago, he won his third Academy Award for his work on SPIDER-MAN 2. Most recently, he served as Visual Effects Designer on INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. It’s been a fascinatingly eclectic career; Dykstra could’ve headed north with his STAR WARS cohorts and been a driving force in the founding of ILM, but he chose instead to go his own way. As I learned when I spent some time with Dykstra at Sony Imageworks back in 2003, he has no regrets.
With X-MEN: FIRST CLASS hitting Blu-ray this Friday, September 9th, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Dykstra again. He’s a fascinating interview, brimming with insight about the past and future of visual effects. I was also eager to get his thoughts on his former colleague Douglas Trumbull’s f/x work on Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE (if I’d had a little more time, I would’ve pestered him for stories about the shooting of SILENT RUNNING). Dykstra’s a genius. Hope you enjoy…
Beaks: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS actually began shooting a year ago this month, so it seems you had a pretty tight time frame to finish the effects. When were you officially brought on to work on the film?
John Dykstra: Good question. Actually, I think I was brought on in June, but it was an incredibly collapsed schedule. It was really tough. I think that one of the key elements to it was that, in an odd way, because we were working in a constrained time frame, everyone sort of concentrated their efforts. I don’t mean that they worked harder, but they tended to be more focused. It’s funny because I was just talking to somebody about Mathew Vaughn as a director, and interestingly enough he had both a tactical approach as well as a strategic approach, which is not always the case. One would like to think that all directors have a strategic approach, but often times when you get into tight constraints like this film has, one or the other suffers; either performances suffer because they feel pressured to rush through things, or… because they go ahead and take the time that they think they need to make each scene work, the overall suffers because they don’t get enough of a broad cross section. It was really weird. It was a very difficult film at the beginning as we were launching into it, but as it proceeded and we got through principle photography - which was no mean feat - and into the post phase of the film and the editing phase of the film, it went very smoothly. I actually was very, very concerned about that, and it turned out, I think, very well. The film doesn’t suffer for it: that’s what I liked most about it.
Beaks: I agree. Obviously you will always want more time, but because [this collapsed time frame] caused people to focus, do you find that there’s something kind of preferable about being behind the eight ball from the very beginning?
Dykstra: (Laughs) This opens a can of worms! No, I don’t like being behind the eight ball form the beginning. That’s my quote: “No, I don’t want to be behind the eight ball from the beginning.” At the same time, I think that the constraints were specific and clear enough that all parties involved understood that they weren’t going to be able to muck around with this project. It wasn’t going to be able to take one direction and then another direction and then another direction. There simply wasn’t time. As a result, I think people hone their game to a very specific solution, and I know from the point of view of the department heads, we all worked together to make the most of the capabilities that each of us had. Sometimes when you have more time, people want to come up with alternate solutions; if you have an effect that needs to be created physically, the physical effects department will say they’ve got a solution for it, and the visual effects department will say they’ve got a solution for that, and stunts will say they’ve got a solution for that, and you end up with a lot of discussion. In this case, we all pretty much cut to the chase, and in a weird way you are right. “Focus” is the best word I can use for it, because I think what we did was pay more attention to the execution of the story and less attention to physical production of the movie.
Beaks: When you came on the film was there a particular challenge that jumped out at you?
Dykstra: Oh yeah, there were plenty of challenges. I mean, how many characters have we got? And we’ve got the history, we’ve got the genesis of these characters from the comic books, we’ve got the sequels, and we’ve got what was established for the characters there and the relationships between those characters and their precedence and their antecedence. So it’s like trying to figure out manifestations of powers that don’t step on anybody’s toes and don’t lock the franchise into something that doesn’t want to be executed in the future. That’s all very difficult. In particular, if you take Emma Frost, January Jones’s character… to keep her performance alive in the form of this crystal woman was really difficult.
Beaks: Did you have a favorite character to work on?
Dykstra: Oh boy, it’s hard. [Emma Frost] was really fun because she was so different from her original manifestation. Angel was great, too, because of her wings; I think the wings came out really cool looking. And Kevin [Bacon] in his Shaw character… that’s something that went outside the box. That hadn’t been defined by the comic book, hadn’t been defined by another movie, so we got to say “This is what it should look like” in a much broader sense than just what it looks like visually, but, you know, the whole concept of defining how he absorbed energy.
Beaks: What was your communication like with Vaughn? Was Bryan Singer also involved?
Dykstra: Well, I didn’t have much involvement with Bryan. He was there from time to time. Lot’s of involvement with Mathew: all of the people who are involved in the franchise and who are trying to shepherd it along in a way that makes it exciting now, and exciting in potential, and sort of remain true to what the original concept was. We worked constantly on these characters, and their integration into the story, and what they could and couldn’t do, and how it informed the arc of the plot, because there are so many character that if you start creating scenes in which they manifest their powers, you very quickly can lose the thread. You end up with a spectacle visually, and not much story to go behind it. That was the challenging part. Mathew was there front and center for all of that stuff.
Beaks: Did he have any points of reference in terms of what kind of a tone he wanted to establish with this film?
Dykstra: I mean, I think that there was a sense of an event picture like a James Bond movie, to create a sense of scope, you know? It’s sort of like the cinemascope concept, where, when you went to the film, you had a feeling of being in a much larger environment. I think that’s the best way of putting it, is harkening back to the Bond films, where you were introduced to a broad variety of environments and unique situations in each of those environments, and you really felt like you had been to an event when you came out of the movie.
Beaks: When you have a lot of different facilities working on completing the visual effects for different sequences, how difficult is it to maintain a consistent quality as they go out and come in?
Dykstra: The the onus is on us and my producer, Denise Davis, did a terrific job of administrating our vendors. Our vendors did an incredible job. It’s funny… INGLORIOUS BASTERDS was the last picture I did, but the last superhero movie I did was SPIDER-MAN, and I did all of it in one facility. So this was a new experience for me, working with a whole plethora of big facilities. We had facilities in New Zealand, facilities in London and facilities in Los Angeles - and communicating with each of those guys via cineSync visual and audio links was an interesting challenge. I’m used to sitting with the artist, pointing at the screen and drawing sketches; suddenly, we were in a situation where I sat in a room and looked at a screen and talked over a phone link to my vendors. That was a real challenge. But the supervisors provided by each of the vendors did a terrific job - not only of interfacing with me and the production, but with each other. I think that’s what contributed to the consistency of the work. And we had multiple shots that were shared shots, where one vendor did one part, another vendor did another part, and the third vendor did a third part. Those are the toughest, and they did a terrific job.
Beaks: I know you’ve spoken in the past about how much you love invention, and that it’s when you get to innovate or do something new that the job is exciting for you. Was there something here that allowed you to do that?
Dykstra: I think that the creation of the Shaw character was probably the most build-it-from-scratch part of the movie. Because Shaw, as represented in the comic books… he gets big as opposed to being able to see how he absorbs energy and what his interface is. Just getting bigger becomes the Hulk real quick, and we worked all the way from illustrations, which sort of represented what kind of visual effect the absorption of energy might have on somebody, all the way through previsualization - a sketch, an animation of how the character would react to different energy inputs through the execution of the movie. I really like that character, and I think that he is kind of a unique application of CGI. We didn’t just turn him into another completely different physical being. It incorporated his own physicality in terms of what he did on stage as well as his own persona with modification. It was just really fun. I liked that character.
Beaks: Earlier this summer, it was announced that you were going to direct SUPER ZERO. How did that come about, and what can we expect stylistically from this film?
Dykstra: Well, it is a small movie. It’s going to be an indie movie. There’s going to be a visual effects component, but, from my point of view, this is not about creating eye candy; it’s more about the execution of these characters. That’s what I’m excited about, and it’s coming along.
Beaks: Earlier this summer, as X MEN was coming out, TREE OF LIFE was released, which your former colleague Douglas Trumbull worked on.
Dykstra: Yeah, terrific! Absolutely phenomenal!
Beaks: What do you think about the evolution of visual effects, and how you guys have stuck with it and adapted. Do you ever talk with Trumbull about it? How do you feel about where visual effects are now?
Dykstra: Okay, well, I’ll tell you this: I talk to Doug once in a while, but infrequently. I think that Doug absolutely embodies the idea that visual effects can have soul, and his work that he did for TREE OF LIFE was sort of a perfect exemplar of the idea that it doesn’t matter how you create the image as long as the image tells the story. The things that he did for that film… I don’t know how much computer-generated imagery he used, but I know he used a lot of practical stuff, and he is absolutely the master of bringing emotional content to what would be an otherwise non-sequitur image. I am in awe of him, and if there’s any component of what he does that has entered my work because of my exposure to him, then I think that would be terrific.
"It doesn't matter how you create the image as long as the image tells the story." Wonderful.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is out on Blu-ray today, September 9th.