Movie News

Mr. Beaks Talks To Visual Effects Legend John Dykstra About X-MEN: FIRST CLASS And Much More!

Published at: Sept. 9, 2011, 3:50 p.m. CST by mrbeaks

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.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback

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  • Sept. 9, 2011, 3:56 p.m. CST

    Hi

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    I'm going to DRIVE in Houston. See you suckers in person!

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 3:57 p.m. CST

    Douglas Trumbull

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    Respect.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 3:58 p.m. CST

    I'm sure Dykstra is counting his blessings

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    That he wasn't a part of the abomination that is ILM now.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 3:58 p.m. CST

    XMEN: FIRST ASS

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    I had to go there.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 3:58 p.m. CST

    why asimovlives rocket?

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    I don't even know what that means.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 3:59 p.m. CST

    Looking forward to SUPER ZERO

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    not really.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4 p.m. CST

    He worked on INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS?

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    Wow.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4 p.m. CST

    Anyone catch Obama's speech last night?

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    Take that tea party! Take that libtards! CHOPPED

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:01 p.m. CST

    I'mma going for a record.

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    I should get back to working on this contract proposal. It's only worth 33 million.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:02 p.m. CST

    Saw X-Men : First Class again recently

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    Watched that again recently. The first hour is still really good. But I had forgotten how much it descends into a big-budget A-Team episode by the end...rather dull extended shootouts with clunky editing. I guess that marked the moment where Michael Fassbender's destiny lay in movies that were more about action than comedy, for much of the next decade. I was so hopeful when Inglourious Basterds came out that it heralded the return of both Fassbender and Myers as genuinely comedic guys. But it was a false dawn for both.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:03 p.m. CST

    January Jones.....scrumptious

    by THE_CHOPPAH

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:06 p.m. CST

    Eight balls.

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    I thought we were gonna play pool, but my 3rd wife had other ideas. I cringe every time I hear the words "Burning Man" and "orifice" and "San Diego Police Department"

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:08 p.m. CST

    No love for Dykstra?

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    Shame.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:09 p.m. CST

    his work on Inglourious Basterds is incredible

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    Can you believe that the entire "tavern" scene was CG? Amazing!

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:14 p.m. CST

    My work on Jessica Alba was incredible as well.

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    CHOPPED.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:18 p.m. CST

    Where's my wingman?

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    Asi? Faulkner? Beaks? Nordling? Bueller?

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:23 p.m. CST

    anybody seen choppah?

    by fred

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:25 p.m. CST

    Why a second X Men : First Class movie will not work

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    You really have to be a fan of the comics. Oh what the hell, this movie will just plain stink! The costume looks horrible, too many liberties were taken with the characters and the plot will lurch forward badly. Here's how it will probably go down: It will basically start out with a few minutes in one place, a few minutes in another, a few more elsewhere, etc. You get the idea, and then all these separate incidents gradually and slowly lead to one single plot. MST3K's Pod People was easier to follow! Maybe a few good things about this: James McAvoy looks enough like Prof Xavier should, but will be hampered by the lousy script and implausible plot. The culture shock he has returning home after too many years might be done fairly well, and the Magneto description reminds me of a cross between Freddie Kruger and Jason Voorhees. This movie would have been so much better set entirely in WW2 with the opening scene of Hitler screaming at his generals, "I could make that bellboy a better leader than any of you !" That is from the mythos of the comic book. After the opening credits, we should see the process of Prof X becoming the hero who goes on to fight Magneto, who through most of the movie should be spoken of and referred to, but not seen. This movie will need that sort of impact, the indication of the sort of evil the Nazis represented, but as it is, it sounds like one big car wreck.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:28 p.m. CST

    jacky....awww

    by THE_CHOPPAH

    I love you too. CHOPPETH.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:44 p.m. CST

    Besides Weta wiping their asses lately whats wrong with

    by openthepodbaydoorshal

    ILM?

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:51 p.m. CST

    Definitely props for Dykstra...

    by justmyluck

    ...though supervising different CG output by video teleconferencing without real hands-on...well, that's sometimes a director's role, so I understand why he's going to give that a whirl on an indie scale. Some other key pros bailed from Lucasfilm: Edlund, Ralston and Tippett, in particular. The FIRST CLASS VFX were mixed...some stupid stuff like hula-hoop blast man, the flying fire-spitter and sonic screamer (can't bother to look up their names), but other stuff like the SR-71, submarine lift and P.O.V. Beast transformation were fairly ace. Looking forward to SUPER ZERO.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:51 p.m. CST

    X-Men: First class, Second grade

    by SmokingRobot

    What will they call the next one?

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 6:33 p.m. CST

    Great move, leaving ILM

    by Mugato5150

    Fuck those Star Wars movies, he got to hitch his wagon to the Battlestar Galactica, 1978 train.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 7:32 p.m. CST

    Which cover to buy? I hate choices.

    by Quake II

    I'm heading to Target to buy the Blu tonight....I like the Magneto face better but prefer the good guys on the Xavier cover. I think I'll go Professor X. And anyone who hates on this film should go jerk off to Transformers XVIII. Imagine if John Dykstra had a lesbian daughter. That would be awkward.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 12:57 a.m. CST

    You hate choices?

    by pw

    That would explain the current state of Hollywood movies we are being given I guess

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 4:38 a.m. CST

    and sort of remain true to what the original concept was

    by TopHat

    No, no, no, NO. Am I really the only one who is SICK of the Singer/Donner X-Men? We've been stuck with this "interpretation" for over TEN years now. The way people involved with the film talk about the franchise its as if its as iconic as STAR WARS. Its not. The first movie opened in a summer month where the only other big movies to choose from were THE PATRIOT and THE PERFECT STORM. So, of course it did well with teenagers and people looking for a summer blockbuster with action and special effects. Also, FIRST CLASS was not some huge box office smash, thereby warranting some sort of renewed worship for the franchise. I can't believe anyone who truly loves the X-Men comics could be content with these films. The biggest thing I have hated about the franchise is the fact that they've seemed to go out of their way to make the audience not like the actual X-Men; the movies have been more focused on Eric and Logan than the actual X-Men. Even FIRST CLASS seemed to go out of its way to make it about Eric and brush aside Charles' ideas: They even had people literally walking over him. They never gave Charles any backbone to truly stand up to Eric or the others, to point out Eric's Hypocrisies. The film makers seemed to have done nothing with this franchise except protect Eric and Logan. The rest of the X-MEN characters be damned. These are not X-MEN movies.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 8:46 a.m. CST

    Just watched Xmen first class on blu-ray last night

    by Rebel Scumb

    Enjoyed it even more the 2nd time. The only things that bugged me in the theatre was the score, and january jones as Emma frost. On second viewing Jones is still pretty bad, but not distractingly so, and the score seemed less intrusive to me this time and I generally liked it. Xm:FC, Xm & X2 make a very solid trilogy in my books.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 8:53 a.m. CST

    Days of Future past: Xmen:first class2 AND X-men4 combined

    by Rebel Scumb

    In my opinion, Laura Donner/Bryan Singer/20th centure fox et al have an enormous oppuruntity to do something that hasn't been done before (to my knowledge) with a tentpole franchise. They have a movie franchise which at the moment is moving forward with two potential sequels set in 2 distinct time periods First Class 2 AND X-men 4. Why not adapt the days of future past storyline into this continuity. And by adapt I mean take the guts of what made that story great, but obviously modify it to fit the movie continuity. Have the rise of the sentinels in X-men 4, and introduce Bishop as a new X-man (who is from out current present day). At the end of the movie, things are pretty bad for mutants everywhere. They're being rounded up, the X-men seem to be all but defeated. Bishop goes back in time to try and alter events to prevent this dark future. THEN, later that same year, release X-men first class 2, set in the 1970s. In it, Bishop arrives FROM 'the future' (which is the present day of X-men 4) and tries to warn young Xavier and the FC xmen about the dark future ahead. That focus' the xmens efforts towards trying to prevent it. But it just ends up being like The Terminator where it is a self fullfilling paradox. Then X-men 5 comes out set again in the 'present day' and resolves the cliffhanger. Maybe in XM:FC2, you could have an aged Bishop show up, and payoff some set ups from XMFC2 as well as X4

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 8:56 a.m. CST

    Oh and Dyskstra is indeed the man!

    by Rebel Scumb

    Just watched all of the FX behind the scenes for XMFC and there is some really inventive ideas at work, and the film looks great.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 10:52 a.m. CST

    JD is the man BUT...

    by Kentucky Colonel

    How many times did the same gun emplacements on Galactica shoot the same Cylon ship?

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 11:30 a.m. CST

    So many wasted characters in this one

    by sunwukong86

    Bryan Singer is the only X-men director that knew how to make each character important. To me some of First Class felt like X-3, characters being there just because they decide to use them.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 12:29 p.m. CST

    choppah..your shtick is corny as fuck

    by Waka_Flocka

    stop it 5

  • ...especially when you consider the woman can't act to begin with.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 12:54 p.m. CST

    Dykstra and Trumbull best model work ever in Star Trek TMP

    by picardsucks

    Who gives a shit about the effects in X-Men You should have talked to him about the best ever Sci-Fi model work on film in Star Trek TMP and his work with Doug Trumbull on the film Most of it still more photorealistic (if Sci-fi can be photorealistic) than any CGI

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 3:15 p.m. CST

    will they ever release 70s battlestar on bluray? I loved it

    by skiff

    I wish they would.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 3:18 p.m. CST

    Douglas Trumbull is, by far, my favorite SFX artist. He is an artist.

    by AsimovLives

    Pretty good director too.

  • Dykstra lagged about his special effects for the movie. Lucas hated his slow pacing, which costed him a lot of money (the SFX of Star Wars were all payed up from Lucas's own pocket). Lucas also hate the final work that Dykstra showed. And more importantly, lucas hated the ttitude that Dykstra showed during the making of the movie. Dykstra could only see problems, never solutions. When Star Wars wrapped, the first thing that Lucas did was he disolved and terminated ILM. Then the reformed it and created it anew. THe ILM that exists today and we all know is the second ILM. Lucas was furious with most of the SFX people which, in his mind, caused that he couldn't deliver more then 60% of the movie he wanted to make. And of those, it was Dykstra he was the most pissed off about. On editing trick that Lucas was forced to use because of Dykstra's low quality final product of the SFX, was that Lucas had to make all the SFX scenes last for a very short time. At a short edit time, the flaws in the SFx would not be easily perceived. Lucas edited the whole movie with that in mind. Basically, Lucas edited SW around the SFX flaws. He wanted 2001 level of SFx quality, but, according to him, he didn't got 1/10th of that, and he had to disguise with editing. SW was really not a pleasant experience to Lucas at all, in every regard.

  • It's bewildering how blindly foolish people can go about bashing the movie, and amazingly wrong and misguided they can be. Talk about underrated and misunderstood.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 5:16 p.m. CST

    Always fond of ST:TMP

    by justmyluck

    High concept Sci-Fi, though somewhat lacking in pace and drama. For ST, it was still light years ahead of TOS. Dykstra's work on V'Ger, Epsilon 9 and the Klingon battle cruisers had that telltale Apogee graininess, but still top notch for the day.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 5:33 p.m. CST

    @asimovlives, re: Dykstra & Lucas

    by justmyluck

    I still find that treatment of Dykstra and his team as disgusting since they were creating a whole new VFX studio based on transistor-based camera repeatability (no computer control), creating composite elements blind with no video tap. Just pumping out the record number of VFX shots in SW like that would normally take incredible skill and a long time. The big issue was, the 'Dykstraflex' camera rig and the supporting hardware had to be BUILT in advance. I think their phrase was, ''You have to build the bakery before you make the bread.'' FOX brass was breathing down GL and Ladd's necks about the live action production, which went out of control. GL carried that over to Dykstra. At least Dykstra got the technical and VFX Oscars as a parting F.U. The BATTLESTAR GALACTICA fiasco with GL and the leftover equipment is a whole other story which is just as shitty and available with a Google. Very glad Dykstra, Ralston, Edlund and Tippett all moved into their own professional careers after ILM.

  • I mean, I like curvy girls, but I also have limits.

  • Sept. 11, 2011, 2:52 p.m. CST

    too bad

    by vicmackey1268

    he didn't have a say in NOT including the ridiculous latino stripper who has dragonfly wings and spits fire...and that they get rid of the coolness of the Cuban Missile Crisis to show a horribly cgi and not very entertaining screaming panzy and an ugly stripper flying around.

  • Sept. 11, 2011, 2:53 p.m. CST

    ^^^ btw, worst powers ever

    by vicmackey1268

    dragonfly wings..spits fire...ugh, not sexy at all...what happens when she burps while giving head?

  • I fucking LOVE it. First Class kicked the living shit out of the "just okay" Cap and Thor. You can disagree, but you'd be wrong.

  • Sept. 12, 2011, 12:51 p.m. CST

    openthepodbaydoorshal

    by Judge Dredds Dirty Undies

    read Scott Ross' blog, might not give you an answer about ILMs current state but its eyeopening for sure.

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