John Dykstra: Intergalactic Man Of Magic Part 3

Written by the Prop Store team

Tales abound of ILM being more like a university quad than a serious postproduction house. Hell, there was a hot tub in their parking lot. Another such anecdote stars the escape slide of a 727 passenger jet from a nearby industrial yard that was re-appropriated by the ILM brain trust and turned into a makeshift slip-and-slide in the same parking lot that would eventually house the Death Star trench. “[ILM] was described as ‘the country club’ by the executives and, I would assume to a certain extent, by the people who were on the production,” Dykstra recalls.

Fun was had, to be sure, but the truth was that it was so hot in the San Fernando Valley that much of the work was done during the night hours when the place would finally cool off. “During the day, temperatures would get up in the hundreds quite handily.” Subtract modern air conditioning and add to the mix 10,000-watt film lights that could increase the temperature by a further twenty degrees, and it’s no wonder that ILM was a largely nocturnal operation. “It was unbearably hot during the day, so during the day, for the most part, people didn’t do a lot of photography… People worked at night. A lot. So during the day, there [were] people, if they were there… they were hanging out doing stuff other than, you know, what the studio would expect them to be doing. And the hot tub (and the slip-and-slide) was out there for water for people to cool off in because it was just miserably hot out there.

There was no air conditioning.” But starting shifts at three in the morning wasn’t a problem. Not really. The crew was generally made up of a bunch of non-union twenty year olds. This social makeup—driven kids with a ton of hunger and energy and without major family commitments—was a boon to the production because it provided both cheap and nearly inexhaustible labor.

“They were a pretty spirited group of people.” Dykstra described the working environment as fairly laissez-faire, meaning that unlike the union labor typically associated with the film industry, everyone was generally willing to lend a hand to everything. “There was a shorthand at work because everybody knew a little bit about what the other person was doing, so we didn’t have the formal communications network that people were experienced with.”

Not that 20th Century Fox necessarily approved of all this laissez-faire-ing. “The studio executives showed up one day when I had a refrigerator on the tines of a forklift… The refrigerator was a refrigerator that I had brought to the studio and it died, as only refrigerators can. And so I had just run the forklift tines through the refrigerator and I had taken it outside. And when I get outside, they go ‘what would happen if we dropped this refrigerator from the top of the tines?’ So I put it up at the top and people were basically pulling the refrigerator off of the rope. So [the studio executives] came out and that was going on… They didn’t like it because there wasn’t enough paper work. They didn’t like it because there wasn’t enough attention to hierarchy.”.

They didn’t like it because, much like directors, studios like to be in control. “But that was the nature of it. We were all 22, 23 years old, it was like ‘excuse me, you hire a bunch of 20 year olds, what do you expect?’ But we worked 18 hours a day, so that’s the other side of the coin. Nobody showed up at three o’clock in the morning to see what was going on and say ‘atta boy,’ they only showed up in the middle of the day, at which point people were often in the hot tub.”

But George Lucas largely insulated his ILM talent from studio muscle. “George did a pretty good job of isolating us from the flack. And Gary Kurtz did, too, and I have to thank them for that. I’m sure that George was getting a ton of flack. I didn’t get a lot of flack. I got some. They sent people in to try and straighten us out, but it didn’t really work.” Ultimately, the studio was stuck because while they weren’t necessarily sure that Dykstra’s team could pull it off, they were sure that no one else could. “To a great extent, [the studio was] sort of pregnant, I mean they had spent quite a bit of money on the facility the way it was… [and] we were the only people that knew how to do it.”

Back in those salad days of the late 1970s, ILM was a group of friends working with and for friends and there was a huge sense of camaraderie. “It was fun from the very beginning. It was something good from the very start. The enthusiasm was [high], everybody was really on board with that. Look, nobody had any families, you know, so people were working on this 24 hours a day. I mean, thinking about it, solving problems, plus they were working with people who were their friends… we were totally immersed in our work.”

Everyone was taking chances. George Lucas, Alan Ladd, Jr., 20th Century Fox, John Dykstra, everyone working on STAR WARS was taking a chance of some measure. But they were challenging each other and supporting each other and doing it all in the name of creating something groundbreaking. “We literally started out with an empty warehouse. So we built the equipment and the models and designed all the techniques and then did all the photography in eighteen months. And right now, you start with the equipment and it takes two years to finish a movie. So it was a pretty heroic effort on the part of the guys who worked on it.” Nearly thirty-five years removed from these experiences, the extreme dedication, hard work, and intense passion still shines through on the finished film. Dykstra shares the sage wisdom learned through working on dozens of productions. “[In any film,] the morale of the crew shows up on the screen whether you like it or not.”

If this was true of STAR WARS, then those must have been blissful times, indeed.

“We were very pleased with the final results… The guys who were working on it were really happy when they saw the final product because their work figured so seminally in the telling of the story. It was just great.” So was the world at large. The film was released to rave success, both critical and commercial. Reportedly budgeted at around $11 million, it went on to gross well north of $400 million in the United States alone, and all before 3D had inflated ticket prices and box office receipts. STAR WARS was a cultural phenomenon. It tapped into something primal that lurked deep within the human psyche, realizing a universal storytelling language that seemed like it could resonate with anyone of any age from any culture or social background.

George Lucas’s world and story were certainly at the center of the success of STAR WARS, but one has to wonder what it would have been without John Dykstra and his mad geniuses at ILM piloting the Millennium Falcon, powering the lightsabers and blowing stuff up. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed George Lucas and Gary Kurtz after their nominations in the Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture categories, voters could not in the end ignore the incredible achievements of ILM. STAR WARS went on to take home six Oscars® in early 1978, with John Dykstra proudly leading his army of engineers, artists and technical wizards on stage for their moment of glory.

If ILM’s classic rags-to-riches story were written in Hollywood, they would have gone on to have many sequels together, larger and larger adventures until they rode off into the sunset at the end of a long career. But in reality, nothing lasts forever, and it seems that true greatness is even shorter lived. When asked about his choice to leave ILM shortly after the release of STAR WARS, Dykstra quickly—though stoically—makes a crucial correction. “I didn’t leave ILM. ILM left me.” After the grand success of STAR WARS, George Lucas’ pockets were full of cash and he was already planning his next moves. Unfortunately for John Dykstra, those plans did not include him.

“[Lucas] wasn’t that pleased with me because I don’t think that I gave him the response that he thought I should have, in terms of how much I was willing to, you know, do things the way he wanted to do them. So I think he chose from the people that worked there, he went through and found the people that he felt were most willing to work using his style, which is smart. Because his style is his style and that’s what the company was going to be doing.” Perhaps there were one too many disagreements on the set of STAR WARS or perhaps it was pre-ordained. Either way, the original ILM, much like many of history’s transcendent rock bands, was a short-lived entity. Lucas packed up the Los Angeles County operation and moved it and a handpicked crew up North to his native Marin County. For the purpose of describing this particular process, Dykstra separates the STAR WARS team to “first-in-commands” and “second-in-commands.” The second-in-commands at the time were guys like Dennis Murren and Richard Edlund, who were people that Lucas knew would be loyal to him. The “first-in-commands,” guys like John Dykstra and Grant McCune were less likely to swear unwavering fealty to Lucas. Though he doesn’t explicitly come out and say it, Dykstra’s implication is that Lucas wanted to move forward with a team that wouldn’t challenge him as much as Dykstra had.

The “new and improved” ILM got to work on the STAR WARS sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK while John Dykstra’s Apogee was born out of the ashes left in the San Fernando Valley. He offered key ousted members of the original ILM partnerships in the new venture, which had just secured the contract for the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA TV series. Dykstra and his team barely saw a day of unemployment in the transition. The original ILM was already in the history books. The new ILM and Apogee each went on to live their own, separate, and very successful lives, the fire of STAR WARS set to forever burn in their collective memories.

If any hard feelings linger, though, they aren’t apparent. Dykstra demonstrates great respect for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the first of many STAR WARS films that would exclude his name from the credits. “The second film was much more polished in terms of the visual effects… I thought Empire was brilliant. It was really well done. I didn’t like the story telling as [much]; I thought George had a simpler, more compelling story in the first movie. But origin stories are like that. They worked out all the technical bugs, they got all the visual effects stuff to work brilliantly and I thought it was stunning.” But were there things he would have done differently? Visual effects that he thought could have been done better? “Of course.”

The conversation with any visual effects specialist out of the old school will inevitably, inextricably lead to the utterance of three letters: C.G.I. Dykstra came from an art background specializing in photography. He was first and foremost an engineer, a builder who learned from other builders, like his father, also an engineer. In Dykstra’s day, visual effects meant something simple: two or more images that, when composited, were made to look like one image. “I came into the industry in a time when if you didn’t put a subject in front of the camera, you had no record. So, if you wanted to put three things together on the screen at the same time, they either had to be there, photographed at the same time physically, or you had to go and shoot them as independent components and then make an optical composite, which is essentially just projecting… multiple pieces of film shot at separate times onto a single piece of film. And if you’re clever about the way you control the camera and the lighting and the subjects, they’ll appear to have all been photographed all at the same time… In those days, if you didn’t have something in front of the camera, you had no image.” The innovations Dykstra had championed on STAR WARS were largely mechanical ones: kit-bashing models, camera motion control, tilting lens ports, moving the camera with the subject to create realistic motion blur in the action.

“Everything was process,” Dykstra repeats. “Can you make the camera move a hundred miles an hour and stop it in three feet? Can you make the camera that’s moving one foot per second look like it’s traveling a hundred miles an hour? Can you come within six inches of the model, or three centimeters of the model, or one millimeter of the model? Can you build a camera small enough to fit into a hole? Can you make an explosion with the right chemicals to make it look big even though it’s small? Can you run a camera fast enough to make it so that a small explosion looks big?”

“These were all weighty kind of inventor things,” Dykstra reminds us.

“[Visual effects] all had to do with process. You had to understand optics, you had to understand the way film works, you had to understand mechanical stuff. You had to understand just technology in general. And it was all in pursuit of the creation of what was on the storyboard. And to a great extent, the storyboards ended up being limited significantly by the process.” Storyboards would be conceived and then re-conceived based on what was mechanically possible. Entire machines had to be invented to make all these things happen.

With CGI, such process is no longer necessary. “With digital photography… you can create anything you can think of. It’s an embarrassment of riches.” For the first time in the history of filmmaking, computer generated imagery allowed the visual effects artist to focus on creativity—what’s possible—versus retrofitting story based on mechanical limitations. But is this necessarily a good thing? “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Now, Dykstra’s problem-solving is strictly creative. It’s a game of ‘what should this be?’ rather than ‘what’s possible?’ He admits that the limitations that practical effects placed on filmmaking were a good thing because they forced story to be the lead actor with visual effects playing a supporting role.

Now, with digital photography, this is not often the case. Although Dykstra clearly enjoys the freedom that digital photography provides, one gets the sense that he and others who came up through the ranks of practical effects artists feel that modern filmmaking has been a bit corrupted by the “embarrassment of riches” that is CGI. “[Working in practical effects] makes you intimate with the medium. It’s like an oil painter–if he learns to grind his pigments, then he understands what the pigments are doing when he applies them to the canvas.” All the steps that Dykstra and those like him went through before the advent of digital photography were important to his own process, which included learning how to put storytelling ahead of everything else. “I prioritized the process back then, but now I prioritize the content.”

So, what does Dykstra think of the controversial STAR WARS prequels, those films made during the golden age of digital photography? “Frankly, I feel like the new STAR WARS [films], to me, have too much stuff in [them]. I look at the screen and I go ‘I don’t know where to look, it’s all very cool, stuff going on up there, up there, up there…” He goes on to ask the same questions that everyone at ILM was asking back in that hundred-degree warehouse in 1976.

“Who’s this story about? Why am I here?” The crucial difference with the new, all-digital STAR WARS films is that these questions don’t seem to have such resoundingly clear answers. “It became spectacle over story. And that’s a natural progression from process bleeding into content, so it’s sort of the other side of the coin.”

Life, both practical and digital, went on just swimmingly for John Dykstra after STAR WARS. Though perhaps none will ever be as popular or as seminal as that first film, his numerous credits since include STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, CADDYSHACK (Dykstra’s team built the most famous gopher in both movie and golfing history), both of Joel Schumaker’s BATMAN films and SPIDER-MAN and SPIDER-MAN 2, for which Dykstra won an Oscar® nearly thirty years after his win for STAR WARS. After winning his second Academy Award in visual effects, the movie magician wishes to further broaden his horizons, turning his focus toward directing his first feature film. The genre? Digital 3D animation.

You may call it irony. But John Dykstra would probably just call it “process.”

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