“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
While Arthur C. Clarke’s third principle of scientific prediction is most often applied to science fiction storytelling, it could just as easily be used to describe the age of enlightenment that began in cinematic visual effects in the late 1970s thanks to a little film called STAR WARS. The chief sorcerer behind the film who led the renaissance of not only visual effects, but also the entire movie business, was a 20-something engineering kid from Southern California named John Dykstra. In a recent discussion, he looks back on the experience of creating the STAR WARS universe from nothing more than a script and George Lucas’s unique vision.
Dykstra received his first draft of STAR WARS in 1975, when the production offices were still set up (and in the process of being dismantled) at Universal Studios. Universal was the “almost” home of George Lucas’s brainchild before it landed with Alan Ladd, Jr.’s 20th Century Fox, effectively saving it from death. Even then, before he had any movie experience at all, Dykstra oozed the confidence of the visual effects icon he would soon become. Asked if he had any reservations about STAR WARS being feasible from a practical standpoint, his answer was a flat, simple, “No.”
Keep in mind that this was 1975, the year of JAWS release and only a few years removed from Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. These were the pillars of visual effects at the time and JAWS was centered around a lone, malfunctioning (if now classic) mechanical shark. In comparison even to 2001, STAR WARS, as they say, was a whole new ball of wax.
So, was Dykstra prescient or just crazy?
Geniuses tend to be a little bit of both. Doug Trumbull, one of the visual effects maestros behind 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, pointed Lucas toward Dykstra’s when the young director was scouting for capable (and cheap) visual effects talent. A young Dykstra had impressed Trumbull while working for him at his company, Future General, on the 1972 sci-fi film SILENT RUNNING. This movie, although nowhere near as popular as STAR WARS, was an important stepping-stone in the explosion of visual effects that would come in the late 1970s and continue through today. Though SILENT RUNNING’s visual effects were revered at the time, Dykstra was, in retrospect, frustrated by the slow-moving ships. He knew he could do better. The way to create true motion, he was convinced, was being able to move both the models and the camera at the same time. The problem for Dykstra was that no such technology existed at the time. Knowing that necessity was the mother of invention, Dykstra’s maternal instinct led him to a research project at the University of California at Berkeley where he would invent a technology that would become ubiquitous in the film industry. That technology?
“What George came to me with was a perfect combination of the stuff that I had been doing with Doug Trumbull–using fairly low tech solutions [to create visual effects].” When Lucas first met Dykstra, his group at U.C. Berkeley had already invented one of the first motion control camera systems. Later dubbed the “Dykstraflex,” this system used an obscure 1970s technology called the computer to program precise movements into the camera so that it could be operated free of human hands and, therefore, free of human error. “There were no computers around then. A computer was something that existed at the University of Berkeley, it wasn’t something people had in their houses.” The computer in question was the PDP-11, the sheer mass of which required an entire room just to house it. The machine was eight feet tall and twelve feet long and featured the blazing processing power of a modern cell phone—and not he kind that can send e-mail and update Facebook.
The theory popularized by Dykstra’s team continues to be employed in movie-making today. The idea was to use programmable synchronized motors to generate and store specific camera movements (dolly, tilt, zoom, focus) so that they could be repeated with absolute precision as often as needed. Previously, visual effects shots could only be of static model miniatures shot on static backgrounds. This new and ingenious bit of movie magic—now known as “motion control”—would pave the way for a new breed of visual effects shots. Motion control allowed the camera to repeat exact movements for the purposes of filming two or more subjects at different times. Once done, the subjects could later be seamlessly composited in a way that made it look like the entire shot (actors, model miniatures and animations) was photographed at once.
You know, for something like giant space dogfights.
“The issue was one of not so much whether or not we could do it, but whether or not we could do it in the time that they had and for the money they had to spend.” George Lucas and his producing partner Gary Kurtz must have liked what they saw at U.C. Berkeley enough to give John Dykstra and Doug Trumbull the job to head the STAR WARS visual effects team. As with any great adventure tale, this one began with the hero assembling his crack squad of specialists. But this was 1975 and visual effects was something largely limited to B-movies. There weren’t massive, well-trained special effects companies where Dykstra could go to farm talent – he had to seek out his wizards elsewhere. Over the weeks and months that followed, Dykstra put together his dream team of men who had the talent or know-how that he was looking for. He found Chief Model Maker Grant McCune in a hospital laboratory, Camera & Mechanical Designers Dick Alexander machining cameras and parts and Bill Shourt doing social work, Assistant Cameraman Doug Smith sweeping the floors at a pizza joint, and Production Manager Bob Shepherd selling sandals. Unlike their comrades, current geek prophets and past STAR WARS Special Effects Cameramen Dennis Murren and Richard Edlund were actually working in the film industry when Dykstra approached them. But in 1976, they were only movie “grunts”–doing pencil-and-ink animation and camera work, respectively.
Sounds like the ideal composition for the team that would win the 1977 Academy Award for visual effects.
20th Century Fox probably had a similarly sarcastic response, but Lucas and Kurtz trusted Dykstra and Dykstra had the team that he wanted. Using Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art as a guide, John Dykstra’s non-union, rag-tag rebel alliance called “Industrial Light and Magic” (ILM) got to work in a warehouse in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. As did his team, the ILM facility also had to be built from the ground up. “We did everything, I mean basically we started with Ralph McQuarrie’s basic designs… We built and designed the models, we built and designed the facility that was going to be used to photograph them and we built and designed the optical printers that were going to be used to composite them and built and designed the camera and built and designed the environments, all of the backgrounds and stuff and then did all the matte paintings and all that… It was pretty much a new facility.” With the exception of some salvaged cameras, everything Dykstra needed for STAR WARS had to not only be built from scratch, but much of it had to be invented. The equipment he needed to bring George Lucas’s vision to life simply did not exist.
At least not yet.
Throughout ILM’s childhood and adolescence in the mountains North of Los Angeles, Dykstra’s team worked largely disconnected from the main production at Elstree Studios in England. As the director, Lucas himself spent most of his time in England with the film’s first unit and Mark Hammil, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Alec Guinness. Lucas trusted Dykstra and ILM to do what he hired them to do and was never hindered by what the studio and others (sometimes his own production team) said could not be done. “I have to give George credit, he had a vision that nobody else really saw. The people at Fox were busy trying to distance themselves from the project throughout the production of it.”
Even with the production teams, there weren’t many points of overlap between the work being done in England and Southern California. Although ILM would receive certain bits (R2-D2, for instance) from the production team in the UK, there wasn’t all that much interaction or communication. “We talked a couple of times, but for the most part, the stuff was separated into the things that were done in Britain and the things that were done here in the U.S. So we had, you know, we’d get stuff from them that they had built and then we’d either operate it here for, you know, photographic purposes. In some cases we made modifications like I said on R2-D2… but there really wasn’t that much communication.” One exception is the coordination of the bluescreen work, an area where the English crew’s experience was lacking compared to that of Dykstra and ILM. Because elements of visual effects shots were being filmed in both locations, Dykstra and his team had to supervise the English crew in order to ensure the lighting was a match. If it wasn’t—no easy task for shots being filmed by two crews separated by 7,000 miles—the shot compositing would look awful. “When they were shooting the bluescreen, (Composite Optical Photographer) Robbie Blalack and I went [to England]… [We shot] the interior of the pods, the interior of the Milennium Falcon, the star streak and disappear (the hyperspace effect), the gunner things, the interiors of the cockpits of [the rebel pilots flying] over the Death Star, fighting the TIE Fighters and stuff like that.” Dykstra explains why this was the unique exception for two production crews that remained largely separate through shooting. “We worked with the director of photography to make sure that the lighting for the bluescreens was usable, that we could extract it and make mattes out of it and make it work… Basically, I’d just go in and we’d read the screens and check and make sure that they were even and talk to the director of photography about the color of the light they were using and making sure that the light and key light was a match for the key light we were going to use on the miniatures, and that kind of stuff.” Dykstra’s management of the bluescreen effects indicated that he knew even then that the biggest obstacle between his team and success were the spaceships and everything that came along with them: the pilots and gunners in their cockpits, the jumps to hyperspace and the intense dogfights.
The spaceships of STAR WARS not only had to look authentic, but they had to move authentically. “I wanted to the ships to fly with aerodynamics—and that was George’s conceit as well—so we designed the ships to have wing shapes on them, even though when operating in space they didn’t need them.” At Lucas’s behest, Dykstra and his visual effects team studied real dogfight footage from World War II so that they could understand the movement, the gravity, and the battle tactics of real airplanes. They had to “find lines of real momentum” if they were going to make a bunch of model miniatures seem like real space ships with weight, gravity, moving parts and human pilots. Many of the models, specifically the starfighters—the X-Wings, the Y-Wings, the TIE Fighters—were constructed at an eighteen-inch scale, tiny when compared to similar productions of this time. But this was done so that they could be moved in ways that no one had ever seen before. With model miniatures, it was typically just the camera that moved. With STAR WARS, both the camera and the subject being filmed would be moved at the same time. This, Dykstra hoped, would create the effect of real motion on the screen.
Though ILM began with McQuarrie’s wonderful conceptual art as a guide, the STAR WARS models were designed largely—get ready for it—“on the fly” to satisfy Lucas’s primary edict: that everything in the STAR WARS universe look lived-in, old, used. “It had to look like it had grease, dirt, stuff on it like any kind of operational device has.” To achieve this, Dykstra’s team adapted and advanced a build technique popularized on prior Doug Trumbull films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SILENT RUNNING: kit-bashing. Kit-bashing casts artist as scavenger: foraging off-the-shelf model kits for interesting-looking parts to glue onto the model’s understructure. The understructure would be built and sculpted based on the concept sketches, but the exterior’s final texture was something that took shape organically simply based on which pieces from which kits were glued where. “Because we were kit-bashing—basically taking parts out of models—a lot of the detail that went on the ships was just high frequency detail. So the model makers really had a lot to do with the final texture [of the ships].”
Like any self-respecting visual effects crew, Dykstra’s team then set about discovering the best way to blow these models up.
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