John Dykstra has been around for a while. His first big break was in 1977 when he worked as the Special Photographic Effects Supervisor on Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Since then he has been a part of almost two dozen films, including Caddyshack, Spider-Man 1 & 2, Hancock, Inglourious Basterds and most recently, X-Men: First Class.
The visual effects master took some time to help promote the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release of X-Men: First Class by sharing some his secrets and stories. It’s a fascinating interview if you have any interest in the evolution of visual effects from entirely practical to mostly digital.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to get into Dykstra’s work on Star Wars: Episode IV, but you can also look out for that title on Blu-ray September 16th, 2011. Our short conversation with the legendary visual effects guru still explores some fascinating thoughts on Hollywood that continue to evolve.
Screen Rant: How and why did you get involved in visual effects?
John Dykstra: Wow. That’s a long time ago. I was in school as an industrial designer. My dad was an engineer and I had a thing for art. That’s a good combination. I really enjoyed photography. I was in photography and I went to work for Doug Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) just a few years after 2001 was released. That’s how I got into the industry. I started out as a designer and ended up doing photography for him and he basically taught me all the stuff that I know about visual effects in that era. Then with the advent of digital imaging I made the transition from trying to figure out how to do things to creating objects, characters and the whole cloth. It kind of freed up the analytical part of my brain and I had the opportunity to use more of the creative side of my brain for how things interact with light and integrate into stories.
SR: Trumbull has a great history of working with practical objects to create his effects. How has a background in that helped you evolve with visual effects?
JD: It’s an interesting thing. I think of Douglas as a true artist. Have you seen The Tree of Life? [Trumbull was an effects supervisor on the film.] 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.
SR: Working on a film like X-Men: First Class that is built in a world not necessarily real, what do you do to bring a sort of reality to the supernatural effects?
JD: People often ask me, “What do I do to become a visual effects supervisor?” My response is to get out more. One of the problems is that I come from an era when we had to figure out how to bolt a camera to a motorcycle or an airplane or dig a hole and find a canyon deep enough to repel into it so that we can capture images that were real. Human beings are really attuned to their senses. When you work in film, you are working with the visual and audio senses. An understanding of tactile and other components that go into the creation of those objects are important to making them look real on screen, like a plasma of energy. For instance, in X-Men: First Class when Havok sprays his energy beams it wasn’t just about making a bright light that went from point A to point B. It was having that light in itself have a sort of body and complexity that defines the energy that he was projecting. Ultimately, what it comes down to is if you understand how the real world feels and looks and sounds it is much easier to create a virtual version of the real world.
SR: Did you even bother looking at the comics or were you basically working with the director on a vision of how it would be executed?
JD: We were more biased towards the director’s point of view, but we certainly referenced scrap from all the comic books. I have to admit I wasn’t an avid comic book reader, but between Matthew Vaughn and all of the people who worked with us, they all brought to the table images and ideas and story components that were part of the original X-Men comic books. I know Matthew was trying to be very true to the comic books. It was the same thing with Sam Raimi on the Spider-Man movies. He would constantly ask, “Is this going to work for the kids who read the comic books?” That’s critical with the source material. Bringing that to the big screen at least requires that you keep a component of that chord or you lose what the comic was about.
SR: Taking a step back, how were you involved in Caddyshack?
JD: We had a visual effects company and one thing we did was puppets. 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 came up with the idea for a mechanical gopher. We worked with some engineers and puppeteers they figured out how to make him have a personality.
SR: That shows how far visual effects have come in the past few decades. Now you’d probably see a CGI gopher, right?
JD: You know, I think you probably would see a CGI gopher. There seems to be a certain resurgence of vintage effects. Like classic cars, there is a certain thing to be said about vintage visual effects. Again, The Tree of Life is a great example of doing more with practical effects and less with computer generated imagery. But I don’t think it’s so much about the medium, but rather the attitude about the images that you are creating. And that’s what bothers me about computer generated imagery – it’s easy to create something that has a lot of luster, but it’s very hard to make something that has a lot of depth.
SR: Do you have any projects coming up?
JD: I am working on a project called The Seventh Son, which is the working title, with Legendary Pictures. I am also attached to potentially direct something called Tales From The Farm about a boy and his coming of age.. in Canada.
Tales From The Farm is part of a book trilogy, so if that goes well, we may hear more from Dykstra in the near future. At the very least, he should have no problem picking up work as a visual effects supervisor.
Dykstra said he assumes there will be some good featurettes on the X-Men: First Class DVD and Blu-ray, showcasing his work with the visual effects as they apparently shot plenty of B-roll. An 8-part behind-the-scenes special feature is apparently included, and should explore some of these techniques Dykstra discussed in the interview.
The DVD and Blu-ray of X-Men: First Class hits shelves on September 9th, 2011. The Star Wars Blu-ray comes out a week later on September 16th.