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Modern-day special effects, for all its reliance on computers, digital graphics and ultra high-end technology, owed much of its existence to John Dykstra. One of the first technicians to merge traditional photography with developments in electronics, Dykstra created the groundbreaking visual effects for "Star Wars" (1977), which earned him an Academy Award, and inspired a generation of filmgoers and future filmmakers. With his invention of the "Dykstraflex" camera, Dykstra literally turned movie special effects on its head with an electronically controlled moving camera that dove, swooped and twisted around a stationary object. Fiercely independent, Dykstra started his own company, Apogee, which oversaw effects for the original "Battlestar Galactica," (ABC, 1978-79) "Firefox" (1982), while he later created the effects for "Batman Forever" (1995) and "Stuart Little" (1999) after the company folded. With the emergence of CGI, Dykstra stayed ahead of the game with his breakthrough work on the "Spider-Man" films. Thanks to his dedication to constant innovation, Dykstra helped steer a revolution in movie magic at a time when studios were shuttering the aging, in-house effects departments and sending...
Modern-day special effects, for all its reliance on computers, digital graphics and ultra high-end technology, owed much of its existence to John Dykstra. One of the first technicians to merge traditional photography with developments in electronics, Dykstra created the groundbreaking visual effects for "Star Wars" (1977), which earned him an Academy Award, and inspired a generation of filmgoers and future filmmakers. With his invention of the "Dykstraflex" camera, Dykstra literally turned movie special effects on its head with an electronically controlled moving camera that dove, swooped and twisted around a stationary object. Fiercely independent, Dykstra started his own company, Apogee, which oversaw effects for the original "Battlestar Galactica," (ABC, 1978-79) "Firefox" (1982), while he later created the effects for "Batman Forever" (1995) and "Stuart Little" (1999) after the company folded. With the emergence of CGI, Dykstra stayed ahead of the game with his breakthrough work on the "Spider-Man" films. Thanks to his dedication to constant innovation, Dykstra helped steer a revolution in movie magic at a time when studios were shuttering the aging, in-house effects departments and sending their old school technicians into early retirement.
Born June 3, 1947 in Long Beach CA, Dykstra had artistic leanings as a child, which led to an interest in drawing and photography. The son of a mechanical engineer, he also found himself exposed to nuts and bolts as well. By the age of 9, Dykstra was already experimenting with his own camera, a Brownie Hawkeye. After graduating high school, Dykstra was still unsure of a career path, until a course counselor at Cal State, Long Beach suggested that he focus on industrial design. Dykstra plunged himself into his new course of study. Though he enjoyed learning about design theory, Dykstra grew bored and frustrated with its practical application. To provide an outlet for his restless imagination, Dykstra began dabbling in motion picture photography and made his first 16mm film with the help of a corporate grant. He later admitted in interviews that he was struck by the idea that a single photograph was not always the best representation of reality, while a manipulated photography might better capture a sense of truth - a philosophy not always embraced by his instructors.
But Dykstra's curious mind and developing skills were appreciated by Douglas Trumbull, the special effects expert behind the groundbreaking visuals in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). On the lookout for young and inexpensive talent, Trumbull hired Dykstra for his science fiction film "Silent Running" (1972), the story of a lone astronaut (Bruce Dern), who tends an interstellar botanical garden containing Earth's last remaining vegetation. While the budget and resources were far less than Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece, the creation of the effects were a crucial stepping stone for young American artists eager to create other worlds and dazzling visuals for the screen. In later years, the film appeared dated - thanks in part to the stiff and slow moving ships - leading Dykstra to recognize that a better fluidity and dynamic of movement could be accomplished by the camera, instead of the models themselves. Most effects shot included different film elements - models, painted backgrounds, even actors themselves - all photographed separately, but made to appear in the same shot at once. Because of the unique criteria for each shot - lighting, lenses, camera speed - it was crucial for the camera to replicate its moves with exact precision in order for the elements to match, a process known as motion control.
Around the time he pursued a project on the subject of motion control for a research institute in Berkeley, Dykstra came to the attention of filmmaker George Lucas, who was preparing to make "Star Wars." Lucas and his producing partner Gary Kurtz had ambitious plans for their space fantasy. They hoped to depict spaceships diving and spiraling around with the dexterity of fighter planes, something that could only be accomplished with the very camera system that Dykstra had envisioned. Dykstra landed the job and walked into an inventor's dream - an empty warehouse in California's San Fernando Valley with only a card table, a phone and a few million dollars for development. Dykstra immediately set himself to work. While it was later common knowledge that "Star Wars" revolutionized special effects, lesser known was the tension that existed between Dykstra and Lucas behind the scenes. Dykstra knew that the only way to accomplish the 350-odd visual effects for the movie was to not simply rely on constructing spaceship models and miniature environments, but to build from scratch the cameras, lenses and projectors needed to photograph them. Lucas, on the other hand, vehemently disagreed.
Inside the building that housed the first home base of the world-famous Industrial Light & Magic, Dykstra and his cohorts began to build everything - including offices - from the ground up. The sheer scale of the enterprise was daunting, but exhilarating. Most employees at the time were fresh out of college, with skills ranging from engineering and machine making to design and illustration (the company skirted union concerns when representatives concluded that the strange work being done was outside their expertise and interest.) The nearly all-boys crew regularly held custom-built pool parties in the middle of the afternoons, watched porn along with dailies, and pranced around shirtless and in ratty shorts, thank to the 120-degree temperatures that summer. Though Dykstra was the boss, he made sure have his share of fun - tire tracks left on the concrete floor were from his motorcycle, which he rode in circles before the offices were built. Ever the prankster, Dykstra infamously smashed a refrigerator to the ground with a forklift to howls of laughter at the exact moment studio executives from 20th Century Fox arrived to check on their progress.
Because of the raucous environment, Lucas was upset with the lack of actual work being completed. After a full year, the company had exactly one special effects shot to show for itself - a relatively low-key scene of a shuttlecraft descending from its moorings. Lucas routinely clashed heads with Dykstra over his slow pace and lack of productivity. But Dykstra - while citing the stressful environment - was confident that the team would accomplish its goals. Indeed, the collegial atmosphere helped foster a sense of trust and dedication among the technicians, many of whom - including Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund and Joe Johnston - would go on to acclaimed work in effects and filmmaking of their own. Once the ball was rolling, the talented crew turned out breathtaking effects that stood out by leaps and bounds from anything that had come before. Dykstra would eventually go on to win two Academy Awards, one for Best Visual Effects, the other for Technical Achievement in creating the Electronic Motion Control System used in the visual effects photography. In an ironic twist, Dykstra won his Oscar over mentor Doug Trumbull, who was nominated that same year for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977).
Despite their success together, Dykstra and Lucas parted ways after "Star Wars" was completed. Dykstra moved on to found his own company, Apogee Productions, which had its first job on the television series, "Battlestar Galactica" (ABC, 1978-79), where he also served as a producer. Unlike its reincarnation decades later, the original series - while conceived years before - appeared unabashed in its attempts to capitalize on the success of "Star Wars," especially in regard to the effects and designs by Dykstra. Building on an already established learning curve, Dykstra and crew were able to turn out shots never before seen on television, some which even rivaled their big screen cousin. But the time and budget constraints of a weekly series started to show through. Dykstra became disappointed when the show's producers started to overuse his effects as stock shots, running them so many times over that even young viewers took derisive notice. After a slide in the ratings, and lawsuits between 20th Century Fox, Lucas and Universal over the similarities of their works, "Battlestar" was cancelled after its first season.
Dykstra remained busy, however, thanks to renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy. After an original deal to do effects on the film "Altered States" fell through, Dykstra was called by Trumbull, who had been hired to help complete the effects on "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979). Among other things, Dykstra and his company contributed the opening attack sequence on a trio of three Klingon cruisers flying in formation, complete with an overhead shot functioning almost as inverted version of his Star Destroyer sequence. Over the next several years, Dykstra's Apogee provided a lightning storm and a pesky gopher to "Caddyshack" (1980), created a spectacular outerspace docking maneuver between two space shuttles for director Tobe Hooper's sci-fi vampire film "Lifeforce" (1985), put a retro spin on Hooper's remake of the 1950s cult classic "Invaders from Mars," (1986) and even spoofed themselves in the Mel Brooks parody, "Spaceballs" (1987), replacing traditional spaceships with an intergalactic Winnebago.
Aside from a steady stream of projects and commercials, Dykstra himself continued to innovate, perfecting the "reverse bluescreen" process for Clint Eastwood's military thriller "Firefox." Once again, Dykstra found himself at the forefront of technological innovation. While traditional bluescreen involved placing a person or model against a solid blue background, enabling a post-production process to replace the blue field with a separate image, Dykstra covered the object in blue material - in this case, a top secret Russian fighter jet - to better enable composition. The reverse bluescreen had astounding results: the fighter jet was projected onto a background previously avoided because of less-than-forgiving photographic errors and imperfections that resulted - namely the obvious outline of the object against the background. So instead of being limited to the darkness of space, Dykstra's innovation allowed a seamless projection onto a light blue sky or snowy mountain. Despite the advance in technology, the film itself suffered modest box office returns. Meanwhile, Dykstra was also heavily involved in a video game tie-in to the movie.
For the next few years, Dykstra provided visual effects for commercials and television movies, such as the Shirley MacLaine memoir "Out on a Limb" (ABC, 1987) and "Amerika," (ABC, 1987), for which he created a sequence where Washington D.C. is bombed by Soviet missiles. Then after "My Stepmother is an Alien" (1988) and "Child's Play" (1990), Dykstra shut down Apogee in 1992. By that time, much of the mechanical and electronic innovations that Dykstra created were becoming obsolete, thanks to the advent of computer generated imagery. Audiences got their first taste of CGI in the early 1990s - artists were able to create nearly any object they wanted on screen and make it move however they liked. Despite his mechanical background, Dykstra embraced computer technology - even the Dykstraflex camera would not have been possible without a computer controlling its movements. He went on to supervise the heavy digital effects for "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin," (1997), two films that - while critically and popularly dismissed - nonetheless provided eye-popping visuals.
Dykstra moved even further into the world of CGI with his work on "Stuart Little," succeeding at what many had tried but few achieved: an entirely computer-generated character - in this case a cute white mouse voiced by Michael J. Fox - who believably interacted with human actors and won audiences over. Dykstra soon had a chance to provide work for the comic book-based action movie, "Spider-Man," collaborating with director Sam Raimi, whose low-budget background and artistic leanings drove him toward live action stunts. But Raimi soon that Spider-Man and his strange powers defied the laws of physics, as wells as the imagination - stuntmen (or Cirque de Soliel performers, who were reportedly considered) could not possibly swing from thin strands of webbing, change direction and maintain maneuverability as much as the wall-crawler required. So it fell to Dykstra and his crew to create the superhero almost entirely on a computer, first scanning in actor Tobey Maguire, who thankfully was fully masked to make the task somewhat easier.
But while Spider-Man was often wholly digital, the effects artists needed to place him in a real-life, modern-day Manhattan. No matter how fantastical Spider-Man's movements were, everything needed to take place in the confines of a real city. It was decided to give audiences the feeling of swinging through Manhattan right alongside Spider-Man, as if he had his own web-slinging cameraman right behind him. Background, or "plate" photographers, filmed extensive footage of the city, as well as Los Angeles, and set about the arduous task of texture-mapping images of real buildings onto digital models that existed only in the computer, through which a virtual camera could move about. Executives at times were unable to determine which Spidey was real and which was digital. Once the finished product was released, vocal fans griped that the title character occasionally looked more like a cartoon than a living breathing man. But the finished film connected to audiences like no other superhero film before or since, setting opening day box office records, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide and spawning two sequels. Dykstra earned another Academy Award nomination for his work on the first installment, and won his second Oscar for Best Visual Effects with its follow-up, "Spider-Man 2" (2004).
Feeling that he had accomplished all he could with the series, Dykstra chose to step away from the third installment of the Spider-Man franchise - a smart move in hindsight, because of the critical drubbing the filmmakers received. After stepping in to create the visual effects for the anti-super hero actioner, "Hancock" (2008), Dykstra took his first seat in the director's chair with "The Tortoise and the Hippo," a family film inspired by a true account of a baby hippo and a 100-year-old tortoise who cohabitated in a Kenyan sanctuary following a devastating tsunami. The film was to feature a combination of live action and CGI.
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