One of the most important elements of filmmaking, particularly sci-fi ones, is the special effects. And for John Dykstra, embracing your adrenaline rush and going fast is the best way to come up with those mesmerizing and believable visual illusions. He joins David Jensen and Cecily Chambers to share how his childhood desire with speed reflected on his work for the special effects of Star Wars, especially the attack on the Death Star. John also explains how the movie-making industry has come a long way from using analog techniques to favoring full digital special effects, how this significant change impacted the skillsets of SFX professionals, and the legacy that this film element will leave to the world of Hollywood.
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The Adrenaline Rush, Going Fast with John Dykstra
The Adrenaline Rush That Fueled The Special Effects In Star Wars, Spider-Man, X-Men, Django, And Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
We have John Dykstra. John is a Master of Special Effects. He has created technologies and methods that have changed the game and set the standards for special effects in film. You would have seen his work in Star Wars, Spider-Man, X-Men and Inglourious Basterds, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood and many other iconic films. We chat with John about his lifelong desire for speed and adrenaline, and how this has translated in his work. He tells us about the super garage environment that was full of friends and collaborators that created the special effects for Star Wars. One of my favorite stories was when John told us what went down that night he won his first Oscar. I hope you enjoy the chat.
Did you have any questions about Structured Mischief at all?
No. That’s somewhat of an oxymoron in a weird way.
It is in a way, but we also feel like they’re complimentary.
The thing that’s interesting about it is the point of view. It’s taking a structured system and viewing it holographically, looking at it from another angle. Humor and mischief is all about a different interpretation of somebody else’s set of rules or set of criteria or structure.
We’ve been looking forward to having this conversation. I’m going to embarrass you here. The man who invented the lightsaber.
George wrote it in the script. I just came up with a method of executing it.
I was telling DJ that, because I caught up with Chloe before we did this interview. Chloe Dykstra, your daughter who’s been on the show as well. She was saying that one year at Comic-Con, as a teenager, she went wearing a shirt that said, “My dad invented the lightsaber,” and then on the back it said, “No, really, he did.” They pulled her up on stage and were shaking her hand and thanking her for her father’s contribution. She was the star of Comic-Con.
Think about it, it’s an icon of the 20th and 21st century, and it’s borrowing from history and everything associated with the struggle between good and evil and knights. We can make all of those analogies and those connections, but at the same time, it is an icon, as an image. It stands out in my mind in the top ten of icons of the 20th century and brought into the 21st century. It’s exciting to have you on to talk about that.
The thing that’s interesting about what you said is that you’re talking about the film as being iconic. The interesting thing about the film was when George set out to make it, it was based on his enjoyment of the two-reelers. This is something you probably don’t know about, but in the old days there would be a double feature of matinee and they’d have a feature. They’d have a two-reeler and then they’d have another feature. The two-reeler was Flash Gordon or some serial. Each week the serial would be updated. It was like a series on TV before TV. You had to come back each week to see what happened in the next adventure of Flash Gordon. It’s always a cliffhanger. The structure is specific and the pacing of it is specific.As special effects leave analog techniques in favor of digital, the tool kit has shrunk. Click To Tweet
George took the premise of putting together 3 two-reelers to make the movie. If you watch the movie, it’s 3 two-reelers. It’s an interesting thing that film and its message is seen as iconic because it is patently traditional structure in an odd way. The events happened, the pacing of where you were and meanwhile back at the ranch, it’s all stuff that stands on the shoulders of people who made those kinds of films before the films necessarily were giving voice to philosophical issues. It’s back when, “Why don’t we get them into theaters? Let’s get them in the theaters.” It’s an interesting interface between how people perceive it and the intent with which it was made.
I don’t deign to suggest that I know what George was setting about doing, but I know that it was discussed at the time we were doing the script that he wanted this two-reeler quality to it. Oddly enough, it’s one of the things that made the media invisible. In other words, it was such a known vocabulary for people who had gone to the movies, they didn’t realize that that was the vocabulary of legacy filmmaking that was being applied to a new definition or a new philosophical statement. Even the philosophical statement, it’s the hero’s quest.
Going back to what you talked about this show, Structured Mischief, and the oxymoron part of it. In many ways, you took a traditional structure and you brought mischief to it. You brought mischief to it in terms of your magic and your creative genius, in terms of those visualizations, in terms of George and the way that the story unfolds with the various characters and their motivations and also visually. I can remember in 1977 going as a little kid with my brother and his buddies to watch that. That opening sequence or the first time they go to lightspeed, being completely mesmerized, because we had never seen anything like that. That was the structure and the mischief coming together.
It’s weird because it hearkens back to something that I did when I was a kid, which was I wanted to go fast. Even when I was a little kid, there was a thing called Airplane Hill, which was verboten. It was quite a steep hill, steep than what was legal. You rode your bicycle down there, you could hit 35 miles, 40 miles an hour, maybe even 50 miles an hour by the time you hit the bottom of the hill, which is way too fast on bicycles of that era. We did that. We made skateboards, not conventional skateboards that are all sophisticated, but taking the shoe skate and taking it apart and nailing one end of the skate on one end of the board and the other end of the skate on the other end of the board. That was a skateboard with the metal wheels that your shoe skates came with.
We’d sit on that and ride down this hill, and almost nobody ever made it to the bottom. We had a lot of gravel rash from falling off the boards, but we kept doing it. What we discovered was if you laid down on it, or there was a thing called a Flexible Flyer then, which was essentially a sled with wheels on it, when you were laying down on that or your face was close to the ground, the speed was intensified significantly. You go and sitting up on your bike where your head is 3 or 4 feet above the ground at 30 miles an hour seems relatively slow compared to being on the Flexible Flyer where your chin is 6 inches off the ground and you’re going 30 miles an hour. That was something we pursue, going fast, the adrenaline rush was an important part of my whole life.
I rode motorcycles, I skied and I surfed. I did all of the high-impact sports. Imbued in me was the idea that what got me going was things going by fast or a sense of speed. I don’t know how it links to what’s in your brain, but it gave me the adrenaline rush I was looking for. I learned to fly, and we flew down canyons. We did a lot of stuff that was highly illegal for fun. When I came to work on this movie, this was before I started working on the film, the first thing I saw when I read the portion of the script and it was like, “They attack the Death Star.” It wasn’t specific about what happened, but the thing that I think of being the most experiential in terms of speed was when we’d flown our plane down a canyon where it was only 200 feet on either side of wingtips and you’re down there, and you’d go 120 miles an hour, and it’s going by fast.
That was where the idea of putting them in a trench came from. It was the pursuit of the adrenaline rush for the audience and the simplest method that I knew of doing that was bringing things close to you to intensify this sense of speed. When you’re up flying around high, there’s no sense of speed at all. You’ve got to get down close to the ground before you feel it. That was the idea of getting close to stuff, getting close to the planes, getting close to the Star Destroyer that comes in over the top of the camera at the beginning of the movie. As is with people of my age, I pursued my bliss, which was the adrenaline rush in the execution of the work that I’d been commissioned to do.
I had a bunch of friends of like-mind, we all rode motorcycles together and did all that stuff. We came into this with an attitude of going, “This is what we like to do, and we want to share how much fun this is with other people.” Traditionally, one of the problems with airplane movies prior to that was people didn’t understand flight. They don’t get it. They don’t realize that when you do a Split-S at 120 knots, there’s this high risk involved because if you go beyond the maneuvering speed of the airplane, the control surfaces will come off and you’ll crash and die. It doesn’t translate into a visual until you bring things close to you.
That reminds me out of Aviator when Leonardo DiCaprio was playing Howard Hughes that they’re trying to shoot a famous film with the dog fights and he’s like, “We need clouds. We need something to see the movement of the planes against.” You are giving it context. In many ways, this was you in your childhood into high school where you were wanting to conquer speed that inspired you for some of the work that you ultimately did as a professional special effects leader.
There was lots of stuff that we all wanted to do when we were in high school, the pursuit of speed was one of them. When I was a little kid, I wanted desperately to have something with a motor on it and wheels. It didn’t matter what it was. I wanted something that would go fast. That was what I pursued. I built minibikes and did all that stuff when I was a kid. There was a connection there. When I was younger, the things I enjoyed doing I did as an avocation was, I liked drawing and I liked mechanical stuff. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and I don’t know whether I got it in the DNA or whether I got it through being nurtured by him. I like to take stuff apart and put it together. Serendipity was involved in my entire career. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Things fell into place for me in a myriad of ways. I’ve been able to pursue my unconventional approach to stuff.
You’ve got to remember, I grew up in the ‘60s, we were hippies, the counterculture, revolutionary and against the structured environment. It was a given that we were going to pursue this, but the point is that same time I had that avocation of the mechanics and the pursuit of speed, I also had a proclivity for drawing and sketching. I liked interpreting an image in three-dimensional form into 2D. I pursued that. My dad had me do mechanical drawings which made me aware of the intricacies of processes in terms of how you had to make a drawing that would allow someone to make something and how you interpreted three dimensions into a two-dimensional drawing in a way that was readable. I had all this stuff that I did as a matter of course, things that I enjoy doing that all were contributing to the mindset that I had to have when I pursued doing the work that I did with Doug Trumbull and subsequently with Star Wars. I love photography. The weird thing about photography is when I was a kid, there was a TV show called Love That Bob. I don’t know how old I was, but it was black and white. It was Bob Cummings, and he was a fashion photographer. I loved to watch that show. He had a show on before that. I liked him as a TV actor.
He was a photographer in this series, and I thought, “This is cool. He gets to travel, go to different places and they’re paying him. He’d take pictures of stuff and pictures of good-looking women and lives this blissful life.” That became part of my motivation. It was right in the same bandwidth because I went, “I can go take pictures of stuff, and taking pictures of stuff captures them, converts a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional reference, which then I can use as a drawing reference for making drawings.” Photography, mechanical design and construction and a fair amount of mechanical experience in processes. I knew how to weld and how to machine to a certain extent. It’s the New York intellect. I had two sentences of information about everything.
You were more like a generalist. That’s something that I know you and I discussed before.
That’s the satirical version of the generalist is two sentences about everything. I had this broad spectrum of stuff that I’d been working on, and I was in school in Industrial Design, which according to fate, the guy who was the head of the department was assigned to me as a counselor. I came to school with no major. He was assigned to counsel students that had no major. He happened to be in the Ds. I was the last guy in the Ds. He said, “I used to be an industrial designer,” because he wanted more people in his department. He’s going, “Bring this kid into my department and he’ll become an industrial designer.” As fate would have it, it was perfect because I did photography. I liked designing mechanical stuff and understanding how it works. It was a perfect fit. I went to school in Industrial Design for the four years I was there, but it was in the art department. I got to experiment with printmaking and sculpture and all of the kinds of things that broaden the spectrum of your physical capabilities and your understanding of processes and materials.
How did you then go from that training? You could have gone a million different directions. You could have been an industrial product designer. You could have ended up being a photographer. How did you get into film?
I went to New York. It was at a foundation, Alcoa Aluminum. We went and did a presentation in New York for Alcoa Aluminum, and we designed some stuff and made a big presentation. I did a movie. There was no film department along the state, so I went to the state surplus and bought film and got the department to buy a Beaulieu 16-millimeter camera and went out and made a movie, which was part of this presentation at the Alcoa Aluminum thing. It’s your premise. I took the structure, which said, “Designed for pedestrians.” Instead of going, “This is a surface that allows you to walk on it without slipping and increases the angle at which those stairs can be,” I went, “No, I’m going to do a movie about feet.”
I did a movie about feet. That’s quite a reach. That’s another slice at the structure that we presented. That’s what I did. I go, “Let’s do a movie about feet.” It was well received. It was screwing. It didn’t fit into the context of what they were talking at all, but I did that in the course of being in that environment, we went and talked to the people. I can’t remember the name of the design firm, but it’s a big one. They do John Deere tractors and it’s a name you might even recognize. I was in New York and I’m standing here looking out the windows in wintertime and was covered with snow. It was nasty and cold. The head of the department came over to me and puts his arm over my shoulder, because I’d shown him my portfolio. He says, “How would you like to come and work here at this place as an apprentice or the lowest level?” Cleaning bathrooms, whatever you do when you begin in the design program. I looked out the window. I’m a Californian.
I was like, “No way man.”
In my mind, I’m going, “My wood is outside. Come in slow. No place to go now.”
You’re thinking about Southern California surf culture. I have to get personal here. This is too funny. We haven’t met, but I’m trained as an architect. In my Architecture thesis project, I made a film, and I was interested in kinesthesia. I was interested in comparing a two-dimensional medium representing three dimensions and a static medium, meaning architecture representing three dimensions. It’s three-dimensional. I made this film. I had Richard Meier and Michael Graves. Those are two famous architects back in the day. Richard Meier loved it and Michael Graves said I was parasitic to architecture, and I should be a filmmaker. You’re parasitic to your industrial design because you wanted to be a filmmaker.The digital world doesn't stimulate the same range of experiences as the analog age. Click To Tweet
I was parasitic that the head of my department tried to stamp me out.
I got degree with distinction for Richard Meier and failing from Michael Graves.
Part of my design background included architectural design, and we were supposed to build a model of a beach house. I wasn’t paying attention to whatever I was doing. The thing came up. What I did was I had a dowel, I had a piece of stainless steel that I turned into a clamp and I had a beam. I came into the class where everyone else presented a completed model. I got up and explained how my modular structure allows me to put floors in any height, pile driving the columns into the sand became the foundation and I bullshitted my way through it. The guy in the class gave me an A, and everybody was pissed off about that, including the head of the department. We’ve got to be a bullshit artist to a certain extent to be in any business where you’re interpreting for other people.
You’re a storyteller too. We won’t do it now. Cecily, our whole model of our persona types will resonate with John when we get there, because I know exactly which persona type he is. Cecily, you were asking a question.
I wanted to go back to ILM, Industrial Light & Magic, and talk about some of the mischievous playfulness that happened there. I heard a rumor that there were tons of cocaine. It was operating out of Van Nuys in a garage. It was a bunch of friends collaborating and taking an emergency slide from an airplane and using it as a slip and slide and whatnot.
It was a super garage, and it was a fraternal environment, not in the Greek form of it, but in terms of family. Everybody who worked there, they were friends of friends. The weird way that the thing was structured was they had a movie that they didn’t know how to do. I was approached by George and Gary Kurtz and went and talked to George about what it was he wanted to see in the movie. We do a lot of hand flying and talking about stuff that is exciting to do. I had no clue as to how I was going to do it. I’ve been working with Doug Trumbull so I had the beginnings of an understanding of rudimentary aspects of how motion control could work in terms of tying the camera to the motion of an object and how that links together.
Remember, Doug did the Stargate sequence in 2001, and that’s much related to the mechanics of a camera and mechanical systems and integrating them in multiple passing. When I was in school in college, I did deconstruction photographs. I’d take a picture and then I go into the dark room and registered negatives. I reduce it into grayscales, or I do a filtered manipulation. It resulted in a lot of the posterized images that you saw in the ‘70s. The example was a John Lennon on the cover of The Post and they had glasses on with stripes and he was colorized. I’d been doing a lot of deconstructionist photography in the still world. That gave me an understanding on how to do optical printing in the cinema world. I had that as an understanding and came to work with Doug. I’d been working with Doug, I did Silent Running with him, worked on Showscan and do some design stuff with him before I had started working on Star Wars.
I’d been introduced to people in those environments with whom I had friendships and working relationships. One of the things that’s important about this is the more comfortable you are with your collaborator, the easier it is to create a shorthand of an efficient vocabulary where a word has more meanings than what’s in the dictionary. In a weird way, it relates to the whole business of mischief in the sense that certain approaches to doing things are ingrained in individuals. Once you know that individual, you know the way to apply the talent that they have with the smallest amount of breakage.
You don’t tell the guy who hates fiberglass to make something out of fiberglass. You work with them to figure out what the material is and potentially let him or her make the decision that fiberglass is the best solution because of their understanding of the materials involved. That gets too convoluted, but the point I’m trying to make is that it was a family, we had a shorthand, the people who came to work there were people, for the most part, that I’ve worked with before. I knew their strengths and the people that then expanded the facility out were people who those people knew. It was less a deal of going, “I need a machinist.” Putting a call out to the machinists and more of, “I need somebody like Dick Alexander who’s worked on microscopes and in the machine shop and trained as an optical machinist in England and Don Trumbull who is Doug Trumbull’s father who worked on The Wizard of Oz.” These guys were people that I knew from my prior experience. I brought them together.
There was a social glue that became the substrate onto which we added this challenge. It was like a team and a family. We shared all of our excesses, our foibles and our pleasures in this environment. It’s like a super garage and it had all the tools that as aspiring machinists or aspiring camera builders or aspiring model makers could want. Suddenly the model shop has a vacuum form machine that as an individual model, maybe you’ve never had. We all came together. We had this opportunity to build this facility. There was an idea for what it was that was going to be, but it had many variables. It’s truly the stuff of storytelling in the sense that I concocted the story about how we were going to do this. Some portions of which were quite feasible and truthful and other portions of which were a complete fantasy.
It goes back to when you go into your class to present the project and you’re bullshitting, but you get an A.
You had a vision that you sold people on. Whether you could realize the whole vision is another story.
The vision was a unit. The tricky part of this is this is chess, it’s not checkers. If this part works, then this part will work down the line, but it’s going to result in these two other things that also have two other problems that have to be solved. I don’t know how to solve those. I’ve got to get from A to B, but on the way, I’ve got midway between A and B, I’ve got two problems I’ve got to solve. I don’t know how to do that yet. We’ll figure that out when we get there. You don’t mention them stupid problems. You take the stuff that it has great plausibility in terms of how well it applies and the stuff that you know that you can sell, because there are examples of it already having been done. We harvested art from a broad range of areas. We use technology for medicine. We use technology from numeric control. People can in machine controlling ways. Without getting too technical about it, because that goes on forever, it was a risk. I was enough of a con man to convince Gary and George that we could do this. I have confidence in it as all con people will tell you. You have to believe in your con.
You believe in your hutzpah.
That’s where it started up and fortune smiled on us. Almost all of the parts that we speculated would come together, came together and we built stuff from scratch. The camera is from scratch. We built computers from scratch to control the camera movement. We built the miniatures in a new scale that nobody had used before. We used photographic techniques that we harvested from still camera technology. That all happened because as individuals, each of the people in that environment were given a challenge and then we let them take their slice out. How would you solve this problem? I need to get this lens within 1/4 inches of the model. How do we do that? The easy one is the tilting lens board. The hard part is figuring out how to get that happen in the motion picture camera and control the depth of field. There was a ton of invention. Invention involves mischief.
You’re making the impossible possible. What it was is you created an environment where you would frame some of the innovation challenges and then let the team, the family that you had gathered and formed to then take one of those challenges on and not be constrained by limits or ways of that you used to do something.
The defined goal was something that all of these people wanted. This wasn’t a job where they go, “I’m getting paid well to do this.” This was a job where they showed up because every day was exciting and a challenge. The people who worked with one another had a shorthand. In other words, the guy in the machine would go into the model shop and knew enough about building models that he would have a machine shop solution to a model shop problem. The model shop guy knew enough about photography to go on stage and have a model shop solution to a photographic problem that was being encountered on stage. That symbiosis happens throughout the group because we were all pursuing the goal that we perceived as fun, and we respected one another, and we trusted one another. As a result, there wasn’t a lot of infighting. I don’t know how you interpret that, but it was unstructured. We didn’t have timecards. The studio went nuts on that. To a certain extent, it was such a tightly knit group that once the studio had committed, they couldn’t unwrap it.
I’m curious what you described to us, it was something that I will refer to as analog, meaning yes, you were using some digital tools that by and large, you were using a lot of analog pieces of equipment, lenses, etc., to create these imaginary and amazing spaces. Fast forward 40 years, and we’re doing so much of this all digitally, all from computer-generated models, what do you think has been gained and what has been lost?
Analog is a great definition of what I consider to be generalists. In other words, I told you about the guy who was doing the photography could go under the machine shop and make a part himself if he needed to. The guy who was building the model in plastic could go into the welding room and weld up a jig that he needed to make an alignment on a plastic part. I could do photography, welding and all of the processes that were involved in the production of the stuff that we were doing. We were all generalists. What happened is the tool kit has shrunk. We bolted cameras on airplanes and flew Learjet in Greenland and did rolls with cameras mounted in the nose and through a helicopter wave height in the beach to capture waves and put cameras on motorcycles and rode down canyons.
You put subjects in front of the camera and photographed it in that era. In order to do that, you had to have a broad range of understandings about how to get that done and you had to have experience, you had to have an understanding of materials and processes. You could handle on something and tell whether it’s aluminum or steel. It sounds crazy, but it’s easy to do. That kind of background I feel is the analog. That’s what made the Star Wars events cohesive because it wasn’t a bunch of specialists, it was generalists and their areas of expertise overlap. It’s not to say that that’s not true in the digital environment, but it’s with one tool and it’s a box.In the realm of special effects, you have to do things you haven't done before to do things you haven't seen before. Click To Tweet
There’s a world there. Lots of people live in video game worlds, but they’re not particularly rich and not particularly deep. I feel like the difference between then and now is the excitement and pleasure of invention in pursuit of getting an image on the screen has diminished because now you sit at a screen and you tap the keyboard. We’d go to the desert with our motorcycles to look for a location to shoot the Sandcrawler for that shot where the Sandcrawlers were coming out of the dunes. I found a place out of Randsburg and we rode our motorcycles out there, we found places and had a good time on the motorcycles. We watched 2X4s with rocket engines. It was a celebration of the execution of this work. I don’t see that happening so much.
We have this idea of a minimum viable collective, which means the right combination of people in a group that can create this beautiful, structured mischief or change in society. We believe the right mixture is a hacker, a hipster, a hustler, and a heretic. The hacker is someone that’s hacking the code, cracking the code, looking for a different way of doing things. The hustler is someone that’s bringing the community together, hustling their way in, bringing in the opportunities, and bringing the group together and uniting them.
The hipster is someone that’s using their coolness factor, influencer factor to have an influence over the greater society. The heretic is one that we added by way of a couple of guests feeling that they resonated with that archetype. That’s someone that’s asking all the questions, that’s finding the holes in the thinking so that you could have a more well-rounded outcome overall. You don’t necessarily have to be one. Some people are a hybrid of these things, but we were curious, first of all, which one are you? Second of all, in this group at Industrial Light & Magic with Lucasfilm’s early days, did you feel that you had this mix of different personality types? Does the concept track for you in that way?
Here is the basic difficulty with this. It was a different time. It was a different society. The words you’ve used to define the people who populate your group didn’t mean the same thing. All of those people were in that environment. I was the heretic because I was pursuing doing this in a way that nobody had done it before, and I was the con man because I was willing to go to the studio and promise that we could do it even though I didn’t know we could. I was quite knowledgeable and quite capable photographically, but the promise I was making wasn’t so much to rob them. It was a promise that I made because I knew that they wouldn’t give me the opportunity to try and succeed because I convinced them that I could. There’s a difference. I wasn’t the hipster, except these people were my friends. I’m the con man hustler. I organized all my friends together to do this thing. Harebrained scheme. I was with that guy.
I feel like hacking, that comes down to your wanting to find a different way to do things too.
The hacker is fun because we were all hackers. We borrowed technology from a broad range of fields in the analog world. Electromechanical devices instead of code, same deal. We took a stepping motor system that was used to drive lanes and repurposed it to drive a camera. We took fluorescent tubes that were used to illuminate rooms and repurposed them by changing the phosphorus so that they became blue screen backings. We were hacking. We were taking existing information, technology and code.
You were transforming it and changing it. Part of where Cecily and I were going with that is also this idea of now, we do feel something’s lost, hence this idea of a minimum viable collective to create structured mischief. I won’t annotate or editorialize, but as you were describing sitting behind a box and using a keyboard to make and change events, it seemed like there’s something that might be lost with that community that you were describing. I’ll go back and say in reference to them as those analog days. That’s partially where we’ve been inspired at looking at how organizations and people make change in the world. There can be individuals that are unique and talented, and probably a combination of all of those four persona types that can do it individually but ultimately, it’s a collective. It’s a group of people that come together. It’s not that you have four people, and it doesn’t mean that you have to have 400, but you have to have those ingredients in order to be effective. What I hear you say is you had that in the early days of Industrial Light & Magic.
Your definition is fine. It would be a definition that I endorse. I’m not sure that it is broad enough or that I choose exactly the same specifics, but you’ve got to remember that was an analog time. We built our own computers. We didn’t have cell phones. It wasn’t a digital age. It was an analog age. Records were vinyl. Without getting too hinky about it, analog systems are sensitive to noise because they’re not binary. Anything that you put into the system gets amplified, whether it’s noise or information. With digital, it’s either on or off. There was a subtlety to interaction with ideas that is a result of working in an analog world that is lost when you go into the pure digital world. It’s redefined. For me, I have difficulty bringing my particular talents to a digital environment. I keep hearkening back to going, “I’ll build a miniature and do that.” It’s something that I know. The digital world doesn’t stimulate the same range of experiences. What I do now is vet digital images. I go, “That looks like a real explosion or it doesn’t.” One of the reasons I can do it is because I’ve blown a lot of shit up.
I’m going to jump ahead to a film, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. Can you make some comparisons? Are you ultimately the uber editor that sits there and says, “That doesn’t look real, we need to somehow adjust?”
You’ve got to remember that the thing is it’s not a static document, it’s a living document. What was right for what I chose in 1975 or 1976 as the proper solution visually wouldn’t necessarily apply now. With fortune, it still endures but it was in the context of perceptions, media, presentation and people’s ideas of what were cool then. The tricky part is to stay current, to stay abreast of that changing perception. It’s not so much in the deal of knowing how to make it right because there is no right. What’s right this month will be wrong in six months or that possibility exists. You’ve got to continually take the template that you use for your evaluation of the “reality” of the image, and you’ve got to reinterpret it based on what is happening in the current society. The point is that you have to be flexible. You can’t just lock into this. There’s no sampler on the wall that says, “If you put these five elements in, you’re going to get this out.” It doesn’t work in a social structure and in an artistic structure because views and values constantly change as opposed to compounds and materials.
It also sounds like your role has evolved and changed as well.
Ultimately what you said, I am. I take a piece of digital information on Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino likes to shoot on film and Bob Richardson likes to shoot on film. The production designer, Barbara Ling, likes to build sets. We built more sets and shot on film and used miniatures. He likes miniatures. Even though those things were all things that could have been done digitally, he knows to do that. That’s indefinable. It’s a choice that he is afforded because of his creativity. The studio will let him do what he wants to do. He chose to do that. I can’t say why. I assume that what he feels is that there’s a look that comes from that that was stylistically what he wanted to achieve in that movie.
He brought me in on it. I’ve worked on several films with him, so we have a history. The basis of our history is that he sees me as somebody who has one foot in the legacy arts of miniatures and model making and photography on film and optical compositing. I have the other foot in the artistic interpretation of that image. meaning the verisimilitude of what you see on the screen, or at least the ability of that image to convince the viewer that’s what’s happening and not kick them out of the story, because it’s either overwhelming or underwhelming or cheesy.
I do that, and I get to look at digital stuff and we did some digital stuff. We did digital compositing in that. I look at that from the point of view of is it real? Is it evocative? Does it satisfy the requirement? I looked at the stuff that we did in the more traditional fashion with a different set of criteria. The stuff I did in the traditional fashion isn’t going to measure up in some categories to the digital stuff, but the digital stuff isn’t going to carry the patina, the ambiance, the stylistic conceit of the film stuff. You become an arbiter of taste.
I’m curious though, I wanted to connect something back that you said that Doug Trumbull’s father, Don Trumbull, which I did not know this, worked on Wizard of Oz. What do you think is the tradition or in history of Hollywood of making special effects of being able to fool the viewer into a reality with the director to tell a story that might’ve started in the ‘20s or ‘30s up to now? Is there a passing of the baton? Did Doug pass it to Doug and you, and you have now worked with folks over the years from Industrial Light & Magic days? You’ve now passed it and there are receivers that will take it into their interpretation using more digital tools? Tarantino brought you in because he knows your history and probably, given his age, has lived in both worlds, the analog and the digital world, but a young director coming out of Sundance who’s in their twenties may be like, “I don’t get that world. I only work in digital.” I’m trying to understand, from your perspective, has there been a legacy that continues to get passed in your world in Hollywood?
There is a legacy. Getting back to the basic concept is the legacy of visual effects is it’s like magicians. It’s not stagecraft, it’s magic. The key is as with all illusions, which is what we’re creating, is that either by misdirection or by camouflage that you execute something that looks real on the screen. Over history, if you remember back in the first era of film, they had screenings where there was a guy on screen who came up and shot a gun at the camera, and several people in the audience rose up and fired back at the screen. Clearly in contemporary terms, you and I both know that the guy is on a screen, it’s a projection, but the mindset or the level of sophistication if you were at that point was in awe of the technology.
The image looks real and I’ve never seen anything like that before. The idea that you would get the view down the barrel of a gun when it fired and not die was a unique idea. People were more than willing to be sucked into the idea that was real. It didn’t take much. All you had to do was present a real event that people never got to see in real life, a car crash, stuff that was fleeting that they never got to inspect and putting it on the screen and let them inspect it. They’re more than willing to buy into how that event ties into a bigger story that’s being told. High-speed photography is popular because you get to dissect this thing that you never get to see.
It’s showing people things that they never get to see is the definition of what visual effects does. In the script, it’s traditional that they write unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. That’s what drives the people who are the illusionists that are visual effects people, and they have to have a background in the mechanics of the world. They have to have a background in the art storytelling, because they’ve got to figure out a way that the image they’re going to make is going to fit into the story and reflect what’s written on the page. They have to have a component of bullshit capability because they’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. It’s weird because, in order to do things that you haven’t seen before, you have to do things you haven’t done before.
There’s got to be a component of salesmanship in order to get the people who are going to commission this work to go along with the commission. Those components remain the same throughout, whatever the tools are, the tools change, but that individual is the guy who’s doing the visual effects illusions. The quality of the illusion varies. If you went to a theater and saw Star Wars in its original form now, and you saw it on its own, it would probably be okay. There are these glitches and stuff that aren’t that big, but to the uninitiated, it works out well. The problem would be if you showed the original Star Wars against the contemporary version of Star Wars, the image quality, everything about it, sound, you name it, it lacks the sophistication of contemporary presentation. That part changed hugely. That’s despite what the illusionists are doing. They had to come to work in new media and had come to work to new criteria. 4K instead of 2K instead of 1K. It sounds simple but it’s exponential.
How do you find inspiration or how do you stay within that realm of your creative juices flowing in your life and in your work?Whatever the tools are, they will eventually change, but that individual doing the work stays. Click To Tweet
I love to work. I get bored if I’m not working. There’s a motivation. I enjoy the interaction with the creative people in the film environment and working with director of photography, the director, the production design and costume, all of the people who are responsible for defining the image at the end of the day. It’s what I do. That’s what I enjoy. I’m a guy, so I’m always looking for a solution. I want to fix it.
I also want to pivot and talk quickly about how you structured your life and the creativity in that. We had Chloe on here who is a talented individual, podcast host and cosplayer, but also Cass, your wife. She’s a force to be reckoned with and she was the band manager for Bob Marley and for Supertramp. I have a personal relationship with you. I see the creativity, the beauty, and the people that you have surrounded yourself and have created yourself. To that point, I heard a rumor that your first date with Cass was at the Oscars when you won. Is that true?
Yes. First date, go big or go home.
You invited your wife to be your date at the Oscars and then you won?Yes.That’s a good first date. Did you propose to her after that?
I had no idea that I was going to win. I was drunk. We didn’t have hope as far as I was concerned to win anything. I was pleased to be at the Academy Awards. We did a lot of drinking. I was drunk and I’m like, “We won.”
You were more like, “Here’s this sexy woman that I’m attracted to. I want to take her on a date. I’ll take her to an Oscar thing that I got invited to. We’re never going to win.” Where you sit now, what does your next twenty years look like? Where do you take all of the great things in the hammer in your hand in terms of applying it? Do you still apply it in film or do you go back on your motorcycle and make art in the desert?
Unfortunately, the motorcycle is difficult to enjoy because getting off hurts so much more now. I’m going to continue to do film. I’m not as proactive in terms of coming up with new projects as I used to be, but it’s great for me because I don’t necessarily want to be engaged at the same level as I used to be engaged. It was a 24/7 endeavor when you’re on a big movie. I’m not so much into that anymore. I’m doing more stuff where I’m consulting and making contributions without having to be the guy who shows up at 6:30 in the morning on set.
Cecily, I know you have a favorite question to end with.
If you could look back and give your younger self, maybe that’s your teenage self or your childhood self or yourself when you were getting into the industry, one piece of advice, what would that be? The second part of the question is if you could look forward and your future self give your current self one piece of advice, what would that be?
Going back to my young self, I’d probably say, “Don’t change anything.” I feel that way. I enjoyed all of my experiences and I’m not sure that there’s a piece of advice that I could give that would be effective in terms of making my life or anybody else’s life better. Future me talking to me now, I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t have a piece of advice. You’ve got to remember there’s a component of my career that relied on taking what came next without planning it out. I’m not sure that there’s a structural element that I could define as being lacking or not lacking. It’s weird when you talk about somebody in the future because it’s unknowable.
You’re a person who lives in the now to your point that it’s what comes next and that’s how you respond. Probably it’s difficult for you to project what you might tell yourself several years from now.
It would be tough.
We’ll let you go and get in your little red sports car.
I’m going kayaking.
This has been delightful. Thank you.
I do a lot of kayaking and bicycle riding. I don’t do the motorcycles anymore.
They’re out in Ventura spending some time at the beach or Oxnard hanging out, avoiding COVID as much as possible.
That’s what we’re all doing.
John, thank you so much. This was fantastic.
Thank you, John.
About John Dykstra
John Dykstra came to the entertainment industry from a background in Industrial Design and Still Photography. John was one of the founders of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects and computer graphics division of Lucas Films. John assembled the creative group that would design and build the miniatures and camera systems, which would, in turn, be used to create the film sequences for Star Wars.
This won John an Academy Award for visual effects. John was also presented with an Academy Technical Achievement Award for the Industrial Light and Magic facility itself. Following this he worked on Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: The Movie, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Stewart Little, X-Men and Spiderman. John won a third Academy Award for Spiderman II.
More recently he has been working with Quentin Tarantino on Inglorious Bastards, Django, The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. John grew up in Long Beach and now lives in Los Angeles with his family.