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John Dykstra, premier magicien des effets spéciaux sur La Guerre des étoiles / Star Wars 

Interview par Jean SEGURA

John Dykstra ©Jean Segura

John Dykstra à Monte-Carlo, février 2000. © Jean Segura

2 février 2000, révisé en 2002

Superviseur des effets spéciaux de La Guerre des étoiles, produit et réalisé par George Lucas, John Dykstra, invité à Imagina pour l'édition 2000, marque son retour avec les deux derniers « Batman » réalisés par Joel Schumacher et, en 1999, avec ''Stuart Little'' de Rob Minkoff. Une version de cet interview a été publié sur le site Films Festival.

John Dykstra en quelques lignes

Né à Long Beach (Californie) en 1947, John Dykstra y étudie le design industriel. Il commence à travailler dans le cinéma avec Douglas Trumbull sur Le Mystère Andromède de Robert Wise (1971) et sur Silent Running (1971), premier long-métrage de Trumbull. Puis en 1975, Trumbull lui fait rencontrer George Lucas et le producteur Gary Kurtz qui lui proposent de diriger la supervision des effets visuels de La Guerre des étoiles, ce qui lui vaut de remporter un Oscar en 1977. Lorsque ILM, fondé par Lucas, déménage ses locaux pour la baie de San Francisco Dykstra préfère rester à Los Angeles . Devenu indépendant, il collabore à plusieurs productions pour le grand écran, ou pour la télévision comme la série Galactica dont sera tiré le long métrage Galactica, La bataille de l’espace (Battlestar Galactica) de Richard Colla (1978). Il réalise également des films publicitaires. Par la suite il travaille sur Firefox de Clint Easwood (1982) et sur Lifeforce de Tobe Hooper (1985). Il marque son retour comme superviseur d’effets spéciaux au milieu des années 1990 avec Batman Forever (1995) et Batman et Robin (1997) réalisés tous les deux par Joel Schumacher et avec Stuart Little de Rob Minkoff (1999). Actuellement, Dykstra travaille sur Spider-Man de Sam Raimi avec Willem Dafoe, dont la sortie est prévue pour 2002.

Jean Segura : Could you introduce yourself and when and where you were born and what is your training?

JD:  Yes, I am John Dykstra and I was born in Long Beach (California), many years ago [3 june 1947] and my training in originally in industrial design that was what I went to school for. I was a photographer by advocation. I went to Long Beach State College and learned about industrial design. I went to work for Douglas Trumbull and got started in the motion picture industry. I worked on films for him such as the Andromeda Strain [Le Mystère Andromède, de Robert Wise, 1971] and Silent Running [premier long-métrage de Douglas Trumbull comme réalisateur, 1972]. I was introduced to George Lucas and Gary Kurtz. I went to work for Doug in his facility in Canoga Park (1) known as Trumbull Film Effects. At that time, he was preparing a picture called Andromeda Strain. I did some works, but I don’t know that it was even in the film. The work that I did for Andromeda Strain it was some projection backgrounds. Then I went to work for him on Silent Running and I worked with several other designers to help design the spaceships and the robots and all of those things. Then I worked as a model maker, and as a still photographer and as a motion picture photographer- photographing the miniatures and using front projection to make all the images for Silent Running.

JS : And after Silent Running ?

JD: So, after I finished Silent Running, I did quite a few things, a wide range of things. I eventually went to work for the University at Berkeley, San Francisco. There I learned about camera that were controlled by computers which was a process that was been developed to do a study about architecture, had no application to the motion picture industry. I worked on that project for a year and then came back from the Berkeley aera to Los Angeles and was introduced – via Doug Trumbull - to George Lucas and Gary Kurtz (2) who were preparing to do their picture, the first Star Wars. With George’s blessing, we set about doing something that had never been done before. We put together a team of people to do it, to build the cameras and to build the miniatures and to subsequently to photograph all of those.

JS : Lucasfilms didn’t yet create ILM then how are you involved in this project ?

JD: I met George Lucas and Kurtz in their offices at Universal Studios. We did a lot of "hand flyiing" as pilots want to do and George wanted to have a lot of flying in the picture and we talk about dogfights so we talked about the kinds of images he wanted to achieve for that picture. At the time, it was very difficult to do moving camera shots, because it was very hard to map several separate elements on a single piece of film. It was very time consuming. So, of course being young and foolish, I told George that I was quite certain that we could do this and I guess George, being young and foolish, believed me. We put together Industrial Light and Magic in a building in Van Nuys (San Fernando Valley), near the Van Nuys Airport. And we built the camera and designed and built the miniatures. And we did the photography for that movie for the visual effects. There were some bits and pieces done, some animation things and couples of computer imagery things that were done at that time outside that facility, but the majority of the work was done there.

The idea for the name Industrial Light and Magic came from the problem that we had had when we worked at Trumbull Film Effects. Because people who were fans of the motion picture industry would find out that there was a studio doing motion picture work in the area and they would come and hang out, go looking through the dumpster looking for memorabilia or whatever. So, we decided we needed a name that did’t say what the company did at the same time had a little bit of whimsy to it. Industrial light because we were in an industrial building on an industrial street and magic gave us the additional sense of whimsy, “Industrial Light AND Magic”. Once we completed the work for Star Wars, that same facility was used to do the work for Battlestar Gallactica television show. And subsequently to the TV show, it was all packed up and moved up north to Marin County (in San Rafael) where George established the new ILM, which is where it is now. .

JS : How long the period was for the first Star Wars. Did you also worked for Star Tours the Disney Park ?

JD: No, the original Star Wars I believe, was 18 months from the point when we moved into the building to when the film was completed, which was even by today’s standards is a relatively quick period of time considering we designed and built the cameras, designed and built the models and the photography as well. The work itself for the film, I think, took about 8 months. The studio [executive people] wasn’t very happy because we were working in this building, we were spending quite a bit of money and we weren’t producing any images for a long while. I guess, I find out by reading this book, which has been recently published about George Lucas, that George was unhappy about how slowly we were going with the production of the shots. Eventually, we completed all of them, but I don’t think he was a necessarily satisfied as he might have been with the final product. That’s ok, that’s the way it is when it’s the first time. The first time is always tough, you always learn something.

JS : You work with many people, Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston ?

JD: Dennis [Muren] and Richard [Edlund] worked at the facility. That was the first Star Wars was the show that I was the visual effect supervisor on and I put the facility together essentially hiring all the people who populated the facility and Richard Edlund was a cameraman there at that time. Doug Smith worked with us. Doug is also a visual effects supervisor now. Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston worked with us. I am sure I have forgotten a lot of names but it has been a long time. But sure, a lot of people came out of that facility, they went on to become notable characters in the visual effects industry.

JS : What have you done after the first Star Wars, then Richard Edlund became the visual effect supervisor for The Empire Strikes Back

JD: He became the head of ILM in Marin County. Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren and some of the folks from the optical, Bruce Nicholson and Ken Ralston went on to work at ILM. I am not really certain about the specifics of those things because I didn’t go to ILM, I stayed in Los Angeles. The company then changed from ILM in LA, the people who remained of the original group - they did the first Star Wars - created a company called Apogee. And Apogee did the first “Star Trek” movie, we did “Firefox” and worked on a large variety of visual effects films over the next 16 years. At the advent of the digital revolution, at the time when, in order to even think about trying to do computer imagery, you had to put about 5 or 6 million dollars into the process. We, as a company, decided that we didn’t want to make that investment. In retrospect, with the exception of ILM, most of the companies that were established as digital production companies at that time did not survive. So, I guess we made the right decision, at least for that time. And over the course of the next 5 or 6 years, that was 10 years ago (20), it was in the early ‘80’s, personnaly, I went on to direct commercials. One of the reasons than I persued to do it is because of the electronic manipulation of the image available in video which wasn’t available in film at that time. I felt that my frustration I had with film, and the difficulties of making complex multi-element composites in film were not nearly as bad when I went into a video suite. I’m talking where you use 2 inches quad machines that were synchronized, run through a switcher and you were doing your composites on a fly reel time. Now, of course that has all changed but, however, that was my introduction to electronic imaging. And I was so taken with the ease in which the process worked that I pursued it until it became practical, which is far I am concerned is about 5 years ago, as a media to do effects for theatrical motion pictures. And I think as of today, here at the conference in Imagina, we have proof that there is now no limit to what you can do with digital imaging. It’s on the filmmaker to come up with a story that is worthy of being told, as opposed to simply coming up with a new process.

JS : Let’s go back to your story, after the commercials, you get back into movies?

JD: I reentered the motion picture visual effects world at the beginning of the film called Batman Forever. I was invited by the producer Peter MacGreggor-Scott and Joel Schumacher who was directing the film to supervise the effects on that film. That was the first movie I had done in a long time. One of the reasons that I had decided to go back into the film because I was so impressed with the advancements at that had been made in the area of digital imaging. In fact, in that movie we used a CGI Batman character. He leaps off a roof, the character, the cape, and the buildings that surround him were all created in CGI. That was done a combination of people at Warner Digital, which was an organization that no longer exists and Pacific Dating Images. They did the Batman character. We [did] some motion capture for that. That was 1995, I guess. I was enthusiastic about that and then I was invited to work on the next “Batman” which was the Iceman. It was called Batman and Robin but it had Arnold Schwarzenegger as the "Ice Man". We did extensive digital work in that film. We created the characters in opening sequence complete to their capes and the doors that they use like snowboards. They did aerial freefall and we did those in CGI characters and we froze people, we did extensive creative ice and the forming of ice over the course of the film. And it became more and more obvious to me that the techniques were improving. One of the organizations that we worked with on that picture was Buf [The French company of visual effects]. They did some fantastic work for us and their work in photogrametry led me to believe that a lot of the techniques that we would use on the Stuart Little movie would work.

JS : What was your function on the movies ?

JD: On the two last “Batman” movies and Stuart Little, I have done the Senior Special Effects Supervison. I collaborate with the director on all the visual effects in the film and whatever has to go into that. I had the good fortune, on Stuart Little, to not only be the special effects supervisor but to direct the second unit. I did second unit direction on both the “Batman “ movies but there were so many units shooting that I wasn’t credited at the end of the movie. I am moving into the area of directing, that is what I am trying to do and I am not giving up my day job and I really enjoy doing visual effects. Certainly, this is most recent film, Stuart Little, was probably on[e] of the most cutting edge, the challenge was huge. The idea of trying to create this character from whole cloth, make a person and a personality, from nothing and making photo real. Of course, if you don’t have those kind of challenges or take those kinds of risks, when you set about making the film, by the time the film is complete, you’ll have end up being obsolete. Somebody else will have come out with something substantially more interesting. So we took those risks in the “Stuart Little” movie and very much like the first “Star Wars” film where we took an emormous number of risks, I think that the talents of the people who were involved in the film and their enthusiasm and dedication to the telling of the story show up in the movie. That is true of other films that I have worked on, but in particular this show, because of it was so difficult because of the creation of the fur. In making fur, which is something that we are all familiar with look real, so that as you, the audience forget this character is an effect. That was really tough to do. Henry Henderson, Jerome Chen, all of the people who worked on the picture, obviously our director, Rob Minkoff did a terrific job of making that work and I think this collaboration is a fabulous piece.

JS : How do you consider your career course since the traditional special effects that you had learned with Doug Trumbull to of the full digital effects that you now use with a such a movie like Stuart Little?

JD: The thing that is most interesting to me about this time, is that I went from being someone who was a master of the existing techniques to someone who is becoming very much a student. That’s a very exciting thing for me because I was to the point it was pretty much well defined what you could do with film. With the advent of digital imaging and the capabilities it provided, I was able to become much more involved in the creative aspect of making of films as opposed to the technical side. Use to be I was the guy who showed up on the set who told them what they couldn't do. Because the digital medium has so many capabilities, in fact there is really no limitation to it. The joy for me is that now – 2 for 1 - I learn something new everyday and I get a new capability everyday. The software and hardware are being designed and built that provide the ability to do such a broad range of new things. It’s incredible! I think also, I have moved into another phase for myself which is to become more involve in the telling of the story, that’s what I’m working towards. Of course, I have to use the resource I currently have, which is my experience with visual effects to become the trading medium by which I get the opportunity to direct film. But that’s what I’m hoping to do. I think the digital revolution had helped me to move into that range, so I am very happy to be a student and have opportunities I didn’t have before.

JS : What is your project now?

JD: So, after I finished … [Interruption de l'enregistrement]. JD travaille sur plusieurs projets de films personnels, sans préciser lesquels et il est également sollicité comme superviseur d’effets visuels sur d’autres productions. Son choix n’est pas encore fixé.

Propos recueillis par Jean Segura à Monte-Carlo pendant la manifestation IMAGINA 2000, organisée par l'INA et le Festival de télévision de Monte-Carlo


1.Canoga Park, quartier de la ville de Los Angeles en Californie situé dans la vallée de San Fernando.

2.Gary Kurtz (1940-2018). Après avoir débuté sa carrière en tant que producteur associé sur les films Macadam à deux voies et Chandler, Gary Kurtz produit ensuite American Graffiti et les deux premiers épisodes de la saga Star Wars de George Lucas. Il est remplacé par Howard Kazanjian au cours du tournage de L'Empire contre-attaque en raison de retards et de difficultés financières rencontrées lors de la production.

John Dykstra - Filmographie/Filmography

1999 : Stuart Little (Rob Minkoff). JD, senior visual effects supervisor.

1997 : Batman & Robin (Joel Schumacher). JD, visual effects supervisor

1995 : Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher). JD, visual effects supervisor

1989 : Spontaneous Combustion. (Tobe Hooper). JD, special effects consultant.

1986 : Invaders from Mars. (Tobe Hooper). Titre français : L’invasion vient de Mars. JD, special visual effects

1985 : Lifeforce (Tobe Hooper). JD, special visual effects

1982 : Firefox (Clint Eastwood). JD, special visual effects producer.

1980 : Galactica 1980 : TV Series (Barry Crane, Vince Edwards). JD, special effects

1979 : Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise). Titre français : Star Trek : le film. JD, special photographic effects supervisor.

1978 : Battlestar Galactica. TV Series (Donald P. Bellisario, Richard A. Colla). Titre français : Galactica, la bataille de l’espace. JD, visual effects supervisor.

1977 : Star Wars. (George Lucas) Titre français : La Guerre des étoiles. JD, special photographic effects supervisor.

1971 : Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull). JD, special effects & special photographic effects.

1971 : The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise) Titre français : Le Mystère Andromède. JD, projection backgrounds.


Accueil Le Temps des Etudes... Toute une histoire !... Et si vous me lisiez... A quoi servent les bons Amis ?... Des Vacances à Paris