John Dykstra, the Godfather of Movie Special Effects.
“Star Wars was me and my buddies who all got together and created a great big garage known as ILM"
John Dykstra was born June 3rd, 1947, Long Beach, CA. Graduating from the California State University at Long Beach he begins an award winning, critically acclaimed career in Film Special effects. He cut his teeth at Trumbull Film Effects, this was Douglas Trumbull's effects house. Trumbull was most noted for the effects he had created for 2001: A space Odyssey. John was learning with the best. His first film was in 1971, working as special effects cameraman and industrial designer on Trumbull's Silent Running.
"This is where I was learning how to learn, I was working with Doug Trumbull and it was a terrific opportunity to learn from a guy who’s a master of invention. He’s a futurist and so far ahead of his time that it’s painful"
In 1975 a little-known film director named George Lucas hired Dykstra to create the effects on his new film Star Wars. A custom industrial warehouse was built for Dykstra and his friends, across the street from Van Nus Airport in the San Fernando Valley. Because of the requirements of Lucas's script, Dykstra and the gang of the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic had to design and build equipment from scratch. They pushed the envelope of Special Effects like nobody else. Most notably Dykstra invented what would become to be known as Motion Control.
“What that meant, was that the camera could move during the shot, and the reason that we did that was that George Lucas and I agreed that we wanted move of a gun camera look to the stuff in ‘Star Wars’ rather than a fixed camera watching a battle from some distant position. So rather than panning ships across the sky, we put cameras in the ships. It was impractical at the time because to move a camera at the speeds we wanted to move them in proximity to the miniature just wouldn’t work. So we came up with a system that allowed you to do those things. In essence it broke down the movements of the camera into recordable tracks of information, just like multi-track audio recording and let us achieve what we were trying to achieve”.
This technique was truly inspired, the results of which gave the space battles in Star Wars a unique look and feel that seemed to be almost real. The effects really did make Star Wars the success that it became. ILM of course won the Oscar for best special effects, ironically beating his old mentor Trumbull who was nominated for the effects for Close Encounters of the third kind. Things were looking up. The Script for The Empire Strikes Back was well on the way and ILM were developing new and improved toys.
In 1978 Glen A. Larson approached Dykstra to do the special effects on a new Television series he was producing at Universal Studios called Battlestar Galactica. Dykstra agreed, unable to refuse a man who had 7 TV shows running at the same time. 20th Century Fox did not like the idea of Galactica at all, believing it to be a direct rip-off of Star Wars and promptly started legal action.
Dykstra teamed up with his friend Douglas Trumbull to design and produce the effects for Galactica. In television terms the budget was huge, one million dollars per episode. The pair did give Universal their money's worth though, winning Emmy's for the show.
"Well, how seriously can you take a lawsuit where the defendant is being approached by the plaintiff to be hired to do television shows at that studio the following season?"
The Fox V's Universal battle became a joke. While still in the courts Fox hired Larson to do a show for them and he started work on it even before the law suit had finished. The courts ruled in favour of Universal and everybody was a winner, apart from Dykstra. Because of the legal battle he was unable to work on Empire and in 1979 left ILM. Next on the cards was a big one. Dykstra was to team up yet again with Trumbull to do the big screen debut of Star Trek. Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the return of the format was of course entirely down to Star Wars and its box office smashing revenue. Dykstra was brought on board very early on into the production and received many script amendments.
"Boy, talk about a lot of people running a lot of different directions. That project was really sad."
The team struggled to produce the Special effects due to very tight time constraints. But what they did produce was still pretty good. Dykstra then set-up his own effects house Apogee, Inc. Over the years he has produced some stunning work and has been part of blockbuster films like:
Stuart Little 1999
Batman & Robin 1997
Batman Forever 1995
Spontaneous Combustion 1989
Invaders from Mars 1986
Sadly his work and breakthroughs always seem to be over shadowed by Industrial Light and Magic and their accomplishments. A great pity as John Dykstra was and is the father of ILM and indeed the Godfather of movie Special Effects.