Tuesday, 6 August 2013

John Dykstra, ILM and the special effects of Star Wars

The special effects of Star Wars – 
fine just the way they were

On its first release, the thing reviews of Star Wars seemed to dwell on more than anything else was, perhaps inevitably, the special effects.

It's not that films hadn't had great visual effects before. 2001: A Space Odyssey almost certainly contained individual effects shots of higher quality than those of Star Wars. But films had never had so many great effects, flitting by so fast.
And yet, the man who supervised the film's miniature and optical effects – John Dykstra – never worked with George Lucas again and was one of the few people on Star Wars not to be gifted a percentage of the profits.

If the British crew of Star Wars come across as hard-bitten old pros determined to clock off at 5.30pm, the special effects unit which Dykstra led in the US seems to have been more like a college fraternity house. Almost 100 people, with an average age of twenty-seven, were working at Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects unit Lucas had set up in July 1975 in a warehouse at Van Nuys, California. Dykstra’s management certainly seems to have been unconventional. Visiting Fox executives had been shocked to find staff sliding down a 747 escape chute into an inflatable pool, and Dykstra himself smashing up a refrigerator with a forklift truck.
ILM at work on the special 
effects of Star Wars

Much of ILM’s time had been expended on creating the computer-controlled Dykstraflex camera which would make it possible for spaceships to move around the picture doing battle at breakneck speed. Dykstra insisted his team had been working hard, putting in an average sixty-hour week, but doing most of the work at odd hours of the night when the temperatures dropped. The way Lucas saw it, ILM had taken a year, spent one million dollars of his money and produced only one usable effects shot.

Lucas decided he had to take charge at ILM himself. Before long, Dykstra’s unit was busily cranking out some of the most astonishing special effects ever committed to film.

Have accounts of this period been fair to Dykstra and his people? Did things really start to happen at ILM because Lucas was there to kick butt, or because they were always going to fall into place anyway? It's hard for the open-minded fan to judge.

Dykstra remains, along with Gil Taylor, one of those people who is in danger of being written out of the Star Wars success story. He was given a special Oscar for inventing the Dykstraflex camera – albeit that he had to share it with his counterparts on Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but after that, he moved onto Battlestar Galactica, never to work on Star Wars again. Lucas has seen fit to touch up his work with digital technology in the Special Edition and revisions of the Special Edition – but the miniature and optical effects in the original Star Wars are just about as breathtaking today as they were in 1977.


John White said...

Yes, I'm struggling to think of anything in the film that looked poor by today's standards. Sure, the exposures on some of the back-projection shots were mis-matched [looking out of the Falcon's cockpit]; the close up of the Tantive being struck looks quite 'modelly' but not to any seriously detrimental degree; matte-lines/blocks... None of this matters much.

The Tantive shot I mentioned has remained untouched, yet I believe the shot you pictured above was entirely replaced with CGI. To what purpose?

Darren Slade said...

The only shot I can think of that looks sub-standard is the one of the landspeeder entering Mos Eisley, where there's a sort of red blur underneath it. I suppose you could also count the moment during the Vader/Kenobi duel when Alec Guinness angles his lightsaber so you can see it's a reflective stick, though I suppose that's a practical effect looking a bit ropy rather than an optical.
But there was absolutely no need for the wholesale replacement of shots with CGI from '97 onwards.

johnnyivan said...

I can only suppose that at some point all of the models will be replaced with CGI - especially if they do restart the 3D conversion plan.
That'd be tragic.

Illegally here said...

I can understand Lucas..... if somebody is taking a year to make a single shot and spend the rest of the time sliding down in a pool, then I will fire that guy too...Also the fact that he never worked in a big movie again makes it look like Lucas deserves all the credit

Illegally here said...

I can understand Lucas..... if somebody is taking a year to make a single shot and spend the rest of the time sliding down in a pool, then I will fire that guy too...Also the fact that he never worked in a big movie again makes it look like Lucas deserves all the credit

Darren Slade said...

Hi Luis. Welcome to the site. I'm grateful for your comment - fair point!

Michael Carroll said...

Never worked on a big movie again? I don't know about that!

How about (among many others) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Firefox, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Stuart Little, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Hancock, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, Django Unchained and the 2014 Godzilla movie?

Unknown said...

@michael yeah that pretry much sums it up. Back then a lot of the credit went to lucas since he set up ILM and there were many innovative people there. John dykstra was assuredly one of those people.

Anonymous said...

Truth is, all the credit should go to John Dykstra, Richard Edlund and the rest of the ILM team, not Lucas. The team worked like animals 24/7 to present the most mindblowing, never before seen special effects in movie history - remember how many Oscars Star Wars got. It is a disgrace that Lucas do not accept to restore and preserve the unedited original. I saw it with my dad 1978 and it was only such a mindblowing experience because of the ultrarealistic special effects only seen before in 2001: A Space Odyssey.