The Illusionists — John Dykstra

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - John Dykstra

CINEFEX — You began your career as a photographer. What sparked that original interest?

JOHN DYKSTRA — The reason I wanted to be a photographer was a television show called Love That Bob. In the show, Bob Cummings was this photographer who got to drive nice cars and meet a lot of women. I thought photography would be the ideal thing for me to do!

CINEFEX — And once you started, you found you couldn’t stop?

JOHN DYKSTRA — Oh, I became enamored of the process, both the mechanics of the cameras and the optics involved, and also the assembly of the image in the darkroom, the ability to take something apart bit by bit and put it back together again in registration. I did a lot of research on disassembling images into their component parts — a little bit of color but mostly black and white — analyzing contrast, luminosity, making my own masks, creating assemblies of deconstructed and then reconstructed images.

CINEFEX — When you think about it, that process of deconstruction and reconstruction lies at the heart of the visual effects process.

JOHN DYKSTRA — Yeah. Taking things apart and putting them back together. It’s essentially what an optical printer does for cinema.

CINEFEX — So how did you make the move from photography into visual effects?

JOHN DYKSTRA — Well, I was also an avid model builder when I was a kid — lots of cars and airplanes. Then I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater. I remember being in awe of the illusion that was created in terms of its verisimilitude. I did a little research on how that was done and, as fate would have it, I met Doug Trumbull and ended up working with him on The Andromeda Strain.

CINEFEX — You assembled the original Industrial Light & Magic team for Star Wars, inventing a lot of technology from the ground up — not least the Dykstraflex motion control system. Is the visual effects world still an inventive place to be?

JOHN DYKSTRA — We’ve lost one aspect of invention and gained another. Invention as an element of creating visual effects has diminished — you don’t often invent and build things like cameras or motion control systems any more. But, invention has increased in terms of the ability to visualize things of gigantic or minuscule proportions, and interpreting those things to the screen in a believable and understandable way.

CINEFEX — Making things believable … is that still the fundamental trick?

JOHN DYKSTRA — The trick is as it’s always been: to ask the question, “How does this visual contribute to the emotion of the story?” We’ve all seen movies in the recent past where the visuals are very complex and very accomplished, but don’t do a whole heck of a lot to advance the story. That’s always been the criteria that’s hardest to meet.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists