John Dykstra on his favorite scene -- the opening shot in ‘Star Wars’


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.


This is the third installment in our series ‘Wizards of Hollywood,’ where we shine a spotlight on the masters of movie magic, the effects specialists who can dazzle us with screen images of liquid robots, giants and goblins, ferocious dinosaurs or just a special human soul who ages in reverse. Today, guest contributor Liesl Bradner interviews John Dykstra.


Two-time Oscar winner John Dykstra is considered one of the true forefathers of visual effects. His credits include ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’ ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Hancock’ and was a producer at the launch of the original ‘Battlestar Galactica’ television franchise. He won his first Oscar for the original ‘Star Wars,’ for which he was special photographic-effects supervisor, and his second for ‘Spider-Man 2’ and is now immersed in the challenges presented by period combat as the visual effects designer on the Quentin Tarantino film ‘Inglourious Basterds.’ He was on the set in Berlin when he spoke to Bradner by phone.

My most memorable scene was the opening shot in the first ‘Star Wars.’ It was one of the first shots we finished and it proved that at least a large part of the new technology we were applying to the visual effects for the film was going to work. [Director] George Lucas, [producer] Gary Kurtz and the studio were all making a large wager when they financed the creation of the original Industrial Light & Magic facility. Wise or not, we weren’t doing things in a traditional way.

We wouldn’t have been able to do the film using traditional techniques in the time they had. So we built new cameras designed specifically for miniature photography. We built the miniatures, using new materials and construction techniques, in a very small scale that required the specially designed cameras. We used an old film format, VistaVision, in our new cameras that gave us a higher quality image. And we needed a higher quality image because we were doing optical composites in optical printers that had to be custom built because of the VistaVision format.

We came up with a new way of illuminating our Blue Screen to give us enough light to shoot our small-scale miniatures. And all the above stuff would have been useless without the motion control camera movement system that allowed us to shoot continuous motion photography of the miniatures with freedom of camera motion that hadn’t been available before.

The motion-control system also allowed us to shoot two or three shots a week on each stage as opposed to the traditional technique that would have required two weeks per shot on the same stage. As you can see, there were lots of new concepts that were interdependent. If one of the links was too weak the entire system could fail.

That Star Destroyer sliding overhead against the planet and stars was ‘Proof of Concept’ for the entire system. One of the reasons I’m proudest of that shot is that it was a successful collaboration of my friends and I on a seemingly insoluble problem.


-- Liesl Bradner



Stan Winston and the tricky business of Legacy

Hero Complex covers the ‘Bakeoffs’

Greg Nicotero and the history of movie mayhem

Hollywood update: 13 remakes of sci-fi classics


Photos courtesy of John Dykstra