By Henry TurnerJim Dickson’s 50-year career as a DP, visual effects supervisor, and director has taken him to virtually every country in the world, where he’s worked on thousands of commercials and features for every major studio and most major production houses. He has worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and King Vidor, among many other acclaimed directors. As an innovator in specialty films, Dickson was integral in the success of Douglas Trumbull’s Showscan 70mm system that brought an amazing illusion of reality to the screen. With his Circlevision rig, Dickson has created innovations of the movie-theater-in-the-round. His career is studded with high points, and one of the grandest came in the ’60s, when he shot one the most famous and memorable motion picture sequences of all time.In 1963, director Stanley Kubrick attended a screening of the film To the Moon and Beyond, a special presentation in 10-perf 70mm at the New York World’s Fair. In a dome-shaped building, the outside of which was textured to resemble the surface of the moon, spectators sat in special tilted seats and saw the film projected onto the curved ceiling. Stunned by the images that took viewers on a voyage into the solar system, Kubrick found inspiration for 2001: A Space Odyssey.“Kubrick saw the film and loved it so much that he hired all the people at Graphic Films that worked on it, including me and Doug,” Dickson recalls. “We were doing at lot of space movies at that time. And Con Pederson, who owned Graphic Films and became effects supervisor on 2001, was an expert on theorizing and drawing space vehicles because he understood the physics involved. He had worked in aviation. So there were a lot of guys in there who were pretty savvy technically, as well as being great artists.”It was with Trumbull that Dickson shot the famed quasi-psychedelic Stargate Corridor sequence, depicting an astronaut’s travel through dimension warps. “I built the slitscan rig, which is the trippy thing used at the end,” recalls Dickson. “Doug dreamed it up, and I put it all together and filmed the whole thing.” The slitscan device used a 25-foot ramp leading to wall in which was cut a narrow slit, behind which were mounted huge moving transparencies of artwork. Shooting a frame at a time with an open aperture, the device allowed Dickson to capture images of light soaring past the camera at incredible speed. “The movement of the camera tracking in and out was geared to the amount of travel left and right of the artwork,” he explains. “To create a movement, the camera would advance, and the art work would advance a little bit relative to the camera’s traveling in and out on each frame. Because the camera would be close up on one part of the exposure, and farther away on another part, the artwork would bend, so that’s how the shot got a spatial quality. Advancing the artwork a little bit each frame relative to the camera tracking in and out made the artwork appear to be rushing toward you. We put two halves together, compounded, showing surfaces going both ways, past you. It all worked out really well. Everybody smoked pot in the first six rows and thought it was the greatest part of the movie!”Dickson can regale a listener with stories of Kubrick and his obsessive drive in making the classic, for which he never conclusively decided on an ending—hence the sense of abstraction at the film’s conclusion. That the effects hold up even in today’s digital age owes much to the way they were shot—a testament to Dickson’s artistry and exactitude. Instead of the safe method in which an optical printer would be used to add effects elements to a live-action scene, re-photography of pre-exposed stock was done, so as to avoid adding generations to the final print.“It was all latent image—in other words, each time a new element was added, it was photographed on raw stock that had already been exposed. Nothing was done with an optical printer,” says Dickson. “It’s very difficult and risky to do that. No one would ever dream of doing it today.” The tension of such a method was high—Dickson recalls how the entire crew was once held in suspense while he successfully added re-photographed elements to the last remaining take of a live-action scene that had been photographed three years before.Later in his career Dickson again teamed with Trumbull, for whom he shot the amazing Showscan short films shown at the Luxor in Las Vegas. Showscan, a technique that uses 70mm film shot at 60 fps, creates a stunning illusion of reality. “One of the Luxor films that I shot for Doug is still running there. It was shot in modified Showscan.” This show combines half a real set of a talk-show stage and the projected Showscan image of a host and his guests. “The front of the desk on this talk show was real; the back of the desk with the actor behind it was the image, rear-projected, 70mm, 48 fps,” Dickson recalls. “We had live ushers who would run up on the stage and put something on the real part of the desk, and take something off. And there were trees and plants that were half real and half projected. We spent a lot of time working on the perspective of all that. And it was perfect, it looked real. We fooled so many people! They thought it was a live show.”More recently, Dickson has perfected innovations on his Circlevision rig, with which he’s shot specialty films such as The Kentucky Derby for the Churchill Downs Museum in Kentucky. Circlevision is a system that photographs a 360-degree image, completely surrounding the viewer. Dickson’s set-up involves nine cameras mounted on a rig, the lenses pointed upward at a range of nine mirrors mounted at angles reflecting the entire panorama of a location. Though other circlevision systems have existed for years—as far back as 1895, according to Dickson, when still images were projected on a hot air balloon that unfortunately caught on fire and burned down a theater—Dickson’s system has a special advantage. “As far as I know, no one has ever shown or displayed a seamless, unified and continuous image. With my equipment it can be done.”Other Circlevision systems have a range of connected mirrors, but Dickson’s has a gap between the mirrors, which allows the cameras to shoot overlapping images, which can then be digitally tweaked and made completely continuous. His system is popular not only with specialty films, but is also in demand for shooting continuous 360-degree background driving plates for films such as The Fast and the Furious and the upcoming remake of Disney’s classic, The Love Bug.Having spent his career pushing the limit of cinematic innovation, Dickson is far from hanging up his camera. “I’m always looking for new avenues and new ways of doing things,” he says.
Written by Henry Turner