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By Mark London WilliamsJohn Dykstra has a lot of personal history to draw on when talking about how special effects have changed, and how the technology behind them is changing film production itself. There is no longer “a simple way to define” the differences between pre-production, post and production itself, according to the man whose own body of work extends from assisting Doug Trumbull on films like Silent Running, to photographic effects supervisor for the first Star Trek movie, more effects breakthroughs for Star Wars, invention of the “Dykstraflex” computerized camera system (allowing precise shots to be replicated), all the way up to the digital dreams of the first two Spider-Man movies—and the one upcoming in 2007.But “post” probably never just began in “post,” at least when it came to effects, according to Dykstra. “Pre-planning is critical. All the elements have to be there,” including decisions about camera moves, surveying landscapes and sets that were later going to be reproduced in matte paintings, miniatures, or, eventually, digits, and the like.But that said, Dykstra also allows how “traditional film technique… is nearly gone now. The older postproduction techniques required [even] more pre-planning—because you can’t make it up as you go along.”Now, Dykstra’s view of what digital techniques have made possible isn’t quite that blithe: Defining a special effect as “two or more elements combined to be one element,” he adds that the general aesthetic of the FX-maestro’s job remains the same: not only grafting elements, but “combining moves” taken from different stages of production, and making them look like a seamless whole.And the inventor of the Dysktraflex technique concedes that the “duplicate of the camera move [you can make] in the computer” is even more precise that the mechanically replicate “matches” used by the great ’70s space epics.That said, he views the biggest change wrought by CG technology is that, as a visual effects supervisor, “suddenly you went from the guy who said ‘no’ to the guy who said ‘yes.’ The problem with digital effects was, when you went on stage, it was very hard to allow the director to innovate.”“Now,” Dykstra says, “you can focus on the finished result, rather than the techniques”—and their limitations—“required to make it.”By way of example, he mentions “the concept of leaving the craft service truck in the shot.” Previously, that was never “something we had to deal with.” Now, the question the effects crew gets asked is whether it’s “cheaper to paint it out,” than spend the time—and money—on getting crew to move it.So, while he finds more creative and practical production decisions under his purview than ever before, Dykstra’s bar for the validity of using CG techniques as a tool was when the result became “indistinguishable from original photography.”However, Dykstra also sees, if not a “final frontier,” an unprecedented one for movie making: Digital imagery will soon be able to “exceed the detail we’re even able to capture in film.” It’s “a specific example of a much broader paradigm”—one that is changing the definition of production roles, production techniques—and the very idea of what a “movie” is. All places where no effects supervisor, not even Dykstra, has gone before.

Written by Mark London Williams

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