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'Youth and ignorance' drove eye-popping 'Star Wars' effects

As Star Wars turns 40, effects pioneer John Dykstra reveals how the freewheeling ILM team raced to create those iconic visuals -- and made movie history.

Lucasfilm

From the moment two giant spaceships roared across the top of the screen in the opening shot of " Star Wars" in 1977, it was clear the visual effects were light-years ahead of anything audiences had ever seen.

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That was thanks to the creative masters at Industrial Light and Magic, the effects arm of Lucasfilm George Lucas created for his space opera "The Star Wars" and set up in the summer of 1975 in a Southern California warehouse. There, a freewheeling team of mostly 20-something artists, animators and model makers pooled their talents and enthusiasm to deliver on Lucas' ambitious vision.

The driving force for this creative but unconventional bunch? "Youth and ignorance," says Oscar-winning effects artist John Dykstra, the film's then 27-year-old visual effects supervisor. "People said, 'These guys are crazy.'"

The film's script, inspired by WWII dogfights and classic adventure serials like "Flash Gordon," called for epic space battles involving fleets of spaceships. That meant unprecedented numbers of effects and models, which made for a schedule tighter than a stormtrooper's trousers -- especially as Dykstra and his team had to build or repurpose much of their camera equipment into whole new systems.

At their headquarters in the sunny San Fernando Valley, the team often worked through the night.

Visual effects legend John Dykstra with the groundbreaking Dykstraflex motion control camera system created for Star Wars.

ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

"During the day it could be 100 degrees quite easily, and we didn't have any air conditioning in our buildings," Dykstra recalls. "It could get to be 130 degrees or hotter on the stages."

The original "Star Wars" opened 40 years ago, on May 25, 1977, creating an instant sensation with its groundbreaking special effects and rousing sense of adventure and sparking a cultural phenomenon that has spanned decades and galvanized generations of fans. Throughout May, CNET will explore the impact of the sci-fi mega-franchise with a special month-long series.

There was so much trial and error going on at ILM in those early days that a year went by before Fox, the film's backer, got to see exactly what it was investing in.

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Dykstra remembered how studio heads would show up at the ILM warehouse during the day and find the nocturnal team hot and sweaty, but not working.

"We had a hot tub that we put in the parking lot filled with cold water and people would go out and dip in the hot tub," he says. "That didn't make the studio people particularly happy."

Star Wars writer, director and producer George Lucas with a model of the menacing Death Star, one of the many miniatures built by ILM for the space-faring saga.

Corbis/Getty Images

Refreshed from a dip in the tub, the young effects team applied their ingenuity to developing their own groundbreaking visual effects technology.

"We were developing lighting systems, we were developing camera movement and model systems, we were advancing and changing the construction techniques of the models and their scale," says Dykstra, whose effects career spans from 1971's " Silent Running" all the way to this year's "Ghost in the Shell."

Developing the new systems meant stealing from aviation, medical and military technology. "We borrowed technology from everywhere," Dykstra says.

Dykstra recruited Alvah J. Miller and Jerry Jeffress, who he'd worked with at Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development. Together they'd built a rig that slowly inched a 16 mm camera around a tiny model of Marin County, California, to simulate traffic movement. They controlled the camera rig by programming a then state-of-the-art PDP-11 computer, a series of 16-bit computers also used for factory automation, air traffic control and even controlling nuclear power stations.

That computer-controlled camera rig laid the foundations for ILM's first major breakthrough in motion and imagery. Where earlier sci-fi films flew a model around in front of the camera, motion control moved the camera and kept the model stationary. Dykstra, Miller and Jeffress took their experience from traffic research and applied it to "Star Wars," replacing the 16 mm camera with vastly higher-quality cameras and the tiny model cars with menacing Star Destroyers.

Miller and Jeffress custom-built ILM's motion control computers. "Computers at that time were the size of several refrigerators and had the power of a calculator," Dykstra says. "The iPhone I'm talking on now has hundreds of times the computational capabilities of those original systems."

They may not have been powerful by today's standards, but those lumbering 1970s computers were the key to motion control. Because the camera's movements were programmed into the computer, the motor-driven motions were absolutely precise, and could be repeated over and over. That was essential for compositing multiple models into each shot, paving the way for legendary action sequences like the Death Star dogfight.

The Millennium Falcon chased by TIE fighters and a Star Destroyer fleet in "The Empire Strikes Back." Each model spaceship was filmed separately and the footage composited together to form this shot.

Lucasfilm

In addition to building the computers, the team designed a user interface so camera operators could program the movement they wanted. "It wasn't even on a screen," Dysktra says of the method for operating the system. "It was knobs and buttons."

The resulting motion control system earned the name Dykstraflex, though Dykstra stresses the label wasn't his idea.

There were some motion control shots in " 2001: A Space Odyssey," but "Star Wars" was the first film to extensively use the technique. Movies like "2001" relied on a laborious effects process that could require spending a week or two on a stage capturing a single shot. Motion control significantly sped up the process, allowing filmmakers to shoot multiple models on one sound stage over a single day.

The team also took a new approach by making the miniatures very small to allow for more flexibility in shooting. When you see the actual production models at exhibitions like Star Wars Identities, it's surprising how little many of the models actually are. Measuring just a couple of inches tall, vehicles like X-wing starfighters are actually smaller than the toy versions many played with as kids.

This X-wing starfighter model, used in the films and on display at the Star Wars Identities exhibition, is smaller than the toy version many had as kids.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"One of the most difficult things to do is to light a miniature in a way that makes it look real," Dykstra says. The light source, the depth of field and the sharpness of the shadows all need to be right or the model will look like what it is -- a toy model -- rather than looking like a full-sized spacecraft.

The list of challenges was long. Dykstra's crew repurposed aging VistaVision cameras from the 1950s to make sure the effects shot had high-enough resolution for compositing. They figured out how to use fluorescent tubes to light their blue-screen backdrops without flickering. And they built a movie camera with swings and tilts, which allowed them to precisely control focus.

The hard work paid off, obviously. The effects pioneered in "Star Wars" entranced a generation and helped turn Lucas' space opera into a cultural touchstone. Dykstra and team took home the 1978 Academy Award for visual effects. And the academy also presented Dykstra, Miller and Jeffress with a special technical achievement award for the Dykstraflex system.

Grant McCune, Robert Blalack, Richard Edlund, John Dykstra and John Stears celebrate their visual effects Oscar at the 1978 Academy Awards with presenter Joan Fontaine.

ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Dykstra, who parted company with ILM after the first Star Wars film, has embraced computer-generated imagery, most recently working on the stunning visuals for "Ghost in the Shell." But even now, when visual effects rely heavily on computers, the principles developed by ILM more than 40 years ago inform today's techniques.

"The earliest versions of computer-imaging programs were very recognizable to those of us who had worked with computer-controlled cameras," says Dykstra, as they were based on the same methods of breaking down movement.

Digital tech has removed many of the limitations Dykstra's team faced back in the 1970s, but he isn't convinced that's entirely a good thing.

"The process in a weird way informed the story in those days," Dykstra says. "You had to pare down your enthusiasm for exceptional images to what you could achieve. There was a back and forth -- you worked with a scriptwriter and director to find an illusion that you could create."

He describes pre-digital techniques as being like a handwritten letter, and CGI like an email.

"People tend to be a little more thoughtful about the time and effort they put into the creation of that letter," he says, adding that he tires of seeing the Empire State Building blown up and other city-smashing carnage. "With the advent of digital imaging and literally the ability to do anything, you end up with an embarrassment of riches."

Working on the inaugural Star Wars film provided riches of its own. Although he never worked on any other Star Wars films, Dykstra remains proud of the first movie and the pioneering band of "kindred spirits" who created it.

"The process was as much the reward for us as the final product," he says. "Everybody threw themselves into it. It was a labor of love."

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