VFX Legend John Dykstra on ‘X-Men: First Class’

The man who brought you the special effects in Star Wars and Spider-Man talks about his work on X-Men: First Class.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Special effects luminary John Dykstra made a name for himself on the first Star Wars way back in 1977, and since then he’s established himself as one of the leading figures in movie visual effects with his work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Batman Forever and the first two Spider-Man movies. His latest film, X-Men: First Class is coming out on a Special Features-fueled Blu-Ray release, and we were able to snag a few precious minutes with the Hollywood icon about his impressive work on the film.


CraveOnline: How is working on X-Men different from working on other superhero movies?

John Dykstra: Well, one is the breadth of characters we had to create manifestations for. We just had a lot of people to work with. And the other limitation was, although the other superhero movies I’ve worked on have to have a relationship from one film to the next, they were generally the same characters. So they manifested themselves in the first film, we got to invent how we made them look and how they worked and then, in subsequent films, we enhanced that or improved upon that. This one, we had characters who basically were either “this” character at a [younger] age, or a character who was a relative of this character, one that we were working on. So we had to walk a very fine line between character powers that reflected the kind of the world that these characters end up in, in the subsequent movies, and make it unique. So it had to be the same but different, which was the challenge. That was the hardest part on this film, and that was really different in this movie from many of the other superhero movies I’ve worked on.

I also, in truth, I think we always strive to get as much emotional content in the film as we can, at least the directors I’ve worked with on these films, have made a genuine effort to take it beyond… not so much the comic book as a limitation, but comic book as “broad.” They’d find ways to put detail into the characters, and depth into the characters, and I think we were really successful with this one. I attribute that to Matthew [Vaughn]’s talents and the talents of the actors, who were really great. So, it was really a successful superhero film.


How does Matthew Vaughn view, or request visual effects differently from some of the other directors you’ve worked with?

“Make it more French.”


[Laughs.] More French?

No, I just said that. No, Matthew’s great. He’s articulate, and the thing is, like many directors, he responds best to images. So I found that the best form of communication for working with him, once we’d given a broad sketch of what we wanted to achieve, we brought him some images that would represent at least facets of what the work was going to look like. We spent a great deal of time developing Emma Frost, and Emma Frost is, as simple as it looks to be on screen, was really difficult. Making her look diamond, not glass or plastic, was really difficult to do. It had to do with how the edges were drawn, the contrast, the refractive index of the interior of the material, and it’s ineffable. You can’t, it’s like, you have to see it.

Matthew was always willing to collaborate. Matthew trusted us, and we got to take things to a level of execution to where they had the hope of being “born live” as opposed to being “born dead.”


Did he ever request anything that was unfeasible, or impractical?



Give me an example?

Oh, that’s tough. You put those behind [you]. You forget those things… (Thinks) – There was this specific thing of the wings…? That’s kind of chump change… (Thinks) – Well, I guess the most daunting challenge was coming with something for [Sebastian] Shaw. Figuring out a way to make him manifest [his] power. There wasn’t so much that Matthew proposed something that we couldn’t do, but we all struggled to come up with a definition of what it would look like to absorb energy. That was probably the one that we spent the most time on. That was the interaction between Matthew, myself, the artists and the vendor who was going to actually do the work. That was probably one of the bigger challenges of the film.