A Sci-Fi Star is BornJohn Dykstra Takes Us Inside Battlestar Galactica!
September 1978 - Space, according to the opening words of Star Trek, is the final frontier. While science has been able to send astronauts to the moon and land spacecraft on Mars, scientists admit they've still got a long way to go before they can unravel the mysteries of the universe and master intergalactic space travel.
Hollywood's special-effects wizards, however, are light-years ahead of the scientists. Through their magic, we have traveled to all corners of the universe and met many out-of-this-world creatures.
Since the days of Flash Gordon, audiences have thrilled to the possibilities of space travel. And with the great popularity of TV shows such as Star Trek and films such as 2001, Star Wars, and Close Encounters, the race for space has really taken off. A whole new batch of sci-fi fantasies and space epics are already on the way — and there's no end in sight!
The latest and perhaps most impressive entry in the space sweepstakes is ABC-TV's Battlestar Galactica. The show, which stars Lome Greene, Richard Hatch, and Dirk Benedict, follows the massive Battle-star Galactica as it wings its way through dogfights in space and battles with seven-foot robot warriors, and other unearthly foes.
Galactica is one up in the race for ratings because it boasts special-effects genius John Dykstra, the man responsible for the eye-popping effects in Star Wars.
Special-effects work can take an enormous amount of time. Long before the actors were hired, Dykstra and his 60-person crew were already hard at work. "Just for the first seven-hour miniseries," Dykstra said, "we spent a year and a half working on the photography and the miniature models."
One 30-second sequence showing solar flares took six hours to complete. "In conventional filming, you just set up your scene and actors, shoot them, then edit and print the film. We have to set up each individual component of each shot. We do a background one day, an actor the next day, and a third actor another day, then go back and edit all three together. Not only that, each piece of film has to be laid down on the final negative in just the right position."
An illustration of what Dykstra's talking about can be seen in one frame of a dogfight sequence. One piece of film shows a fighter ship in the top of the frame. A second piece shows the two lights coming from the ship's engines. A third and fourth piece of film shows another ship in the bottom of the frame and another set of glowing lights. A fifth piece of film is of a starry background, and a sixth piece has twin laser beams coming from an enemy ship. A seventh piece of film shows the enemy spaceship. When all seven components are combined, you have one frame of the dogfight sequence. Some shots are the results of combining as many as 12 or 13 such shots!
When the Battlestar Galactica cruises across your screen, it appears to be 2,000 feet long. Actually, it's a 72-inch model. Although Dykstra says that the construction of the ship is the result of many sophisticated techniques, its outer shell is made from everyday plastic-model parts!
"We used parts from a variety of models, from tanks to trucks to battleships. We used anything that was injection-molded and mass produced so we can have fine detail without having to carve each piece ourselves." If you look closely you might notice that the grillwork near the rear engine of the model resembles tank treads from a Sherman tank model.
To simulate the glowing engines of the ship, four small quartz lamps shine brightly from the rear of the model. Hundreds of tiny glowing optical fibers give the appearance of lights coming from portholes and windows. In addition to the big ship, Dykstra's crew has also built a fleet of 45 other craft, from fighters to starships. Most are under a foot long.
While Galactica appears to float effortlessly through space, in reality the ship never moved during filming. As in Star Wars, Dykstra's specially built camera, called a Dykstraflex, moves all around the ship on an elaborate system of tracks and booms. The ship itself sits upon a column covered with a special blue material. The camera screens out anything blue, so the stand appears invisible. Dykstra's camera can also be programmed to memorize many different shots, so that it can repeat them over and over again, always at the same speed and exposure. "Unless you have two years of photography behind you," says Dykstra, "it's nearly impossible to explain how the camera works." According to Dykstra, the "simplest" explanation can be found in a magazine called American Cinematographer. The nine-page article has been said to have confused even some veteran Hollywood cameramen!
While some effects are impossible to explain, blowing up a planet is child's play for Dykstra. "First we set up a room with a black covering on the ceiling. Then we photograph a very large pyrotechnic (explosion) at a very high speed, like 300-400 frames a second." (That makes the explosion last longer and happen more slowly when the film runs at regular speed.)
"Now you have a piece of film with an explosion," Dykstra continued. "You take that film and look through the camera with that piece of film in the gate. You see the explosion, plus the image of whatever you're seeing through the camera (like a starry background or ship). Then you film an image or model of a planet on another piece of film. You line up each sequence in an optical printer and run them at the same time. As the explosion begins, you fade out the planet."
To create solar flares, Dykstra and his crew bounced laser beams off a shiny bowling trophy and filmed the reflections. Starry skies were created by a 20-foot black felt curtain with thousands of tiny holes that let bright light shine through.
While Dykstra is happy to explain some of his special-effects methods, he refuses to say exactly how Muffet, the show's specially built robot hound, operates. It has no electrical or mechanical parts, so some people have guessed that there is someone or something inside it. Dykstra will neither deny nor confirm this.
While Dykstra admits that some of Galactica will resemble Star Wars, he promises things that have never been seen before in sci-fi flicks. "Audiences have never seen dogfights or space battles like the ones they'll see in Galactica. Some of them will have even more action than the ones in Star Wars."
The first seven hours of the show cost over 10 million dollars to produce. The bridge of the ship, where Lorne Greene sits, is equipped with $500,000 worth of computer-operated electronics. "It's a breakthrough that we got the studio and network to take a gamble and try to put such an expensive show on the air," said Dykstra. However, with the current rage for space epics, the gamble should pay off. One reason space fantasies are so popular these days, according to Dykstra, is "they give the audience a chance to take a trip into space, which is something they'd really like to do, but can't at this point in time. Space fantasies give the audience an unusual environment, plus they tell a story that's entertaining."
Judging from the long-running success of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Close Encounters, Galactica's timing may be just right. If Galactica rockets to the top of the ratings, as Dykstra and the executives at ABC hope it will, there will be no stopping sci-fi filmmakers and the special-effects wizards. As far as they're concerned, the skies aren't the limit.
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