X-Men: First Class – Q&A with John Dykstra

Visual effects designer John Dysktra oversaw 1100 shots for Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class. We ask his thoughts on designing effects for the film and how he approached grounding those in a mutant reality.

Click here for our in-depth coverage of the film’s mutant effects and end-battle scenes

fxg: The film is set in the 60s but I’m wondering how important was that from an effects point of view for you?

Dykstra: Stylistically, the film had to be of a certain piece. We tried to keep in mind that it was a period piece. Having said that, mutants’ powers haven’t really changed with the change in period – the ability to teleport is the same as it was in the 60s, so we didn’t design the powers themselves to be particularly limited in that way.

Also, the look of the movie was not meant to be photographically or stylistically the 60s – it was meant to be as if you brought modern technology and all its clarity of vision to that period and actually photographed it. The period storytelling was more about the conceits we explored than it was about exactly how the film looked.

In the creation of the mutants themselves, we had some other criteria because the characters had been seen in what would be considered to be sequels to this movie. We had already established not only one of the characters – Mystique – but we’ve also had a cameo by Emma Frost in Wolverine and the genealogy in the form of Azazel who is related to Nightcrawler. Those were considerations we had to make but we really started with the characters and the coolest manifestation of their powers and fitted it into 1) the story we were telling and 2) the genealogy of the comic book and 3) what just looked best visually.

Original plate
Final shot

fxg: I feel like each of the mutant powers are grounded in some kind of physical reality – can you talk about designing the visual effects with that in mind?

Dykstra: I think one of the things that is key to a visual effect is to making it indistinguishable from reality. That’s a fairly broad statement, but back in the days when we actually had to put a subject in front of the camera and photograph it and then composite it in the optical printer, there was no question that you had to make things look real. You may have manipulated what your photographed, but you were also photographing a real subject, a real explosion or a real tidal wave or at least a wave that was a miniature of a real tidal wave. You modified its speed and gravity by changing the speed of the camera and by the means by which you lit it.

I stand firmly by my history of putting my subjects in front of the camera and photographing them – my feeling is that the most successful visual effect is one that doesn’t look like a visual effect. As the effects become more and more overwhelming in the tent pole films that we’ve seen, my inclination is to suggest to the director that less is more in service of the telling of the story. In X-Men, we did not try to go hugely outside the box anywhere in terms of the effects – we tried to not do effects just because we could.

fxg: Can you talk about some examples of that? I think Banshee is one that really does seem grounded in sound waves, for example.

Dyksta: We sat with Matthew and all of the creatives and talked about each of these characters as they came up. Diamond Girl was particularly difficult because diamonds in of themselves are not considered to be flexible, but she had to move. Still, there’s a reflection and refraction that’s unique to diamonds. She becomes very quickly glass or plastic otherwise, if you don’t get the apparent separation between facets just right. The idea that she was a single mass of diamond as opposed to many diamonds assembled was a conceit that we chose because we felt it displayed her physicality much better. It allowed us to see the expressions in her face and the subtlety of her body language in a way that you wouldn’t get if you simply had a bunch of sparkly points of light.

That was the kind of thought that went into each of the characters. For Mystique, we had a young version of her, so her transformation technique is a little less subtle than in the subsequent films. And I don’t mean subtle in the sense that it is over the top but I think that she is a little broader with the deployment of the scales that fold over for her transformation to take place. What we tried to do was make it similar enough to the Mystique that you’ve seen before, but in its own way ‘more elegant’ – if that’s possible – because of the way we choreographed the transitions.

With Azazel, we had the similarities between him and Nightcrawler and the idea that he teleported. They wanted to anticipate Nightcrawler in the sense that there’s a nimbus of smoke left when he dissipates and precedes him when he arrives. We added to that the flame that is incumbent upon a character that looks so much like the devil.

When we get to Banshee, the idea of the air being displaced by the frequency he generates is not altogether unlike what you see in Schlieren photography – where you might see in pictures of a bullet that the refraction of the air separates the colors being shown into the environment and you get that distortion. It’s the same thing in a way as heat shimmer but in a much more organized way. That was a way to visualize something that was essentially an auditory phenomenon, and the strength of the distortion and the speed with which it propagated from his mouth indicated the deployment he was making.

For Riptide, the idea that he uses tornadoes was when we were first reading script, seemed like the same thing all the time. But it turned out that applied in different environments and different lighting situations, it became quite an interesting and varied manifestation of a power.

Then you’ve got Havok who is brother to Cyclops – we needed a light effect and ultimately when you do a beam of light, a beam of light is a beam of light. We tried to add personality to it. I think one of the key things about the storytelling of the film is that we actually get to see the characters grow into their abilities, which is something you haven’t seen in the other movies – they just show up fully developed. Part of the fun of this was seeing Havok with a power that wasn’t particularly controllable. ‘Cosmic energy’ can become a rather difficult thing to define so we ended up using a light effect for that as a tie-in between Havok and Cyclops, and we reverse-engineered what the light effect might look like if it dissipated omni-directionally as opposed to in a single direction for a beam.

So there’s a certain level of movie physics going on here for the real world. I think some of the subliminal cues of the physics are important to help you buy into the things we’re showing that are so utterly fantastic. Shaw’s effect was another particularly difficult one – the first inclination is to have the guy just become incredibly buff. But it seemed like such a simple choice or manifestation for such a complex character. As a result we explored the idea of grotesquery.  He becomes pliable, almost plastic, as the energy is absorbed into him. The greater the amount of energy he is absorbing, the more grotesque the distortion. That was really a leap of faith on the director’s part to go with something where less is more.

Charles Xavier’s techniques we are familiar with and they don’t really need a visual definition – they mostly need visual punctuation. So we would distort the image around his mind-reading and around him. And Magneto manifests his stuff physically, so that’s when we got to put the heavy artillery to work.

fxg: The film ends in such a huge sequence with the Cuba stand-off, the ships, the submarine and the missiles. Can you talk about designing that?

Dykstra: The one thing that allowed us to do it on the hugely compressed schedule we did it on – this is really the biggest movie I’ve ever made and the least amount of time I’ve spent – was previs. I worked on the film for less than a year and we had over 1100 shots, so it was quite a task. The good news is that that third act was pretty well previs’d as we went into principal photography. Weta took the previs and in some cases updated and provided new previs for us. We just worked back and forth continuously when I was in England and then in Los Angeles – we used a cineSync link and reviewed material over the phone on a daily basis.

Design-wise, Weta did a terrific job with the research and making sure our ships were accurate, within reason – for example we had battle ships and there were no battle ships commissioned during the Cuban missile crisis but we needed ‘big boats’. Weta really were enthusiastic and dedicated in making the sequence have verisimilitude because they basically made that up from scratch.

fxg: What were some of the challenges of that large end sequence?

Dykstra: Well, it was very difficult to find locations especially at the time of year we were looking to represent a tropical version of Cuba. So we ended up going to Georgia – which seemed pretty reasonable. It’s in the south and generally warmer than the rest of the US, and certainly warmer than London that time of year. So we arrived in Georgia anticipating 70 degree weather. Those of us from California expected it to be much like home, so we had our flip-flops and our shorts ready. But then we arrived in Georgia and showed up at the beach and it was 29 degrees! They had a cold snap.

Plate photography
Final shot

So what started out to be the ships at sea, ended up being a CG submarine on the beach because there wasn’t time to build a full-scale sub. And the wreckage of the aircraft, although there were components there as stand-ins, they were mostly replaced in CG. We also had lots of palm trees but of course the cold snap killed all of the palm trees on the beach that first night we arrived before we ever photographed them. It was cold enough and windy enough that it was very difficult to get the smoke and fire to stay in one place while we were photographing the scenes over the series of days. As a result we had to replace the smoke and fire and Weta and Rhythm & Hues and others did some of that.

At the end of the day, it became a little bit inverted – so rather than going on location and enhancing it with visual effects we took the visual effects and enhanced them with the location! That was particularly tough, but Weta was absolutely stunning to not only maintain the quality of their work but to be flexible and interactive with us as the criteria for the work changed. As were all the vendors.

fxg: There’s one particular series of shots in there – the flying scenes – that seem to work so well. How were they filmed?

Dykstra: There was some wire work in there for some of the shots and also a series of shots filmed from a helicopter with the characters suspended below. Nowadays we can add so much reality to the image. It is becoming more and more difficult, however, to execute the kinds of choreographies that are being called for in these sequences because now you have the ability to create a virtual character and basically make them do anything. It raises the bar significantly for the guys trying to do things for real, say with wire work. They have to make them do things that are potentially more difficult or dangerous.

fxg: You have a visual effects designer credit – can I ask you about your thoughts on the distinction between visual effects supervision and visual effects design?

Dykstra: Well, on the one hand I use it as a way of distinguishing myself from others who would have the same credit. And I like to feel that I go in at the point where the script is basically words on a page, and then I work with the director to design the visuals to work within the conceit of the film, as opposed to simply arriving, taking storyboards and overseeing the execution of ideas that have already been generated.

Every supervisor does some design, and every designer does some supervision. I don’t know there’s that large a distinction between the two in terms of the syntax but I do think there’s a distinction in terms of how you approach it. The key to me is being an important creative component to the final product. That creative component means thinking of what an effect should look like, making sure it doesn’t overwhelm the work around it and works forward and backwards into the telling of the story and making it look real, but not so forward that it calls attention to itself.

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