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A half-century ago when George Lucas decided to make “Star Wars,” a core visual effects team was handed a sizable challenge: Figure out a believable way to transport audiences to a galaxy far, far away. Essential to that goal was the development of a new type of motion control camera system: built in a Van Nuys warehouse where the production filmed space-set scenes such as the climatic trench run.

Now fans in Southern California can see the historic Dykstraflex camera system, newly restored and in working order, on display at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures starting Saturday in recognition of May the 4th, aka Star Wars day. The system weighs 1,500 lbs. and will be demonstrated by VFX vets with a 14-foot track and studio scale replicas of the Millennium Falcon, which is five-feet long, and a 20-inch X-Wing fighter.

Looking back, Richard Edlund, a member of the core VFX team that won an Oscar for the Lucasfilm classic, remembers the reaction of Lucas and members of the crew after an early test demonstrated what was possible with the camera system: “Everybody was agog because it worked and we knew that we could get there.” 

Visual effects historian Gene Kozicki notes that the “revolutionary” system not only changed what was possible with visual effects, but with filmic storytelling. The Dykstraflex was effectively a computer-controlled film camera on a boom and a track that allowed the VFX team to film models and miniatures of space crafts with precise camera moves, such as panning and tilting — moves that looked like they were filmed by a cinematographer, while making them repeatable and recordable.

“The camera also moved during exposure so that we could capture motion blur, which was necessary to make these miniatures look like they were larger scale and moving at very high speed in the environments that they were in,” explains John Dykstra, who remembers that some crew members began to use the term Dykstraflex as the team was developing the system. The name stuck. Dykstra was on the team that received an Oscar for the VFX in “Star Wars” and he additionally accepted an Academy technical achievement award for the camera system itself, along with Alvah J. Miller and Jerry Jeffress.

Dykstra and Edlund — who also contributed to the development and used the Dykstraflex during production — say the film’s iconic opening shot of a small ship being chased through space by a huge Star Destroyer was the most challenging, and the most important to get right.

“I was really worried about the opening shot,” admits Edlund. “That shot was so important to the success of the movie. It was going to either grab the audience or it was going to lose the audience.”

Dykstra remembers that the shot was filmed early in production: “It’s probably the shot that most people remember from the movie because of the implicit scale change in the beginning — the whole idea of the small ship with a Star Destroyer coming over the top.”

On the climatic trench run that led to the destruction of the Death Star, Edlund relates that the model shop built a trench that was about two feet wide and two feet high, which was filmed on a 40-foot-long track. Multiple passes were needed in order to create a shot with the length needed for the movie.

Reflecting on the period during which the team worked on these scenes, Dykstra remembers that releasing studio 20th Century Fox “was on George Lucas’ back pretty hard about getting this space opera, as it was referred to, done. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm at the studio.” He admits the shots created with the Dykstraflex were also difficult to understand. “For the most part, the studio executives had no technical background and really weren’t interested in the technical background, so it was very hard to explain to them,” he remembers. “I don’t think anybody realized what the movie was until it was cut. I don’t even think George knew what he had.”

The Dykstraflex was acquired from Lucasfilm by the Academy’s Science and Technology Council in 2008 and restored to working condition by a dedicated team of Academy members and other parties, according to VFX branch governor Brooke Benton. VFX branch member Kozicki adds that the restoration was “a multi-year effort that involved much historical research as some parts needed to be repaired and missing components needed to be recreated.” The Dykstraflex was housed at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood until it was moved to the Academy Museum, where it will be on display until July 8. The Museum’s May the 4th celebration will also include screenings of “Return of the Jedi” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” as well as a visit with several droids.

Reflecting on the impact of “Star Wars,” Edlund remembers its release as effectively the birth of the event movie “where the audience comes to the movie theater, and they cheer the heroes and hiss at the villains. ‘Star Wars’ really woke up the whole country and the whole world.”

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