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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Bringing digital actors alive
Stuart Little
Stuart Little: A cute and lovable rodent
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

John Dykstra is not a name known to most cinema-goers, but without him, many of the wonders on screen would not have happened.

Mr Dykstra is one of Hollywood's leading lights in the area of visual effects, with films like Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Stuart Little to his credit.

His latest challenge is bringing the comic book superhero Spider-Man to life in a film due out next May.

As visual effects supervisor for Columbia Pictures, Mr Dykstra says he has to always push the boundaries of what is possible. "You have to promise the producer more than you know how to produce," he says.

"Because, by the time you do the film, if your promises were laid on a foundation of known technology, you're already obsolete."

Huge task

But for him, the greatest problem is not just making characters like Stuart Little seamlessly integrated into a live-action environment, but giving the character real depth.

John Dykstra
Dykstra: Promise more than you know
Work on conceptualising Stuart's appearance using cutting-edge technology and digital techniques started two years before the film's release.

Hundreds of sketches and three-dimensional images were made to create a lovable mouse.

"One of the things about contemporary computer imaging is that you can do virtually anything," Mr Dykstra told the BBC's Go Digital programme.

"But when you create a character, you are not just responsible for the look of the character. You are also responsible for the soul of the character.

"That's toughest part," he says.

Sci-fi landscapes

This seems an odd admission for a veteran visual effects designer who has shown a distinctive flair for creating detailed and convincing science-fiction landscapes.

Star Wars still
Dykstra won Oscar for Star Wars
In 1977, he won an Oscar for his memorable opening scene on Star Wars in which immense and multifaceted ships pass over the camera.

He has also been recognised by the Academy for inventing the Dykstra camera, an important tool in the craft of motion photography.

Now, 20 years on, he seems to be more concerned about creating a bond between the audience and a digital character.

"You always become involved with your characters," he says. "It requires a dedication, maybe an obsession, to stay involved without burning out, because you simply work 18 hours days sometimes.

"The character has to have vulnerabilities, he has to have strengths, to have something that changes over the course of the story that causes you to feel a part of a growth of this character."

Cute rodent

This was the challenge he faced for Stuart Little, a film combining animation and live action which tells the story of a talking mouse who learns the true meaning of loyalty and friendship when he is raised by a family of humans.

He was convincing enough that you were drawn into believing he did actually exist. He stood on the table and performed

John Dykstra on Stuart Little
"He stood on his hind legs, he had little hands, he wore clothes, which is not something you could make a real mouse do," says Mr Dykstra of the cute rodent.

"But he was convincing enough that you were drawn into believing he did actually exist. He stood on the table and performed - to me that was a huge advance.

"But more than that, the character was consistent. His personality, his body language and his poses made him consistent as a character," he says.

"You came to know him and what to expect from him."

John Dykstra
You have to promise more than you know how to do
See also:

12 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Mouse in the house
03 Jan 00 | Entertainment
Hollywood's new big cheese
05 Jan 01 | Entertainment
Disney and Sony lead worldwide takings
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