Dennis Muren

Dennis Muren: “There’s a magic to it”

Short Profile

Name: Dennis Muren
DOB: 1 November 1946
Place of birth: Glendale, California, United States
Occupation: Visual effects artist

Mr. Muren, as a nine-time Oscar-winning visual effects artist and a pioneer in the industry, how would you define visual effects in filmmaking?

A very easy way to explain it is that it’s all the magic inherent to filmmaking. Visual effects get used when it's impossible to do something another way. The best way to do something is always if you can do it for real, with real actors on a real location, with a real crew, the real performances, whatever it is. But a lot of things are impossible — spaceships flying, dinosaurs — or too much danger, that's when effects come into it. Sometimes we’re adding a visual effect to a real scene in order to augment it, like a creature or a background or a character. But there’s been such change in the industry in the last 20 years that now entire movies can be shot on another planet, and that was never possible before.

What were the effects like back then, for example when you first became interested in this field in the sixties and seventies?

I actually got started even earlier than that, when I was a little kid, probably six or seven years old. I was interested in the stuff that I saw in the theater, you know, these spectacles with a giant creature or an invasion from Mars or something! I remember walking out of the theater and thinking, “I want to see that again.” So I’d go out to our backyard and in our garage, and I would  recreate those moments that I just loved seeing in films using film cameras. As I got older, the quality got better, but it was still always hard. There was no digital in those days, and so everything took a week before you could see it.

“If you look at other films, they’re pictorial; it’s telling a story, but you’re not part of the story. With Star Wars, it has so much energy! You’re participating. That’s what feature filmmaking is about.”

Your first ever student film, Equinox, incorporated all those techniques you grew up admiring and practicing, right? Tricks with the camera, mirrors, forced perspective…

That’s right! Those were the only tricks that were available in those days. I didn't have access to an optical printer or a bunch of a big projection screens, but there were still things you could do. I mean, Buster Keaton did it in 1920! For Equinox, we did do stop motion, there were some front projections that hadn't really been done in this country before, and I put together a system for that… We had envisioned it taking just one summer, but it ended up taking two years. It was just hard! But in the end, I got it done and I sold it. So that was pretty amazing.

A few years after Equinox, you started working with Star Wars creator George Lucas. What was that like?

Well, in those early years, my friends and I, we knew all the old school technology, right? And then I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I was blown away. I had no idea how it was done, I couldn’t imagine how they got the money for that. When Star Wars came along, I started hearing about it, and I was thinking, “I want to know about this. I want to see what's going on.” And George had a group of artists who really knew how to get this film made, even though it was incredibly complicated because he had such a specific point of view. And George was amazing. I was always interested in doing a shot that’s emotional, that makes you feel something, but I didn't realize the extent that you that you needed to do that if you're making a big motion picture. And he knew it. He was visualizing the Star Wars films from the point of view of if you were actually there.

What do you mean?

Well, if you look at other films, they're kind of pictorial; you're maybe looking and you see something happening, and it's telling a story, but you're not part of the story. With Star Wars, it has so much energy! You’re participating, you’re dodging the laser, you’re shooting, you’re thinking, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen next?” That’s what feature filmmaking is about. It's emotions, it’s about how you respond emotionally to it.

This was also a very important moment in filmmaking: the transition to digital. What was it like working during that time? Was it difficult for you to adapt to the new technology?

No, I've never had a problem learning the technology. I didn't have any problem with the change. In 1985, I did a sequence in Young Sherlock Holmes with a glass figure made out of stained glass, it was a hallucination that someone was having. It took us seven months to do six shots in that. You can imagine; everything just took forever. Meanwhile, George Lucas had decided to set up a computer graphics group for Lucasfilm, and I got really interested, because even though I was still making films with the old fashioned effects, I wanted to learn what they were doing, how to use the tools, This is the group that George eventually sold off about a year later, which turned into Pixar. So they got better and better. Once Pixar had their own company, we set up our own graphics group. It just became clear during that time in the nineties that whatever you can imagine, you can do. And that was just extraordinary.

And these days, Marvel films can contain thousands of CGI shots, versus only 60 or so in something like Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park was a great combination of the traditional and digital worlds of filmmaking. They made full size dinosaurs and parts of creatures with moving hydraulics… Then you get someone like Spielberg to direct! I mean, we knew how to make things look real. I remember there’s a scene with the tyrannosaur getting clearer and clearer until you see this giant face. It's like a six or eight second shot, and then it roars — and its teeth are just brilliant. But I had to get a computer graphic light to light the teeth and get the right glint in the eye! This is all stuff that you specify, and that's what you can do with computers. It was sometimes just those small details where you say I need this to be better, I need to show this, I need to hide this… And you can do that.

An iconic scene from Jurassic Park, the T-Rex escapes the paddock, 1993.

Is there anything you can’t do these days, or that you’ve had to say no to in the past?

You know, it comes down to confidence, whether you end up saying, “Yeah, I think I can do that,” or “I don't think we're ready for that quite yet.” The directors are great, because they start with this clean slate, they just imagine telling a story with a clean slate, like an audience member. For us to give them what they want, and especially working with guys like George and Steven, that's where I learned how important that is that you try and see stuff fresh as opposed to technically or technologically. That’s not to say things don’t change: sometimes what the directors have in mind doesn't quite work out, but the more experience you have, the more chance you have of making something work.

Is that how you often ended up doing novel builds and creating new technology? So that you could try to fulfill a director’s vision?

I mean, I don't actually care for the equipment, I don't like building the stuff! But once I've gotten an idea in my head, something that I think is a good concept and a good project, but there's no tool that can do it… Well, I’m always thinking, “Okay Is there some way around that?” Sometimes that simply means putting pieces together, working with different things that are already out there. You just have to have a broad view. And then you have to test it every step of the way!

Is that kind of unflappable determination, or curiosity for experimenting something that all visual effects artists have?

I think it's really good if effects artists do have that, if they're really curious, and they just can't sleep at night 'til they solve this, and they have an idea that's fresh to them. I mean, we're kids! I definitely still see myself as a kid. And I work on that in my mind, to not be jaded by the world, to still be four years old in my reaction to things. If you've got that in you, and you keep that in you, that is appealing to people. People love to see a little sparkle in your eye, they love to see what you come up with. So I do try to keep people curious. There’s a magic to it.