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Muren on Muren: VFX And The Art of Spectacle

On the eve of Dennis Muren receiving the Visual Effects Society's Life Achievement Award at the 5th Annual VES Awards on Feb. 11, Bill Desowitz chatted with the ILM legend about his career and the state of the industry.

Dennis Muren, who receives this year's VES Life Achievement Award, began his career 30 years ago on Star Wars. He worked on approximately 200 shots for that movie. All images courtesy of ILM.

Dennis Muren, who receives this year's VES Life Achievement Award, began his career 30 years ago on Star Wars. He worked on approximately 200 shots for that movie. All images courtesy of ILM.

Dennis Muren, the eight-time Oscar-winning senior visual effects supervisor from Industrial Light & Magic, began his effects career 30 years ago on Star Wars and has been on the cutting edge of the industry ever since. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, Innerspace, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, A.I. and War of the Worlds, to name a few. But Muren is more than a genius when it comes to effects -- he is a thinking man's filmmaker, which comes across in his work and in his thoughts about the aesthetics and craft of storytelling.

Bill Desowitz: What excited you about the past year's visual effects achievements at ILM and throughout the industry?

Dennis Muren: I really thought that Pirates was pretty above and beyond the rest of the stuff because I loved the shot designs and the execution of everything. Poseidon -- you know, there's just always a lot of work. I don't know if I want to play favorites.

BD: I was thinking more in terms of what's state-of-the art that excites you: performance capture and attaining greater photorealism.

DM: I've done a lot of MoCap in the films that have animation in them, but my original heart and soul has always been in spectacle. If it involves a dinosaur, I really like it if the dinosaur's 20-feet tall. I still really like that. If I can see the stuff that I can't see in real life, that's what really excites me.

BD: What have you been working on lately?

DM: I'm actually writing a book on my own and spending a little bit of time at ILM and a little bit of time at Pixar. The book is for CG artists and I'm probably about a quarter of the way done with it. I've been on it for a year, but, hopefully, it will speed up.

BD: Do you have a title?

DM: No, not a real title yet.

BD: What's the focus of it?

DM: It's for people who are doing the work. I think people have not had an opportunity to learn about art. CG people come right out of school and are thrown into the work and there are a lot of basics they don't really have time to pick up on. Tools don't make the shots, and I talked about this to some universities and the people I've spoken to there don't seem to know what I'm talking about. We need more art classes and a better understanding of what reality looks like. Well, I gave up on them and just decided to do this as a book myself. That's what I'm doing. It's pretty important because I want to get this stuff down. Half of my job as an effects supervisor is saying the same stuff over and over and over again that I think could be in the job descriptions. If they just knew what they don't know -- and it's not taught anywhere.

Muren has mixed feelings about the digitally enhanced E.T. While he finds the work seamless and that it maintains the tone of the shots, he's pleased that both versions are available.

Muren has mixed feelings about the digitally enhanced E.T. While he finds the work seamless and that it maintains the tone of the shots, he's pleased that both versions are available.

BD: How much of your own work do you use?

DM: There's some of that. I can speak more directly about personal experience about what worked here and why it worked. But it's not a memoir. In fact, the last time I saw Ray Harryhausen, I said, "You've got to write a book on how to do the work you used to do." People, just for historical reasons, need to know how you got rid of the hot spot on the process screen. And any tricks you used to cut the contrast on the projection plates when you were projecting them up. And he's never going to do that, but my book is something like that for CG: How to make images look better. That's what's going on. I have a feeling that a lot of the effects films are looking more like games and the games are looking a little bit better but are not even close to being reality. And it could just be that a lot of people may not care if the audience grows up watching game quality stuff in movies, and there's nothing you can do about that, but I hope that somewhere there's still some sense of achievement in trying to reach something that is very difficult to do, and reality is just about the most difficult thing you can do, especially when you're trying to put something that is unreal in a realistic environment and behave in a realistic way because you don't have any way of figuring out what it looks like or how it should move.

BD: Speaking of greater realism, I asked John Knoll what was at the top of his wish list and he replied computer-assisted balance for characters.

DM: It's a very good thing -- that would help. But if it ever gets to the point where there is the final, magic button on your keyboard, and the shot comes out perfect, that's not going to be enough for most people. They're going to be bored with that after pushing the button twice. Some of us are and we're always going to be pushing for something new. I think at the moment some of the folks think that the ray tracer is the final way to render -- that RenderMan is the final way to render: just put it on and it looks great. And it never is right.

The biggest thing Muren learned from Lucas, Spielberg and other filmmakers he's worked with is how vfx is part of something much bigger. The technology comes from serving the story and not the other way around.

The biggest thing Muren learned from Lucas, Spielberg and other filmmakers he's worked with is how vfx is part of something much bigger. The technology comes from serving the story and not the other way around.

BD: Now they're talking about realtime.

DM: Well, yeah, realtime would be fine -- only for the reason that it would give you the chance to do more iterations to make it better. And you have to have time to try and react, try and react, try and react.

BD: What do you recommend that CG artists study?

DM: Well, I think a large part of it is studying the fundamentals of filmmaking and art and art theory and "The Golden Triangle," "The Inverse Square Law" and "The Gravity Point" and just observe things: open your eyes when you're sitting at a window and think about what you're seeing. And try to remember it. Not to ever copy it but there are a limited number of laws in this world and probably in the universe too, and you need to develop an observational skill to be able to see them and apply them. And it's easier said than done, certainly.

BD: In terms of the VES Lifetime Achievement Award that you'll be receiving on Sunday, you got your start with Star Wars and it's been quite a journey for you over the last 30 years. Talk a little bit about working with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and being part of this great transition into the digital age.

Muren enjoyed creating the big scale stuff in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It's one of the first shows that has what is now called set extensions.

Muren enjoyed creating the big scale stuff in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It's one of the first shows that has what is now called set extensions.

DM: I did this low budget feature years ago called Equinox [which is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection]. If that shows anything, it shows perseverance. But it also shows, I think, the job of telling a story. And you learn when you make a film, especially a long film like that, how every scene adds up to a story, and whether you do it right or wrong is how talented you are or not. But, as an effects person, you tend to get tied up in the technical side of it and maybe tied up in the individual shot you're working on. And what I've learned most from George and from Steven and from all the other filmmakers I've worked with -- not the effects people -- is how what you're doing is part of something much bigger. And to serve that is, from my point of view, where the technology comes from, not the other way around. You need to know the story you want to tell, the style you want to tell the story and if the toolset you have will get the job done or if it needs a little twisting. If not, maybe we should make another toolset. So it's in the service of the storytelling of the movie, not the other way around. And I think that's what I came with the most. And George would say, "I want this background in there: just pan the star field by in 72 frames and have the space ship partly moving in the middle of the frame and we'll matte them together and it'll look like the ship's going 600 miles an hour." So I do a pan and he'd look at it and say, "It's too slow -- it looks like it's going 100 miles an hour." So literally you'd end up with this blur going by in the background, and being able to see that one shot eight months later in a movie theater -- and I did around 200 shots on that show [Star Wars] - -and you understand what he's talking about. My version was too slow and I made it faster, even though I didn't think it was going to work. And that's so important in your forté: being able to seamlessly fit that into the whole film and not just technically -- to have this emotional connection with the rest of the film. And part of what I try to do is add a sense of feeling that the director is after in a particular shot. You need all sorts of things to do that. You can cheat the lighting, you can cheat the performance, to give a moment that is bigger than if you had actually been there. But it fits in the context of the entire movie, which is bigger anyway. The actors are always overacting a little bit and the lighting is always dramatized a bit and the story's always exaggerated a little bit. Well, you can play that in effects. All those things fit into effects when you're laying out a shot.

BD: What was it like watching the digitally enhanced E.T.?

DM: I thought it was fine and the work did look more seamless. And Bill George and Steven were careful to maintain the tone of the shots we had done. That moment when the bikes fly off into the sunset I tried to make really magical, and with the colors and the light, that was all maintained. I'm real mixed about it -- as long as the two versions are available. I just hope the stuff doesn't get replaced. Some people are attached to all the clunky type of effects. Usually I'm not. If the shots aren't quite right, they're just painful. I wish we'd either had more time or had done it five years later when I could finally figure out how to do it.

Here Muren (left) puts finishing touches on a shot for Return of the Jedi.

Here Muren (left) puts finishing touches on a shot for Return of the Jedi.

BD: What's it like looking back on Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom?

DM: I had a lot of the big scale stuff that I really like doing. That was maybe one of the first shows you would now call a set extension. The guy's hanging from the rope ridge at the end and the mine chase was really neat, the idea behind all of that and the energy trying to get everything to show up in those quick cuts. And the big flood sequence at the end. Up until that time, I hadn't had a chance to dump a big water tank and flood everything and figure out someway to get the droplets not to look too big. I just pushed tons of air on it all the time, maybe 40 or 50 pounds blowing the droplets tiny. So that was fun and nerve wracking to get done in the old photochemical days to get it look right.

BD: What has it been like working with Steven Spielberg, who has managed to keep one foot in analog and one in digital?

DM: He's never really been interested in technology, but his ideas have given opportunities for that technology to be used. He would've been OK with stop-motion dinosaurs in Jurassic -- we were going to add blurs to them and everything. But there was something else we could do better at the time. I think that was probably the same with Close Encounters, with the sort of ethereal saucers, but Doug Trumbull figured out something better. And again, there's somebody going for the vision. George agreeing to build the motion control camera system for Star Wars because he wanted to pan the camera during the dog fights. And George understood animation stands because he had done animation before at USC. Again, that's technology at the service of the need of the movie.

BD: The Abyss?

DM: Well, is it even possible to do that? That was the big thing I remember. And we ended up doing 13 shots in six months and it was pretty close to on budget. And it was amazing for that time that we could do it for that quality where it had to be perfect.

BD: And then you worked with James Cameron again on Terminator 2.

DM: Yeah, I always thought that Terminator 2 was the big CG breakthrough film. A lot of people think it was Jurassic, but that's where we solved the digital compositing and managed to get a system set up where we could get a lot of dailies and takes on the CG where we could get the performances right and that was not easy. And then be able to get the movie done on time. And then later on when Jurassic came, we were really up to speed. And with Jurassic the problem was fine-tuning the animation much better and also getting the skin renderings to be just amazing. And then we got the matchmove stuff working out and lighting tricks for Jurassic 2.

Muren (left) adjusts the camera on the set of Return of the Jedi. Even though Muren worked on almost all the Star Wars episodes, he doesn't see the two trilogies as being related.

Muren (left) adjusts the camera on the set of Return of the Jedi. Even though Muren worked on almost all the Star Wars episodes, he doesn't see the two trilogies as being related.

BD: And what was it like returning to Star Wars with Phantom Menace?

DM: Yeah, that was interesting. I still don't see those final three as being related. They are, I guess. They talk about the same things, but if it doesn't have Mark and Carrie and Harrison in it, then they're sort of something else. But it was neat to have all synthetic environments with battles and all that stuff was pretty wild. The underwater sequence was a lot of fun from an artistic side, being able to lay out the shots and to get the colors to look really beautiful and mysterious and playing with all the darks and scales of the fish. And the battle with all the droids was pretty neat, too. The scale of that and being able to make sense of the sequence and design the sequence so you could figure it out. And that was a one-off show, so there wasn't going to be any effort in writing software for it. That was done with MoCap and repeated motion. It took a lot of cloning and a lot of compositing to get those quantities up there.

BD: And The Hulk must've been an interesting challenge working with Ang Lee.

DM: It was interesting because we were wondering what Ang was going to do and it was pretty daunting. It was tough and the green color in some ways, I think, really hurt us because it pulled your eye all the time on the special effect. And it made it really difficult to make it look like it was fitting in the world. Really dramatic stuff and some moments I really liked. Ang got some nice emotion and there was some nice emotion in Casper too. Some really wonderful and sympathetic shots in that, which is pretty tough for a transparent bulb head.

Working with Ang Lee on The Hulk was interesting but Muren thinks the green color might have hurt the special effects because it distracted the viewer's eye. © 2003 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Working with Ang Lee on The Hulk was interesting but Muren thinks the green color might have hurt the special effects because it distracted the viewer's eye. © 2003 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

BD: And A.I.

DM: Well, I had met with Stanley Kubrick a few years before on that show and it was terrible that he had died, but then to have it show up again with his blessing to Steven to do it, was amazing. But Steven is a very loyal person and I think he just didn't want that to disappear. And the movie isn't nearly as gloomy as the one that Stanley would've made. But for a Spielberg film, it touches on things he hasn't really touched on in his other films.

BD: I read that you discussed the possibility of doing a CG boy with Kubrick.

DM: Yeah, and Stanley never could make up his mind what he wanted either. That would've been a problem too. I don't know how the film ever actually gotten done. He was very indecisive. One minute it was CG, another minute it was a real boy, another minute it was a manipulated boy, which is what I was pushing for. Also, he didn't have a lot of money for his films and that was a very expensive project almost any way you look at it. So the producer side of him was fighting with the creative side of him.

BD: And then War of the Worlds must've been a great opportunity to re-imagine a classic and tackle some old-fashioned spectacle.

War of the Worlds posed some design challenges. For Muren, the tripod was essentially a 19th century design that had look forceful and menacing.  & © 2005 Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks. All rights reserved.

War of the Worlds posed some design challenges. For Muren, the tripod was essentially a 19th century design that had look forceful and menacing. & © 2005 Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks. All rights reserved.

DM: Yeah, I loved that film when I was a kid, but it posed some interesting design challenges. It was essentially a 19th century design of the tripod and it was hard to make the thing look forceful and menacing. We had a lot of artists working on it for a couple of months before we came up with a combination of designs that Steven liked. And it has a lot of armor on it like a tank... I was a real proponent of doing the show graphically the way it was going. Shots that lasted a long time and surprising the audience and making the stuff look like documentary footage. And everyone went along with that. Steven had been doing it in Private Ryan, but to try it in an effects film was a different challenge because it's not all right in front of you. So that was what I was going for. And when we did the opening Newark sequence, there was a lot of stuff that when the destruction happened, we made sure we got the residual stuff in the air. When the creature comes out of the ground for the first time, there's huge amounts of dust just floating out there for three or four minutes afterward, which is pretty much what would really happen if you had that much displacement. That whole sequence seems so hazy, but when we were out there it was so much cleaner, of course. We came up with that as we were doing the compositing of the shots. And Steven liked it too, and it allows me the opportunity to do what I call "peek-a-boo," which is to do something that is not as literal as the storyboards. In other words, you don't show everything in one shot, unlike the storyboards. And a lot of folks like to show everything in one shot and you get bored with it. A good cameraman, and I like doing this because I am a cameraman also, will focus the attention with the effects and that smoke in that sequence is to be able to do that. So we were able to cloud up what wasn't important and it just made everything grittier. That's what a lot of directors like about my work, which is that cameramen do that, so it fits in with their live-action movie.

BD: You mentioned earlier that you're working part-time at Pixar. What are you doing with them?

DM: Making some suggestions and ideas on some of the visuals. I had some ideas that would give them a different kind of look. So I'm just in there a day or two a week, looking at stuff and talking about it without mucking it up. Their palette is so beautiful. It's just a fantastically artistic place. The CG films that they make are so aesthetically great...and that's one of the reasons I was drawn to them, as well as the stories being so great.

BD: We've come full circle back to storytelling again, so congratulations again on the lifetime achievement award and we look forward to your book and other future projects.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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