Dennis Muren – Still Playing it Unsafe

by Graham Edwards

Dennis Muren - Still Playing it Unsafe

Dennis Muren, senior visual effects supervisor and creative director at Industrial Light & Magic, will close VIEW Conference 2018 on Friday 26 October with an hour-long keynote presentation entitled Visual Effects: Defining that Critical, Elusive and Final 5%. During his career, Muren has collected nine Academy Awards honoring his contribution to films including Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. A key member of the ILM leadership team, he now collaborates with ILM’s supervisors on every film handled by the company. During the conference, Cinefex chatted with Dennis about the past, present and future of visual effects.

CINEFEX: So, Dennis, what do you mean when you talk about the “critical, elusive and final five percent” in visual effects?

DENNIS MUREN: Here’s what the five percent is. It’s when you spend so much time working on something, and you think it’s done, but there’s still something wrong. In the past, you might have had a matte painting, and it just looked like a painting. Then someone would get the idea of putting the silhouette of a tree in the foreground with the leaves blowing, and that was a solution. Or take the T-rex from Jurassic Park. It steps in the puddle and we added a splash of water. Well, that wasn’t planned. Later on, we said, “It’s raining, so let’s put a splash there.”

Now, my theory is that all that has basically become obsolete, because everyone’s work has come up to a level of being pretty close to real. There’s nothing to fix any more, not like there used to be.

CINEFEX: So where does the five percent fit in now?

DENNIS MUREN: I think that now the five percent has to happen at the beginning, and not at the end. The production people might say, “They’re running through a forest, but we only have room to build 12 trees. So we’re gonna do this whole scene greenscreen and you can put the rest in, right?” Now, we can do that – there’s phenomenal work like that being done all the time – but doing it that way affects the acting, the photography, the drama, the whole story, because the forest is too sparse, and nature is just incredibly complicated. It’s like having a bad actor. You’re getting the lines and you know how the plot’s moving forward, but you’re not getting any inflexion. So why not take that one little extra step to shoot as much for real as you can, like we used to do it?

Look at the Hoth scene in The Empire Strikes Back, which was shot in Norway. They had a snowstorm, so they had to shoot most of it in two days, but they were really out there in the cold, and you can really feel it. Imagine if that had been a greenscreen sequence. Nowadays it would be, I guarantee. But isn’t it better to have a cinematographer actually out there who knows how to light it, and how to find the angle that’s appropriate, instead of having to put it together layer by layer? That way, you only see everything together at the end, when you’ve already used up all your time.

CINEFEX: And yet that way of doing things has become the norm.

DENNIS MUREN: But I think it’s hurting effects, because the studios are relying on the effects people to tell the story, but when you look at it on the big screen there’s all this missing detail. Environments have become just stage backgrounds with actors in front of them, or it’s just actors in costumes and you’re not getting anything from the background.

CINEFEX: You’re talking ultimately about a sense of realism, and that’s always been the goal, hasn’t it? Right back to the days of the original Star Wars.

DENNIS MUREN: Well, that’s the reason that Star Wars was what it was, because George Lucas said, “I want to pan the cameras with the spaceships and not get into locked-off shots.” He wanted to feel like it was a real world, like in the World War II footage he referenced, because the audiences that grew up on television recognised that as real.

CINEFEX: So he brought in John Dykstra, who developed the motion control camera system to shoot all that stuff, and John found you to operate it. Didn’t he hire you because he was impressed by the stop-motion films you’d made as a youngster?

DENNIS MUREN: Yeah, I didn’t know John, but he wanted me because the motion control motors would move real slow, and I knew about non-real-time performance. But you didn’t want the ships to just go in straight lines. You wanted them to swoop.

CINEFEX: So you were coaxing an organic performance out of this pile of nuts and bolts.

DENNIS MUREN: Right, and I added a lot to it that even John didn’t know we could do. Things like having the ships skid when they bank, like airplanes, or motorcycles. But you know, on Star Wars, we actually started out flying the TIE fighters like those lightcycles in Tron, all these sharp turns – although this was before Tron, of course. The shots were for background plates that George was going to use in the gunport sequence, which he was originally going to do with rear projection. I think maybe Richard Edlund did the shots, and he went for these abrupt angle changes. Now, you could argue that you can do anything in space, but in the end you just couldn’t relate to them; the shots just looked uncomfortable. That’s when we went to more direct copying of the World War II stuff.

CINEFEX: The way that all those ships move has just become so iconic. Especially the Millennium Falcon.

DENNIS MUREN: We actually did a test on this very thing for The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson started out wanting to use models, because he thought the motion looked so much better. I said, “I love models, but there’s reasons why we don’t do them.” And he still wasn’t sure. So, I took three or four shots from Empire that had the Falcon in them, like that shot where it dives down low over the asteroid, and we put a CG Falcon right next to it. I told the animator to copy that original movement exactly. At first he had it zooming all over the place, but then he kept scaling it back and back, until finally you couldn’t tell the difference. It looked exactly like we had shot two identical models of the Falcon in 1980. Some people couldn’t understand why we had done this; they said it was just a way to duplicate nostalgia. Well, I wasn’t doing it for nostalgia reasons at all. I was doing it because the movement just looks better.

Cinefex 65CINEFEX: Looking back into our archive, we dug out a copy of Cinefex 65 from March 1996, celebrating 20 years of ILM. Don Shay interviewed you for that issue, Dennis, and one the things you told him was, “Some day we’ll probably hit a wall. People will be able to accept absolutely anything on film, and it won’t seem as wonderful to them any more.” Is that where we are now?

DENNIS MUREN: I think so. Absolutely.

CINEFEX: Do you think that tackling this “five percent” problem is the solution?

DENNIS MUREN: Yes. Jurassic Park was easy, because it was the shock of the new. Well, the shock’s worn off.

CINEFEX: Here’s another quote of yours from that 1996 article: “You can either play it safe and stay put, or you can go someplace new.” Are you still playing it unsafe?

DENNIS MUREN: Oh, yeah! We’ve got a big thing at ILM at the moment that’s looking amazing. It’s on a Star Wars show, and it’s pretty neat, but I can’t say anything about it right now.

CINEFEX: Well, it’s clearly got you excited, which is great to hear. We may have hit the wall, but there’s something waiting on the other side, right?

DENNIS MUREN: Yes, because things don’t stay the same. They change, but in a technical field change is really hard, because the tools are so hard to learn. So, when you see something that you really like, be exuberant about it. Keep your mind open, and your heart and soul open to those feelings that got you into the business in the first place. Movies are all about feelings. That’s what it’s all about.

View Conference 2018

VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

“Return of the Jedi” photograph copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.