The Illusionists — Dennis Muren

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Dennis Muren

CINEFEX — What’s the appeal of visual effects for you?

DENNIS MUREN — You know, ever since I was a little kid watching effects films, I always had an opinion about what I saw. Always. I would think, “That doesn’t look real,” and I would also think, “Why doesn’t that look real?” In those days, you could look at the screen credits to find the names of the guys who did the effects, and then look them up in the Los Angeles phone book. You could talk to them, even go and meet them. Doing that, I learned that this looked real because of this, and that looked fake because of that.

CINEFEX — Has that early sense of curiosity endured over the years?

DENNIS MUREN — Yeah, because I’m unsatisfied with everything. Whenever I finish a show, I put in my mind that it’s obsolete, so what’s the next thing? That’s a conscious thing that I do.

CINEFEX — So each show is part of a continuum, and you’re moving from one, to the next, to the next.

DENNIS MUREN — Exactly, and that all started because George Lucas kept Industrial Light & Magic going after the first Star Wars. As more films came in, we could stay in the business and continue to learn, doing effects year after year. That was wonderful. We had an opportunity to improve the technology, and also our own mental vision of what we were trying to do. We were able to get our minds out of the nuts and bolts and start thinking, “We’ve got a great toolset. Now, how can we improve it and make something better?” That ultimately opened the way to where we are now, when we can almost do anything.

CINEFEX — You were a real mover and shaker during the digital revolution. To what extent were you taking a leap of faith back then?

DENNIS MUREN — Oh, every step was an unknown. We just went with the best information we had. We did a CG dinosaur test for Jurassic Park that came out really terrific, then we did a second test and it was horrible — and we never fixed it. But it wasn’t like I was just being foolish about it. I had backup systems for everything, even for Terminator 2 and The Abyss. If the CG didn’t live up to a certain standard, we were going to do shots in a more traditional way. In my mind, there was always a way we were going to be able to get through it in time and on budget.

CINEFEX — Now that almost anything is possible in visual effects, given time and money, are there any real challenges left?

DENNIS MUREN — It used to be you would spend a huge amount of time just getting things to look real. That’s much easier to do now, so what’s more important is designing the shot in the first place. How can I take this sequence and make it different and more entertaining than the other eight films that have had the same thing in them? It’s an incredibly important question, and it’s where the effort ought to go in, because the end part is now taking care of itself. There’s enough money and talent and people to get the stuff to look real. What we have to ask now is, “Was it worth getting it to look real?”

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists