Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our ninety-first guest has eight Oscars cluttering his shelves and a lifetime of innovation – Dennis Muren.
Lightsabre – Welcome to Lightsabre, pleasure to speak to you. As an effects artist you’re known for your work with ILM. Of all the projects you’ve done with ILM over the years which one’s stand out to you the most, for technical or personal reasons?
DM – Well probably two or three. One of them would certainly be Empire Strikes Back, the hardest film that I ever worked on, and one of the most rewarding. I was just real excited about it, I thought the work came out really good and I liked the film a lot. That’s because we had just moved up from Los Angeles to San Francisco and we had to crew up all the people up here, an awful lot of them locally, because we didn’t have very many who came up from L.A for the show, and it was just very difficult. If you look at Empire compared to the original Star Wars it’s like far more complicated. It was just much more of a challenge than the first Star Wars was, so that was really amazing. And also I really enjoyed the period around Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. We were really trying to get the digital working and getting the CG imaging working so that we could actually budget a show and deliver it on time and everything like that.
Lightsabre – Would you say that was the most important period in your effects career, that early digital age?
DM – Ahhh, you know I guess it had the most influence. Yeah, I suppose of that I was really involved with. Star Wars was certainly really influential but the digital stuff was pretty amazing. We sort of were trying it out using Macintosh’s, Photoshop and everything, really early on to see how consistent this sort of stuff was, see if we could get used to looking at a monitor. It was pretty clear that it was gonna be a revolution. Suddenly you could do stunt work safely. The cables and the pads that people could fall on, and the rigging, it would look like that stuff was never there. You know, way beyond special effects. So that was really great when that finally came in, and now everybody’s doing it, you know.
Lightsabre – You were an effects cameraman on Star Wars?
DM – Yeah, Richard Edlund and I were the two main cameramen on the effects.
DM – That was great, yeah, and I always thought it was gonna end in a year or two, because there’d been a few little blips where there’d been effects movies., There was one in 1974 where there’d been two or three films, then there was another one in the late sixties, but very few and they’d only last a couple of years and they’d be gone again. So none of us who’d been around expected this to go on past 1978, 1979, but just to keep going as it still is today.
Lightsabre – You had some wild times early days at ILM. There’s all the stories of the pool out back and the laid back atmosphere, but the work still got done back then didn’t it. Do you miss those days?
DM – Maybe the camaraderie of it, but it was pretty nerve-wracking on that, because you never know what the outcome is when you’re in the middle of something, right? It seemed like that show was never gonna get done. Same with Close Encounters, seemed like it was never gonna get done, Empire Strikes Back, never gonna get done. But somehow, I tell ya, in the last three months there’s just been an amazing transformation that happens with the entire crew, and it’s still going on, and I’m sure it happens over there, it happens here. Everybody just starts getting on the same wavelength and everything happens faster and the work is better and those massive shows get done. Now that we realise that we can plan forward, but back then it seemed like ‘Oh, this is the end. This will never get done, we’ll have to change the release date. It will be a disaster’, yet they always got done back then.
Lightsabre – I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that when Empire was finished the final effects sequence before the end credits weren’t completed, it was a very close call getting them finished.
DM – Yeah, you know my memory is there’s thirty 70mm prints that were made that are not of the finished shots, and that’s what I remember, and our hope was that we were gonna send them far away, to like Antarctica or something, and no one would ever see them.
Lightsabre – Let the penguins watch them.
DM – That’s true, that’s very true.
DM – Yeah, Cary and David. So where do you know him from?
Lightsabre – Well, we interview a lot of people through the website and I interviewed Christian Simpson, who was Hayden Christensen’s stand in on Revenge of the Sith, and he happens to know David from conventions and he put me in touch with David. I did a bit of research and found out that you guys knew each other from way back. Have you got any good memories from those days?
DM – Oh yeah, that was really great. I was a fan of science fiction when I was a kid. I remember coming home, probably when I was 14 years old and my Mom said ‘You won’t guess who moved into the neighbourhood. General Ankrum. They called him General Ankrum, as a joke, because he was always a general in the movies. And so here Maurice Ankrum moves in across the street from me, and then he has these two great kids David and Cary, and I just made a bunch of home movies with those guys. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Equinox DVD, they’re on the Equinox DVD both of them. But they look pretty young, you wouldn’t recognise either of them. It was great, and then we did a little museum of photo’s, we’d all been collecting from science fiction horror films, stuff like that, and it was through that that I met Phil Kellerson, who was working on a movie called Jack the Giant Killer, and he just lived in the neighbourhood and saw this little sign we put in our front yard one Saturday and he happened to stop by and said he was working on a movie that had special effects in it, come and visit. And we found my Mom, or David’s Mom or somebody to drive us down to Hollywood to see it, and that was kind of where I first made, and those guys first made a connection with Jim Danforth and other folks that just led to being able to understand that movies were made by people, and not some kind of magic. Even though we only lived a half hour from LA it was still hard to imagine when you saw a movie in a theatre how it was actually made. And especially a special effects film.
Lightsabre – Well it’s cool because he actually sent us a photograph of the three of you in that room with all the pictures, I think he dug it out from somewhere.
DM – I just found a photo of his Dad there too.
Lightsabre – What were your early film influences? I would imagine effects movies, although not necessarily so because being an effect supervisor you want to tell a story, not just dazzle with effects.
DM – Yeah, they really have been the effects films. I like the Harryhausen films and King Kong, but I also like other kinds of effects films, like the Invisible Man movies, Wizard of Oz, the tornado in that and Dambusters. I used to photograph with my 8mm camera off the TV screen, the effects sequences. This is long before there was video tape or anything. I’d study them, I’d take still photos off the TV screen ands study those and everything, so there was really no way to see an image, to hold an image in your head unless you did something like that, take a still photograph of it. And they were shown very, very seldom. So I think a lot of what I developed, and probably other people around my same age developed this ability to be able to hold these images in your head and analyse them. I don’t think there’s much of that going on anymore, because you don’t need to. You can just grab a frame and do a print out and you’ve got it, you know. But we never used to have that, and I think that’s been a big asset to me, to be able to talk with the director, he has something in words and I’m able to hold that image in my head and already have an idea what angles gonna look good at, what the importance of something is.
Lightsabre – I always remember watching the Making of Return of the Jedi and watching you guys set up the Speeder Bike animatics, so to visualise it has got to be very important.
DM – Yeah, a very important idea, that meant that we got it out of our heads and on to video tape. I remember we did that with the first little hand-held video camera that had ever come out. It was about five inches by seven inches, just got in from Japan. It still had all the Japanese labels on it, but it was small enough that we could use it ourselves, we didn’t need a technical crew to do it. So I thought let’s just try this thing, see if we can do an animatic with it and it worked great.
Lightsabre – Do you think when digital came to the fore in the late eighties, and especially in the early nineties, had optical effects gone as far as they really could, had they reached the limit they could go to or was there more that could have been done with optical effects?
DM – You know, I think that optical effects, and even traditional effects, the money that had been put into developing and improving those techniques, they could have been made better. But their just literally wasn’t anybody but George and a few other people to put money into that technology. But you know, we had problems with film shrinkage, so we’d shoot on Mylar film stock, it didn’t shrink. Then we’d send it to the film lab for processing, and the lab would vary from one day to another for example. But if you set up your own lab, and you tested all the chemicals in advance and made sure everything was going through exactly the same way it had five hours ago or five days ago, it wasn’t out by a tenth of a degree, all the machines were ok, you could have gotten the work a lot better. But it was just expensive to set up something like that, nobody came up with anything like that. But I think you could have. I remember even thinking at the time, all the money that was being poured into CG could have been poured into existing effects techniques, making the quality better. But at some point the producers can’t afford it, to improve the quality. But with CG digital comping (compositing) they did see budget saving, so they were prepared to put money into it, to some up with cheaper movies, eventually. But it’s hard to justify that when you’ve got a technology that kind of works, the old traditional way, you don’t want to change it.
Lightsabre – Were you quite resistant to changing it, or were you all for the new technology?
DM – I was all for it, I was one of the people in there pushing for it, the change, because I’d hit a dead end with it (optical effects) in the mid-1980’s. There was just no way to come up with the money to fix it. We’d talked about buying our own film lab up at ILM and doing some of the things I’ve just talked about, but when you run the numbers on the cost of it you don’t see how you’re ever going to get your money back. And you’re not even really sure if it’s gonna work, it’s just thoughts I had that might have worked. The digital stuff did come in, all that kind of research on computers had been done with Apple figuring out how to mass produce products and PC’s, and Adobe and the Knoll brothers with PhotoShop, the Solitaire film recorder doing slides for business presentations for major corporations that actually could turn out a digital image on a piece of film that looked like a photograph. And that was unheard of, but all the work had already been done, and what we did was we put those things together, and the result was T2 (Terminator 2). And it could have been done a year or two earlier. What I did was I took a year off and read a book on CG and did a lot of snooping around on stuff thinking this was gonna amount possibly to something, because I didn’t have anything else to think of with doing a show, I could just figure out how to make this work, if it looked like it had a chance, and it certainly did.
Lightsabre – Do you do a lot of research and development? I know ILM are problem solvers, going right back to the seventies, but is that another large part of your job?
DM – You know, I don’t do it with the ILM group, I bring my ideas to ILM. Some of the ILM guys, they’re doing a lot of different stuff for a lot of different departments and what I do is I just approach it differently, completely from a show standpoint. I can sit there and be totally frustrated and feel very sorry for the optical guys who are trying to get rid of those matte lines, doing take after take. For the CG guys, they have a partially badly rendered frame and they have to re-render the entire shot again because of that. I just feel so sorry for them, I know there’s got to be a different way. It was hard to convince the ILM R&D (research and development) folk about some of those problems, because they’re so busy just trying to put the fires out. So I’m coming to it from the daily fires, I just come into this from a different point of view, more of a filmmaker point of view. And that’s where you think, ok it’s worth the effort trying to get rid of the matte lines, worth the effort trying to fix these few frames in a render, not to have to re-render the whole shot. And one way to do that is to paint it, so if we can get a paint programme and paint onto a digital image then we can fix that and not re-render the whole cycle, and those are like revolutionary ideas back then. Because nobody thought that you could kind of do that. And another thing was going on, it wasn’t pure work and a lot of computer folks felt that it was very crude to paint out artefacts, they should be able to re-render it and have it be perfect. I didn’t care about that, I had a deadline I was working on.
Lightsabre – You’re just after the end result.
DM – Yeah, just the end result is all that matters. And that thinking is still going on to this day, the idea of things being pure, and it’s very, very costly. It doesn’t really fit into the industry because there’s usually more efficient ways to do things and the result will be just as good and it’ll be less expensive, and I really encourage people to do that. Not make things that are too precious. Anything you work on, I think you should be able to destroy it before it’s done and have to do it again. Shouldn’t be so lucky, or perfect, or even repeatable, I don’t think you should even be able to repeat or be able to repeat it like a lot of computer stuff. You can repeat it over and over and over again, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. If you’re just doing a one-off for a movie.
Lightsabre – I was lucky enough to interview Irvin Kershner, who obviously you know very well, and he mentioned Spielberg, in that he prefers using film to digital as opposed to George forging ahead with the digital revolution. Where do you stand on that, obviously you would be a proponent of digital. When you’re making a movie these days with someone who wants to use film how do the two mesh together?
DM – You know, the only film that I’ve done that’s actually been digital movies, acquiring the data on the set, was Phantom Menace, the first and second Star Wars, and I didn’t even work on three. Those are the only shows I’ve worked on that are digital acquisition. And that’s all that Steven and those guys are talking about, after you shoot the dailies they don’t care what you do with it. So I don’t really have a problem in shooting the film in digital. I think there’s big wins in shooting it digital that’s not even been discovered yet, and I’ve been encouraging Spielberg’s camera man Janusz Kaminski, and other cameramen, to shoot in digital if for n o other reason than to force the engineers to make the equipment do what those guys want to do. r else the engineers are just gonna make cameras of what they think other people are gonna want. Which isn’t necessarily at all what other people are gonna want. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
Lightsabre – You made an appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What are your memories of that little scene?
DM – (Laughs) That was a lot of fun and it was very, very strange being on the other side of the camera and looking up and seeing Spielberg there, Richard Edlund was the cameraman, all the light guys looking right at me. And of course being with Harrison and all was really fun. It was very strange, it was very neat. We did it in about half a day, but it was a lot of fun.
Lightsabre – I remember reading a piece about that scene, the establishing shot of the Sunderland on the water. There was a lot of effects work went into that shot wasn’t there? There was a practical model and a matte painting, it was quite involved.
DM – Yeah, the painting. For some crazy reason the airplane was right over here by ILM, the other side of the bay, but it couldn’t fly. And it was just in storage, sitting on the water there, if I’ve got my memory right. I don’t think it’s there anymore, and that’s why we shot it here locally. The whole bottom of the plane was still there and maybe the wings were still on it, but the background was all wrong is probably what it was, so everything from a certain point upwards was a painting and then from down below was the actual airplane that used to fly but didn’t fly anymore. And we shot on that plane and everything, all the interiors were done on there.
Lightsabre – You must have been so pleased with Raiders, the way that the film came out ultimately. All time classic.
DM – Yeah we were surprised, we had no idea. I was doing Dragonslayer at the time, I wasn’t watching what was going on with Raiders, but to see the final film together and have so much energy was pretty neat.
Lightsabre – Dragonslayer was quite a progressive film at the time, that was around the era that Go-Motion got going.
DM – Yeah, we established Go-Motion for that film, which we had sort of experimented on with the Tauntaun on Empire Strikes Back. But we got a lot more advanced with it in Dragonslayer. We shot that over at Pinewood, all the live action work.
Lightsabre – I was lucky enough to meet you about four years ago at the Hulk premiere at the Empire, Leicester Square.
DM – Oh really?
Lightsabre – Well, I saw you walking towards me and I went over to shake your hand and somebody veered you away and I managed to say ‘Hello Mister Muren’, and that was about it. But you must have very good memories about that film because effects wise that was absolutely stunning.
DM – Yeah, that was a real mixed bag. Some of it came out real well, we had so much trouble with that green colour. I think it was almost insurmountable because I thought it was gonna help us with green being so radically different from anything in the real world, you know the colour, the shade of green they wanted and everything was so vivid that it just looked wonderful, it didn’t really have to ever match anything, but in fact it meant that you always just looked at the Hulk. That’s something that we don’t really want to do too much, because there’s too many shots to do. They’re not all perfect. That was a tough show.
Lightsabre – There’s another question then. If you could be brutal with yourself and look back over your career and pick one special effect that you’d like to re-do again, which one would it be?
DM – I probably wouldn’t tell ya. Somebody would feel very bad if I said it. I can’t say that, there’s a lot of them. A lot. (laughs)
DM – I’m not as much of a perfectionist as some people are, I just wanna get through the shot, you know. Some people are perfectionists, and nobody can see the difference between what you’re working on now and the same thing two weeks ago. I don’t like that at all, but I think you reach a point where you think ‘Yes, that will work.’ And there’s many, many times when we run out of time or we just didn’t have the right magic together correctly to make the shot work, and it’s too late to start over again or whatever.
Lightsabre – I guess it’s like catching lightning in a bottle a hundred thousand times each movie, trying to get that right element.
DM – That’s right, it always seems like that, especially when you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done. The first thing I do when I finish a film in my mind is I consider it obsolete, and try to figure ‘ok, if I was doing that same movie again, what would I do differently?’ I don’t want to do the same thing again, and that’s hard to figure out because there’s nowhere to look, for something new, so I spend a lot of time looking at artwork and the real world for inspiration and stuff. There’s some great stuff on that Planet Earth series, we’ve just got that over here finally. Just phenomenal stuff, and there’s great inspiration in things like that as opposed to copying movies you’ve already seen, because that’s very limited. That’s a copy of reality, and if you’re copying movies then you’re a double copy.
Lightsabre – Are there any big movies of the last twenty, twenty five years that you didn’t work on that you wish you had?
DM – Oh, there’s probably been quite a few. I’m not sure what, I did want to work on Pearl Harbor but I wanted to do A.I instead because I worked with Spielberg on that, but I really like those big spectacle movies, and I would have loved to do a war film on that scale, and I was really tempted to do that but I wanted to do the Stephen thing and the Kubrick thing, I thought that was wonderful. I wasn’t so excited about the Lord of the Rings films until I saw them, then I saw ‘boy, they came up with some great ideas’. But I didn’t think they were ever gonna do all that really interesting forced perspective stuff, which I love, because I never thought a first unit crew would take the time to do it, because they certainly don’t like to do that in LA, but I guess being in New Zealand with Jackson being the director and producer he could say ‘No, this is the best way to do it, we’re gonna do it like this.’ That was great, I thought that stuff was wonderful.
Lightsabre – Given that you like to finish a project, move on, finish a project, move on, has the lure of doing a television series ever appealed to you?
DM – No, it really hasn’t, probably because the quality, the movie doesn’t have the impact on that small screen. My memories, and everybody’s of my generation is first you get in the car, you go somewhere, it’s a special event. And you get out, you go into this big giant room with the huge screen, the lights go down and there’s this massive thirty foot tall and wide image that you’re looking at for the next two hours. And that does not happen at home in your living room, even on a big screen. You can turn it off. Right away, the fact that you can turn off a DVD means that you’ve lost, you’re in control if it, and you’re not in control of it when you’re in a movie theatre. I love that feeling, when something’s just sort of taking over. TV just doesn’t have it.
Lightsabre – It’s like hearing your favourite song on the radio as opposed to disk. It’s got you, it’s grabbed you and it’s got you where it wants you.
DM – Yeah, and you have to force yourself, if you’ve got to do something else, if you’ve got to run off and use the restroom or something – you can’t. So that just gets you more excited about staying and hearing it, and you’re suffering to hear it (laughs). So it gets more of your attention. That’s right.
Lightsabre – You were honoured eight years ago with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How amazing was that, because you were the first effects guy to get it weren’t you?
DM – Yeah, that was pretty amazing, I just never thought it was going to happen. My cousin had been trying for ten years to get me a star on the walk of fame and I kept saying ‘Don’t even bother, I’m not interested, no one else is interested, don’t bother’ and she said ‘No, I’m gonna try, I’m gonna try’ so just on her own she gathered these letters from people. Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, lots of other folks and kept sending them in every single year, the same package, and she kind of got to know the secretary of the committee group, and every year they voted and every year it was rejected and I just kept saying ‘Don’t do it, it’s a waste of time, I don’t care about it’ and then suddenly, I guess it was when Phantom Menace came out and VES (Visual Effects Society) was involved, they knew who I was from my cousin, they said yes. I just kept thinking, they made them a mistake. We meant Dennis Miller not Dennis Muren, stay home. But it was really great, a lot of guys showed up. Ray Harryhausen showed up, Cameron, George, Artoo, See-Threepio, my family, it was great. I walked along that street for years, growing up in LA, when they first put them in the Walk of Fame, and the crazy thing is that the location that was available were three locations and I picked one right underneath the old Hollywood Theatre, now the Guinness Book of Records Theatre, but it was the old Hollywood Movie Theatre where we had a sneak preview of Equinox. That’s why I picked it. I said ‘This is amazing, this place is available, this is where I wanna be.’
Lightsabre – That’s fantastic. One final question, when you had the chance back in 1996, 1997 to revisit the Special Editions, how special was it for you coming back to those films after an extended period of time away from those movies?
DM – You know, I was fine with doing it, I didn’t feel at all that we were hurting anything. My feeling always was that the original version was always gonna be there, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily happened. George hasn’t put the effort into doing an HD, super good HD version of the original versions and I don’t know if that will ever happen. But at the time my feeling was that we could finally make these shots better, you know. He went through and picked a bunch of shots, and I picked a bunch of shots and we redid them so they just looked a lot better. I was fine with it, and I think it’s gone overboard, I think it’s been done too many times and too many shots, but I just feel as long as the original version is always there that it’s fine to be able to work on it later on, and sort of like ‘so what’, you now? I’m not saying don’t look at the original, but it makes me feel better if I can finally get rid of some of those crummy motion control shots that were done at 3.00am in the morning that just weren’t quite right, or something on a spaceship.
Lightsabre – But you’ll always have those great memories of being there at 3.00am doing it though.
DM – Oooh god yes.
Interview originally posted in three parts on 30th December 2007, 13th January 2008 and 24th February 2008 on www.lightsabre.co.uk.