Dennis Muren is one of the founding team members of Industrial Light and Magic, Lucasfilm’s effects team since the days of A New Hope. With eight Academy Awards to his name, Giz AU had the chance to sit down with Muren at Lucasfilm in San Francisco to talk about the special content available on the Blu-ray releases, as well as what it was like to invent an entire special effects industry.
The Lucasfilm PR team tells us that when other Lucasfilm staff heard Muren was in the house this day, people were begging to sit in on his media session to hear what he had to say. Such is the esteem of Muren within the company.
And rightly so. Muren has stood alongside George Lucas since they were first building model X-Wings, Star Destroyers, and Death Stars, through Indiana Jones, through to ILM’s work on other films like T2 and Jurassic Park, and into the modern era.
“For me, I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I literally had no job that I knew I was going to be able to go to all through high school and college. Because there wasn’t any! There was commercials and the occasional film, but that was it. I never thought I could make a living out of this and then Star Wars came along. Suddenly there were thousands and thousands of people and people can even go to school and learn how to do it for a career.”
Dennis Muren, one of the gods of Industrial Light and Magic.
Even though the photo-chemical era of effects has largely been replaced by the digital, Muren has been a strong influence within Lucasfilm and ILM to always keep things as real as possible to get the best results.
In a clip giving insight into his thinking on The Phantom Menace and it’s massive battle sequences, Muren talks about their continued use of real locations and real miniatures in the mix with the digital battle scene.
“I think that anytime you can start with something real then you should use it, because it forces the work up to that level. I think that combination of the two always keeps you on your toes about whether this is real or fake, but you buy into it and you believe in it.”
“I’ve personally never been interested in the process of doing effects. But I love the end of it when you look at it. So it didn’t matter to me whether it was a camera you were shooting with or whether it was a sensor. Whether it was a real light or a digital light. Or a real model or a CG model. As long as you could make it look real and you could do something that hadn’t been seen before, that’s what I’ve always been interested in.”
Javva the Hutt, the Lucasfilm coffee shop.
Muren’s fear for the effects industry today isn’t digital effects, but rather it’s where effects artists are looking for their inspiration.
“What’s happening is there are so many people coming up doing the work now that have just come out of schools and they have only looked at CG. And they’re copying CG!”
“It just dawned on me a couple of years ago that when we were doing the original Jurassic Park we were copying real animals and we went to a place near here where they had real lions and tigers and bears, you know. Rhinos and giraffes and all that stuff we looked at. But there are people growing up that are copying Jurassic Park! And then there’s people copying those people’s movies! So it’s then a copy of a copy of a copy. It just gets farther off… but a lot of people can’t tell the difference. Which is too bad because I think it pulls you out of the story.”
If I could just remember the code I could get him outta there!
“I think what really bothers me about the work that isn’t quite real, is that it is OK when they are really trying. The thing I really don’t like is imitation. I just see so much of that going on. They don’t have the time to think. Because there is so much work being done you don’t have the time to originate new ideas. It’s hard with the budgets now to come up with anything really new.”
In response to a question on whether effects are becoming commonplace and therefore audiences aren’t as easily impressed, Muren flips the thought to focus on his thinking that artists just need to work on their inspiration.
“Maybe it’s that the idea is common. That’s kind of what I’m hoping is the case. It’s not so much the effect as the idea you’ve seen before. How many centaurs do we need to see? How many robots that are based on the chicken walker from Empire? It’s a copy of a copy of a copy.”
“Star Wars was an original look. Because they had space battles. The camera views and the design and the action was really based on real dogfights and that had never been done before. There were three films that had been made up until that time that had space dogfights and they looked like nothing. Suddenly there is this new design and I think new designs are always going to work.”
But is there anything that is just too hard to ever get right?
“I like to think that you can kind of do anything and if we’re not nailing it it’s because we’ve missed something. Some things are really hard to get right. Like a digital human. One that isn’t going to be in one scene or five scenes or twelve scenes but in a whole movie. That is really hard, practically impossible for many, many reasons. But eventually it will happen!”
“I’m much more in favour of when you’re doing apes, or you’re doing Jar Jar, or some sort of artificial character where you’re using the actor as a kind of input device. But not doing a digital Marlon Brando.”
“A lot of those guys had themselves scanned ten or fifteen years ago thinking this was going to be a big win for them. There was a guy going around LA talking about it, saying to get yourself scanned. So they thought they could kind of retire and there would be a young actor doing his movie the way he looked thirty or forty years ago. Of course, it hasn’t happened yet.”
Muren walks us through some of the effects content on the Blu-ray extras discs. From detailed close ups on models to how classic scenes and shots were layered between mattes and compositing to get to the final effect. We look at the construction of the AT-AT walkers from Empire, and the creation of the opening shot in A New Hope.
At the Lucasfilm office
For Muren this isn’t just something for fans. It’s reached a point where it is also a great historical record for his own team who actually worked on the films.
“Those collapsing walker shots took forever to shoot but they came out great. So here’s an actual walker from the archives in detail. All the people who want to look at these things in detail that is supposed to be there but they really can’t tell in the film and they haven’t been able to see from other photos. Now they can get in there really tight and see detail in the snow.”
“It’s pretty nice having all this. Having it reminds me of when you could do this with your hands.”
As fans of the films know, George Lucas has been happy to update and make changes to the original films over the years to achieve results he feels he always wanted to achieve back in the ‘70s. We asked Muren how he feels about updating effects from his work thirty years ago – from wholesale changes to touching up obvious imperfections.
“I was all in favour of doing some redos on the original Star Wars because we ran out of time on that. I wanted to redo about 30 or 40 shots and George wanted to redo some other ones. At some point I think it is OK.”
“But going back and trying to continue updating it based on the newest technology, I don’t know what I think.”
“Garbage mattes, definitely. It really messed up the original VHS tapes of Star Wars because everybody thought it was that way when it came out in the theatres, but of course they weren’t. It was just the transfer wasn’t done quite right.”
“So I’m all for getting it the way you saw it in the theatre – maybe that’s a better way of putting it.”
“As long as the original version is always available, then I think beyond that you can do whatever you want. Based on the generation who is seeing it. But I think the original version should always be available.”
Over all those films and all those effects shots, was there any one shot that stands out as a personal favourite for Muren? His choice is something surprisingly subtle.
“The one ‘aha’ moment is in Empire Strikes Back. When you’re at the beginning and you’re flying over the ice field and you look down and you see Luke on a tauntaun running along down there. Because that was a shot that was impossible to do! George showed me the plate that he’d shot in Norway and he said can you put a tauntaun down there. They’d shot this from a helicopter, there was six axis of movement going on in the helicopter, and we were somehow supposed to put a character on the ground? Before CG? Impossible! He said, well, just think about it. And within 15 minutes I’d figured out how to do it. I learned at that point to just never stop thinking about something. Because there usually is a way and you’ve got this tool chest. If you just don’t give up.”
The most amazing achievement to Muren was actually getting the original film finished at all.
“I remember it was November or December before it came out in May and it just didn’t seem like we were going to be able to get it done. How are we suddenly going to be able to make up in four months what we hadn’t been able to in a year and half? But we did!”
“We got the gear together, everybody was on board, everything was flying, we found some new level of energy and connectiveness between the crew and we turned out Star Wars.”