Star Wars interview: Dennis Muren

The first name in special effects recalls the difficulties of bringing Star Wars to life

Muren first left. TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Starting out as visual effects supervisor on A New Hope, Dennis Muren has remained a pioneer in special effects ever since. He’s won nine Academy Awards (more than any other individual) and was the first person to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for visual effects, his cache ably demonstrated by not only the Star Wars trilogy and prequels, but Terminator 2: Judgement Day, ET: The Extraterrestrial, Willow, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Jurassic Park, and most recently, JJ Abrams’ blockbuster Super 8. We take him back to the late Seventies in a crackly conference call, back to the very start of his incredible career.

What as the first thing you remember hearing about Star Wars?

“When I first read the script it was like, ‘This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever read. It’s like The Wizard Of Oz mixed with a Western and stuff, and it’s a science fiction film, and there’s no way it’ll ever get finished on time!’ [laughs] That was really it, we thought it couldn’t be done!”

What was your first major challenge on Star Wars?

“I think from a special effects standpoint it was getting all the equipment together and learning how to use it to get the kind of shots that George wanted, where we were panning the camera around watching the spaceships fighting. We had the camera locked in frames like we were filming documentary footage, because the technology had never been put together before. The computer was directing the moves for the camera along the models we made, we had to learn how to get those things to move to get movement on the screen. It took months and months and months to get it together, and the final shots of the movie are more successful than the earlier ones we did as far as the motions of the ships go. It was an incredible set-up, [Special Photographic Effects Supervisor] John Dykstra was one of the only people around said we could do it. He hired me to work on it, and [first cameraman] Richard Edlund and a whole bunch of us came on and there were only about 50 people working on this for about a year or so, a little more than that – a year and a half. It was a risky show, because they were looking for stuff that had never been done before and there wasn’t a whole bunch of time to do it in, and it was only when the first shots were done that we thought, ‘We can do it’. That’s where the inspiration comes from, you get to reach further than your grasp and eventually you figure out how to do it.”

Which scene do you think you’re the most proud of?

“The hardest one to do was The Empire Strikes Back, and that’s probably my favourite one altogether, because it was so difficult and it was so far beyond what we’d done on A New Hope. It was just… you know, it was pretty amazing that we could get it out on time. I also enjoyed The Phantom Menace, because of the Gungan battle and the underwater city, the ship flying and all the different sized creatures, but my favourite film was probably Empire. My favourite sequence however is the speederbike chase from Jedi, it was one of the most fun to shoot and one of the most exciting forms to look at. When it was all done and it just played with no sound effects and no music, it was very exciting.”

What was ILM like to work at in those early days?

“It was kinda a free-for-all, it wasn’t a business at that time – it was just set up to do this thing and then it was just gonna disband. So there were departments, but the people running them tried to do a lot of different things, because it was so small you really had to do different things – so I was shooting the models, but I was painting detail on them if I needed to, and doing the lighting, because there was nobody to do the lighting, and loading the cameras and doing the programmes and all that kind of stuff. And everyone pretty much did their job, but spread out into other jobs like me. It was really stressful because we were late getting the gear together to do the work, the machinery that we needed to get to the motion control system to work was harder than anybody anticipated. It was fun and games an everything, and there were good times, but there was a lot of stress on it too. If there was a deadline, then it had to get done and there was no way it couldn’t get done. If you didn’t do the work, then there’d be shots of actors looking at something and talking about something you’d never see! [laughs] Giving reaction shots to things that didn’t exist yet. But we did get everything done.”

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How much input did you have into the sequences or were they pretty heavily storyboarded?

“On the very first Star Wars, George put together animatics, video animatics made up of scenes from other movies, World War II footage that he saw on TV, stuff like that. And it was all edited together, and we were following that pretty exactly. We always made little changes and stuff, and always talked to George about it, but he was fine with it and if things were a little different, he’d tell us how he wanted them to be. By the time we got onto Empire we had a lot more design freedom, we had storyboards but [art director] Joe Johnson and myself were free to modify and come up with different ways, different scenes, different shot designs, different ideas – stuff like that. With the first one it was probably because George was in northern California and we were in southern Californa, that he felt an animatic of the scene would be important to communicate what he was after, and he was right. We did some animatics afterwards also, to help the sound people and help the editing, but idea of shot designs were all open to improvements. We didn’t have anything for the walker sequence in Empire, that was just storyboards. So much of that film we didn’t even have animatics for.”

Can you think of any sequence of the top of your head that you really put something of yourself into?

“I feel really close to the Jedi bike sequence because of the whole approach. I was involved pretty heavily in the shot design on that. There’s a lot in that film, a lot of little sequences worth a look – concept-wise the asteroid scene was a very difficult thing to conceive. I designed a lot of it with Joe Johnston to get it to read, so I feel very connected to the shot design. I don’t like working – and I don’t think I will work – when someone just says ‘do the shot’ and that’s it, because usually the person who says that doesn’t know what they might be missing from the storyboard art, doesn’t understand lightning for example, quite as much, or movement quite as much. I always try to give my opinions and move in an opposite direction to make things better for the film, but’re not in any way going to undermine the movie or try to overstate it. The first thing I do is come up with ways to improve the shot based on an idea of how he might shoot it, and then I present that to him and he can go forward or modify it. Most good directors are like that, they don’t say ‘just do this’, and walk away.”

Empire was such a step up from A New Hope effects-wise, did you ever feel as though you’d bitten off more than you could chew?

“Oh yes, completely! And that’s why Empire is the film I’m most proud of, because it was impossible to do it. We moved to northern California from LA, and we had to hire as many locals as we could because only about 12 of us moved up, we had to train the local people how to use the gear and the shots were so far beyond what we’d done with the first Star Wars film, with Hoth and the massive Star Destroyers, and we had to find a way to see how much bigger they were. To show scale in outer space is a very difficult thing to do, because you can’t tell how big anything is and you have to design shots to show that stuff. And then there’s the Tauntaun and the walker scenes, all that was really difficult and I believe there’s 30 prints of the movie out… there’s about 30 or so movie prints out that had temporary shots on, and the rest of them have probably got finals, because we didn’t quite get the show done in time. I think all those prints were pulled back, actually.”

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