A Conversation With Star Wars Visual Effects Legend Dennis Muren

A rare appearance by Industrial Light & Magic at the BFI London Film Festival

 

How do we define a legend…?

Would a legend constitute a cinematic champion whom has crafted the visual effects that we have come to love and enjoy on countless movies and helped define our cinematic experiences for well over thirty years?

Indeed, it does.

We have all enjoyed his fantastical, genre defining images in such movies as Star Wars: A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Jurassic Park, E.T the Extra Terrestrial, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the Back to the Future trilogy and Star Wars: The Force Awakens to name but a few of his on screen credits. The great man has been awarded with nine Academy Awards for his stunning craftsmanship that has carved the most memorable visualisations formulated within the imaginations of directorial giants like George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.

The artist I speak of is the Industrial Light and Magic architect himself, Dennis Muren.

The Future of the Force team were privileged to attend an event at the London BFI which was designed to celebrate the creative technologies of movie making, with special focus being applied to Industrial Light and Magic and its contribution to the genre as a whole. Hosting the event was Deadline.com International Editor Nancy Tartaglione, an 18-year entertainment veteran whom was joined in conversation by the legendary Dennis Muren and members of the UK based branch of ILM, David Vickery and Kevin Jenkins.

Icons of the UK film industry in their own right, both Jenkins and Vickery were not overshadowed by the special effects superman sat alongside them as they catalogued their many credits that include Jurassic World, The Force Awakens, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Out of the Shadows, Edge of Tomorrow and Star Wars: The Last Jedi to name but a few. With the presentation video illustrating Jedi Master Yoda and the many star ships cramming the Star Wars galaxy playing on the big screen behind them, we were treated to a journey through the teams many accomplishments which are still as awe-inspiring today as they were when we first witnessed them on the big screen.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex roaring at the finale of Jurassic Park filled the screen and in what was a truly moving moment, the seats began to shake as the roar resonated around the amphitheatre. The Millennium Falcon blasted across the screen in all its stunning glory before a fleet of X-Wing and Y-Wing fighters converged upon the Death Star in the finale of Star Wars: A New Hope.

The lovable E.T the Extra-Terrestrial appeared next which was greeted with a warming glow from the audience before the colossal silhouette of the Hulkbuster from Avengers: Age of Ultron filled the screen like never before. The impressive images however, were not the traditional finished composite we are used to, in fact quite the opposite. The Hulkbuster’s iconic image had a meagre introduction in the form of a tennis ball atop a pole in the centre of the shot which was then enhanced with a time delayed rendering of each and every stage of production until the finished article sat atop the screen in all its shining splendour.

The presentation was magnificent, but that paled in comparison to the conversation that followed. The fantastic Mr Muren indulged the Star Wars geek in all of us when he detailed his beginnings with Star Wars: A New Hope, giving special mention to the arduous task of bringing such iconic images to the screen at a time when the technology available to him restricted his creativity at every turn. With his entrancing account enthralling the gathered masses, he continued with Empire Strikes Back and the challenges of animating a Taun Taun upon the icy landscape of the Planet Hoth, a task that had proven to be quite the challenge.

With the shot proving to be a laborious endeavour, he considered throwing in the towel and disappointing the legendary George Lucas but undeterred, Muren allowed himself just fifteen minutes more to address the problem and but being the technical marvel that he truly is, he had solved the issues dogging his efforts and presented the finished method which was quickly incorporated into the finished film.

As if that wasn’t enough to enthral our passionate and often nerdish minds, the conversation moved swiftly along to Jurassic Park and the time when stop go animation was giving way to the arrival of CGI technology. The format had been attempted before whilst filming George Lucas’ fantasy Willow starring Warwick Davis, but the technology was still in its infancy at the time and the finished effect was far from the realistic rendering we have become accustomed to in the modern era.

Created by special effects legend Phil Tippet, a go-motion representation, which in 1993 was a modernised version of the traditional stop-go animation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex thundered across the screen to my personal delight which Muren explained, had been the original template for the movies effects until the notion of utilising the revolutionary CGI technology was mooted and presented to Steven Spielberg. With Phil Tippet witnessing the technology first hand, he uttered the defeated words “I think I’m Extinct” as he regarded the fantastical CGI images presented to him which allowed Spielberg to make the decision to incorporate the format’s use in his movie, the result being the multimillion dollar blockbuster that changed the format of movie making forever.

No longer were our visionary directors restrained by the dated stop-go animation which in my opinion, made some of the finest movies of my childhood. Movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Clash of the Titans were at the pinnacle of my imagination in my youth and I still hold them in high regard against the Jurassic’s and Star Wars’ of today. CGI allowed these visionaries to present images only fantasy and imagination could reveal but Muren then alluded to the argument that had accused the format of detracting from storytelling and allowing directors to become over reliant on the technology.

It was a fascinating paradox, but the esteemed members of the ILM team sat atop the stage swiftly dissected the argument and elaborated on how many shots we see on the screen that, unless we were told would never know had been treated by visual effects and vice versa. The screen filled with images of the Death Star chasm from A New Hope which had been filmed in sections before being rendered atop each other to complete the final shot for the film. It was a fascinating revelation which came as a pleasant surprise to me considering that I have been a fan of the Star Wars saga from childhood and yet was still confounded by the amazing scene which I regard as one of the movies best sequences.

With the debate at the forefront of discussion, David Vickery put the issue into context as he reminisced about a past feature film where Clive Owen and Julianne Moore were required to propel a ping pong ball into each other’s mouths within the confines of a car. The shot had proved to be a trial of true endurance and after hours of attempts with little result, the decision was taken to computer generate the ping pong ball, but in doing so opened up other issues within the sequence. With the ping pong ball animated, the actors were forced to imagine that the ball was dropping into their mouths but without the real ball as a representation, they had no way of gauging the size and shape of the ball. Once the production had finished shooting and it came time to animate the sequence, Vickery was forced to digitally reshape the actor’s mouths in order to accommodate the size and shape of the ball. It was a laborious task, one that took a great deal of time to remedy but it revealed the true extent that these pioneers were willing to go in order to entertain us as an audience.

It was a fascinating conversation, one that a single article could never truly do justice but these amazing visionaries really treated us to an amazing insight into their world. We were teased further by the revelation that both Vickery and Muren were currently working on both the sequel to Jurassic World as well as Star Wars: The Last Jedi but they were understandably unable to offer any titbits of information regarding either film. This ultimately brought the fascinating hour and a half expo to a close which in its own right would be enough to appease even the die-hard fans of these amazing movies we know and love. But nothing could prepare us for what was to follow, for upon leaving the stage door the great man himself had graciously offered his time to meet and greet the fans in attendance.

Together, Future of the Force Co-founder Stewart Gardiner and I had the pleasure of not only meeting Dennis Muren in the flesh but he even offered us the chance of his autograph in addition to a photo opportunity which we accepted with nerd like open arms.

On reflection, the night was a fantastic success, Dennis Muren not only fascinated us by his understated contribution to the movies that have shaped our imaginations but also forwarded the Future of the Force team the chance to meet the real man behind the ILM legend, and believe me he did not disappoint.

In the aftermath of the success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, all we can do now as fans of his movies is await the release of his next crowning achievements, which will be Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Jurassic Outbreak.

These movies will undoubtedly go on to secure his legendary status amongst the fans and cement his legacy as an iconic pioneer whom made the Millennium Falcon fly and the Tyrannosaurus Rex roar.

Until then, let your imaginations run wild…

May The Force Be With You

 

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