From building miniatures of the Millennium Falcon for the first "Star Wars" film (1977), to using computer graphics to create the shape-shifting cyborg in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991), to bringing to life the most realistic dinosaurs ever before seen onscreen in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997), Dennis Muren used both models and computers to create cinematic fantasy for more than a generation. In fact, Muren's Oscar-winning work bridged the gap between the stiff, rubbery B-movie creatures of the past to the slick, stylized computer-generated imagery that later saturated multiplexes. Having won more than 13 Academy Awards for special effects - mostly through his work at Industrial Light & Magic - Muren led the pack in cutting edge visual effects techniques. Despite his pioneering work in CGI, however, Muren remained a critic of soulless effects work, insisting that artistry must always triumph over technology.
Born on Nov. 1, 1946 in Glendale, CA, Dennis Muren was reared in the suburban neighborhood of La Canada, not far from Los Angeles. During his childhood, he saw countless monster movies and science fiction flicks, which fueled his imagination and sparked his interest in visual effects. By the time he was eight years old, his parents gave him a still camera, which he used to take photographs of toy dinosaurs and spaceships in the backyard, though his desire to make them move remained unfulfilled. Eager to encourage their son, his parents gave him an 8mm film camera, which he later upgraded to 16mm. Despite the rudimentary nature of his equipment, a determined Muren found a way to bring still images to life. Utilizing the camera's single-frame advance feature, he animated clay figures one frame at a time, mimicking the stop-motion effects of such films as "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958). He also cultivated the technique of forced perspective, where objects close to the camera are made to look huge - one homemade short showed an ordinary-sized person taunting a giant so large that only his sneakers are in frame; finally, the foot lifts up and appears to squash the man.
The enterprising teenager began enlisting friends to help him with his films; Muren and his pals obsessed over publications such as Famous Monster's of Filmland, pouring over stills from their favorites films to study how they were done. When they discovered that the magazine's publisher, Forest J. Ackerman, lived about an hour away, they arranged a meeting with him at his home, which by then, was already famous for its impressive collection of movie props, models and costumes. The result of the meeting was fortuitous; Ackerman established an ongoing amateur film festival, where Muren and other future filmmakers were given a venue to show off their experiments and give each other feedback.
After graduating high school, Muren enrolled at Pasadena City College, where he studied advertising and took business courses at his parents' insistence in case his film ambitions - then still a decidedly unusual career choice - failed to pan out. After his first year, Muren and his filmmaking friends put together a plan to film their first feature. In the summer of 1967, they made a sci-fi horror movie entitled "Equinox," which featured an array of stop motion and photographic effects. Made for $8,000 and drawn mostly from Muren's savings, the film drew the attention of a producer, Jack Harris, who bought the film, invested more money for new footage and improved sound before giving it limited release in B movie theaters.
Muren returned to school at Cal State Los Angeles, where he earned an associate's degree. After graduation, he sought work in the special effects departments of the major movie studios, only to be turned down. He did landed a job at a television commercial production house called Cascade while doing freelance work on the side. Along with many of his peers, he did uncredited work on the X-rated sci-fi spoof, "Flesh Gordon." Then word began to spread that a special effects crew was being assembled for a space movie, to be directed by the young director George Lucas, fresh off the acclaimed "THX-1138" (1971) and "American Graffiti" (1973). Muren joined a few dozen artists, model-makers, cameramen and animators to build a company dedicated to exclusively generating the effects for Lucas' pet project called "Star Wars." The company, meanwhile, ended up turning into the visual effects giant, Industrial Light & Magic.
Under the supervision of effects guru John Dykstra, Muren and his colleagues found themselves in an environment of striking ingenuity and innovation, as "Star Wars" took existing techniques to ambitious new levels. To create the never-before-seen imagery of spaceships moving with lightning speed across the frame, Muren - whose official position of effects cameraman - helped implement a computer-controlled camera, cheekily dubbed the Dykstraflex, that ran at a low shutter speed and arced itself on a crane around stationary models positioned in front of a blue screen. When the footage was projected at normal speed, the models appeared to streak by the camera lens at fantastic speeds. The highly detailed models were often reduced to just a blur, but when combined with background images and animated laser bolts, the illusion of kinetic, yet realistic flight was complete. Their efforts won the film an Academy Award for visual effects, while a new era of visual effects was born, to say nothing of a legendary film franchise.
After "Star Wars" was completed, Industrial Light & Magic was initially dismantled. Muren went on to work for Douglas Trumbull, assisting in photography of the mothership in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). He then followed Dykstra to his own company, Apogee, and helped create effects for the original TV series, "Battlestar Galactica" (ABC, 1978). But soon Muren was called by Lucas to return to a reformed ILM, which was relocated near San Francisco, in Marin County, for "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). Initially reluctant to move from Los Angeles, Muren nonetheless took the two-year job, becoming instrumental in the effects for the "Star Wars" sequel, whose striking imagery and spectacular effects nearly eclipsed those of the original.
As ILM flourished, it took on new projects in addition to "Star Wars" movies, such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," (1981) "Poltergeist," (1982) and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984). Muren and the others continued to develop new technology as well. They improved upon the decades-old stop motion with a new process dubbed "go-motion," which utilized sophisticated motors and gears to slowly move a model while the camera lens aperture was open; the result being a natural blurring effect, a dramatic step up from the nagging jerky style of the conventional method. The process brought to life the memorable flying bicycle scenes from "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" (1982) and the two-legged walker sequence in "Return of the Jedi" (1983). The company and Muren branched out further with the development of the "Star Wars"-based "Star Tours" ride for the Walt Disney theme parks, as well as the more ambitious 3-D ride produced by Lucas and starring Michael Jackson, "Captain EO."
As Muren and ILM perfected their techniques, new steps in computer technology began taking hold. While computers had been used in programming cameras for years, the only computer graphics in film were displays on computers, high-tech opening credit sequences or scenes where the effects were intended to have an unnatural look, like the knight brought to life from a stained glass window in "The Adventures of Young Sherlock Holmes," (1985) - a sequence supervised by Muren. As the technicians got their feet wet, more experimentation followed: the first instance of "morphing" was used in "Willow" (1988), where a shape-shifting creature turns into one animal after another. The effect was startling in contrast with previous methods, whereby the camera would cut away, or the use of dissolves would mask the transition from one image to another. The next use of computer-generated imagery, or CGI, was even more distinctive; in "The Abyss" the fledgling process was used to create an otherworldly creature seemingly made of water which took the shape of a human face.
Convinced that computer graphics held the future of visual effects, Muren took a six-month sabbatical to fully study the technology. While Muren soon developed memorable computer effects for the liquid metal cyborg in "Terminator 2," it was during preproduction of "Jurassic Park" that Muren spearheaded a real turn for the industry. Director Steven Spielberg had initially planned on creating the dinosaurs mainly with highly sophisticated animatronic puppets with a limited use of long shots relying on traditional stop-motion and go-motion. Muren and his team quietly did a test of a computer-generated Tyrannosaurus Rex lumbering across the screen, as well as a herd of smaller, bird-like beasts skittering over a landscape. The work was so impressive that the filmmaker changed tactics and incorporated the new technology into the film, which was a huge commercial hit and arguably the first on that level to wow audiences with images they had not seen before since "Star Wars" two decades earlier.
Not surprisingly after that innovation, Muren moved up to the position of senior effects supervisor at ILM and went on to oversee the effects on countless landmark movies, including the three installments of the second "Star Wars" trilogy, "AI: Artificial Intelligence," (2001) "Hulk," (2003) and "War of the Worlds" (2005). In 1999, Muren was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first visual effects artist to receive the honor. Then in 2006, he was given a lifetime achievement award from the Visual Effects Society. Muren became well-known enough that "Equinox" was released as a special edition DVD in 2006. Ironically, in later years, Muren became increasingly outspoken with Hollywood's reliance on CGI technology and the tendency of modern day effects houses to encourage technology over artistry. He was scheduled to publish a guidebook for upcoming visual effects artists, promoting the use of observation of the real world, to better imagine worlds of fantasy. Meanwhile, in addition to consulting with the animation powerhouse Pixar, Muren contributed FX to the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008).