As a longtime fan of Dennis Muren’s work in countless films that the entire planet loves, when I was offered the opportunity to speak with the eight-time Academy Award-winning visual effects guru, you could say I jumped at the chance. That’s because throughout my entire life, the work that Murren has done on films like Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, E.T.,The Abyss, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Innerspace, and countless others helped form my love of movies, and getting to talk to him about the making of some of these films was something I’ll always be grateful for.
The main reason I got to speak with Murren was the 3D release of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Originally released in 1991, the film hit theaters like a thunderbolt, showcasing groundbreaking special effects that had never been seen. While VFX can now can do things Cameron could only dream about when making T2, at the time, the liquid metal, shapeshifting T-1000 was something the world had never seen, and mixed with the fantastic script and breathtaking action, T2 went on to win Academy Awards for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Makeup, and Best Visual Effects. In addition, the visual effects invented on the film were used as stepping stones to help get the industry to what everyone takes for granted today. For what he had to say about the making of Terminator 2, click here.
In addition to talking about the second Terminator film, I got to spend a lot of time asking about the making of the original Star Wars movies. As you can read below, he shares some great behind-the-scenes stories like how the original 70mm prints of The Empire Strikes Back went out without some finished visual effects shots, what it was like working with George Lucas, his thoughts on the special editions, how the Star Tours ride was made, why the person you see at the end of the ride with a mustache was a big deal, why he didn’t work on Episode III, and so much more.
How are you doing today, sir?
DENNIS MUREN: Just fine, how are you?
Doing excellent. Been a fan of your work my entire life, so it’s really cool to get to talk to you today.
MUREN: Oh, thanks.
You’ve worked on so many iconic films, can you pick a favorite?
MUREN: You know they’re from so many different era’s and so many different directors and technologies, I don’t know if I have a favorite. I mean I could say probably Empire Strikes Back would be one, from the old school. The new school is right around the era of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park somewhere in that period, those two maybe were the most mind blowing and progressive, and you know, fantastic and imaginative films that I’ve been able to work on. We’ve had really lot of really big breaks in technology and artistry. But there’s something about every one of them that’s special.
Which of the films that you’ve worked were you most nervous the visual effects might not work? Or you might not make the actual deadline?
MUREN: Well you know we were worried about Empire because we had just moved up to Northern California and hired a lot of local people up here, and had to train them to be able to do the effects. I think there’s about maybe fifteen or twenty 70mm prints that went out that have about thirty temporary shots on them that are not finals. So we actually didn’t make it for the 70mm release, but then probably about a day later we got all those shots in, and all the rest of the prints were fine.
That’s funny, so people that went and saw the 70mm prints actually on the first day didn’t see the finished movie?
MUREN: That’s correct, they saw shots, but they weren’t up to the quality that we wanted, not that anybody could tell the difference. We were told that, “Oh don’t worry about these, when we do the neck of the real ones the next day, and you get your shots in, we’re going to pull all those prints back, and we’ll replace them with all your perfect shots and everything.” I don’t know if they ever did that, so they may still be out there.
Do you remember what shot it was? Or what shots?
MUREN: No, you know it was a lot of them, I think some of it was in the Cloud City sequence maybe, and some of it might have been in a walker battle, the AT-ATs.
MUREN: Those were some of the most complicated ones that we were doing at the very end of the show.
A lot of people might not know that you were involved in the Star Tours ride, I believe you directed it.
MUREN: Yeah, that’s probably right.
Do you remember how the ride came together? Was it always going to be that version of the ride, or was it ever going to be something else?
MUREN: You know it just was like “hey George [Lucas] said we’ve got opportunity to do this simulator ride,” I think it was one of the first ones done, second or third one done, this simulator. I came up with the story for it and Tom Fitzgerald at Disney who was in charge of it there, came up with a plot for it, and George kind of took our two different ideas we had and sort of put them together. Then I went and broke it down into, you could say directed it from then on, figuring how we’re going to do this three or four minute ride without any cutting. Which was really hard to do on film, nowadays it’s a lot easier on CG but back then, so it was quite a challenge but also extremely fun to do it.
Just to think within that constraint, and be able to sort of time your own emotions, saying, “Boy just got out of that battle, now I need a breather. So I’m going to bank off to the right, I’m going to settle down and we’ll have the guy talk for a little bit and then we’ll pan on and we’ll see, this ice planet coming by.” Or icestroids, what we called them, that was the name for them. Just designing that thing all the way through for emotion and being able to do it with one continuous cut was pretty darn neat. I really enjoyed that.
I can’t even imagine how many people have been on that ride over the decades that it was going.
MUREN: Yeah, and it’s still on YouTube, you can see it on YouTube.
Of course, absolutely, I went on the ride way too many times.
MUREN: There’s a guy in the end, of course just between us, that has a mustache, that’s Ira Keeler and the law at Disneyland was nobody has facial hair.
Who was he?
MUREN: He was one of the model makers, everybody you see in there, in the taking off and the landing, when you see people, they are those of us who worked on it. I’m in it, the producers in it, the model people, and the few of us are in it. Well the last guy when you come in and you stop and you almost crash, and he sort of stands up, if I’ve got this right, I may be remembering it wrong. But he’s got up and he goes and picks up a phone, he’s got a mustache on. We didn’t know that there was a thing that if you worked at Disneyland you can’t have any facial hair. I was worried when I heard that, if we’re going to have to reshoot that scene or something, and do that whole shot, but they let it in there. So, that’s far as I know the first apparent Disney employee who’s wearing facial hair.