As a longtime fan of Dennis Murren’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.
But 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.
Since my interview with Dennis Muren covered so much ground, I’m breaking it up into two parts. In today’s installment, you can read what Murren had to say about the making of Terminator 2, how Cameron pitched him on the project, if they had to make any changes due to budget or time, the secret to working with Cameron and not having him get mad at you, his thoughts on 3D, and more. In addition, he talks about his time working at Pixar on Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E, if he thinks miniatures (like those used on Battlestar Galactica) will ever come back, what recent visual effects have impressed him, and what’s the next hurdle for VFX to overcome.
Check out what he had to say below and look for our conversation about Star Wars and other films soon.
Collider: When Terminator 2 first came out, the visual effects were just jaw dropping and considered a high watermark for the industry. Can you sort of talk about your first meetings with Cameron and the way he pitched it to you, especially after The Abyss?
DENNIS MUREN: Yeah, well after The Abyss I thought we were going to get an awful lot of work from all over the place, but Hollywood didn’t … you know they came forward a little bit, but Jim came forward with the best thing of all, which was T2. When I went down to see him, it was like, “oh man this is really pushing it. Are we going to be able to get this done on time, and on budget, and realistic and everything?” But you know it makes sense that then a lot of work that had been done on doing computer graphics was sort of shiny chrome figures, but had never been put together into a film, and a walking character like that, that had to act and perform and stuff like that. Certainly not in feature quality, on a 70 foot screen, having to look real, that had never been done before.
So I think we were really ready for it, I’d been personally hoping that something was going to happen, and I took a year off after The Abyss and just read this massive computer graphic book. ‘Cause I didn’t know much about graphics at all, so I could become comfortable with it.
By the time T2 came along I pretty much knew what we should do and how we were going to do it and what the limitations were at the time and how not to try to go overboard on anything. So and Jim was great, he didn’t have a clue really either about it, about how … because he was so busy with the whole show and getting all that working. He was great, if there was a concern I had about a camera move or something that might be hard to replicate, we would shoot two versions, he’d let me shoot a version without the camera move and with the camera move. But everything he wanted I think we pretty much got into the film… that I can remember.
I was going to actually ask you if you made any big changes as a result of time, budget, or being at the limits of what computers can do?
MUREN: You know everything was compromised to some extent, you know it always is on these budgets. The last shot of the movie is the scene with the T-1000 looking down on him in the molten metal tank, and that was actually rendered at a really low resolution, not at 2000 pixels across like everybody was doing then. What we were doing nobody else was doing it, but at a 1000 and maybe even part of it was like at 800, because we couldn’t get the movie done in time. We couldn’t have worked on it, couldn’t have done it. So but I knew nobody would notice because it’s all these heat waves that were going over everything and the whole thing just sort of magical.
That was a compromise going on you could say at that point. We had processes from all over the country working on that, we had Silicon Graphics, which we were using their equipment down in the South Bay, but we had stuff at Research Labs back east. We broke the shot up into, I think it was few pieces, like four or five different pieces and sent them out all over the country to start rendering them. It took days to render every frame in those days, to do it for that one shot, that was the hardest shot time wise to in the show. That looking down at the melting T-1000.
I’m a huge James Cameron fan, and I know he puts everything into every project. I’ve also heard he expects the same from everyone. Did you guys ever get into a spat over anything? Or did he always treat you with kid gloves because you were helping him make these crazy visual effects come to life?
MUREN: You know I think he just respected me and believed that I could do it. I never had any trouble with him at all, I mean I didn’t… The deal with Jim is you just got to get into his vision and understand what it is, and then if he likes it then you’re together on and just don’t ever screw up. Get into it, yeah but if you get into it, you’ve got to be honest about it. That’s like I was saying, if I said, “You know Jim I really don’t know if we’re going to be able to pan the camera, yet if we can duplicate that on the computer can we do a backup with the camera locked off?” He said, “Sure, fine.” It takes under one minute, and you’ve got that version, that’s what he wants to hear.
He does the same thing; directors do it all the time when you’re directing a film. You don’t know quite what the tones going to be, then you do two or three versions of it and you’ll decide later. So that’s all he needs, I found him to be great to work with and a fountain of ideas and brilliant. I’d never met anybody like him, that could, he could be talking to five people … five different conversations all at the same time and jumping from person number three to number two, and then to number one, and then back to number four, and not miss a beat, and they would all be on different subjects. They would be something you would talk about three days before everybody.
Yeah I’ve spoken to him a few times, and he’s always come across to me as the smartest guy in the room.
MUREN: I think that’s probably true, I think smart as many guys in the room.