Dennis Muren on ‘Terminator 2’, Working with James Cameron, and Helping Out on ‘WALL-E’

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 WarsThe Empire Strikes BackReturn of the JediE.T.,The AbyssJurassic ParkIndiana Jones and the Temple of DoomInnerspace, 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.

Image via Lucasfilm

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?

Image via Carolco Pictures

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?

Image via Carolco Pictures

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.

That’s also true.

MUREN: He’s many people. He is an amazing multitasker. Someday they ought to dissect his brain, and they’ll find things that the rest of us don’t have.

Did you work at all on the Terminator 2 3D release, or are you watching it just as a fan?

MUREN: Yeah, I just was watching it, I didn’t see it, or didn’t work on it at all no.

I haven’t seen it yet in 3D but I know that Cameron was involved, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

MUREN: Yeah, I don’t have any idea what to expect. I know I like 3D, I like more aggressive 3D and I don’t know what Jim has done on this show. I like it where, you treat everything as a big cube, and a lot of people don’t do it, they make it more as like layers. But I think there’s something that’s wonderful in it, and I think it’s unfortunate that more movies weren’t converted or shot with a sort of cube idea in mind. ‘Cause I think it’s hurt the, it certainly hurts the audience response.

Yeah, I think that Hollywood took what could have been a really good idea and kind of killed it from bad 3D conversions and just gouging the consumer rather than putting out a quality product.

MUREN: I agree, and you know it’s not all Hollywood, it’s a lot of the people doing it just don’t get it.

Sure.

MUREN: You know it’s a really interesting thing, I think I heard that just under 20% of the people can’t see 3D anyway for, I don’t know what the reason is. But if you were working someplace and have a chance to make some money working on something that was 3D, would you tell anybody that? Probably not, ’cause you want the job, right? So how many people are working at these conversion houses that can’t even see 3D? I think that’s what nobody talks about, and they’re never going to either.

Will never be brought up except for this conversation right now.

MUREN: That’s right, no I don’t mind getting it out there. I think it’s unfortunate.

I agree. While I love modern visual effects for me there is something about miniatures and the way optical effects with miniatures that I just absolutely love. You look back for example on Battlestar Galactica, which I believe you worked on, and some of those effects just stand up because those miniatures sort of look real. Do you think miniatures can ever come back in a practical way and then sort of mix it with CGI? Or do you think miniatures are done?

MUREN: No, you know Chris Nolan believes in them and he’s putting them in all his films, there’s a few guys that do, and there is a move to get back to them. But once people start shooting with miniatures and building them, they find out why we sort of got away from them in the first place. Because when they don’t work, they really don’t work, and there’s no backup, there’s no way to fix it. Nowadays we can sort of go in and we can paint problems out, we can paint a wire that might show up. If a model is supposed to blow up and doesn’t crack quite correctly we can put something over it digitally, fireball or something. We never used to be able to do that, but I hope that they don’t go away because I think that should be the foundation of almost everything we do. Then we embellish it to get rid of the things that don’t work about it and to make it look as awesome.

Because the great thing about CG is, it’s as good as you are, as good as imagination that the person has who’s doing it, and observational skills, they can make the stuff just phenomenally better in the design and in the feeling of it even, than you can do in models. ‘Cause you can just work on it, work on it and work on it till it’s better and better and maybe change this and change that. It’s not like a one shot deal with a model.

Not many people do it, not many people know how to do it. Not many people have the education and haven’t really studied what the world actually looks like, or what explosions actually look like. Not too many people trust their imagination, or trust their memory, and my experience is your memory is always faulty as to what really happened.

I’m just wondering … miniatures to me, because it’s a practical thing and your brain sees it, it’s not just in the computer. I just think that maybe it’s an opportunity that we’ve sort of forgotten about.

MUREN: I think you’re right, not only have we forgotten about it, but a lot of people don’t even know how to budget for it, the producers. So there you’re screwed there, the person at the top of the chain is going to put the money, some people are going to say, “Well I’m not going to trust miniatures, let’s do computers.” You’re right, I mean I think building models, and if you aren’t going to like have them in the shot, at least build them and look at them and photograph them and remind yourself what they’re supposed to look like. You know you’ve got to keep in mind that when you see bad CG, you’re probably not seeing a good CG, it goes right by you.

I completely agree, and I cite Duncan Jones Moon, I believe he used miniatures and they looked great.

MUREN: Yeah. Nowadays you can clean them up; you can paint out things that don’t work.

I could be mistaken but you’ve consulted with Pixar. Do you still do that?

Image via Disney/Pixar

MUREN: No, it was just the one off, it was- I had an idea about something, about if … their look, looked more photographically real, if it would bring in a larger audience. That was just a crazy theory I had, and I contacted them about it and they said, “It’s funny you mention that because Andrew Stanton’s working on a project and he wants more reality on it right now.” So I went over there and was there working a couple of days a week for six months on Wall-E and it was just really the first act of Wall-E and what he wanted was that the feeling of Earth in the future is, the way I talk about it is if you were to step out and walk around there you could just taste the dust everywhere.

They were getting more of a cartoon look, a clean look, and I just suggested and had a really worked… muck it up and make it look much more realistic but not like photography. I still wanted to make sure it looked very man made and made by the Pixar artist, but that it was … it broke a lot of stuff that they weren’t used to doing. That I knew because I’d studied reality, and that was it, we just did the first act and that was it.

I was going to say that the first act of Wall-E is considered a masterpiece by almost everyone who has watched any Pixar movie.

MUREN: Yeah, isn’t that wild, I mean that was a really great show, terrific. I’d hoped that, that reality look we could have carried it through with the rest of the movie, but they were running out of time. You know it takes a long time to do that, and it was something they weren’t used to doing either. But I was glad to be a part of them, I really admire them.

I’m sure you must see a lot of movies and you must be a movie fan, so I have to ask what visual effects have you seen recently that have really just blown you away?

Image via 20th Century Fox

MUREN: Well I like all sorts of things, I thought that work in the Fate of the Furious was terrific. I thought that the new Apes movie was beyond terrific, and you know there’s a lot of stuff out, there’s just a lot. I thought the King Kong film that we did, the ape was just amazing in that, and that really worked out very, very well. There’s a lot of good work now. And the trick is getting it, so the audience feels it, instead of just looking at it. There’s so much of it that looks the same as you’ve seen before, and that’s hard to find something new to put into it. It’s a struggle, there’s so much work being done now, I don’t know what 5000 more effects shot being done every year for feature films and that’s a lot of information that you’re picking up as a viewer, year after year. Often those have got to be … the fact they’re effects probably … the producers are expecting some wow-factor and how can you wow something, wow the audience that many times.

I have to say that the work in War for the Planet of the Apes to me, as someone who loves movies and loves visual effects, to me it’s just another level, it’s tremendous what Andy Serkis and all the people involved. It looks like there’s real apes on the screen.

MUREN: Yeah, in every shot. Not just some of them, in every shot.

Yeah, it’s absolutely crazy. What is the next hurdle that you think visual effects can overcome? Because I would imagine you look back on what you were doing 30 years ago and what can be done now, it’s just insane, do you think that … is there another hurdle that’s coming that you think they’re going to be able to overcome? Are you paying attention to that kind of stuff?

Image via 20th Century Fox

MUREN: Yeah I’m paying attention to it but oddly enough I don’t pay as much attention because it seemed over the last decades that something was coming, and then it wouldn’t. It was often the audience just didn’t care about this, we saw it for a while after, what was it, oh Dreams May Come, that sort of beautiful sort of lyrical painterly look may take over movies. An English period drama’s would be done with that sort of palette, of half real and half something else, and it never happened again. So it’s not like we look at this and say, “That’s what’s going to come” because people try to do that.

Like 3D unfortunately is disappeared again, but it’s just not, it’s not going to. But look from what I can tell, there’s still a huge effort to try to do digital humans, and they really haven’t been done yet the way they need to be done. Where you can look at a close up of the actor through hundreds of shots, and it looks like he’s talking, it looks like he’s there, but he’s totally synthetic. That still hasn’t been done yet, used to be a little bit here, and you can do 20 shots there, you can do it dark there, stuff like that. That’s the holy grail and has been for like 20 years for a lot of people. But I’m not particularly interested in that, and I’m not sure what I’m interested in. It kind of the immersion, I like … I think virtual realities got really something but it’s too much solitude for my taste, I like getting the audience experience. I was hoping 3D would catch up but I also there’s four of in the world that like high frame rate and I’m one of them.

Look for more from my interview with Dennis Muren in the coming days.

Image via Lucasfilm

Image via Carolco Pictures

Image via Carolco Pictures

Image via Carolco Pictures

Image via Carolco Pictures

Image via Carolco Pictures

Image via Carolco Pictures

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