Visual Effects Director. Nationality: American. Born: Glendale, California, 1 November 1946. Education: Pasadena City College, California, 1966–68; studied business at California State University, Los Angeles. Family: Married Zara Pinfold, 1981. Career: 1968–75—Freelance special effects expert (specializing in stop motion and miniature photography); 1975–76—camera operator for Cascade of California, Hollywood; 1976—recruited for the Industrial Light and Magic company; 1980—promoted to ILM visual effects director, pioneering work in computer animation; currently senior special effects supervisor at ILM. Television work: 1978, Battlestar Galactica; 1984, Caravan of Courage (The Ewok Adventure). Awards: Academy Awards for effects (shared) for The Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Innerspace, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace; Special Academy Scientific/Technical Award for the development of a Motion Picture Figure Mover for animation photography, 1981; British Academy of Film and Television Awards (shared) for Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Jurassic Park; Emmy Award for Caravan of Courage; Star on the Walk of Fame; Academy of Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Films Saturn Award for Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, 2000. Member: American Society of Cinematographers; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Films (all special effects credits in collaboration):
Equinox (J. Woods)
Flesh Gordon (Ziehm, Benveniste) (miniatures; rear projection)
Star Wars (Lucas) (animation sequence); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner)
Dragonslayer (M. Robbins) (miniatures; opticals)
E.T. (Spielberg) (visual sfx supervisor)
Return of the Jedi (R. Marquand)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg)
Young Sherlock Holmes (Levinson)
Captain Eo (Coppola) (short)
Innerspace (Dante); Empire of the Sun (Spielberg)
Willow (R. Howard)
Ghostbusters II (Reitman); The Abyss (Cameron)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron)
Jurassic Park (Spielberg) (full motion dinosaurs)
Casper (B. Silberling); Jumanji (J. Johnston)
Twister (de Bont)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg); Deconstructing Harry (Allen)
Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (Lucas)
From the endearingly arthritic monsters of Equinox to the eyepopping big-as-life dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and its sequels, the career of special effects artist Dennis Muren offers a virtual step-by-step guide to the evolution of cinema wizardry over the past three decades. Associated with George Lucas' groundbreaking effects house Industrial Light & Magic since its precarious beginnings in 1975, Muren's work in the ever-expanding field of computer animation has (somewhat ironically) supplanted the now outmoded stop motion techniques that attracted him to the industry in the first place. Muren is a multiple Academy Award winner from The Empire Strikes Back onwards. His regular collaborations with fantasy giants Lucas and Steven Spielberg illustrate all too clearly the double-edged nature of state-of-the-art effects technology: the more marvels there are available at the touch of a keyboard button, the less room there is for individual flair and imagination (not to mention restraint). The Jurassic Park dinosaurs may be flawless in digital execution and jawdropping on screen, yet they remain oddly anonymous when compared with the best work of stop motion specialists Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen. Similarly, the menagerie of CGI space creatures in Phantom Menace seems to have strayed into the film from some ultra high-tech arcade game, existing only to be blasted into oblivion for maximum points. Muren and colleagues can guarantee a special effects roller coaster ride; what they can no longer promise is a monster to remember.
Begun when its creator was still a teenager, Muren's debut effort Equinox (1966–69) should be viewed charitably. Working as producer, co-director, co-photographer and co-special effects man, he enlisted the assistance of fellow animation fan Dave Allen, with a little professional help from Academy Award nominee Jim Danforth. If the amateur 16mm production did not quite do justice to the intriguing story of a missing professor (a cameo from fantasy writer Fritz Leiber), an occult bible and monsters from an infernal dimension, there was at least a show of promise, though the "professional" version released in 1971 by producer Jack E. Harris (with new footage) didn't set the world on fire. Muren's first real professional feature film work, handling some of the miniature and rear projection shots for the watered-down porno parody Flesh Gordon, was still on the very fringes of mainstream filmmaking but, combined with his work on television commercials, it got him noticed by George Lucas.
Founded to handle the unprecedented number of effects shots needed for Star Wars (363), Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) consisted of over 70 employees. While others worked on the revolutionary computerised motion-control scenes (which permitted the camera and model spacecraft movements to be synchronised in a preplanned sequence), Muren handled the brief scene featuring animated chess figures. Though almost a throwaway in the finished film, the miniature monsters stick in the mind, each given just enough hint of bizarre personality. Having become acquainted with Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Muren came into his own with The Empire Strikes Back, which made striking use of stop motion animation, most notably the Evil Empire's giant four-legged attack machines.
Promoted to visual effects supervisor on E.T., Muren contributed impressive work but not the one special effect everyone remembered: E.T. himself (a mechanical device designed by Carlo Rambaldi). Overseeing the climactic space battle in Return of the Jedi, he freely admitted to both a visible error in a multispacecraft crossover shot and the occasional feeling that the end results never quite lived up to expectations. With the unlovely Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Muren went back to stop motion work, ingeniously adapting a standard 35mm stills camera to take shots of a model mine car and its occupants. Edited into a chase sequence, the resulting footage didn't quite work, the animation jarring with the live action. Clearly a case of room for improvement. Young Sherlock Holmes showcased some of ILM's first work with computer animation, bringing a stained-glass knight to impressive life. Basically the computer manipulation of digitally stored images (either scanned or computer generated), the process was further refined in Willow, an amiable (if violent) reworking of Star Wars in a sword and sorcery milieu. Alongside a two-headed, troll-chomping monster (unkindly compared by some to Flesh Gordon's penisaurus), the film introduced audiences to the techno-miracle of morphing, the computerised transformation of one digitally stored image into another. Thus enchanted enchantress Patricia Hayes could be seamlessly metamorphosed into a goat, an ostrich, a tiger and finally herself. Terminator II gave the technique a sinister slant, with its "liquid metal" cyborg assassin.
With Jurassic Park, Muren and his collaborators finally convinced audiences that dinosaurs do indeed walk the earth. What neither he nor Spielberg could achieve was a sequence to match the Giant Gorilla-Allosaurus fight in the original King Kong or the caveman-dinosaur set-to devised by Harryhausen for One Million Years BC. Revisiting Jurassic territory for the disappointing Lost World sequel, Muren threw in a whole family of human-chomping Tyranosaurus Rex yet couldn't escape the law of diminishing returns (not helped by Spielberg's blatant lack of interest in the proceedings). Spectacle and shocks are fine but the effect is transitory. Phantom Menace, which reduces the once fresh and inventive Star Wars formula to a series of dull, merchandise-oriented set-pieces, lacks even the most superficial thrills. Hamstrung by poor storytelling and non-existent characterisation, ILM couldn't achieve an engaging or believable alien universe. Muren's most interesting effect of recent years is Robin Williams' permanently out-of-focus actor in Deconstructing Harry, a relatively small-scale piece of trickery that enhances rather than overwhelms the accompanying storyline. This aside, it remains to be seen if Muren can still impose the kind of imagination that fired Equinox on the vast bank of digital marvels at his disposal.