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Star Wars Celebration Anaheim: Part Five – Dennis Muren Panel

Dennis Muren: Legacy in VFX

This panel was quite different than the other panels. Host David Collins introduced the man who needed no introduction to the legion of Star Wars fans. Dennis Muren came on stage and literally did a live VFX breakdown based on 6 minutes of Return of the Jedi footage he PERSONALLY cut together. The footage was all of the space footage from the film which basically amounts to a little over 6 minutes. First he let the footage play out and then began to go through the footage. He said this was more “thematic break down” of how someone makes a shot look like a Star Wars film. One thing that was clear was that Muren is passionate about his work and it shows. The man loves the work he did in a 30 year old film as much as he does on his most recent work.

Some of the highlights from the presentation:

  • Muren said that he had seen a 35mm print of Return of the Jedi last year. Though it was scratched up, faded and discolored, he loved how it not only transfixed him but the entire audience that was watching it.
    • Specifically, he was speaking of the ROTJ final space battle.
  • Muren brought something to light that many don’t consider.
    • The shot we see in the final film is just that the final optical shot.
    • He said that many takes are taken before that final optical shot is approved.
    • Sometimes the progression of that Optical shot will have hundreds of man hours worked on it to have one thing go wrong and it have to be started all over again.
  • Return of the Jedi he felt was the apex of what was possibly with optical effects work.
    • He sited; Dragonslayer, Empire Strikes Back, ET and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan as works that helped build the knowledge they needed to accomplish what they did in ROTJ.
    • He mentioned Dragonslayer. Just that made me jump with glee*
      • *This write adores Dragonslayer.
  • Empire Strikes Back he felt was a harder movie to make, though its a smaller film than ROTJ.
  • After ROTJ he moved to Computer Effects.
  • He briefly mentioned Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as his next three projects after ROTJ, all films that paved the road for modern computer effects.
  • Muren talked about how clean lines and a less busy frame is something he felt was missing in modern effects movies.
  • Muren name dropped ID4 as one of the effects movies that he could say got it right with effects work.
  • He also name dropped Gravity as effects that he felt were quite impressive.
  • When Empire Strikes Back was released 17 70mm prints had over 30 unfinished effects shots. He said that they were assured that those prints would be replaced by new prints. He was sure that a few of those 17 70mm prints were still out there.
  • The hardest shot to accomplish and also his personal favorite of the Star Wars series was the Hoth overhead shot that tracks a Tauntaun as it gallops the icy plains.
  • Muren said he still loves models and continually attempts to use a mixture of both on any film he works on.
  • Muren went over an anecdote about a project that recently came to him and they wanted to use models and he agreed. At the last minute the production panicked over “the trees not looking right” to which Muren responded with, “If I didn’t know how to make trees in miniature I wouldn’t have suggested it?”
  • The question came up about models/optical effects versus computer generated effects and Muren said that he works with both and both have their big issues and big benefits.
  • He mentioned that CG visual effects haven’t gotten better since Jurassic Park they have just gotten “bigger” and much of the innovations have come from “computing power” rather than true innovation.
  • When a question came up about Muren “creating computer effects” he laughed and said, “What am I now? Al Gore”.

It was great to see a legend like Muren still passionate about his work and still willing to go toe to toe about things. He had a great moment where he discussed not being a technical person but being someone that’s obsessed with getting the perfect image on the movie screen. Muren has without a doubt with just the films mentioned perfected images on screen. It was an honor to see the man that made liquid metal terrifying, dinosaurs come back to life and a stain glass window into a murderous nightmare talk about his craft. It was even more of a honor to realize that the man is still super passionate even after forty years.

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