Discuss: Can Special Effects Still Impress? ILM Creative Director Dennis Muren Says They “Aren't Special Anymore”

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by Charlie Schmidlin
April 11, 2013 11:02 AM
16 Comments
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The name may be unfamiliar, but ILM Creative Director Dennis Muren's contributions to film certainly aren't. Initially hired by George Lucas on “Star Wars,” the man has nabbed eight Oscars for his visual effects work to date, and more importantly, he shepherded ILM's transition from practical models to CG work with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” All of which is to say: when the man comments on the current state of the industry, you perk up.

Unfortunately, Muren has found the need to speak not out of celebration, but in alarm and anxiety. Claiming that his craft has “reached a ceiling” and that "[in] some ways… special effects aren't special anymore,” he has also lamented the rise of narrative bloat, and inexperienced young directors lost in their attempts at practical and CGI effects.

“If you're going to make a motion picture, don't just throw computer graphics in to make everything bigger or more,” he said. “Don't have an army of 20,000 centaurs or whatever it is, if the story is better with seven centaurs. They've lost sight, making things bigger and bigger. Less personal." 

The issue grew more pertinent this week, as director Neill Blomkamp's sophomore sci-fi effort, “Elysium,” was smack in the center of it. After Sony screened 10 minutes of footage to press, the reaction was largely ecstatic, with many praising (including us) Blomkamp's continued fusion of VFX work (by Image Engine) and Weta Workshop's practical wizardry for the film's weapons and mech-suits.

So, are Muren's words made purely of melancholic nostalgia -- mere quibbles to give James Cameron pause before roaring back to the CG environments of the “Avatar” sequels? Or could our feedback to Blomkamp's latest simply be tinged with relief toward special effects with some actual visceral heft? Let us know your thoughts on special effects -- the good and the bad -- below. [Movies.com]

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16 Comments

  • Brian Dzyak | April 15, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    Special Effects: creating practical illusions that actually occur on set such as wind (fans), rain (rain bars, water truck), snow (foam and blowers), and fire (flame bars, explosives).

    Visual Effects: taking the film shot on set and enhancing it later in post-production with computers or optical processes.

    Two different departments. Two different career paths.

  • Brian Dzyak | April 15, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    Special Effects: creating practical illusions that actually occur on set such as wind (fans), rain (rain bars, water truck), snow (foam and blowers), and fire (flame bars, explosives).

    Visual Effects: taking the film shot on set and enhancing it later in post-production with computers or optical processes.

    Two different departments. Two different career paths.

  • droop | April 11, 2013 6:00 PMReply

    remember the 2001, star wars, the thing? models still look better

  • Alan B | April 11, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    "mere quibbles to give James Cameron pause for thought before he charges back to the CG environments of the “Avatar” sequels?" No, not actually. If there is one thing that Cameron knows, it's how to create special effects that feel completely new and distinct to the audience. With the possible exception of Lucas, Spielberg and Zemeckis, no other living filmmaker has been responsible for as many iconic special effects images. In other words, Cameron will be just fine.

  • 2323 | April 11, 2013 8:07 PM

    Very, very true. Cameron is not even remotely the target here. It's garbage like Wrath of the Titans, made by people who hate movies

  • Rob | April 11, 2013 2:05 PMReply

    I'll take clay-mation over CG any day. The physicality is what is missing. You see the CG image and know nothing is there, in every sense. But no matter how many times I watch the speeder bike chase in "Return of the Jedi," I know they are puppets, and I know they aren't real, but I know that something was physically present at one point to create that cinematic trickery. When someone sees special effects nowadays, no one asks "How did they do that?" Because everyone already knows. The magic is absent.

  • Levene | April 12, 2013 8:02 PM

    Completely agree. Same goes for models like Droop said. No matter how many extra facial expressions CG Yoda has, it simply doesn't look more real than puppet Yoda, because puppet Yoda actually existed on set. I wish some of that CGI money would be spent creating better puppets and models instead of just more fakeness. Sure didn't hurt LOTR for instance.

  • Ray H | April 11, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    "The name may be unfamiliar...."

    What? Anyone who grew up in the 70s, 80s, or 90s and cares enough about movies to visit a movie news website on a regular basis should know who Dennis Muren is. The dude has more Oscars than any other living person.

  • tristan eldritch | April 11, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    I mostly hate the CGI era of effects, and think the decline of blockbuster/fantasy films pretty much coincides with the end of practical/in camera effects. That said, I thought AVATAR was a remarkable achievement.

  • Hmm | April 11, 2013 12:29 PMReply

    Forget about the state of CGI--how about the state of journalism? Neither you nor the site you link these quotes from mention the source these quotes came from.

  • MAL | April 11, 2013 12:12 PMReply

    I am generally unimpressed by SFX today but there have been a few exceptions, most notably when they are integrated with practical effects. The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit come to mind but the most impressive effects I have seen in recent years -- the one that truly wow-ed me and made me wonder "How the heck did they do THAT!" -- was in Inception. In particular, the zero gravity fight was truly innovative and awesome in its execution.

  • Kurskij | April 12, 2013 6:10 AM

    Hobbit actually made me feel a bit nauseous with its CGI overload in some sequences. Goblin dungeons chase felt like a video game with waves of creatures literally "leaking" wave after wave from every possible direction and camera flying around like a bat on acid.

    LOTR was most impressive though and dinner scene in Hobbit was wonderfully executed.

  • Kurskij | April 12, 2013 6:06 AM

    @ron

    That's exactly what can be called SFX. Otherwise it would be VFX.

  • Glass | April 12, 2013 5:41 AM

    @CATTT - Nolan's use of CGI is actually pretty bad (and jarring to the viewer). It comes from his insistence on in-camera effects as much as possible (which is great), and so when the time comes to use CGI, it sticks out, like he gave up trying to make it work. Like the batpod in TDK driving up that wall and turning around, the crashing helicopter, the Bat in TDKR, etc.

  • cattt | April 11, 2013 2:21 PM

    Nolan uses stunts and CGI better than most big name directors. The truck tipping over was a stunt, they even dropped a real plane shooting The Dark Knight Rises -prologue. Some of the CGI stuff looks also real (the crashing helicopters in TDK etc).

  • Ron | April 11, 2013 12:20 PM

    The one for Inception, can't really be called SFX, as they built a room that could be turned 360 degrees, and it was almost all in camera effects.

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