Wednesday, June 29, 2005

War of the Worlds (Extra)

GM! With War of the Worlds being the big movie of the summer , I thought I'd give you this extra on it just before it is released...enjoy:


Of all the stars in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, opening in theatres today, Dennis Muren may be the only one who can walk down the street without being recognized or even getting second glances. Little do people realize that this unassuming man is responsible for the most amazing special effects ever seen on the screen, as well as pioneering the age of computer-generated effects.

Besides working on the first five "Star Wars" movies and being a founding member of Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, for which he is currently Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, Muren has received nine Academy Awards for his effects work, which has included everything from the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and its sequels, to the cutting edge effects developed for James Cameron's films The Abyss and T2: Judgment Day. When one talks about the defining moments in computer-generated special effects, it's likely that one or more of Muren's dozens of films will be mentioned and his effects in War of the Worlds, featuring wanton destruction by alien crafts known as "Tripods", will likely astound audiences once again.

ComingSoon.net sat down for this exclusive one-on-one with Muren while he was in New York in hopes of getting a look into the head of this visionary effects man.

CS!: Given the condensed time between when Spielberg decided to do this movie and its release, how hard was it to get the effects done for this movie?
Dennis Muren: The deadline might have been the hardest part, and it was pretty tight in the end, because normally, we've got twice as long. Knowing in advance what was coming up, I just geared the crew up, and by the end, we had 179 people working on it for the last month.

CS!: Who came up with the design of the Tripods and how they were going to move?
Muren: We did the designs at ILM with a half dozen artists, who came up with about 100 designs. Another guy, Doug Chang, his little group did some designs, too, but the ones we came up with that were in the film were ours mostly. We tried an insect approach, and another one was a stiff, straight-legged type of approach, which was stiff, and then we ended up coming up with something which was more of a combination of things that from some angles can look very sinister and other angles look sort of benign even. The motions convey a lot of what's frightening about it. So, it took about a month, before we really had the design worked out on it, and even then, we were refining them as we were shooting the film.

CS!: Once you had the design and had to get it into the computer, was there anything you had for reference when figuring out how they would move?
Muren: Yeah, Steven gave use a clue. He said that these things are kind of like a jellyfish, sort of an underwater strange thing moving around mysterious, like its searching with a lyrical quality to it. That's why it walks like that. It's flowing, you know, as opposed to the stiff mechanical thing that is really in the artwork that was done around the time of Wells' story, because that was all based on the industrial revolution, so that all steam engines and stuff, and we wanted something much more contemporary than that. But still with the three-legged tripod.

CS!: Was it just my impression or did they actually evolve and change a bit as the movie went on?
Muren: Yeah, some of them have got the baskets on the back for holding people, others don't. Some of them have got a certain number of tentacles. There's even an uber-Tripod that you see in a couple shots that has a little different shape on its head then the other ones.

CS!: Can you talk about the rather different look of the aliens?
Muren: We didn't want them to look like monsters, because they're not monsters. They're not as cute as E.T., but to each other, some are very attractive and some are not so attractive. They walk on three legs, like the Tripods walk on three legs, with sort of a triangular, three-sided head when viewed from the top. We carried the three symbolism all the way through all the Martian designs. We tried three eyes, but that didn't look right and we took that out.

CS!: You're obviously on the set a lot. Did you have a computer on set with "footage" of the Tripods or aliens so that the actors would know what they were supposed to be seeing?
Muren: Steven hired one of our guys, Dan Gregiere, who had worked with Steven in L.A., to pre-vis most of the effect scenes in the movie. They had the locations picked already, so in the computer, he built the same geometry as the buildings at the intersection, and then he had the right calibrations for the camera angles, so the framing is the same you would see on location. Then Steven would try putting a Tripod over here and having the ground shake and rumble up and try different angles out over about a month before we started shooting. They were working really tightly together, and he had three or four guys doing this. When we got to the set, there actually was a very elaborate pre-vis that everybody could look at that showed just how big the Tripod was in the shot, exactly where it would be in the frame, and then we followed it 50 to 75% of the time pretty accurately.

CS!: Having a computer team on the set almost seems to be a given these days, rather than waiting and doing it all in post-production.
Muren: Yeah, and Steven was good in that he kept Dan on the set all the time of the shoot to pre-vis ideas that he had coming up. He might know that in a few hours he would be shooting something and have Dan start working on another angle. By the time he was ready to shoot it, Dan would be able to show it from three different angles.

CS!: Could you talk about how you decided on doing something using CG as opposed to using practical effects on the set?
Muren: If you can do it real, you should do it real, because that's the best way to do it. But there are compromises. If you have a lot of animatronic creatures, there are limitations to how they can move and how realistic they look. We wanted this to look absolutely real, and there was no way you could make an object and move it around on the set that would look like this. The explosions you could shoot on a backlot somewhere and build a little town and blow buildings up, but it would be very dangerous, very expensive, and it wouldn't look the same. We worked in Newark, New Jersey, and we shot it all for real in that intersection, and then, put in all the shattering glass and debris later on. You know, there was no debris falling from the sky at all when we were there. There was no dirt in the sky. That was all added later on. But the reality that you get from actually being on location, from looking down a quarter-mile down the street, that's important now. It's always been important to telling stories, that it looks real.

CS!: Was it hard for the actors to react to stuff that wasn't there for them to actually see?
Muren: Actors are great, because that's what they do, and it comes naturally. I could tell Tom 'This is 150-feet-tall and it's sort of looking around,' And then Steven would talk to him. I'd look at Tom, and I'd swear he was looking at it.

CS!: When you work on movies like this one, do you ever get bad dreams?
Muren: The dreams are not about the imagery, but about the deadline. The dreams are about, 'How come this doesn't look real?' and 'What can we do to fix this?' and stuff like that.

CS!: What happens if Steven doesn't like something you've done after spending a lot of time working on it?
Muren:We show him stuff as early as we possibly can. He's done enough of these films that he knows when to say something and change things. On the set, he changes his mind as he directs, and as he works with the actors in rehearsals, he changes things a little bit more. He does take after take until he gets what he wants, and he does the same with us.

CS!: At this point, do you have a team of people who do everything for you while you supervise or do you still get your hands dirty working at the computer?
Muren: I had to bring in another supervisor, Pablo Hellman, because there was no way that ILM could have kept the quality of the work up during the 8 months we had on the show. I took the sequences I wanted like the intersection, the ferryboat, and all the stuff that's going on at the end, and Pablo did a lot of stuff that was really important, too. He did the big car sequence that everybody loves. That was one of the most challenging ones, actually. That was made up of about nine pieces of film with invisible edits. It's all blue screen, but any department could have screwed that shot up. Tom and the actors were always shot on the stage, and then the car and backgrounds were shot. It was all just beautifully combined together into what looks like one shot. There's no way that you could shoot that for real. It's almost two and a half minutes, maybe a little longer than that.

CS!: Was this an idea that came up while on the set or was it planned in the storyboards?
Muren: No, that was planned way in advance. They had broken it down into like six shots, and shot each part separately, and it was all on a stage. The backgrounds were shot on a quarter or half mile on the freeway they had blocked off. I was telling Pablo that I think when this film shows to an effects audience in L.A, they're going to applaud that shot.

CS!: Do you ever get a chance to see your movies in front of a regular audience to see their reaction to something?
Muren: Yeah, I'll make sure it's at least been out for a week, so I don't get the fans. It's just a regular audience and I try to sit in the middle of the theatre and try to absorb it all. See what works and see what doesn't work. You can't change anything, but you apply it to the next show, so it's research.

CS!: Having worked on The Hulk, how do you feel when preliminary effects are shown in an early commercial or teaser and there's a negative reaction on the internet? Is that frustrating when you've done all this work and it's not even completed yet?
Muren: Yeah, you try to not even pay attention to it, because you can't let it stop you or anything like that. What can you do? It's already what it is.

CS!: You've already won eight Oscars for your effects work, but what do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment or achievement?
Muren: After 'The Abyss' I took a year off and I got a school textbook on computer graphics, one that all computer scientists had read. To me, it was like reading Latin. I just didn't understand it, but I forced myself to read it, and I really learned it. I came away from that being comfortable with doing it, and also, sort of contributing to the evolution of digital compositing. I worked a lot of that out at my home on Macintosh, and I bought one of the first scanners that came out, that cost $2500, to take it apart and find out how it worked. Then I came back and we did 'T2', so I really felt like I could apply it to something that hadn't been done before, without being too afraid of it. I really understood it. And then it was up to me to get a lot of the guys there confident in themselves to be able to really pull it off. The secret weapon I had on 'T2' was the Photoshop that had also come out. If we ran into problems with rendering, I knew I could go and we could paint a flaw out of the shot, which you could never have done before. That was probably the neatest thing that I was involved with, the transition.

CS!: With that in mind, are you compelled to top yourself every time?
Muren: Every time, yeah. I'm not only compelled, but you look at each show as an opportunity, and not as a challenge or as a job or as a worry. You have to put blinders on and go in with a lot of faith. Steven wanted to try to do it from the point of view of a working-class guy, and I tried to encourage him, which means the camera views are all done from his (Cruise's) height, and all he sees is what's in front of him. That makes the work harder. It's less like a Hollywood movie, where you show the hero and you cut to something blowing up and then the hero ducks. It's more like you're looking in this direction and the actor is right there, and from the side comes something that's going to hit him. Well, there's no way to do that as a blue screen shot or in the typical effects way of doing shots. You've got to do it more realistically, more like a real combat situation or like what we learned from watching amateur footage of the 9-11 blast, where all you see is this tight image, but you know stuff is going on all around you. So there's a lot of aesthetic on how you bring that into it.

CS!: Since you've done all of the effects for the Star Wars films, how come you decided not to work on Episode III?
Muren: I was going to do something on 'Star Wars', but then this came up. I'd been working on a plan to sort of change our hardware and software and (to implement) a different way of working within the company when this show came along. This show was the test run for that, to see if we could be more interactive with the director, get the work done faster, use the artists more as generalists instead of specialists, so that people could have more of an authorship of a shot. I'd been working on that, and then Steven came up with this show, and I could actually run the whole show with this approach and put it in place. We're moving in about two months and we hope to have a new style of working when we get there.

CS!: Was it strange letting Star Wars go after working on it for so many years?
Muren: Yeah, I just had done it so many times, and I didn't know what I could give to it. It's like you want to do it. I thought I could get credit for coffee buyer or something like that, but it never happened.

CS!: Did you feel like doing just one sequence for old time's sake?
Muren: I thought about doing one, but then this show came up, and it didn't make much sense for them to split the work on the show.

CS!: As far as upcoming projects, do you think you'll work on Jurassic Park 4 or the recently announced Star Wars live action series?
Muren: I wouldn't think so. I'm kind of dino'ed and Star Warsed out. [George Lucas] just told me for the first time like three weeks ago that he's going to do this. I thought now he's finally going to make his own little home movies that he's always wanted to make, his little experimental films. "I do want to do those, but I also have this Star Wars TV thing."

CS!: Maybe he can do a sequel to THX. Were you working with him back then?
Muren: No, no, but that was the film that I saw that I wanted to work with him. At that time, he wasn't really doing this, but a few years later, he had the space movie, and I thought it would be nice to work with this guy and see what he's like.

CS!: Have you been approached about doing the effects on James Cameron's next project?
Muren: I don't know. We've talked about it. He's got a couple things, not just 'Battle Angel Alita'. There's this other one floating around, too, so I think nobody quite knows what he's going to do. It's going to be hard to get up and actually do something, but you never know with him. He set up his own company to do 'Titanic', and he might do that same thing here just like George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott.

CS!: And would you want to do the effects on a Hulk sequel if that came along?
Muren: I heard they're talking about doing a sequel with a guy in a suit, which is probably what they should have done the first time.

CS!: It won't be Ang Lee wearing that suit, will it?
Muren: I don't know if Ang is going to do it. I thought Ang was going to make a movie like Jekyll and Hyde, and I thought we were going to get into something really serious with it, but the studio wanted this other movie.

CS!: Do you have any interest in directing yourself?
Muren: I directed my own low-budget film that got released when I was 18, and I just got it out of my system. When you're making your own movie, you got such freedom. With a studio film, you're working for the studio unless your Steven or Cameron, and I just wouldn't want to do that. I feel that I've got a lot more freedom now, and I'm a lot more creatively satisfied doing this. Letting the great directors do what they do and the great actors and composers and cameramen.

CS!: How much easier or harder do you think you had it then the effects crew from the 1953 film?
Muren: I saw that when I was six years old, when it came out, and I still remember it. Green is still my favorite color because of that movie, because the ray machines had these green things on the side. I know everything they went through, and they shot most of the effects for that in three weeks, which is amazing. They had no time on it. I definitely admire where they came through and what they had to work with. So I'm very aware of the past. I think it's a good time now to be doing this stuff. There are thousands of kids coming out of schools that want to do what I do, but most of them need to study filmmaking. They're studying how to use a computer and that's important, but that's not what my job is about.

CS!: Any thoughts on what might be the next film classic to be remade?
Muren: I haven't really thought much about that. I've got a lot of favorites, and 'War of the Worlds' sort of came out of nowhere. There's been talk about making 'Forbidden Planet', but I never look ahead. I won't know anything for a few more months yet.

CS!: How are you able to stay ahead of the FX curve?
Muren: You just need to be up to date with stuff. There's a lot of stuff coming out of games and commercials and stuff like that, because everyone is trying to come up with something new.

CS!: In closing, what do you think will be the next big challenge for computers?
Muren: Well, a lot of people are going for digital humans, which I don't care about, but a lot of people are interested in that, and I think that's the next step. I'm hoping that we can get 3-D into movie theatres, and then we can start designing scenes with depth perception. And that's on its way. As soon as all the digital projectors get in there, then that's going to happen and that's going to be great. It's a post process in which they can add 3-D to 2-D movies, and I've seen some tests with 'Casablanca' and 'Roger Rabbit' and the 'Star Wars' and 'Matrix' films. The stuff looks amazing, and it's better than the two cameras, because you're making an artistic choice, but it just brings you into the movie. Especially, seeing the end of 'Casablanca'. You wouldn't think it, but you have close-ups of the two actors, but they're in depth and you're looking at them, so it's just a better experience. That's what I'm hoping happens, and then we can start designing sequences with that in mind.

As Muren takes his much-deserved vacation, War of the Worlds opens everywhere today.


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