Dennis Muren may not be a household name (unless you live in a household where movie special effects are treated like a religion), but odds are high that you’ve seen his work. Muren has been a member of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic for years and has worked on a huge range of films, including Jurassic Park and Willow. When a guy with Muren’s resume speaks about the state of his craft, we should all be listening.
And that’s what the creative director at ILM did recently, making the debate-inspiring statement that “In some ways, I think special effects aren’t special anymore.” Before you dash to the comment section to voice your opinion, allow Mr. Muren to clarify.
A casual reading of that statement might make you believe that Muren is either A) denigrating the shift to CGI in place of practical FX work, or B) doing what all older guys do; waxing nostalgic about how things were better in his day. Neither, it turns out, is actually true.
Instead, Muren posits that modern FX technology has hit a ceiling and has become so ubiquitous in big-budget Hollywood films that we’re simply not wowed by the amazing technical wizardry that makes films like Star Wars and The Avengers possible. We’ve become so used to CGI, green-screen effects, and standard puppets and animatronics over the past few decades that what once seemed magical is now simply expected.
Muren, ever the champion for the artistry of his craft, finds this a bit concerning – and merely makes his observation in hopes of inspiring the next generation of filmmakers and technicians to continue to push the envelope and help the field evolve. This could mean discovering new technologies (which is challenging work), or simply finding ways to inject more artistry into what we already have. Take CGI, for instance.
“This toolkit has been around for 20, 25 years. Unless we come up with something really new, it's up to the artists to make best use of the tools they've got. If you're going to make a motion picture, don't just throw computer graphics in to make everything bigger or more. 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."
This is sound advice for everyone: bigger isn’t always better. FX work should exist to serve the story the film is telling – not to become the focal point. This is an issue all young filmmakers will have to grapple with moving forward, as technology continues to advance.
Muren says that in a perfect world, not only will filmmakers use effects in service of the stories they’re telling, they’ll also make sure to blend a variety of different techniques, from CGI to old-fashioned puppetry.
“A lot of directors like combining them [a variety of different FX techniques]. I would say not a lot of younger directors have had experience with that. Probably is that they won't be as comfortable with it and it's easier, production wise, to say just shoot a plate and we'll get it later. Get it and move on. The time it takes to make a robotic character or a Muppet perform right… there's a lot of value to that. Seems to have been forgotten."
Hopefully the industry heeds Muren’s call. I still think FX are pretty special (this weekend’s release of Evil Dead certainly proved that old fashioned in-camera effects work still can blow audiences away, for starters), but there’s no denying that we’ve become at least a little bit desensitized to just how special they really are.
What do you think? Are film effects still blowing you away when you go to the theater or have you started to take the massive spectacles for granted? Sound off below.