Dennis Muren-ILM Creative Director Says Special Effects Aren't Special Anymore


"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.



I agree, I think movies should be more subtle with their use of CG. That’s also one of the points that can make CG look fake where it’s overused and does things that you wouldn’t do if the effect were real and you were just filming it.


Can’t disagree.


I tend to agree with the statement in the article’s title, but regarding this:

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.

I don’t think that changing the way we do effects is what needs to change, I think it’s the actual writing of the films. Far too many films are just shallow excuses to put explosions and robots and stuff on the screen without any decent story, characters or character development. Effects should be there to support a good story, not make up for a lack of one. And that’s really the biggest problem with Hollywood blockbusters right now. Look at blockbusters of previous decades - Star Wars and the Indiana Jones films had a lot of effects work but they also had compelling characters and good stories. Despite being pretty effects-heavy, we don’t remember those films purely for those effects, we remember them for the endearing personalities of the characters and the challenges they faced.


I wish they would use more combos–since in addition to other issues, the use of CG alone can sometimes make it so costly and eliminate pre-planning so they end up with fx sequences that appear edited in the most economical way possible.

In Ghost Rider when the two ghost riders are heading through the desert together and then the older one says “that’s all I had left in me, good luck son” and fizzles off into the sunset. Was that really the most dramatic conclusion for the older ghost rider? Or did they plan to have him in the final showdown and ran out of money?

Other movies like Clash of the Titans and Predators have similar types of things. Perhaps if I found the stories more engaging I wouldnt notice these things.

But even in Iron Man which I liked better-when he grabs the pilot out of the air. Its very fast–as if the fact that he is flying in a metal suit high above the ground isnt a big deal. They didnt milk it for dramatic impact like they might have if it had been done with aerial rigs against a bluescreen or something similar.


Good article but…

This, absolutely. CG isn’t going to fix a busted story.


Muren actually says as much here:

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.

The conflict is that old VFX are tired and boring but are easier to achieve since it’s easier to point at a previous film and say “I want that.” New and groundbreaking VFX are expensive and time consuming, two things that studios don’t want to hear. They are even less interested in hearing it from a young and unproven director. There are millions of possible stories that could use innovative VFX in their storytelling, but few writer/directors who have the vision and technical understanding to pull it off.

Perhaps as tools get even cheaper, these visions will become more of a reality. I’m really hoping we’re still at that stage in VFX where film was when it started: They began by filming normal, everyday events (trains arriving at a station, etc.) but people grew bored so they had to bring more and more story and character to the reels. We’re in that place now with VFX and need to outgrow the reliance on spectacle and use them in a way that makes us care more about what’s happening.


Quoted for truth.

While Avatar and Prometheus were both effect heavy, I don’t remember any of the character names, or traits, or progress. There are the training montage for Avatar, but the one that did the final shot was the girl with the arrow, and also saving him from Pandora air. So that Avatar guy is still the same he was before: non military type unlike the brother he’s replacing.

And as for Prometheus, was there any character progress? Other than getting dumber, that is? :beer:

I however remembers Max and Atom from Real Steel. I know someone might hates me by mentioning that movie, but seriously, ever since “Batteries Not Included” and “Short Circuit”, there is no movie where I cares about robot character, and being a kid, I cried for both movies (in case of SC, both films). Not even Wall-E.

I watch the making of ‘Real Steel’ and I find out some of the interesting tid bits. Although I didn’t know if it ‘for real’ or ‘done for marketing purposes’. You know, like ‘doing this will make the movie better’ or ‘doing this and telling it in the promotion will bring people to the movie’ type.

Then again, I don’t know if audience has progress and now become ‘instant gratification type’. What is the point of character progress when we all know that in the end the character is progressed enough to ‘win’. Might as well as start the film with the character full progressed and give the viewer what they want - ‘action’.

Which is why for me personally, Thor was much better than the Avengers. It was predictable, yes (Thor), but there are character progression, and in less expected way. I thought he will go to the Hammer, and the journey and confession will prove his changes. But it was not. He sacrificed himself, and the Hammer comes to him. I have to give my hat off to the screenwriter, whoever responsible for that part.

Anyway, CG need to help convey the story, not being the story.

Lately CG have become the ‘technology talking point’ of gaming in the 90s and 2000s. Remember reading game advertising where they talked about ‘256 color’ or ‘full motion video’ or ‘one million polygon on screen’ or ‘made using this awesome engine’ instead of how fun it was.

I think I agree with the sentiment. Special effect is no longer special. Therefore it has no leverage in ‘special feature’ that advertise the movie. You don’t talk about the lightning technology, or the sound recording technology, or the food that caterer brought, but why of why people kept talking the CG technicality as if it was the selling point. You can talk about it in the context of selling software (this was used to make water simulation for 2012!) but not in the content of selling the movie (this movie has the biggest simulation of collapsing building ever!). It was just like, what the point? You should sell the movie, not the effect.


More fx in films = more fx jobs.

Less fx in films = less fx jobs.

Seems like a no-brainer to me.

As others have said, the over-use of CG isnt a problem in film-making. Its bad writing/directing/etc. And even then, its only a “problem” from an artistic or creative standpoint. Plenty of CG-heavy films with bad writing make tons of $$$, which is ultimately what matters to the big studios.


Funny VFX versus the story.
Whenever you hear about ‘rogue’ directors and the ‘poor helpless’ studios
having to reign them in after the production took months and months longer than forecast. The end result of the director absolutely having their own way are some of the greatest films ever made (sometimes with a lot of FX).The Classic blockbusters. The ‘Must own’ films. Apocalypse Now is the classic case. Star Wars, Alien, Abyss etc all at least gave you the sense the director was in control and with fresh ideas. FX were there as a compliment. Not a saviour for the film.

Most of today’s blockbusters feel like they were made by committee.
If there is a great director at the helm he’s gotten complacent to the studio over the years.

Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings seems to me to be the last incarnation of this. FX heavy but PJ seemed to have the reigns. I would say
the Hobbit shows PJ can get complacent too.

Avatar was great as well-but maybe not the ‘freshest’ of ideas for James Cameron (not like the Terminator for example). However it was a box office smash. The biggest ever. And absolute success.

All that to say what has been said before. If the studios are really running ‘the show’ the film is gonna SUCK no matter how much money is thrown at it. Fire the committee and the shareholders-they are ruining our entertainment.:applause:


I would disagree with that, Star Wars would have been much much different if George Lucas had his way, the prequels are an example of what happens when he has complete creative control. I’m sure limitations were also a part of most classic films that have a lot of FX


This is a sweeping generalization. There was discussion that John Carter was such a troubled production because Andrew Stanton stubbornly refused to allow any studio input out of fear that they would ruin his “vision”. Now, that doesn’t mean that if the studio had interfered it would have improved the film, but it is the reason that studios keep pushing directors around when there are huge amounts of money involved. They can always point to that film and say “Look, we let him have his way and he gave us a turkey.”


Yup its sweeping. And I never saw John Carter so I’ve got no opinion there.

But can you name a film were the studio stifled the director-but chucked a lot of money at it - and it was great? Then one could point the finger right back at them…What was the last interesting thing that took no chances?


I havent seen John Carter yet either but a friend who knows my tastes said I would probably like it so I look forward to discovering whether its true or not.

I find that movies work best with collaboration–especially between a director, writer, and producer who is more than just an investor liaison which seems to be the case a lot of times today.
The auteur theory may work great in french new wave film but for genre films I dont buy it.
When Harryhausen accepted a Bafta the first thing he said and emphasized was the collaborative nature of filmmaking–no one person controls everything–and in the case of his films the most memorable part was usually the fx scenes.

One of my favorite films of the late 90s was the Mask of the Zorro and the production history was a mess where people came and went and no one person had complete oversight (there is a tiny bit of cgi in the movie–a computer generated tear drop).

In ye olden days studio operators had some interest in story content. These days its hard not to get the impression that the large studios have no interest in story issues whatsoever.


I’ve seen John Carter, and from beginning to end it has a Disney feel to it.

Now, I’m convinced that it failed at the B.O. because of its crappy marketing (as a Disney film on the coattails of Jerry Bruckheimer and the Pirates films), but as it was it was an enjoyable film. I wouldn’t call it a turkey at all.

I can’t help but to think, tho, that under a different studio it would have had different, a more gritty tone and feel to it.


It’s a cliche, but big studio filmmaking is such a soulless and accountant-driven exercise at this point it’s actually amazing that “they” let any movies through intact. Once the budget gets to a certain level, unless you have an amazing amount of clout, everyone is so concerned about their investment that they’ll keep poking at things endlessly or mashing it into a safer and safer cookie cutter form.

A good producer will insulate the director and others from interference as much as possible, but there’s so many other sources of meddling or dumb ideas or things that can fail along the way that it really seems like defusing a bomb before it explodes in your face.

I think on some level they are beginning to acknowledge that good storytelling and originality have a place, but only when those movies perform well. And a lot of the dumb stuff is performing well right along with it.

The other side of the coin creatively though is definitely the fact that given even a mid-sized budget, literally anything can be seen on the screen. Whatever your writer’s and director’s brains can come up with, it can happen. What separates the men from the boys now is people who actually have vision and interesting concepts and stories to tell, rather than letting the 20,000 centaurs be the only content.

Not that the spectacular doesn’t have a place either, you still need those breathtaking moments, but you really have to work to make them have impact or be unique. How boring was Sucker Punch or Mummy 3 in spite of all the incredible things appearing on screen?


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.

The problem is, I suspect, that movies likely get started by some guys sitting around saying, “I want to see 20,000 centaurs attack a place and blow everything up.”

The next exec says, “Great! Get someone to write that up.”

“How about that guy who wrote the last blockbuster?”

“Perfect. Call him up. Tell him he has until Friday!”

Kind of like when Kevin Smith was pitching to the studio exec who wanted a giant spider in the film no matter what film they were making.

A movie like The Mask of Zorro shouldn’t even have CG, any more than The Three Musketeers should have Hong Kong wire fu fighting. I bet if they made it today, though, there would be a CG double of Zorro floating around weightlessly doing who knows what odd things. Maybe fighting 20000 centaurs.


I think CG is useful these day for:

  • making stuntman live safer
  • be politically correct (like the fish in Castaway)
  • save money in transportation (fake height in 7 Years in Tibet)
  • make production faster (like using green screen / live background video of real location. you can film a sunset scene at morning! no matter how many takes)
  • and much much more.

but it should never be the story just because.


Its when Catherine Zeta-Jones is holding Anthony Hopkins at the end. I read at the time that she didnt cry so they had to add it in post.


I too think that films wouldn’t be overrun with cg if it wasn’t in the script to begin with.

However cg DOES make up for the lack of a story, whether we like it or not, we’re paying for it whenever we got see it in the cinema. And we do! Thats why we’re seeing films with scripts that would never pass any quality check 20-30 years ago. They’ve got effects to make up for it now. Saw Oblivion last night. Good example of a film which, without visuals, wouldn’t have remotely interested me.

But I wonder, why could we not have some films with story, and some with vfx?