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


Not at all. You and I are in agreement.

My point was that I don’t think there are very many screenwriters who set out to write movies like Transformers. Certainly not Kurtzman and Orci. I have no doubt they go into projects with the best intentions, but this industry is one of egos. Producers, actors, their family members/significant others all get to put their two cents in for some reason, rather than let the professional screenwriters do the job that they were hired for.

Ultimately, I blame story problems on producers because 99 times out of 100, a writer at that level isn’t handing in scripts full of plot holes. It’s the notes/change requests and rewriters that create those plot holes trying to accommodate tolerable ideas (sometimes), ridiculous ideas (usually).

The way rewrites happen is a problem in Hollywood. In order for a rewriter to get a screen credit, they have to have changed 50%+ of the script’s content. That means it is in the rewriter’s best interest to ditch 50% of the original script - the one that got people interested in the first place. Now, a truly professional screenwriter might not aim for that 50%+ worth of changes, but human nature tells me that every one of them considers it when they sit down to do the rewriting.

In my opinion, if you can’t get a solid draft out of the original writer, and one additional writer within three drafts of the initial first draft, there are major problems with the foundations of the story, or there are too many above the line voices making a mess of things.

At any rate, I think we’ve completely derailed this thread…


Its interesting about that 50% rule because in the case of Mask of Zorro apparently David S Ward, writer of the Sting, wrote 85% of the dialogue and didnt receive screen credit. Merited front page article status in the Los Angeles Times according to what i read about it.

I suspect in that case it was where the producers due to flukey circumstances managed to accomplish a lot despite serious production problems since you could analyze the film and find 5 characters with strong development and personality traits–unlike Transformers where you’d be lucky to be able to say anything about even a single character.

But the way studios worked must have been different then too.
I can easily find movies from the late 90s that work like normal films (even remakes like Mighty Joe Young) but you hit the 2000 era and suddenly things dramatically change.


Well Orci and Kurtzman started talking about STAR TREK around 2006 September (when Transformers had wrapped) and, they seemed genuinely excited about it.

There was a lot of “careful language” on that community (save for one or two “rebels”). And you kinda take what they tell you at face value. Like the Camaro thing (VW won’t/can’t do it)… or the Soundwave thing (the character was seen as valuable in a planned sub-plot about “who is loyal to Megatron? What is Decepticon motivation?”… but the character was removed due to a disagreement about Mass-Shifting and there was little left of the sub-plot after that). Whenever things like that happened… there was always this phase where they kinda try to tell us relatively early (this was around 2005?) that some things “won’t be what you guys are expecting”.

I knew in reality it was just “testing”… They’d show us pictures and they’d ask us a few questions… It was still educational really.

Personally I didn’t weep for any of the compromises but I always found the “because” parts interesting. “Because of Hasbro”… “Because it’s not Realistic”… “Because Michael Bay wants it that way”… “Because General Motors is paying.”…“Because we’ll bust our budget”…

By around April 2006… you could see the whole thing was “gravitating” towards a point… and the funny thing was… without seeing the film… I kinda already knew where the pieces fell. I still enjoyed seeing TRANSFORMERS because it “worked”… and I knew to some degree who did what and which idea is whom…

I was reminded of this… especially when talking about VFX and Story Writing… I mean… we all know it’s true that story is first. What I learned on TRANSFORMERS is that EVERYBODY has a different idea what kind of story they’re supposed to be telling… and because everybody is so fired up… and they have so much at stake in something? It goes bananas.

And yeah, it rested on Orci and Kurtzman to basically write draft after draft that incorporated all these things… They went from opening the film in a jungle with Soundwave and Ravage to opening it in Qatar with Blackout and Skorponok (residue: Blackout “ejects” Skorponok… because that was how Ravage was going to get out of Soundwave).

Oh and the best “because”? “Because we want to make the best movie possible”.

P.S.: And no… I don’t think we’ve derailed the thread… because Story and VFX are kinda inseperable… the VFX design, the art choices… the “effect”… is a sign of what went on with the story and the telling of that story. Why did Tumbler NEED to look like an angular rolling tank? Why did Batman start wearing black when the comics costume was blue? Why is the lighting and design for Punisher Warzone so different from the Thomas Jane Punisher? Behind that… in the “agreement” for the VFX… the “specialness” there will come from what PUSH and how hard of a PUSH comes from all these people in the VFX and around the VFX Team who are trying to push the Story.

If Dennis Muren feels TECHNOLOGICALLY that VFX/SFX thing is no longer special… then it just means that “Story Push” that informs the VFX process can and needs to be a lot more overt.


I love Leone, but if you need a counterbalance, then watch the two end-of-the-west Richard Brooks westerns, THE PROFESSIONALS and BITE THE BULLET. Or for a different kind of counterbalance, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH from Sam P.

I think I just named all my favorite westerns. Except WILL PENNY, so there!


The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the mid to late 80s, I was thinking the epitome of evil manifested not just in the White House and with the machinations of Albert Broccoli, but with Cash & Epps, the guys who wrote LEGAL EAGLES and TOP GUN and TURNER & HOOTCH and SECRET OF MY SUCCESS and DICK TRACY. I couldn’t believe how bad these movies (not so much TRACY) were, or how these guys were getting these gigs.

Then I read a really good interview with one of them and it was very clear that they had their own ideas, but all of that got submerged in favor of writing to order. And it certainly worked on the level it needed to … producing blockbusters. The blockbuster mentality has only become more pronounced, and I guess Orci and the rest are an example of how to succeed financially working the system. Personally I think I’d be too ashamed and furious to cowtow, but then again how do I KNOW I wouldn’t sell out?

I used to play a game with friends … the guy who wants to option your script is John Landis … do you spit in his face for what he got away with or do you make the deal? Was surprised how many folks said make the deal, cash the check … THEN spit in his face. Massively unethical and yet there it was.

True story: when I got in to pitch stories at Next Generation a millennia back, the lady who got stuck taking the meeting (because the guy I was supposed to pitch to had to go upstairs and placate Roddenberry, who had gotten hold of the story for the season 4 ender and was having a conniption) didn’t like any of my ideas … except a runner (c-story) about Picard always making a point of being off the ship at the time of his birthday to avoid having to deal with the inevitable party, and this is the one time he can’t do that.

All the rest of the stuff was met with “Picard wouldn’t do that” or “we don’t do fantasy” (interesting, since that was a hard sci-fi pitch) or 'there is NO contradiction between the hippocratic oath and the prime directive" … but she liked “Picard tries to get out of having to go through a birthday party.” Geez, that’s a logline for a sitcom! But I had integrated it into the a/b story (stuff she didn’t like), so she was asking if I could put it into something else … yeah, like that is going to fit into a script about a planet that can’t make manned spaceflights anymore because they’ve got so much crap in orbit that it is like a shooting gallery to get out of their gravity well! When you have a & b stories that don’t resonate or connect in any way, you get … well, you get the stories that NextGen did that were usually bad. So while I did go through about 3 more pitches (I think I had a dozen altogether), I didn’t try to shoehorn the birthday story into any of them. I guess I did blow off a possible assignment since I didn’t do the eager-beaver thing. Damn, the more I write the more I remember about this …

Shoot, at least I took something away from it that was positive … Ron Moore was one of the other guys in the pitch session, and when she shot down my main pitch (the ‘Picard wouldn’t do that’ turndown), he got up and did about 5 minutes of fairly passionate defense of my idea … it was almost as if he had read the material I had in my briefcase, because he was going places I hadn’t gone verbally, but already had down on paper. She listened and then just repeated “Picard wouldn’t do that.” He didn’t say another word for the next 30 minutes, so I should have probably taken the hint myself that it wasn’t going to work out right then. I had already become impressed with Moore on the basis of FAMILY and the Romulan defector episode, but that just cemented my good opinion of him. Have liked most of his work since, too, though let’s not bring up GENERATIONS, okay?


The way I see it is, if I sell it, it’s no longer ‘my’ story so I don’t care much about the changes done afterward. If they ask me for specifics that need to be worked in on a rewrite, I’ll argue if I think they’re bad ideas, but if they can defend their position (or can’t but stick with it anyway), I’ll include their input because I’m being paid, and it’s no longer ‘my’ story… it’s the production’s story. ‘My’ story will always be the one that was in my head while I was writing it. I keep that version and ownership of it. Anything down the line is another beast entirely.

If I didn’t take this approach and divorce myself from the ‘ownership’ of the story, I’d never be able to write for a living and I’d cry every time I see the stuff on the screen.

Beyond that, producers have the money. Unless you’re Kirsten Bell or Zach Braff, you’ll be beholden to them. :hmm:


I can believe writers would be compromised by having to serve a lot of masters and interests (including the US military in the case of Transformers), and working under studio deadlines they might not have had 20 years ago. Transformers sounds like an undesirable position for any writers.
And I suspect a lot of directors and writers would have turned it down without a second thought (if its true that the makers of Iron man had problems finding writers willing to work on the script because it wasnt considered famous enough I can only imagine what they thought about a toy movie) Perhaps if Kurtzman and Orci were not working on a big franchise film and left to their own devices they would make something more interesting to me. Hard to say. I notice they also went into producing.
However, I have watched enough Kurtzman and Orci films to see a pattern. Them talking about admiring Waiting for Godot at least reveals some understanding for their philosophy because I noticed absurdities in their work which, if are their contributions, seems consistent with that admiration. The pipe smoking scene in Legend of Zorro, the security guard bathroom distraction in Transformers 2, the rabbit’s foot mystery in Mission Impossible and Tom Cruise’s last moment “Wait, wait-------I love you” even though he was on a seriously limited time schedule. Red Matter in Star Trek.
In the latter two film cases it is like someone is saying: this doesnt matter. Its B movie prop BS anyway so let’s not even try to make the audience buy into it. When Cruise says he works for the Impossible Mission force and she replies shut up. After all she has been through up to that point, you would think she might be more willing to believe him. lol

When I used to read Famous Monsters, Fangoria, or Starlog I never once saw anyone use the term “cheesy movie.” Nowadays it appears to be a derogatory expression aimed at a lot of movies covered by such magazines. One where the story is imaginary and hard to believe, however they treat it professionally. The classic case would be Hammer’s Cave man films where Shakespearean trained actors were asked to speak gibberish and behaved completely seriously. Nowadays it appears people cannot buy into that–they are too sophisticated (yeah, right). That’s why I can admire Cannon’s Masters of the Universe because with what little they had, I can see that they did about the best job they could have done. But it would be called a cheesy film for trying too hard to make people buy into the story (subplot about the parents dying in a plane crash etc).

I’ll check out the westerns mentioned. Thanks for the suggestions. I have seen the Wild Bunch but wasn’t fond of it.
The craziest western I have seen so far is A Thunder of Drums where a skinny George “Love At First Bite” Hamilton beats up Charles Bronson. Pure fantasy. However the dramatic storyline was treated seriously.


Most writers lean this way if they can. It gives you more control over the product, and the chance at a bigger piece of the production pie + potential revenues.

It’s also a negotiating tactic on the part of the studios…
“Mr. Writer, I want to pay you less”
“Okay, Mr. Studio, make me a producer and I’ll take a cut on my writing fees.”
Mr. Studio thinks - he’s gonna have to hire a producer anyway.
“Sure, you can be the producer.”

The studio is off the hook for any potential revenue payment if the project doesn’t make money, so it’s no risk. If the project does make money, the producer fees are going to be spent anyway… it might as well be to the people who truly understand the story.

In the case of Orci and Kurtzman, they’ve got a ton of TV production behind them, so doing it for film was a natural progression.


Trevanian’s story about what went on with STAR TREK: TNG was definitely the same vibe I got observing the development process on TRANSFORMERS.

Everybody had a “No… that wouldn’t happen” kinda comment.

The perspective usually is that “you don’t need meddling”… But I think the STRONGEST process (one that gets to the end) is the one that already “incorporates meddling” for all the motivations of everybody.

I’m not saying that Orci and Kurtzman always do stellar work… But I saw how they did backflips with the writing to really hedge everything in… It was admirable in the sense that you saw that it wasn’t some tack-on careless job. It does look that way sometimes on the screen (and I do get the personal impression complacency set in after the first film was a hit but that’s a different story)…But there was method to madness.

My personal rule (here we go again!) is “We can change EVERYTHING in the story beyond this Inner Core. The inner core… that’s what it’s about… everything else I don’t really cry about.”

There are other “rules” I use… but I found that one and the Spielberg rule to be particularly helpful which is: “The story has to say something you believe to be true or to ask a question you genuinely want answers for.”

On the subject of Westerns, I watched quite a few and my stand-out all-time favorite Western is “3:10 to Yuma”.


I dont see any questions or answers in Transformers except maybe “Should I buy GM trucks?–yes it may be a giant robot friend in disguise” or “What should I do with myself? Join the army and you might fight a robot.” The inner core in Transformers would be robots coming to earth disguised as vehicles and fighting, and there is an element of that (I didnt care for how it was presented due to Bay’s constant camera movements), but the rest of it is pretty banal. The device that creates robot life was neat but just a dead end prop that had little meaning in the story. The worst story issue was probably the lack of a real threat posed by the Decepticons. They werent shown as really dangerous and were easily destroyed.
Then the numerous human characters.

In Small Soldiers there's the kid who is some kind of prankster and has a  troubled reputation and has a strained relationship with his parents  (trivial but at least its something). Unlike Transformers, the girl has  some personality. The teen romance is tacked on and Phil Hartman is  sadly wasted, but there's a coherence to the film that Transformers  lacks.

I base this on watching the film, not on whatever transpires behind the scenes or in interviews. Its the final product that counts.

By contrast I would have assumed the Mask of Zorro had the smoothest path to screen possible, and only after watching it again did I learn what a troubled mess of a production it was. Kind of like Superman the movie, if one thing had been different it could have greatly altered the film.

I found there was some minor improvement in how the robots were portrayed in the Transformers sequel, and the visuals in Egypt had merit (Optimus Prime standing by the Sphinx) but the human story was the same kind of antics and dead ends. I havent dared to experience Transformers 3 yet.
Perhaps it could be re-edited in a way to remove the parents and make it more palatable.

I dont have a favorite western.
Once Upon A Time in the West was the best cinematic experience I have had in ages but there are well regarded ones I have yet to see like Django and The Great Silence.
Against majority opinion, I like For a Few Dollars More better than the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly but I havent seen the shorter version of the latter.


The public has gotten used to massive scenes and all kinds of special effects. Every film tries to top the last one in size of CGI spectacle in an ever increasing arms race to the eventual downfall (whether good or bad).

CGI has moved from “enhancing existing elements” to the main feature of a film in most cases, and I don’t know if this is a good development. Especially for films that want to have spectacle but don’t really have the money to back it up.

Cobra 6


I would say depending more on VFX and less on story shortens the shelf-life of any film.
I will still buy a great film from twenty+ years ago that had an ‘awesome amount of both’.

Its funny the discussion here about the story writing of the Transformers.
Thats a film I saw once and don’t remember the story ‘details’ and therefore
the VFX at all. And i can’t be bothered with the other two.
But very little at stake for me anyway-its just a ‘toy’s film’ after all…


Transformers is a fantastic 2-hour toy commercial marred by Shia LeBeouf.


Original or remake? (I like both of them a whole lot more than I expected, just idle curiosity.)

Adjunct to the TNG pitch thing is that one of my pitches was had two versions, but both were essentially variations on HENRY IV pt 2 (Falstaff is my fave character by far) and I’ve always thought Stewart would be a great Henry IV in the Gielgud vein, playing opposite Brian Blessed as a Falstaff type (my two versions had either Wesley or Dr Crusher caught between these two different types.)

I went to a convention about six weeks after the pitch session … Stewart was in attendance … turns out HENRY IV pt2 is Patrick Stewart’s favorite play! Man, I really wish I’d pitched to somebody else that day.!)


Like I said… when you see the result onscreen you do get a sense that “Well some guys really got careless here.” One of the things I can do is to walk into a movie (even one I made) and just FORGET everything I knew walking in. And if you do that with Transformers, it just feels “OK” and there’s this minor thing about “No Sacrifice, No Victory” but it’s all kinda sidetracked by this and that - it’s not very tight… Mikaela never seemed attracted to Sam at all.

“No Sacrifice, No Victory” was supposed to be the motto of everybody on the film: Prime, Megatron, the Marines, Sam Witwicky… but it felt like “Yeah, I get it now… LOOK! TRUCK TURNING INTO ROBOT!”

On the inside line, you just weren’t there when the idea was for the robots to all talk in alien languages or not speak at all… I also had a chuckle watching the cube “fold into itself” to become smaller. That was how they thought Soundwave was going to go from 40 feet tall to the size of a little musical device.

They told us the effect looked ridiculous… well it’s up there shrinking the most important thing in the movie!

I only saw the Christian Bale, Russell Crowe version. I never realized it was a remake. I was harping to everyone about how fantastic and ORIGINAL “3:10 to Yuma” was! Hahaha.

On pitches… yes… the SUBJECTIVE taste of the person you’re talking do does seem to make a LOT of difference. Once “one person on the inside” is on your side? You take that person to the After-Pitch and it always goes easier because one of them has bought into the concept.


He made a very memorable Prince Vultan!

…Come to think of it, I did watch a fair bit of American tv westerns.
The Rifleman, Have Gun, Will Travel, Maverick, Alias Smith and Jones, Kung Fu…but I never got into the movies except the Valley of Gwangi and maybe Billy the Kid meets Dracula (though I havent seen it in decades and probably wouldnt like it now).


I just look forward to the day when studios finally stop using live action scenes in CG animated films to cut costs. There is always a jarring disconnect between highly kinetic CG scenes with unrestricted camera movement and the less interesting scenes impractically filmed with physical cameras. Who wouldn’t have liked Michael Bay’s Transformers movies better if the pace of those films didn’t constantly sputter to a stop to accommodate the flesh-and-blood cast? Just when the movies would begin to seem credible the focus has to shift from the more interesting robots to the completely unbelievable human actors.

But nothing will change as long as the studios insist on shoehorning a well known celebrity or fresh young face into every production whether it needs it or not.


Quite a funny joke or the comment makes no sense. :shrug:
I can’t see casting multi-million dollar a-list movie stars into films to ‘save’ money on production.


Probably true, but then it also seems like any movie can get made if it has the right star attached.


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