NAME: Dennis Muren.
DESCRIPTION: Special effects wizard.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: He has more Oscars than anyone alive.
NEXT PROJECT: Creating computerized “Casper.”
When Dennis Muren showed up at the Academy Awards March 21, fans didn’t scream for his autograph. But Muren, who picked up his eighth Oscar for helping create the dinos in “Jurassic Park,” has a piece of fame all his own: No living person holds more Oscars than the 47-year-old effects cameraman.
Muren extends credit for his success to his co-workers at Industrial Light and Magic — and to ILM founder George Lucas, with whom Muren has worked since the first “Star Wars” in 1976. Hitching his wagon to ILM was a smart career move , leading to visual effects Oscars for “E.T.,””The Abyss” and “Terminator 2,” among other films.
But there’s another explanation for Muren’s success: middle age. He’s old enough to have logged years of experience in traditional stop-motion techniques but young enough to embrace the vast technological advances made possible by computers.
Muren immediately saw the potential of computers to create realistic dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park.” After convincing an initially skeptical Steven Spielberg that computers could do the job, Muren went on to help set up the satellite link that allowed the director to edit dino dailies while on location in Poland for “Schindler’s List.”
“We were already transmitting across the (San Francisco) Bay, so it really wasn’t that big a leap to Poland,” he says. “A lot of it involved setting up the gear to scramble our signal, so people like CNN couldn’t pick it up off the satellite.” For Muren, the information superhighway means the ability to create films on the fly. “When directors start seeing that it frees them up, you’ll see more video editing from locations.”
That’s a far cry from the technology Muren cut his teeth on during the 1960s. While the period is beloved by critics as a golden era for independent filmmaking, Muren recalls it as the dark ages for special effects. “No one was doing effects in movies then,” he says with a sigh. Like many stop-motion cameramen, Muren labored mainly on TV commercials, helping to create the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant.
But then came “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968. Suddenly, says Muren, the film business became “a whole different world.” When Lucas and effects supervisor John Dykstra began plotting “Star Wars” with computer-assisted motion control, Muren saw his future. “We were using the same sticks and glue over and over again on commercials,” says Muren. “These (‘Star Wars’) guys were spending tens of thousands of dollars on effects. I thought I should learn that technology.”
A native of Southern California, Muren had figured out his career by the age of 10 when he began shooting special effects with a home-movie camera. But in case things didn’t work out, his parents made him get a business degree from Cal State L.A. He now lives in Marin County with his wife, a landscape architect, and two children.
Muren is currently creating the ghost effects for Universal’s “Casper,” and like most at ILM he’s looking forward to production of the much-anticipated “Star Wars” prequels, which haven’t even been scripted yet.
As for where he keeps all those Oscars, Muren says, “They’re spread around; my mom has one.” And he harbors no illusions of breaking the all-time record for Oscar wins. That title seems securely held by Walt Disney himself, who took home 26 statues.