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Interview: Special Effects Master Dennis Muren on Terminator 2: Judgment Day

“It was scary stuff, but radically advanced. I mean, it was smashed, it didn’t work, but…it gave us ideas, took us in new directions. I mean, things we would have never… All my work was based on it.” – Miles Bennett Dyson

In 1991, ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ set a new standard in special effects and action movies in general. Groundbreaking in myriad ways the bold endeavours of the visual effects department are still fit for task 26 years later. Gifted the task of delivering the most sophisticated special effects audiences had ever seen was Dennis Muren.

For Muren, the insane schedule and fragmented process didn’t affect the experience of making ‘magic’.

“You know it was very stressful but it was also like magic. Because we had not done anything like this before. Nobody had done anything like these images, and when they started coming together – we’d have our dailies maybe in the morning and in the afternoon sometimes – I remember looking at the dailies and saying ‘Did we do this? Has this been done before by people?’ – it looks impossible yet it looks amazing.

So it was a time of just incredible excitement and sense of accomplishment and sense of a future that was brand new and that was going along with, How are we going to get this done?, How do we solve this problem,? That problem? – it was a very exciting time”

Despite jumping into new territory and attempting what had never been done, Muren was always confident they would pull it off.

“We’d done some testing at the beginning and I’d seen a lot of CG work and we’d tried with chrome shapes, changing shapes, this was more complicated, but I was pretty sure we could pull it off. There was some things we had to fix with touch up on the frames using a early version of Photoshop, but it was pretty much doable – I had backup plans for some of the stuff if it didn’t work.”

Interview: Special Effects Master Dennis Muren on Terminator 2: Judgment Day

With the wizards at ILM working out the CG sequences that would make up the majority of the ‘fancy footwork’, Muren always had ‘old school’ alternatives if the new technology didn’t quite pan out, as one of the biggest challenges, was working with the limited computer power they needed to render the effects.

“One of the shots is when Robert [Patrick] pulls the metal rod that’s going right through, out through the side of his body. Originally I thought we’ll try that with a mechanical rig and we made the rig, I thought we could do that whole thing sort of 2D and matting – and it totally worked. It worked both ways and that was one example of something I was going to try old school and then figured out we could do it with CG – it would be more realistic and it worked out.

“The last shot looking down at the face going through everything, that was the longest. We had computers rendering frames all over the country. A few frames here a few frames there, anybody who had a high end or supercomputer we could use.

“The one I always thought was most shocking and nice was when he walks through the bars at the insane asylum and you just see the skin deforming and it recreates on the other side, that was very difficult trying to figure out how to be able to take that imagery and twist it around and reconstruct it again. We had a lot of shots like that. They were very very new and hadn’t been tried before.

“Even walking out the fire. To get that gait Robert Patrick has when he walks. It’s not just a regular person walking, it’s not just a machine walking like a computer might do, he had a style and Steve Williams… (Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams, later of ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Mask’) copied that walk exactly which is what made it look like Robert Patrick walking out.”

At this point in the interview, I have to mention to Muren that watching the T-1000 walk out of the exploding truck decided the direction of my life and the study of cinema. This spectacle in particular has had the biggest impact on me.

“Imagine for me too! I love doing this stuff and this guy comes with these fabulous ideas and we actually get to do em’! Miracle!”

Why does Terminator 2 have such a lasting impact?

“You know, Jim is just such a good filmmaker and he sees the entire world as his play set, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s a little car going along or it’s a massive semi truck going a long a freeway you know, whatever he imagines, he can imagine big and he has the tenacity to make it happen. That’s why the movies are expensive and thats why they take so long and thats why when you look at it, you’ve never seen anything like it. Those options have always been there but very few people know how to take advantage of them and put them together to make a riveting dramatic story for two and a half hours.

He got on to a real theme, right? It’s a theme of the future that’s kind of happening. He knew how to tell it so well and being a good director he gets the audience engaged and has to keep you engaged. He never stops thinking about this stuff when he’s making it. He’s always trying to top himself coming up with new ideas all the time, with the idea of keeping the audience interested, wowing them, giving them their money’s worth, not over doing it, not wearing them out, certainly they’re not getting bored. He puts 120% of himself into it – maybe 200% of himself into.”

Interview: Special Effects Master Dennis Muren on Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2 showed audiences images they had never seen before. Was it the most difficult challenge Muren has had and have there been bigger challenges since?

“Oh since that time, well T2, we couldn’t have done ‘Jurassic Park’ without doing T2 and we probably couldn’t have done T2 without ‘The Abyss’, but everything HAD to come together for T2. Jurassic [Park] was the next step after that. Everything going on in that period hadn’t been done before, but looked like we could do. We weren’t jumping into this foolishly. And I’m certainly not jumping into anything with my fingers crossed, like hoping we can do. I’d rather know we can do it.

So I always do a lot of tests and have back up plans so we can be out there and have a good chance of succeeding. But I don’t think much after that time, for me at least, was as big. Maybe when we got into ‘The Phantom Menace’ years later and we had to do so many shots with so many thousands of characters – those films are the ones that led into ‘Lord of the Rings’ and the Narnia’s and you’re really opening your imagination to anything the director wants.

Those films, especially Phantom Menace led the way for a whole other growth in the film industry that has to do with the scale of everything. It’s sort of the reality of stuff, you know, we were still looking at the technology, some of the stuff is shaky some is fine, because we were pushing ourselves as we always do, but I think all those films have stepped up to where we are today.

All these [new] movies have got 2000 shots in them. And you’re seeing things you haven’t seen all the time. That makes it very hard to keep making movies, to make them interesting. There’s so many ideas now that have been done and how do you make it fresh and new? Maybe you probably shouldn’t just make things bigger anymore. You have to come with another way to make them look fun and compelling and different – and that’s hard to come up with.”

With Terminator 6 on it’s way and Cameron returning to the franchise, how does Muren see the future panning out?

“I think Jim’s going to still do another one, I think keep them going, if he can make them fresh and not repeating himself or repeating what other people are doing that would be good. But you know it’s open to his imagination, open to people’s imaginations to what can be done with it. But it want’s to be different. Doesn’t just want to be the same thing again and I trust Jim will, if he continues with it, he’ll come up with something you’ve never seen before.”

Terminator 2 Judgment Day is released on 4k UHD, 3D BLU-RAY, BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL DOWNLOAD on December 4th.