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Countdown to 'Hulk': Dennis Muren animates the big, green leading man

Dennis Muren has been at the forefront of modern-day visual effects in moviesfor about twenty-six years. He started on nothing less than one of the mostinfluential F/X movies of all time, "Star Wars" and has sincecollected nine Oscar trophies for his work in the field. Now Ang Lee has chargedMuren and his team at Industrial Light and Magic with the most daunting task ofall, turning a CGI special effect into the lead character of the dramatic actionmovie, "Hulk"

Muren recently sat down with the press to talk about his work as VisualEffects Supervisor on the movie. At the roundtable interview, members of the press took turns asking questionsabout the development of the film. Comics2Film/CBR News is please to presentthis edited transcript of that interview.

Q: You've gotten so many Oscars. Where do you put them all?

Dennis Muren (DM): They're sort of all over the place: families, friends.

Q: You give them away?

DM: I give them away, loan them, they're kind of all over.

Q: Do you give them to friends or people who worked on the movie?

DM: Well, I don't give them away but they but they can have them for a while.My mom.

Q: When you win eight, does it get old? Was there one that was especiallysurprising?

DM: You gotta get dressed up. You gotta get the tux. You gotta fly down. Youknow, it' tiring. I won eight but I've had like fifteen nominations or somethinglike that, so I've gone to so many of them, but it's always fun.

Q: But what about those big gift baskets?

DM: Well, there's beautiful little gold Oscars that you get. You know,they're chocolate.

Q: We keep hearing what an artist, what a genius Ang Lee is. You started outworking for George Lucas. Would you compare the two?

DM: They're very different but they're both similar in that they're bothpassionate about what they do. They're both very reasonable men and they're nottyrants or anything like that.

They're deep thinkers and they're committed, so they'll put the hours in todo the work, and you can see it.

Q: Does the director just sketch out a little story board and expect you tofill it in, or is there more?

DM: Some do that. Ang doesn't do that.

Ang didn't even use storyboards at the start of the film. He eventually didsome.

He moved in with us, from New York for nine months, northern California.

Q: Up in San Francisco?

DM: North of San Francisco.

Q: Was this kind of frightening to have somebody close and looking over yourshoulder?

DM: We'd normally just do our work, but this is like the star of the movie,like the title star of "Hulk" and no director should ever delegate theperformance to anyone other than themselves. 

It is a director's medium and I've always followed a director. If you look atthe films I've picked I've looked at the director first and the script second.That's why I wanted to work with Ang. 

Ang Lee's gonna do a comic book? What the heck? This gonna be pretty neat andit's got effects in it so I can work on it. And it fit.

He would be in there every single day. We also set up the editorial staff, soTim Squyres, the editor, moved out from New York also for nine months. The soundguys were at Skywalker sound. It was all there, within a block of each other. Iwas all great, there in northern California. 

So Ang would spend probably three hours a day at ILM going over dailies allthe time, and then jump over with Tim and work the editing and stuff.

Q: Can you talk about the first meetings with Ang, in particular with how itrelates to CG being such a new part of his vocabulary?

DM: Ang didn't really know much about effects at all, at the beginning. Hewasn't terribly interested in how to do it. He wanted flexibility and didn'twant to have restraints from a guy in a suit, which would never work today, orrobotic thing, which would be limited, or something. He really wanted ...the guywho jumps three miles and the guy can run 100 miles an hour and he's fifteenfeet tall. 

So CG gave him --

Q: You could have a real guy jump. We saw Tobey fly in Spider-Man. Whycouldn't you use a real actor to play the role?

DM: Well Tobey's hanging from his web, so it makes total sense in the film,but our guy is supposed to do it from his own strength.

Q: But couldn't you do that with an actor?

DM: You probably could have done something like that, but then you would haveended up with ...you would have had the shape of a character that would havelooked more like a person. The design that they came up with is more comic bookthan a Lou Ferrigno.

So you've got this comic guy...just look at him. He's got massive hands. He'sgot massive feet and it's not a body builder. There's nothing like that in himthat looks like a body builder.

No matter what you did, if you tried to get a person in that shape orsomething, it would look like a person. I think after about ten minutes it wouldbe pretty dull. You wouldn't be seeing anything new.

Ang was looking for flexibility and he also really like to direct. He lovesto direct. He did all sorts of takes on the actors and he did all sorts of takeswith our animators, so he could practically direct every little eye-lash if itwas important to get that moment across.

Q: Did you use a lot of new techniques and new software for this?

DM: There's a bunch of new stuff. There's always something new. We startedwith the stuff, for the skin, a lot of stuff we developed for "Harry Potter2", with the little Dobby character in that, to get the nice translucencyon the skin and get it to look like. 

Then we had, the green caused a lot problems because your eye went right tohim. You wouldn't look at Jennifer. You're looking at this green, fifteen-foottall guy. So we backed off on the color and had to get him integrated in thefilm differently than what we had hoped. We wanted him to be a real vivid green,and it just over powered everything.

Then we got into programs on muscular things, so we didn't have to animatethe muscles by hand. The muscles would actually, if he was twisting, you knowthe bone structure, you could see that moving underneath the skin and allthat. 

We ended up using the muscles almost as his voice. He didn't talk, but youneeded to see what he was feeling. He could do it with his body posture. Hecould do it with his facial expressions, but he could also do it with how beefedup he was. 

So if he's just dealing with Jennifer, hiding behind a tree and sort ofdiscovered there, like a kid caught getting candy out of a cookie jar, we keptthe muscles down, really relaxed. So he looked softer and all.

Yet when he's in the desert, fighting everybody and lifting up a tank orsomething like that he really looked beefed up. So that became his voice. Itreally contributed a lot to it.

Q: Is the software all proprietary?

DM: No. We've got Alias, RenderMan, Softimage. We just really like stuffthat's got hooks in it. We deal with all the companiesto be able to can get our own stuff into it. 

There was a lot of simulations that were done in this. Like when he jumps outof the helicopter and he brings it down, spiraling down. A lot of simulations onthat.

And a lot of simulations we got for the skin detail so we'd be able to getall the pores on the skin correct. That was more proprietary software than theother stuff.

Q: Did you model this character on a specific version of the comic book Hulk?

DM: You know the modeling was done down here and it was done by RickHeindrichs, who was the production designer, working with Ang and with Avi andall those guys. They did it.

We originally came up with some designs that were much more human. Theydidn't really want to go with that. They wanted to go with something that wasmore comic book.

Q: If they went with a human looking character they could go with a realperson.

DM: Yeah. I actually thought with Ang, he might want to go that way. It couldbe more of a human Hulk and maybe do it with somebody.

All the time he's balancing. He's Ang Lee and he's also doing a comic book.The movie becomes pretty Ang-y for the first two thirds, and then givesthe comic book people what they want, for the end of it. So he was going forsomething else.

Q: You've been referred to the father of this generation of modern effects.Joel Silver keeps saying, with "The Matrix: Reloaded" that it'schanging the way films are being made. Is there really anything different goingon now with so much more CGI? And we also see some filmmakers touting their"real" effects over CGI. So can you talk about that?

DM: We've been doing digital doubles since "Jurassic Park" andthat's kind of what's in the "The Matrix" stuff. Kind of, but they'redeciding their camera moves later on, and it's neat to be able to do that. It'sbecoming much more of a game.

We looked at that sort of stuff and is there any place in this film for any ofthat sort of stuff? No. It's not at all appropriate for this film. It works inthat type of film, because you're in the computer, so you can do all that stuff.

I don't think the day will come, or should come, when you've got a virtualworld, that you have real, emoting actors in, that you are using huge amounts ofmoney to move the camera into different positions.

Somebody may see it. I don't see it. I don't think that story sounds like agood story to tell. I love the visuals and I love looking at them. I thinkthat's really neat.

Q: Can you talk about the dog scene?

DM: That was one of the most important sequences to Ang. We started way, wayback on that, almost two years ago, going to wrestling matches, going to extremesports...what's that thing called where they put the guys in cages?

There was some sport like that, that was right here in the Burbank airport wewent to with video cameras, to see the visceral feeling of people and animals orwhatever, that are really enraged and how they're trying to defend themselves.We spent a lot of time studying animals and people to come up with that.

And we did an animatic of it, a real crude version of it to kind of work outthe blocking of it. We did some hand animation and an awful lot of real motioncapture with real dogs. So we got real dogs in. 

We found some trainers, for these hunting dogs, and brought them in and letthe trainers know the shots we were doing and gave them a couple of weeks tocome up with these ideas that Ang had had for performances, that were prettyvivid. We put motion sensors on them and used them for probably two thirds ofthe motions on it.

Then we had to modify it to get it to work. It's all CG and really one of myfavorite sequences. I really like the look of it, being kind of a rough, organicdocumentary look to the sequence, and it's all dark and moody.

Q: We heard there was a big debate about whether or not the Hulk was going tobe nude.

DM: Originally it was going to be in that sequence.

I still think we could have done that with careful lighting and stuff likethat, but it just became too tricky and it just became easier to put someremnants of tattered clothes on him and then only at the end does he really loseall his clothes, but then he's hidden behind the car and you can't see it.

But yeah, we had a lot of talks about that and the pants and how do theystretch and all that sort of stuff. A lot of discussions.

And we did artwork and how tight it is, how tight the shorts are.

Q: But you're no stranger to creating creatures and stuff like that.

DM: That's true. But we haven't gotten much into sexual things before in thiswork, and we're getting there in this film.

Q: What was the most ridiculous conversation you had about this character?

DM: It probably was about the pants. We went on and on and on about that andwhat are we going to do with it? With him? What parts of him change and don'tchange and stuff like that. 

Q: Purple and green work well. Were purple pants decided on because of thecomic books?

DM: Yeah, I think so.

Q: What do you look for in a director?

DM: Someone whose films I want to go see, that's going to do somethingdifferent. Or a different take on effects.

When I read the first script for "Star Wars," and I was over at afriend's house reading it, I said, "This movie is nuts. It's reallyexciting." It's like "The Wizard of Oz" and with all the running throughthe corridors and you've got this big dog and you've got these robots and I waslike, "what the heck's going on," and it's like a war movie...

And that was totally different. There was nothing like that around and it'sjust interesting. I'm not interested in seeing something I've seen before.

Q: What about Chewbacca coming back. Is that exciting?

DM: You mean coming back now? For the third one?

Q: Yeah.

DM: I didn't know that. See, you know more than me. I didn't know that.

Q: So you're not working on them any more?

DM: Oh, I've just been immersed in this film.

Q: Do you know what you're doing next?

DM: Vacation. I don't even think about what's coming up until I'm working onthe film.

"I've just got to get this done and keep my mind on this show."

Q: When did you finish the visuals on "Hulk"

DM: Two weeks ago.

Q: And you started two years earlier?

DM: Yeah. And we got this done on time. We had the chance to go back and redosome early shots that we'd done. It went real well.

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