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

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
Countdown to ‘Hulk’: Dennis Muren animates the big, green leading man

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

Muren recently sat down with the press to talk about his work as Visual
Effects Supervisor on the movie. At the roundtable interview, members of the press took turns asking questions
about the development of the film. Comics2Film/CBR News is please to present
this 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 especially

DM: You gotta get dressed up. You gotta get the tux. You gotta fly down. You
know, it’ tiring. I won eight but I’ve had like fifteen nominations or something
like 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 out
working for George Lucas. Would you compare the two?

DM: They’re very different but they’re both similar in that they’re both
passionate about what they do. They’re both very reasonable men and they’re not
tyrants or anything like that.

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

Q: Does the director just sketch out a little story board and expect you to
fill 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 did

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 your

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 the
performance to anyone other than themselves. 

It is a director’s medium and I’ve always followed a director. If you look at
the 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 and
it’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, so
Tim Squyres, the editor, moved out from New York also for nine months. The sound
guys were at Skywalker sound. It was all there, within a block of each other. I
was all great, there in northern California. 

So Ang would spend probably three hours a day at ILM going over dailies all
the 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 it
relates to CG being such a new part of his vocabulary?

DM: Ang didn’t really know much about effects at all, at the beginning. He
wasn’t terribly interested in how to do it. He wanted flexibility and didn’t
want to have restraints from a guy in a suit, which would never work today, or
robotic thing, which would be limited, or something. He really wanted …the guy
who jumps three miles and the guy can run 100 miles an hour and he’s fifteen
feet tall. 

So CG gave him —

Q: You could have a real guy jump. We saw Tobey fly in Spider-Man. Why
couldn’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 have
ended up with …you would have had the shape of a character that would have
looked more like a person. The design that they came up with is more comic book
than a Lou Ferrigno.

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

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

Ang was looking for flexibility and he also really like to direct. He loves
to direct. He did all sorts of takes on the actors and he did all sorts of takes
with our animators, so he could practically direct every little eye-lash if it
was 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 started
with the stuff, for the skin, a lot of stuff we developed for “Harry Potter
2”, with the little Dobby character in that, to get the nice translucency
on the skin and get it to look like. 

Then we had, the green caused a lot problems because your eye went right to
him. You wouldn’t look at Jennifer. You’re looking at this green, fifteen-foot
tall guy. So we backed off on the color and had to get him integrated in the
film 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 animate
the muscles by hand. The muscles would actually, if he was twisting, you know
the bone structure, you could see that moving underneath the skin and all

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

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

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

Q: Is the software all proprietary?

DM: No. We’ve got Alias, RenderMan, Softimage. We just really like stuff
that’s got hooks in it. We deal with all the companies
to 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 out
of the helicopter and he brings it down, spiraling down. A lot of simulations on

And a lot of simulations we got for the skin detail so we’d be able to get
all the pores on the skin correct. That was more proprietary software than the
other 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 Rick
Heindrichs, who was the production designer, working with Ang and with Avi and
all those guys. They did it.

We originally came up with some designs that were much more human. They
didn’t really want to go with that. They wanted to go with something that was
more comic book.

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

DM: Yeah. I actually thought with Ang, he might want to go that way. It could
be 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 gives
the comic book people what they want, for the end of it. So he was going for
something 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’s
changing the way films are being made. Is there really anything different going
on 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” and
that’s kind of what’s in the “The Matrix” stuff. Kind of, but they’re
deciding their camera moves later on, and it’s neat to be able to do that. It’s
becoming much more of a game.

We looked at that sort of stuff and is there any place in this film for any of
that sort of stuff? No. It’s not at all appropriate for this film. It works in
that 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 virtual
world, that you have real, emoting actors in, that you are using huge amounts of
money to move the camera into different positions.

Somebody may see it. I don’t see it. I don’t think that story sounds like a
good story to tell. I love the visuals and I love looking at them. I think
that’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, way
back on that, almost two years ago, going to wrestling matches, going to extreme
sports…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 we
went to with video cameras, to see the visceral feeling of people and animals or
whatever, 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 out
the blocking of it. We did some hand animation and an awful lot of real motion
capture with real dogs. So we got real dogs in. 

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

Then we had to modify it to get it to work. It’s all CG and really one of my
favorite sequences. I really like the look of it, being kind of a rough, organic
documentary 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 to
be nude.

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

I still think we could have done that with careful lighting and stuff like
that, but it just became too tricky and it just became easier to put some
remnants of tattered clothes on him and then only at the end does he really lose
all 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 they
stretch 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 this
work, 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 and
what are we going to do with it? With him? What parts of him change and don’t
change and stuff like that. 

Q: Purple and green work well. Were purple pants decided on because of the
comic 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 something
different. Or a different take on effects.

When I read the first script for “Star Wars,” and I was over at a
friend’s house reading it, I said, “This movie is nuts. It’s really
exciting.” It’s like “The Wizard of Oz” and with all the running through
the corridors and you’ve got this big dog and you’ve got these robots and I was
like, “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’s
just 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 on
the 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 redo
some early shots that we’d done. It went real well.

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