(L-R) George Lucas, Ron Howard, Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren during post-production on  Willow , 1988.

(L-R) George Lucas, Ron Howard, Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren during post-production on Willow, 1988.

Despite the fact that its trolls and two-headed moat dragons guaranteed me years of childhood nightmares, George Lucas and Ron Howard's 1988 fantasy adventure Willow has aged particularly well. 

Where some of its fantasy predecessors - KrullLegend - limped through cinemas and eventually found a cult following on VHS, Willow was groundbreaking in the sense that not only was its scope far more epic, it was also a modest success at the box office. You can boil its continued appeal down to two things: great performances from stars Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer and Jean Marsh, and really great special effects. 

The latter came courtesy of Dennis Muren and his team at Industrial Light & Magic, whose revolutionary "morphing" technique saw Willow's mentor Fin Raziel restored to her true form.

While most people consider Terminator 2 (another ILM joint) to be morphing's glorious birth, it was Willow that laid the groundwork for the technology the ILM team would later finesse for T:2 and The Abyss. In Los Angeles ahead ofWillow's 25th anniversary Blu-Ray release, Muren recalled the immense amount of work that went into that relatively short sequence. 

"Willow was really a different type of morphing," he said. "In Terminator 2, it was really just ‘shape changing’. But in Willow, where we originally called it ‘morphing’, it was a 2D object, not a 3D object. We would have two pieces of film, one that had a tiger on it, and the other that had a woman on it, both shot against blue screen, and we could change the outline slowly from the one to the other, then change the colouring from one to the other. So, from that we coined the word ‘morph’, and it grew from that into 3D or anything you wanted to call ‘shape changing’ or ‘morphing’." 

Despite his shelves groaning with the combined weight of eight Oscars for Best Visual Effects, and a CV that includes everything from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park to Super 8, Muren is an affable sort, and is more keen to get into the nuts and bolts of his achievements than rest on his laurels. 

A mini-documentary, From MORF to morphing, included on the Blu-Ray, gives an insight into the alarming amount of work that went into something you can do for free online today. As Muren recalled, "It was the first time we were really able to scan footage into the computer that we’d shot on film, then manipulate it, then get it back onto film. Those were incredibly difficult challenges, because there was no equipment you could buy; nobody had ever done it before. The quality that motion picture images has to be, on the big screen, is very high, so our standards were way above anything anybody else was doing [in R&D]. So all those things came together on Willow."

ILM's team were nominated for a 1989 Academy Award for their work onWillow, though it was their improved use of the 'shape changing' technology inThe Abyss that would go on to win the Oscar the following year, and another for T:2 two years after that. However, despite his pride at what the team were able to create for Howard's film, Muren sees Willow's legacy as being one that is less about spectacle and more about what the film offered emotionally. 

"I certainly hope there is stuff in Willow that resonates in your heart, not just in your eyes, and that’s definitely what George [Lucas] and Ron [Howard] were trying to do, and I was, and everybody who worked on it," he said. "You know, make a children’s film, but a really good, interesting children’s film that adults could also enjoy."

If you've had the misfortune of seeing some of the most recent fantasy epics (with the exception of Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy), you'll know the disappointment that is part and parcel with films more concerned with flashy SFX than the emotional journey good fantasy is meant to offer. 

Without casting aspersions on his own industry, Muren wondered whether the pursuit of "newness" in SFX - in order to dazzle audiences who have 'seen it all' - had become so difficult, and thus so overwhelming, that it had eclipsed filmmakers' desire to connect with their audiences. 

"It’s much, much harder now, because there’s so many movies that are out and there’s only so many ideas that can be put onto film. I think along with that, though, comes a sameness, and I think part of that is that a lot of the work doesn’t have a reality to it, I think they kind of give up. And as long as things are kind of moving and everything is in the shot, they just think ‘Hey! We’ve done it’; it can very easily have no soul, it can be non-emotional, just visual, and that doesn’t mean anything." 

Despite his extensive work in advancing CGI's capabilities, Muren remains a fan of having actual actors interacting on set. "If you’ve got actors in a scene - like we had the Brownie characters in Willow - they’re talented people, they’re going to act, but it’s very hard with CG characters to make them seem real and that you care about. So it’s a shame that we’ve gone in that direction, that in a lot of cases we’ve thrown out the quality of the actors and what they bring to it in exchange for special effects."

"I think the audiences should be up in arms, but a lot of them don’t seem to be," he continued, "they just take it in, but they don’t know what they’re missing. They’re still coming up with the money for the films, and the films are still doing phenomenally well, but it’s a shame if the effects don’t really contribute the same emotional connection that all the other elements in film do. It’s not very often you get to see a Life Of Pi."

Ang Lee's film, and the VFX houses responsible for its wonders, has become the lightning rod for discussions about the woes facing the VFX industry. Some commentators have wondered aloud whether VFX houses should be more outwardly proud of their work in order to bolster their public perception as indispensable, but Muren is not convinced it would make much of a difference, nor is he certain that the VFX industry troubles are particularly new.

"I dunno, it’s different everywhere, and it’s always been tough to do this work. I mean, we were doing - not that we were working under terrible conditions! - but Willow came at a very, very busy time. You know, the entire facility was working practically around the clock to get the work done," he recalled. "For years and decades we had to be absolutely quiet about the work we did until the movie came out, and we couldn’t say anything for months afterwards because we didn’t want the audience to think there was any trickery going on. It doesn’t matter: film people know who did what, and who made what, and that’s what your success is based on. It’s not a matter, so much, about what the public thinks. We don’t like to toot our own horn, necessarily, unless we’ve got something really neat we’re trying to get out for Oscar recognition or something like that. It’s fine being in the background, that’s where the magicians are, anyway. Behind the curtain."


- originally published on TheVine, 2013