This week, I got to let my inner Trekkie shine, and by “shine” I mean, I basically freaked out and had a conniption fit BECAUSE I GOT TO INTERVIEW SOMEONE FROM STAR TREK!!!!! Dan Curry is a Visual Effects Producer and Supervisor, most famous for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. He has won seven Emmys, and currently serves as the Visual Effects Supervisor for Chuck, which airs Mondays at 8PM on NBC. Dan spoke to me from his home California, while I tried to not have a mild stroke.
So you do Visual Effects? Are you the dude who makes people blue and blows thing up?
The general public confuses public confuses special effects and visual effects. Visual Effects is combining elements photographed or created separately digitally into a new cinematic reality. This may involve the use of blue or green screen, miniatures, matte paintings, or computer-generated images. Compositing may be done in camera, on an optical printer, or on a computer using various compositing softwares. Special Effects, also known as Mechanical Effects and Practical Effects, refers to work done live on set and includes, but is not limited to pyro (fire and explosions), wire work (actors hanging on wires), special doors and moving set parts, water effects, smoke, etc. Frequently visual effects and special effects work together when their combined skills are needed to create an illusion.
What got you into this line of work?
I was always interested in movies little kid. I saw movies like Forbidden Planet, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which is about a dinosaur that comes ashore. I could sense that the background was different from foreground. When I was about 12, someone told me they did that with projectors. I had an 8mm camera. I shot my brother, put dinosaurs in front…brother reacting rear projection.
I’ve always loved movies. I’ve been making movies since I was a little boy. As a child drew storyboards even before I really knew what they were. My eye was a camera; my toy soldiers were actors.
I joined the Peace Corps and built dams and bridges in Asia. The Thai Ministry was looking for someone to work on a TV show called My Tree Magic Chopstick, a show somewhat similar to Sesame Street. It was very Monty Python-esque. We made puppets that would talk, wild elephants that would talk, we did documentaries, things like that.
That sounds awesome. We need that in this country. If there was a show with elephants that talk, I would watch it every day.
This was early in their television history. In those days they were just getting going. Now they do absolutely amazing work.
What was your first major work?
[At Humbolt State in Northern California] I did a science fiction play set in alien prison, called Korg’s View. I wanted to change the relationship between the audience and the actors. The audience sat in geometric pits. They were supposed to be a bed of sentient plants. It gave the actors an excuse to talk to them. It was very popular.
They had a good film program there. This was the late ’70s. I’ve always drawn and painted. Marcia Lucas (George Lucas’ then-wife) was there, delivering a workshop on editing. She had just edited Taxi Driver. She saw that I done a lot of photo real painting. That’s how I got started.
But I couldn’t accept a job offer at ILM [International Light and Magic, Lucas' company]. I had to finish my Masters’ first. They referred me to Universal after I graduated. That’s where I learned about effects, animation, matte photography. I took a job at Modern Film Effects relying on art background and filmmaking. I worked on the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 21st Century.
Buck Rogers in The 21st Century is my favorite TV show of all time. I was convinced that I would marry Gil Gerard someday. Also, I used to make my mother call me “Twiggy.”
Have you ever seen the Buster Crabbe original? You’re culturally deprived if you haven’t seen the original; it’s one of the great serials from the 1930s!
Before I talk about your awesome resume in Visual Effects, I have to drop praise on you for your work as a title designer. You’ve done titles for films like Top Gun and The Right Stuff. Personally, some of the most visually striking work I’ve ever seen in my life has been in the first 5 minutes during the opening credits. How did you get into this? Were you influenced by the late, great Mr. Saul Bass?
Titles are like an overture to opera. They tell the audience stop talking, they create a mood, an expectation. They put the audience in the right frame of mind.
When I was a kid, I loved period epics. I remember the first time I was aware of the power of a title sequence. It was the beginning of Spartacus, which was designed by Saul Bass. There were all these beautiful little Roman statues. Then the last statue cracks. It’s a symbol of this glorious empire that cracks from the inside because of the reliance of slavery.