Piece of Mind: LCF holds a special-effects place in his heart

Flipping through vintage Valley Suns in late July to assemble items for the August “10-20-30” history articles, my eyes fell on a story published Aug. 20, 1964 that featured a local 17-year-old filmmaker who had directed and produced four 10- to 12-minute movies that summer.

The photo accompanying the piece depicted a “giant” who was being repelled by a tiny young man wielding a spear. It was a scene from the young filmmaker Dennis Muren’s latest work.

I smiled as I studied the photo and read the story, which, as was common in the early decades of the Valley Sun, did not carry a byline. Its unknown writer did not capture any quotes from his subject, but detailed how he had attended La Cañada Elementary School, Flintridge Prep, then John Muir High (where he was a member of the last senior class that had La Cañada kids in it; La Cañada High had just been built). I learned from the article Muren had “been active in this special effects photographic work” for three summers and that he planned to pursue it as a career after attending Pasadena City College.

Seeing Muren’s name reminded me of the day in about 2000 that Beth Coplin, a friend of my late mother’s, called me at the paper to say we should do a story on this talented man, who now has a passel of Oscars and other prestigious honors for his wizardry in special effects. Coplin remembered him as an inquisitive and creative neighborhood boy and seemed to be very proud of having known him. She thought others in our community should know that he was up — yet again — for an Academy Award. I assigned that story out to a reporter. To be honest, I don’t recall what became of it. But I do clearly remember Coplin enthusiastically championing Muren, who left La Cañada long ago and has called Northern California home for decades. So, when I saw the 1964 article last month, I was briefly transported back to the sweet phone call from my mom’s friend. Then, I returned to the work at hand.

Whether it was a case of synchronicity or mere coincidence, I can’t say, but days later I had an email from Dennis Muren. I think my jaw dropped when I saw his name, since this man I’d never met had so recently been in my thoughts. I opened it to see a note from Muren and a copy of that article I had been gazing upon earlier. In his note, he suggested it might be of interest for our 10-20-30 article. He also writes, “This hobby of mine led to my lifelong job at Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic in the Bay Area. I’ve directed the Visual Effects for many big movies including “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park” and have won eight Oscars. And it all started in little (at the time) La Cañada. Pretty cool.”

Oops. I hadn’t selected that piece as one of this week’s 10-20-30 items. In times like these having a personal column space comes in handy. So I responded to him with a request for some La Cañada memories and he obliged by return email.

I learned that he and his parents moved in 1950 from Glendale into a home on Descanso Drive when he was 4. They later moved to Chevy Chase Drive. “My Mom was involved with the Tuesday Afternoon Club and the Thursday Club. My Dad played golf at Oakmont and the La Cañada Country Club.”

He writes, “Our neighbors were as nice as could be. Most families seemed to have two kids, but I was an only child. Halloween was probably my favorite holiday. Every street had kids, kids and more kids knocking on doors. Safety wasn’t even on anyone’s mind.

“One of my favorite visual effects movies is ‘7th Voyage of Sinbad.’ I think I saw it four times the week it came out in 1958… at the (long-gone) Montrose Theater, of course.”

He taught himself trick photography at the tender age of 6, he says. “At [age] 10 my folks bought me a used $10 movie camera from La Cañada Camera. Using toy models I bought from Dorsey’s in Montrose, I photographed a rocket ship ‘landing’ on Chevy Chase Drive and flying saucers flying over Descanso Gardens. My yard on Chevy Chase was my ‘back lot’ for filming miniatures of erupting volcanoes, a dam breaking, astronauts floating in space and landing on the moon, and various giant kids and lizards. Many of my schoolmates, including (Doctor) Leland Watkins, played the giants and magicians and misguided mad scientists.”

So, there you have it, straight from Muren. A kid who grew up here, had an eye for the amazing, a little help from parents and friends and went on to great successes in a field that has engaged his interest since elementary school. It is all very cool.


CAROL CORMACI is the managing editor. Email her at carol.cormaci@latimes.com and follow her on Twitter @CarolCormaci

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