When I reached Greg McMurry, ASC, he was working on a reunion with some old friends from a musical group he performed with over four decades ago. The group was a pop choir founded by animator/director/production designer Don Bluth, with 50 or so kids who traveled and sang. For Greg, it was an early step on the journey to an artistic career in the field of visual effects.
Although a talent for engineering and technology eventually emerged as well, Greg was drawn to music when he was in high school in Culver City and in college at the University of Maryland, where he majored in voice. He earned money during college as a solo singer of classical music, but took a detour when he started working part time at a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C. “I ended up getting very involved in the transition from 16mm news film to videotape,” he recalls. “My father had been on the faculty of the USC film school, and I used to shoot a lot of film as a kid.”
Later, Greg worked at a PBS station when PBS became the first network to connect all its affiliates nationwide via satellite. While studying at the University of Maryland, he had been intrigued by a film titled This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Message. “I always felt like my musical upbringing gave me a sensitivity to the effect that media can have on viewers,” he says. “That film got me thinking about how important it was to have expertise in the use of media, just as a musician needs to be really good at utilizing an instrument.”
Eventually, Greg moved back to California, taking a chance on a six-week job working with Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich, ASC. Soon he was working on films like Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At that point, the instantaneous connections that were transforming the TV-news business began to seem less relevant. “I suddenly realized how important it was to spend time creating the image, because of its impact,” says Greg. “It was about taking the time to do things right. I used to watch and listen to Yuricich and Trumbull in the screening room, particularly when we were doing those first films, looking at the tiny details in the image. They’d decide to add a shaft of light or a flare at a certain moment; each individual element was significant to the telling of the story. I learned the importance of crafting an image, and that was a big revelation for me. I still consider those guys, along with [miniature and model cinematographer] Dave Stewart, to be the masters.
“I also saw for the first time how the images we create can grab an audience,” Greg says. “The strength and power of the art form has kept me involved in this industry, but it also scares me. Some people think what they see is real, and that disturbs me. But it also challenges me to be respectful of the power we have as filmmakers.”
Greg sees a parallel between a visual-effects artist’s attention to detail and a serious musician’s. “I don’t think many people realize what musicians, particularly classical musicians, go through to get where they are,” he says. “People say, “Oh, he’s good at the cello.’ They don’t realize he’s been playing the cello since he was 4! When I was in music school, my friends and I would practice four to six hours a day, every day. Scales, exercises — we were learning the fundamentals of the art. And I think in visual effects, we create imagery that way as well. We shoot a small piece of this and a little bit of that, building shots one tiny piece at a time, all the while understanding how they fit into the whole picture. And in both fields, there are things you do so often they become automatic.
“A musician mixes in all those hours and hours of scales and exercises, hundreds of performances, to create one masterful performance,” he says. “Visual effects require something very similar. We’re constantly building upon our past experience, trying to create something unique and memorable and transcendent for the audience.”