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VFX Icon Dennis Muren Remembers The First Time He Saw Star Wars - Exclusive

When George Lucas assembled the visual effects team for his 1977 milestone, "Star Wars," he was looking for them to create images that had never before been seen in a movie. Starting his own company — Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) — and staffing it with upstarts like John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, Phil Tippett, Ken Ralston, and Joe Johnston, Lucas put them to work in an anonymous warehouse in Van Nuys, California, while he went to London to shoot principal photography on the film.

According to the new documentary series "Light and Magic," which chronicles the groundbreaking history of ILM from its birth to today, Lucas came back to the U.S. to find out that ILM had spent half its budget and completed only two out of 400 shots for the film — with six months to go before it was slated to open. "I was ... not happy," Lucas says in perhaps the biggest understatement of the entire documentary.

Somehow, however, the team pulled its act together and managed to complete every shot required for the film in time for its opening in May 1977. But according to Dennis Muren — who is still one of the principal executives at ILM to this day — no one really knew for sure along the way if any of it was going to work. "I'd seen little clips from it," the Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor told Looper in an exclusive interview. "I couldn't tell. It always was at a real rough stage."

Dennis Muren saw Star Wars for the first time in a daze

"Star Wars" was finished on time to make its opening date, but Dennis Muren had already moved on to a new project without seeing the completed film. "As soon as it was over, I went to work on 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'" he recalled. "Halfway through 'Close Encounters,' I came down with walking pneumonia, so I couldn't move around. That's when, naturally, they had the cast and crew screening [for 'Star Wars']."

Despite his condition, Muren dragged himself to the screening and saw the film for the first time all the way through. "The theater was full," he said. "Half the people who were in the theater had never seen any part of it. I was in a delirium watching it. The audience went nuts from that very opening shot all the way through it. I thought, 'I've never seen anything like this before.' I'd never really been to a big premiere that had been successful."

Muren compared that initial showing of "Star Wars" to the first screening of another landmark sci-fi film, Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," which had quite a different audience response. "Everybody was like, 'What the hell am I looking at?'" he said. "But ['Star Wars'], they got it. That's when I started thinking, 'Boy, this could be something really big.'"

But even at that point, Muren said the prospects for the success of "Star Wars" were modest in relation to the pop culture juggernaut that it is today. "What does 'really big' mean?" he said of the expectations back then. "It means it's going to be in the theaters maybe for six months or eight months. That's what it was in those days, but nothing like what it's become."

"Light and Magic" is streaming now on Disney+.