By NAOMI GOLDMAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By NAOMI GOLDMAN
A veteran of more than 100 feature films and television productions, renowned visual effects producer, supervisor and main titles designer Dan Curry, VES, has enjoyed a storied career spanning over three decades working with some of the industry’s most influential and respected filmmakers. His inventive, groundbreaking work has been recognized with seven primetime Emmy Awards (12 nominations), a VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Series, and in 2018 he was named a VES Fellow.
Curry is best known for his imaginative and trailblazing work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise – an 18-year professional journey that he describes as “a breathtaking continuous flow, like watching a movie from the beginning to its completion.” His features portfolio also includes exploring the “final frontier” on the big screen, including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. His longtime residence in Asia and extensive world travel have been major sources of artistic inspiration, influences that found their way into the beloved sci-fi franchise.
Hearkening to his roots as a child in New York City, Curry recalls escaping from the heat of summer into the cool air of the corner movie theater, and marveling at the wonder of cinema. “Moments of transition in my life are marked by movies and how they influenced me – The Thing, Spartacus, Forbidden Planet, House of Wax. When I saw The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, I realized there was a difference in the realities of the background, and I read up on rear projection. Using a broken 8mm projector that I could only advance one frame at a time, I shot with my brother and stretched tracing paper on the inside of a cardboard box to make a crude rear projection system – all so I could have dinosaurs chase my brother. I was about 10 years old and I was hooked.”
A celebrated painter, Curry started drawing and studying perspective at an early age. The artform came naturally. “I vividly remember moments in elementary school, walking down the hallway and seeing a drawing of warriors by an older student. I could figure out how they drew the jawline, and that very moment changed how I understood facial anatomy. I started doing storyboards for movies in my head before I really understood what storyboards were.”
Curry was an undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont studying fine arts and theater when he launched himself into the world of theater production, an experience that shaped his understanding of story trajectory, character arcs, and coordination among every crew member to achieve a singular performance. “One day, I stumbled across an old wind-up Bolex 16mm movie camera in the basement and managed to talk the school into funding a medieval epic about an Icelandic peasant hiding out from his overseer. The theater department went all in on props and costumes, and we made something new as a creative community.”
After college, Curry joined the Peace Corps, an experience that greatly shaped his life and career. He was assigned to build small dams and bridges for a remote, rural Thai village, and immersed himself in the culture and wisdom of the people. After a seven-month trek in Nepal, he moved to Bangkok and subsequently directed a Thai TV series (My Tree and the Magic Chopsticks) doing his own animation. He taught architectural drafting at Khon Kaen University, served as the production designer for the Bangkok Opera, designed a library for U.S. Information Services on an island in the Gulf of Siam, and won the commission to be the production designer for the King of Thailand’s Royal Ball. Curry learned to speak fluent Thai and Lao, and became a martial arts expert – a skill that found its way into the Star Trek franchise.
When he returned to the U.S., Curry worked as a bio-medical illustrator, and after receiving his MFA, taught fine arts, theater design, perspective drawing, graphic design and set fabrication. While in the MFA program at Humboldt State University, happenstance led him on the next leg of his creative path. Marcia Lucas (then wife of George Lucas) saw some of Curry’s paintings while on campus for a lecture on editing Taxi Driver. She introduced Curry to Dennis Muren, VES, matte artist Mike Pangrazio and others, and referred him to Peter Anderson, VES, at Universal – where Curry made his mark as a matte painter on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica.
In the late 1980s Curry met Gene Roddenberry, who was planning to revive Star Trek. “They initially thought I would create 40 stock shots that would suffice for the whole series. That lasted about a week and a half!”
During his 18 years on the Star Trek franchise, Curry worked as Visual Effects Supervisor, then producer and second unit director. He also did extensive artwork for the shows, including conceptual design, motion-control photography, animation, electronic and optical compositing, matte painting, spaceship design, storyboarding and martial arts choreography.
Curry used his unique point of view and experience as a martial artist to develop a fighting style for the Klingons. He also designed several Klingon hand-to-hand combat weapons, including the Sword of Kahless, the mek’leth and, most notably, the primordial weapon inherited by alien character Worf – the bat’leth. “I have never liked movie weapons that just look cool but can’t be used. I am proud that the Korean Martial Arts Association recognized my bat’leth as the first new bladed weapon of the last century that is practical.”
He often used wacky everyday objects for the “worker bee” alien ships to preserve the budget for the bigger ships seen in close-ups. “Especially in the first season of Next Generation, I would make a lot of the guest alien ships of the week out of things like a shampoo bottle and a couple of toy submarines glued on the side, and I would add gray balls and other things stuck together that worked when backlit just right. I made a utility ship out of a broken toy robot with glued-on razor handles. I discovered a world filled with spaceship parts, if you just skew your perspective.”
During his tenure on Star Trek, the field advanced from analog to the digital age. “Early on, we were reticent to use CG, because it didn’t look that good. When we got to Deep Space Nine, our character Odo had to be CG. And because the space battles were big sequences, we started to embrace CG as a more efficient way to deliver complex shots, but using a hybrid approach – CG in the background with physical ships in the foreground. There was some CG in the Voyager title sequence, but it is primarily paintings and models. Our first fully CG show was Enterprise. By that time the image quality had really improved, and it put a whole new set of limitless tools at our storytelling disposal.
“I was really proud of being part of the Star Trek family. There is something unique about that. Our stories, our characters carried a promise about the capacity of the future and an enterprise that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
As a renowned main titles designer, Curry has created more than 118 feature title sequences. He cites the backstory on Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield as one of his most rewarding design experiences. “I made a mini-movie for the film. The director wanted me to create a bio of Rodney’s life from age 12 to 55 with stills. By happenstance, I grew up in a neighborhood really similar to his character’s, so I went and got shots from one of my old family albums, blew them up and did oil paintings – over the face of my father! Now picture me with composer Danny Elfman as we merged math and music to create the sound for this visual overture.”
Curry points to many historic role models as he built and shaped his career, including Ray Harryhausen, John Ford, Michael Curtiz, Albert Whitlock, Frank Capra and Thomas Edison, as well as a host of painters as inspiration, including Picasso, Rembrandt, Dali, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. When asked what advice he gives to young film students and aspiring creatives, Curry emphasizes the power and importance of history.
“You need to be a renaissance person if you want to be a great filmmaker. If you want to creatively contribute to our artform, you need to understand the history of where we evolved from – the history of art, architecture, music and theater design. Even if your goal is to work in film, be involved in at least one live theater production so you can see how a depiction of character evolves over time and how an army of people comes together. You need to know how to draw – it’s essential. Some of the things we do are so esoteric that it’s hard to describe verbally, so drawings are universal. And you would be wise to learn to speak at least one other language. It gives you another way to understand how thoughts are created, how thinking evolves, how a culture evolves.
“I think film is the most powerful art form that our species has evolved. With that power I believe that as storytellers we have a responsibility to make a positive impact on our species and our society as a whole.”
Advises Curry, “The computer is the best paintbrush and best typewriter ever created, but technology does not give you a brain or ideas – that has to come from you. With the tools we have now, the only limit to what we can create is our own imagination. So the deeper you think and the more you embrace the phenomenon of life for yourself, the more you can give out to other people.”