Off Hollywood - Dan Curry
Jun 12 2012
Visual Effects Supervisor
One day someone in the art department of Star Trek: The Next Generation was assigned the task to make a sword for Worf. Knowing the visual effects supervisor Dan Curry was a martial artist and expert in swords, they delegated the task to him. The image of a heavy sword with a symmetrical blade had been appearing in his mind for some time. A week later, a physical manifestation appeared in the form of a foam-core prototype. The Klingon sword of honor, the Bat’leh, was created and the Klingons were never the same again.
In addition to this, he also flushed out a fully realized Klingon martial art called Mok’bara and oversaw the entire special effects team on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, and Enterprise. He did exceptional matte paintings, built models, shot motion control, and made early advancements in CGI while integrating it with practical ephemera. His innovations in both visual effects and space-age martial arts have made him highly influential.
VICE: How did you become interested in visual effects?
Dan Curry: I started making movies when I was a little boy with an 8mm camera. After seeing the The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, I made a rear projection system of my own out of a broken projector and made it look like toy dinosaurs were chasing my brother. Growing up in New York, making movies was an escape. In college, I found a Bolex in the basement. With it I made a medieval epic about an Icelandic peasant in the dead of winter.
Before college you joined the Peace Corps. Did you make any movies during that period?
I stayed in Thailand after the Peace Corps and did some movies there, mostly for Thai Educational television.
Why did you return to the United States?
After my work in Thailand I became very serious about going to grad school to major in film and theater.
Not too long after that you were doing titles sequences for movies like Indiana Jones and Friday the 13th. How did you get into Hollywood so fast?
While I was in grad school, Marsha Lucas, George’s wife at the time, happened to see some of my scenic paintings and hooked me up with Dennis Murin and the late Alan Naley, who gave my name to the people at Universal. My first job in the industry was working as a matte painter on Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica.
You were a part of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the very beginning and stayed with the franchise for 18 years.
It was a wonderful time of life. There were so many people I loved working with. We knew the show was one of those things that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Why do you think Star Trek: The Next Generation is influential to many of the fans?
It presented a future where as a species, humans had developed a comfortable relationship with technology, erased racism, conquered poverty, and were off to explore the universe.
How were you able to influence the Klingon history in addition to being the head of visual effects?
I was close to the people who worked in the art department so they sent me a drawing of what looked like a Pirate’s cutlass with an extra blade glued on it. I never liked movie weapons that were designed just to look cool. I like weapons that are ergonomically sound. I had been imagining the Bat’leh for a long time and thought the Klingons deserved a weapon that was unique and cool. I made a prototype out of foam core and no one understood it. But once I did a demo for the stunt coordinator he said, “Oh! That’s cool,” and he got really into it. Through the influence of the sword, they got into the idea of making the Klingons a more Bushido–a warrior culture. From there I developed Mok’bara, which combined the fluidity of tai chi with the aggressiveness of tae kwon do.
Wow! So the Klingon culture evolved through the creation of the Bat’leh! When did you become interested in swords?
Growing up, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral really influenced me. There is a scene where Kirk Douglas is drunk and he has a bunch of switchblades on the table and starts throwing them into a door. My brother and I loved it so we started to teach ourselves the art of throwing knives. Once we saw a movie with Vikings, we moved to axes. As an escape, I loved anything with swords. Medieval movies, Roman movies, ancient Greek movies–that whole world just excited me. When I was in Thailand I got into Chinese sword flicks. There was something so comfortable at that time period that I started to get involved with martial arts.
Which martial art did you specialize in?
Tae kwon do, but I also studied muay thai and tai chi. My wife Hua became one of the leading women in tae kwon do. I also studied daggers while in Laos. The dagger is a very poetic weapon.
It’s a very personal weapon that it necessitates being very close to your opponent. If you understand anatomy it becomes very surgical, in a way.
Did you put any poetics in the design of the Bat’leh?
If you look at a properly used Bat’leh, it is very fluid like a tai chi sword. The extent of one motion is the beginning of its withdraw. When using a heavy weapon you have to let it have its own momentum and you have to feel its motion rather than force it.
You also created Mok’bara. Apparently Worf’s class started at 0700 hours every morning and was practiced by most of the crew on the Starship enterprise. Does that reflect your personal life as well?
Yes. Hua and I practice tai chi every morning. The beauty of it lies in the elusive pursuit of perfection. With Mok’bara, Klingon hand-to-hand combat techniques are practiced in exquisite slow motion. Unlike tai chi, the hand movements are more aggressive to suit the Klingon sensibility. It’s practiced as a form of meditation meant to clear the mind. You can never be perfect but every once in a while you brush up close to it.
How did the martial arts influence your film career?
Learning the mastery of film is only good until it becomes absorbed in you and becomes an instinct. This is true of any art form. Once you gain mastery of a craft you have to learn how to use it as a form of expression.
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