Pursuits: Vision Quest
Dan Curry ’68 can realize anything—and by realize, I mean make, build, render into being. He can turn shampoo bottles into spaceships. He can cajole friends into modeling for a recreation of the Cherry Valley Massacre of November 11, 1778 (a bicentennial commission for a museum in Massachusetts). He can paint whole universes on a single canvas if the job calls for it—or a Christmas tableau, with chimney smoke and blinking lights, for a holiday episode of Laverne and Shirley.
When Curry—a veteran visual effects supervisor/producer with seven Emmys (out of 15 nominations) on his shelf and an arm belonging to Star Trek’s Borg Queen in his workshop at his home in Studio City, California—enrolled at Middlebury nearly half a century ago, he had “no idea” what he was going to do professionally. “There was a movie theater on our corner growing up, and I began drawing storyboards for imaginary movies before I knew what storyboards were,” says the Bellerose, New York, native. “When I played with toy soldiers, I wasn’t playing war—I was playing making movies about war.” When he saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in 1958, “there was a little display in the lobby about how Ray Harryhausen did the effects, and I said, ‘I think I can do that.’”
Coming to Middlebury on scholarship, from a high school more accustomed to dealing with parole officers than admissions officers, “I didn’t realize how incredibly good it was,” Curry says. Chandler Potter, who taught production design for theater, was an important influence; and a Midd production of A Streetcar Named Desire “opened my eyes for what live theater can be—the settings were very abstract, but they were so right on for the tone of Tennessee Williams’s play.”
After Curry graduated with a fine arts major and a theater minor in 1968, he joined the Peace Corps. He built little farms and bridges on the banks of the Mekong, “which actually had a positive impact on people’s lives,” and designed a nearby marketplace. He experienced Thai village culture just as it had existed, unchanged for centuries, “before The Flintstones was dubbed into Thai,” he says.
Fast-forward a decade or so to graduate school at Humboldt State University, where Curry pursued an MFA in film and theater. A one-man show of his paintings caught the eye of visiting lecturer Marcia Lucas (an Oscar winner for editing then-husband George’s Star Wars). She referred Curry to Universal Studios, which was looking for artists who could do photo-realistic work in oils—“because in those days there were no computers”—so he moved to Los Angeles, joined the Illustrators and Matte Artists Union, and went to work on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica.
Jobs in visual effects and main title design occupied much of the 1980s, until Curry got a call from Paramount asking him to supervise visual effects for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989. “Who wouldn’t?” he says. Curry worked on the Star Trek franchise for the next 18 years (through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise), eventually directing second-unit shoots and many fight sequences as well.
Then he spent a single year on Moonlight for CBS, four years on Chuck for NBC, and wrote a white paper for NASA as a member of its vision team. His latest project is a new series starring Gillian Anderson and Dermot Mulroney called Crisis, which is expected to premiere on NBC sometime after the Winter Olympics.
“Whether it’s designing a dam, or creating an oil painting, or figuring out shots for a movie, I look at it all as an extension of the same thing,” Curry says. “It’s a reaction to the phenomenon of life. And sometimes there’s greater truth in fiction than there is in reality. We are all at the center of our own imaginary universe.”
Dick Anderson is a writer in Los Angeles. He learned all about special effects through the pages of Starlog magazine before there was an Internet.