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The Design Force is with Him

Tim Mueller illustrating a backdrop.
WRITTEN BY JAKE STUMP
ILLUSTRATION BY GRAHAM CURRY
It’s a tall task to create a background for the ultimate weapon of destruction. 

“Star Wars” nerds know all about the Death Star. 

In the upcoming prequel film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” a group of unlikely heroes band together to steal the plans to the Death Star. 

In the official trailer for the film, scheduled for a December release, you can see a shot of the Death Star with a huge red planet hovering behind it. 

That planet and other Death Star backdrops were created by Tim Mueller, BFA ’00, Graphic Design.
Tim Mueller

Mueller spent the summer working around the clock, in excess of 70 to 80 hours a week, as the sequence lead on “Rogue One.” That means he created interface designs and special effects artwork that are visually consistent with the rest of the movie. 

Mueller created that huge red planet because, after all, where are you going to go in reality to film a planet with the Death Star floating by?

As a digital matte artist, the Baltimore native has had a hand in crafting unreal worlds for several major motion picture blockbusters. Digital matte artists specialize in matte paintings, which are realistic, painted representations of landscapes. These paintings serve as backdrops for movies, television shows and video games that would otherwise be impossible to film. 

From lush forests to populated cities to vast deserts to otherworldly planets, Mueller makes unreal environments real.

One of Mueller’s big breaks came after graduating from West Virginia University. He moved to San Francisco to study at the Academy of Art University when he received a call to work on the 2004 film “Catwoman” starring Halle Berry. 

“Theatrically speaking, the feeling of receiving the call was a mix between opening the Golden (Ticket) to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and entering Emerald City in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” Mueller said. “With all of this joy, I knew the hard work was only beginning.”

“Catwoman” led Mueller to work on Hollywood megahits from “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” to the highest-grossing film of all time, “Avatar.”

That hard work Mueller references started earlier right inside the classrooms of the WVU College of Creative Arts. While his high school classmates chose institutions such as Yale, Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt Institute and Maryland Institute College of Art, country roads took Mueller to WVU. 

“I knew that if I went to one of those schools, I would be missing some crucial skills needed to compete in the professional world,” Mueller said. “It was easy to choose WVU. They have one of the few top design schools that offers a complete, well-rounded college experience.”

Mueller credits professors Eve Faulkes and the late Cliff Harvey for enriching his graphic design palette. 

“After being accepted into the Graphic Design program, we never touched a computer until we had proven ourselves in hand-drawn design the old-fashioned way for at least one full year,” Mueller said. 

Today, Mueller works in the digital matte department at Industrial Light & Magic, a San Francisco-based visual effects company founded by George Lucas. Yes. That George Lucas. 

Industrial Light & Magic has won 15 Best Visual Effects Oscars and has long been considered the entertainment industry standard in visual effects, computer graphics and animation. 

Mueller has even had the honor of working on Lucas’ own brainchild, the “Star Wars” franchise. On “Stars Wars: The Force Awakens” – Episode VII – Mueller crafted the view from space of the Starkiller Base using 3-D computer graphics software. 

He also built the scenery of a futuristic San Francisco in “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

“Avatar,” the critically acclaimed film about humans colonizing a moon in the 22nd century, ranks near the top of Mueller’s favorite projects. He served as a 3-D matte painter on that film and worked on floating mountains and a battle sequence. 

“‘Avatar’ was my favorite movie because of the groundbreaking stereoscopic visual effects James Cameron explored to tell his story of Pandora,” he said. “I remember putting on the 3-D glasses during dailies and instantly being transported into another world. I believed every second of it and knew the future of filmmaking would never be the same.”

Mueller can claim he played a role in changing the face of filmmaking. And he started as a kid who grew up doodling Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Simpsons. 

“I wish I still had these drawings today to see where it all started,” Mueller said. “Having the urge to create guided my focus from early education to professional level work.

“The best part of my job now is being inspired by the talented people who contribute to the lengthy process of making movies. There is so much talent that comes together to make these gigantic works of timeless art. From production to editorial to visual effects supervisors to the directors, everyday is a new groundbreaking milestone passed.” 

You can find Mueller’s work at tjmueller.us.

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