Few VFX artists can claim to have as prestigious a career as Paul Franklin. From junior VFX artist to co-founder of Double Negative, one of London's most prestigious post houses, Paul has been on quite a journey. He's worked on some of the most memorable and successful films of recent times, titles such as Batman Begins, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and The Dark Knight. His work has brought him nominations for an Oscar and two BAFTAs along the way.
In early 2009, director Christopher Nolan invited Paul to supervise the visual effects for his new film Inception and he was with the production team every step of the way, from pre-production through to final delivery. His close working relationship with Nolan resulted in some of the most original and spectacular imagery seen in the cinema this year.
We were absolutely thrilled when Paul came in to talk to our students about the making of Inception on Tuesday. To say that we were excited would be an understatement. I caught up with Paul to talk Inception, VFX and highlights of his career.
1. You have worked on some legendary projects, but do you actually have a favourite?
Some projects you like because they were fun to work on, others because the work turned out fantastic. The one that achieved the best of both worlds was Inception, everything about the project - script, director, cast, crew and, of course, the VFX team - just lined up perfectly and that doesn't happen very often. It was a brilliant experience from start to finish and the response to the movie has been fantastic. A dream project (excuse the pun!)
2. How difficult is it to build a career in Visual Effects?
Its hard work, but then so is anything that's worth doing. The stakes are always high and the hours can be very long indeed so you often find yourself building your life around the work. However, I have found visual effects to be a constant source of stimulation and seeing the end result up on screen in a cinema with an audience is very rewarding, so that has kept me going over the years. My feeling is that if you focus on being the best artist and filmmaker you can be then everything else takes care of itself.
3. What does one of your typical days at work entail?
It depends on what phase of the film production cycle we're in. If we're shooting, then a typical day will start around 6am when we all meet at the studio or out on location for breakfast and to discuss the day's work. The rest of the day will primarily consist of observing how things are being shot, providing advice where necessary (for instance, ensuring that the greenscreens are correctly exposed or that tracking markers are in place when needed) and also being available to discuss things with the other department heads (stunts, art department, special effects etc) so as to overcome problems as they arise. We generally wrap the shoot around 7pm and then we watch the dailies - the film from the previous day's shoot - which can take an hour or so. There might be a bit of prep required back in the office for the next day's shoot but hopefully I'm done around 9pm. Go home, sleep, get up and do it all over again!
When we've finished shooting and move into post-production the hours are a bit more humane. The day usually starts at 9am with dailies - a review of all the work from the previous day or two. I'll sit in a screening room with the artists and look at the work, giving feedback so that they know where to go next. Dailies is a great time for the crew to interact directly with me which can be a challenge on a larger show where there are literally hundreds of people all working away to deliver the VFX. Depending on what stage we're at dailies can last anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. Once that's done I'll go back to my desk where I might be designing a shot on my workstation or making more detailed notes on shots that will be mailed out to the artists later. I'll also be dealing with any requests that have come in from the VFX office on the production side (on Inception and the Batman films the VFX office was based in LA so there would always be a stack of things to address when I came in every morning as they had been working right through our night-time here in London). The rest of the day will be taken up with meetings with individual artists and then, at around 4pm in the afternoon, we'll fire up the video conferencing kit and I'll present the latest work to the director over in LA. If it's a good day we generally finish up around 7pm - if there's a real rush on then we might go much later into the evening.
4. Who do you particularly admire or get inspiration from?
I'm very lucky to have worked with a lot of really inspirational people who have all had an influence on me through the years. The one person who has been a consistent source of inspiration over the last couple of decades is Peter Chiang, VFX supervisor and the driving force behind setting up Double Negative. Peter started out as an effects animator in the pre-digital days, working with people like Derek Meddings (the original Thunderbirds TV show and many of the Bond films) on films including Tim Burton's Batman and Highlander. Peter's skill as a visual artist, his unflagging energy, positive attitude and endless enthusiasm are fantastic examples for anyone who aspires to build a career in visual effects.
5. Tell us about the making of Inception. What did you find most challenging about the project?
For me the biggest challenge in Inception was to come up with ideas for the shots that were strong enough to hold their own with the rest of the film. Chris Nolan has an incredible visual imagination that meshes with his sense of drama and story telling, to keeping up with that meant you had to bring your best game all of the time. This is an important point because these days high-end visual effects are capable of pretty much anything so the first question should always be "what do I need to do?" rather than "how do I need to do it?"
6. Is there a shot in the film you are particularly proud of?
I'm proud of every single shot that we made for the movie - the VFX department and the team at Dneg didn't put a foot wrong over the entire project. Perhaps the sequences that best sum up the scope of the VFX in the film are the scenes in Paris and the walk through Limbo from the sea. These scenes combine seamless state-of-the-art digital environment work with a fluid, hand-held style of cinematography to transport us to a truly fantastic world that always stays rooted in a recognisable everyday reality.
7. Do you have any other exciting projects lined up?
Well, I had a pretty busy year making Inception so I've been taking it easy over the summer but things are now beginning to heat up again and there are a few things coming up in the next few months. Hopefully it won't be too long before we're able to put something new into the cinemas that'll be just as exciting as Inception was this year.
8. What advice would you give to an aspiring VFX artist?
There are a number of things that people should keep in mind when thinking about a career in filmmaking of any kind: first and foremost is that it's a collaborative medium - big movies require lots of people working together towards a common goal so try to get along with people and treat everyone from the director to the office runner with respect, after all, one day that runner might be the director of your movie! The other thing to remember is that filmmaking - and VFX in particular - is primarily driven by passion, the people who go far are those who really yearn to tell visual stories, the top people do get paid pretty well but if you're primarily looking at this as a career because it looks like it might be lucrative then maybe aim for something else like banking. Finally, remember that it's your creativity that defines you as a VFX artist - technical skills are very important, but creativity and visual imagination are at the core of longevity in this business.