Saturday, 25 October 2014

VFX Supervisor Paul Franklin Reveals The Secrets of Dark Knight and Inception

VFX Supervised by Paul Franklin

Paul Franklin gave a free lecture at Escape Studios in London on 15th October about the work of a visual effects supervisor. He talked about what goes into the making of the sophisticated films he has supervised, such as Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar - coming out this November. Franklin is an Oscar nominated VFX supervisor with two BAFTAs on his shelf. Clearly, he is a man who knows VFX inside out, offering a unique insight into how big budget visual effects blockbusters get made.

Paul Franklin started by talking about how he started in the business 25 years ago. At that time the industry did not really exist. He had studied fine art in the 1980s, grew up with and loved the Star Wars movies - which were remarkable in that this was really "the first time you could find out information about how the film got made. People bought books about the making of Star Wars". 

He explained that it was "hard to make digital art in the 1980s". But, despite the hurdles, Paul started doing animated films. Then he got work at MPC – which was at the time a “video tape post-production house” – they came out of the TV commercials industry. Paul was “in the right place at the right time”. ILM in the US was "really the only proper VFX house at that time". 
Double Negative VFX

In London, Paul helped to found his company Double Negative ("D Neg"), which started in 1998 with just 10 people. Now, they have grown immensely; they have around 1,000 people in London alone, plus 250 in Singapore, and they will start up soon in Vancouver.  This reflects how the UK VFX industry has grown, as demand for its product has increased.  The TV sector is “booming” here in the UK right now. D Neg does VFX for Mr Selfridge. Pail has worked with Chris Nolan for 11 years – he VFX supervised all 3 Dark Knight films, Inception, and Interstellar - coming out in November.


Paul went on to explain how, as VFX got more sophisticated, it had become "disconnected from film-making". For example, companies like Sony Imageworks have moved away from Los Angeles (the home of movies) and is now based in Vancouver, not LA. Director Chris Nolan personally felt that VFX was getting too distant from the movie business. So, now, Nolan gets Paul to do the whole job - effectively turning D Neg into a one-stop shop for visual effects.

Director Chris Nolan
Paul described Inception as “an art house Sci Fi James Bond film”.  In Paris they had to blow up the Café Debussy - but since the Paris authorities don't like you blowing stuff up, the film-makers had to be smart about what they did and how they did it. The Special Effects team began by trying to figure out how to do this in a way which embraced the limitations of special effects on a live set. So they used paper furniture and paper plates, soft stuff that would do no harm. In effect they "blasted soft debris through the windows of the café in Paris". To do this, they used "giant air cannons to blast the stuff through, missing the actors". Meanwhile "chairs and cars are being pulled over with cables", getting pulled out of the way. Then, later, using digital VFX, they added" the hard stuff", like plates, cups, cobbles, rocks etc.

They also built a lot of very high-tech sets on Inception. Working with Guy Dyas, The Production Designer, they built a bar, a real set, which could rotate 25 degrees, to create the sense of gravity shifting.  The actors look like they are leaning into the shot - because they are. Both the set and the camera were tilted. They built these sets "inside a giant gimble" so they "could rotate the set", so they could get actors “walking on the ceiling”.  To make Inception they used a huge former airship hanger in Bedfordshire – with a huge high ceiling, perfect for filming.

The Folding City

To make the folding city in Inception required a great deal of work. On a shot like this, the VFX supervisors "start by reading the script", asking the question: “how will they tell the story of what is on the page?”. Paul described director Chris Nolan as "an auteur – he is fully in control". But, he is also "very collaborative, allowing all the lead creatives to have their say".  The folding city shot was filmed on location in Paris. The characters look up and "see the streets rising above them". But, the question was, how to get this to work?
Lidar scanner. Image: Wikipedia

First, the crew documented the location in huge detail, shooting many many detailed photos. They used Lidar scanners to record the buildings in fine detail. Over 2 weeks they "gathered 2 ½ million stills of the location". They built "a super high rez virtual set". They even "got room interiors as well" - when the owners of the apartment buildings in Paris were prepared to co-operate (some were, some weren't).

Then they made an animatic, using relatively low resolution data borrowed from Google maps. In the shot, the buildings "fold in on themselves and mirror image themselves". Of course, everyone in the audience "knows this is an effect". As a result, the audience "will be looking for the join". Also, the lighting of the shot was tricky. If the effect really took place, the street would go completely dark, so the only solution was to cheat by "changing the lighting direction".

Limbo City

To design Limbo city, they "played with lots of modern architecture", architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Corbusier. The city is "decaying, just like [the Leo Di Caprio characters’] mental state".
They filmed the cliffs of West Bay in Dorset – it has layered sandstone cliffs, and "feels almost like ruined buildings". They looked at "photos of Grozny after the Chechen war when the Russians had flattened it". 

The art department created Matte paintings to design the buildings to get the right feel. Paul (who has an art background) suggested that D Neg write some brand new software to create the effect. This "would take 6 months" but Chris Nolan backed it, so they had the flexibility to create something entirely new. As Paul put it "Studios hate this kind of thing – it's too expensive and takes too long". But, in the end, it worked.

Limbo Beach - decaying concrete
Limbo beach was filmed "with a big box in the sea, to create the physical effect of waves crashing against a real object". Then they "modeled a CG glacier". The new script "turned the glacier into CG buildings, calving off bits of the building like cliffs falling into the sea". The team "needed to get the feeling of aged concrete. The decay had to feel authentic, like real decayed buildings".

To make Dark Knight Rises, the team filmed in IMAX. The image size is "18k – which contains huge amounts of information". This creates problems. "You can’t create digital images this size, at least not commercially" - the cameras don't exist. It is also "expensive to film in IMAX....even the film stock is expensive. Each camera is worth $3m". 

Gotham City from Dark Knight

To make Gotham City they went to Pittsburgh; which Paul described as "more grungy than Chicago". The city was very helpful, they "let them dig up streets and blow stuff up". Paul explained that "whenever they film, they are constantly documenting things". Often, filming is counter-intuitive. For example, they "had to film winter scenes in high summer – with fake snow. Summer scenes were filmed in winter in NYC  - they had to paint the snow out of the shots". This happens because of the practical limitations of the film schedule. 

For the teaser for Dark Knight, this had to be filmed and released "way ahead of the movie – to generate interest in the project". They did lots of pre-viz "to be super accurate". Chris Nolan "did not want the teaser to be fully digital; had to be real effects as well". This made it "hard to shoot", they had to use "lots of miniature work – a 1/5 scale plane, destroyed and filmed while its exploding". As Paul put it "Good VFX is invisible – it just looks real".

Green Screen -v- Blue Screen. Image: Wikipedia

At the end, a student asked Paul which is best - Green Screen or Blue Screen? The answer, he said, is quite prosaic. Usually it’s a question of  “what’s left in the box after the last film wrapped”. In other words, you work with what you have. 


For more on the experience of studying at Bucks New University, come and visit us at one of our Open Days,  take a virtual tour of one of our animation studios, check out what our students think of our course, and see why we're ranked in the top 12 creative universities in the UK. Find out why we're giving free laptops to all our students, and why we give all our students free access to videos at Also, see what financial assistance might be available to you. Learn which is better for animation, a PC or a Mac? Get hold of a copy of a map so you can find your way around campus, and learn about motion capture at Bucks.

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