Spotlight – Trey Harrell

by Graham Edwards

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Trey Harrell is a visual effects supervisor, CG and lighting supervisor, and 3D generalist at Mr. X. His film credits include Tron: Legacy, Crimson Peak, The Hundred Foot Journey and, most recently, The Shape of Water.

Trey Harrell

CINEFEX: Trey, how did you get started in the business?

TREY HARRELL: I’d had nearly 20 years in the advertising world before there was a big decline between 2006 and 2009. The shake-up steeled me to send my reels out again, and I ended up as lead lighting TD on Tron: Legacy for Mr. X in Toronto.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

TREY HARRELL: Literally every skill I’ve learned over my career, from my eye, to programming pipeline and database management, to simming and lookdeving viscera. I never have the same job two days in a row. There are still days I wake up and I can’t believe I’ve made a career out of playing with monsters!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TREY HARRELL: My first feature began about 10 years ago with a 12-month post schedule. Some recent projects I’ve seen have five-month schedules with three in post – the demand for this type of work has increased exponentially since prestige television got added to the mix. It’s a serious quest worldwide finding talent who are up for the challenges of such compressed post schedules. Also, committee creative has always made me weep uncontrollably, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

TREY HARRELL: I think if you’ll talk with anyone at the various shops involved, you’ll find that Tron: Legacy was incredibly difficult for all of the studios from a sheer brute force perspective. It was simply a lot of intensely grueling hours. That’s different than, for example, The Shape of Water where we had to get to know the creature as well as the director and sculptors knew him, after spending years designing him in preproduction. We had to be able to look Guillermo del Toro in the eye and say with no doubt whatsoever that his eyes and face were 100% on-model in a shot. I’m not sure your body recognizes the stress any differently between the two scenarios when you’re in the moment, but with the benefit of hindsight it becomes clearer. That’s no different than any creative endeavor, though. Every single one plays out differently.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TREY HARRELL: Well, I’ve worked with Guillermo a fair bit to date, so several of my strangest stories naturally revolve around his shows. I’ve had Robocop (Peter Weller) direct an episode of The Strain, pulling out his trumpet to riff jazz between takes – all that after I grew up on a steady diet of Cronenburg and Naked Lunch. More recently, I’ve had days-long text message chains with close friends detailing how Beauty and the Beast is okay because the beast has fur, but the idea of scales crosses an imaginary line somehow in a fantasy where the heroine has agency …

Watch a breakdown reel of Mr. X’s work on The Shape of Water:

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

TREY HARRELL: I see conversely the need to specialize more due to the sheer workload at hand versus the need – now more than ever – for generalists who can speak the language of all of the disciplines at play. The demand for quality work at the television level and the shrinking post schedule everywhere are probably the biggest changes visible day-to-day.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TREY HARRELL: Where to begin? I would like to see the largest software vendors throw R&D at their products like they did in the oughts. This is still not a mature industry and there’s immense room for growth. Incorporating third-party plugins annually does not justify support fees. I’d like to see post schedules level out to a manageable pace. And I’d like to see more filmmakers commit to getting as much as they can in-camera instead of shooting a scene on green with a dozen softboxes overhead and a tennis ball for eyelines – if you’re lucky – and then figuring out what the shot is later.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

TREY HARRELL: This is a production business – product and deadlines, and brute force hours will only get you so far. You’ll get one show in ten that’s special – you might dig it, critically it might be a success, or it’s just a great time working with the crew. You can’t show up for work differently on one show versus another. Also, work a job you hate for a few years before settling into a career doing something you love – perspective is important.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

TREY HARRELL: Assuming I’ve got decent gear at said festival, I’d pick a 70mm print of Blade Runner: The Final Cut to start, for sure. Popcorn cinema would come second – I’ve got a soft spot for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I’d have to cap it with something from my guilty pleasure bucket – today let’s call it Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TREY HARRELL: It’s a toss-up between Raisinets and Sno-Caps, but I make absolutely certain to dispose of the plastic wrap before entering the theater. I die inside a little bit when every package in the cinema opens up simultaneously on the first line of dialog.

CINEFEX: Trey, thanks for your time!