The Illusionists — Paul Franklin

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Paul Franklin

CINEFEX — What was the first time you realized there was such a thing as visual effects?

PAUL FRANKLIN — I didn’t know it was called visual effects at the time, but I remember watching an edition of the BBC children’s television show Blue Peter in the early ‘70s. They had a guy called Mat Irvine on the show — he did a lot of the effects for Doctor Who at the time. He was talking about a little-remembered show called Moonbase 3. There was a shot of a lunar shuttle taking off, and they were showing how they created the dust cloud from the rockets with a little air blower.

CINEFEX — Just the sort of thing to capture the imagination of an impressionable lad.

PAUL FRANKLIN — Yeah, I was fascinated by this idea of creating a world in miniature that you could photograph, and it would appear to be real. At least, it looked real to me at the age of seven or eight. By the time I graduated from art school in ‘89, I’d read a lot of behind-the-scenes articles and so I knew quite a lot about the process. I’d also met some filmmakers by that point. But, because it was quite a niche industry, it felt like a bit of a closed shop, particularly for someone who grew up in rural Cheshire.

CINEFEX — If it felt like a closed shop, how did you open the doors?

PAUL FRANKLIN — The computer democratized it. I already owned a computer by the time I graduated at the age of 23 — a Commodore Amiga, I think — and my friends and I were making short films in our spare time. They weren’t fantasy or visual effects things, but there was a need for computer animations to help tell the story, and that was my way into visual effects. I was in the right place at the right time. That side of filmmaking took off like a rocket, and I hung on and rode the rocket up into the sky.

CINEFEX — What was your first experience working on a feature film?

PAUL FRANKLIN — Well, through the ‘90s, I worked as an animator in videogames for a couple of years, then moved down to London to join MPC as a computer animator, doing a lot of television idents and commercials. It was a great training ground, because the turnaround times are so quick in that business that you learn stuff really quickly. At the time, MPC was beginning to do its first feature film work, and so a group of us all worked together on that early Angelina Jolie film, Hackers. I mostly did graphic displays for the monitors — like this galaxy of numbers representing the worm program that the hackers uncover in the course of the story. For me, Hackers was very much the crossover — the last of the old analogue ways of doing things. We had hand-drawn effects animation and physical miniatures representing graphic items, and we were using digital animation and compositing as well.

CINEFEX — What scenes were the miniatures used in?

PAUL FRANKLIN — We used them to represent the internal guts of the computer. We built this amazing city of Perspex cubes and shot it with motion control over at Magic Camera Company in Shepperton. It’s the only time my digital elements have ever been composited optically. Peter Chiang was visual effects supervisor on that film — actually, that was the first time the core team of what became DNEG all worked together.

CINEFEX — You’ve used miniatures quite a bit through your career, not least on the films you’ve done with Christopher Nolan.

PAUL FRANKLIN — Absolutely, but let’s be clear: the decision to use miniatures in the Dark Knight movies, Inception and Interstellar came from Chris himself. He wanted a very specific aesthetic that fitted with his real-world approach to filmmaking. Some people would say you can tell when something is a miniature, but you can also tell it’s real. The snow fortress in Inception collapses in a chaotic fashion that would be very difficult to create as a simulation. Reality behaves in this unpredictable way. That’s why Chris had this real desire to use miniatures on those films — in fact, he was pretty insistent about it!

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists