Special effects are an important part of the movie business. From May to September each year, movie studios big and small try to blow audiences with their biggest budget releases of the year, and the majority of these are centered on the special effects. Already this summer, we've had an intergalactic space battle, a futuristic apocalypse with robots, and a race against the clock to solve a murder conspiracy. Still to come are a couple of big budget war movies and a film that aims to be more than meets the eye. However, when it comes to special effects, one company more than any other has been on the cutting edge, pushing the limits of what can be accomplished for decades. That company is Industrial Light and Magic based out of San Franscisco, which has contributed to so many of the biggest special effects films of all time, from Jurassic Park to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Star Wars to The Terminator. In advance of one of the summer's big blockbusters, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I had the chance to talk with Scott Farrar, one of the men responsible for these ground-breaking effects. We talked about how he got into the business, what he looks for in a special effects movie, and what audiences can expect from TF2.
Mark McLeod: Good morning. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us this morning.
Scott Farrar: You're welcome.
MM: How did you first become interested in working in movies?
SF: Well basically, you know, when I was a kid, I found it all very fascinating and I liked a lot of the things that most boys liked. I liked magic and stunts, skits, and I was really intrigued by photography, and I actually started shooting movies at a young age using my parent's regular 8mm, wind-up Browning movie camera. I was just terribly fascinated by movement and motion and all the rest of it. Then, when it came to studying something in college, I felt really guilty but it was the thing that was the most interesting, and I said that if I go to college I should really do something like being a doctor, but I thought that out of all the possible things, I was the most interested in photography and movies. So that's really how it all got going.
MM: Were you looking to get into special effects? Was that always an area that interested you?
SF: Not per se, I was really first intrigued by photography primarily, but like any director of photography, you learn to think in all kinds of methods, you are always thinking three dimensionally, you learn to shoot things by way of the long or wide lens, shooting things forwards and backwards, upside down, change the speeds of things, faster, slower, stop motion. I think by definition just learning about all the different things you can do with photography, you automatically get into it (special effects) -- at least it was something I did.
MM: Looking at your resume, you've been involved with doing some of the most ground-breaking special effects work from Roger Rabbit to Jurassic Park to Back to the Future to Star Wars: Episode I to of course Transformers. What's it been like being involved with so many memorable films?
SF: It's very cool. I tend to approach everything more like an artist because I come from an art background and you are always looking for something new by taking what you know and trying new things. It's a funny thing about discovery, and it's very slow when you're doing it, but then you show up with something new. Even something like Transformers which I thought, well this could be good, it might be good, you don't really know. It's when you're pioneering things and it's risky stuff because a lot of times you fail or something just doesn't work out. It's very exciting though, I gotta tell you. It's exciting and it's an amazing opportunity to be involved all these years on so many ground-breaking things in major motion pictures.
MM: You've worked with Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Micheal Bay, and Clint Eastwood, just to name a few, and on projects where the special effects were a predominant part of the movie. And then you've also worked on films like Rent where they played a bit of a lesser role. Do you approach these movies in different ways depending on the scope of the project?
SF: Well sure you do. It's reflected in the complexity of the shot. Something like Rent, first of all, was a heck of a lot of fun just to work with Chris Columbus -- he's a great guy and he's the kind of guy who enjoys trying to figure things out. He's right in there when we were working on the shots. A lot of it was normal type stuff like expanding backgrounds and making sets that we shot on the back lot of Warner Bros. look like it was deeper, a real New York sort of thing, but also something as esoteric as adding breath during the cold winter sequences while the people are singing. He really got into it and it's a small idea, but if it's not there it doesn't look right on the screen, so it's kind of fun stuff.
MM: Now speaking of Transformers, as a guy who was born in 1982 right around the time the toys were big and the cartoon was starting out on TV, I had some concerns about if it was going to translate from sort of a kiddie property to something bigger in a live action movie. Let's face it -- so many action blockbuster-type movies just seem to be repetitive, with just a bunch of explosions or battles. I think though, with the first one, you really added something of a human quality to things and you weren't just watching things get destroyed. Is this something you felt when you were working on it?
SF: Absolutely. You sound like me in that I don't enjoy a visual effects picture if there's not a really good story with strong characters and that was certainly the approach when we started this whole robot re-invention. We wanted to come up with a new idea for robots and didn't want these slow moving lumbering, stomping guys marching down the middle of the street blasting everything in the way -- people have seen that a thousand times and it's really boring. You know Michael (Bay) had a lot to do with working with us, and there was a lot of back and forth. He's a very creative guy and said, "I know you've got to make them heavy but they also have to be nimble, ninja-like warriors," and so we said OK and started experimenting with movement. And sometimes it doesn't work, and like I said earlier getting back to photography, we tried a lot of things moving to slow motion. First and foremost, regarding emotion and acting really, we worked long and hard to get the face and the eyes to work. It was real simple, these guys have to talk so we could have a Jerry Mahoney-type thing where it's a lower jaw sort of "yeah yeah yeah" thing, with not much articulation, and I said that would look stupid. I said I think we have to make lips, and everyone thought it would look dumb, but I said let's just try it. You probably need 3 blades on the top and the bottom to be articulate and shape an "O", because it's hard, so we built the robots not only to be able to perform enunciation, but then we had to get into re-designing the face for all the areas around the eyes, because they simply in the first designs didn't show enough emotion. So we added layers of stuff around the eyes and came up with this idea we call the "Neuralco" blades -- it's really like an iris that can open and close -- and by doing this you could iris up and iris down and have blades that can blink. So after working months and all the robots have different designs, finally Bumblebee comes up in dailies and I know it sounds silly, but I'm looking at this stuff every single day for 3 months to get them to work better. And one day, Bumblebee shows up and it's working, and it's magic, and the close up of his eyes when he's handing the cube to Shia, and all of a sudden man, you know, it's working. But what I'm saying to you is that when something really works, we're no different than the average moviegoer where you're thunderstuck. That's really where it all began, and we've done even more on this new film, and it's many many times bigger in terms of exposition and acting really.
MM: Now from what I've been reading and have seen about the sequel, and with Micheal Bay's history of making things bigger and better, what can fans expect from the second installment? I've heard there are more robots and the action is just that much bigger.
SF: Well this movie is shot on location all around the world -- we shot in 7 states and 3 foreign countries. It was a long, hard shoot and the backgrounds were actually very suitable for how big our characters are. One of the problems that I have in portraying the size of the robots to you is that if I don't have a big background behind the actor or robot it's hard for you to tell how big these guys are. Some of them are now 50 feet, 70 feet and even 150 feet tall which is huge. If you have a low background and you tilt up and its a robot against the sky then you really have no reference. So we shot in a steel plant, and there are places where the background itself is 100 feet tall. It was a tremendous location to shoot at and lighting it at night time to show off its amazing architecture, it's sort of like Ben Hur and Apocalypse Now together with the action, and these upscale locations with the pyrotechnics that are huge and involving, too, and I really just don't think anyone is making movies like this these days. Michael is the only one shooting movies that look this big. Plus we've got 60 new characters, way above what we had in the first one, and sections of the movie are shot on IMAX, meaning the resolution of the characters has to go way up. There's a lot of different things that the audience is going to be thrilled by and things you've literally never seen before.
MM: Now you mentioned IMAX, and while the first one did have a special IMAX print towards the end of the run, more and more movies like The Dark Knight are being shot with IMAX in mind. Did this pose a problem for you guys or were you excited about bumping it up another notch or two?
SF: It's exciting for a minute and then you're like, it's IMAX, so the resolution has to go up 8 times, and we were like boy, we better make sure that we can do that and check out in the render farm can we hold that much information. It's daunting and it takes a lot of work to make a film like this. In computer graphics, it takes a heck of a lot of memory to do an effects shot, and as an example one of our characters is composed of thousands of pieces, about 6 times more pieces then Optimus Prime -- and Optimus is a little over ten thousand. This particular guy's renders took up to 72 hours per frame and took about 4 or 5 days to render a shot running around the clock. The numbers are just out of this world, the number of terabytes we did on the first picture -- it took 22 terabytes on Transfomers, we went over 150 on this movie. It's that big.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.