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Although it’s not shot in 3D or part of a hit franchise, Inceptionis one of the highest grossing films of 2010, thanks in no small part to its incredible effects. VFX Supervisor Paul Franklin explains the tricks of his trade, and why the film will be just as effective on the small screen…
As the visual effects supervisor for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and now Inception, Paul Franklin knows a thing or two about transforming the everyday into high concept, larger than life, cinematic worlds. He calls it creating an ‘absurd reality’, something that feels familiar, yet different; something that perseveres for authenticity in spite of its genre trappings. We spoke to him on the day he gave a talk at the Apple store on Regent Street to promote the forthcoming release of the InceptionBlu-ray box set, which includes special features taking viewers behind the scenes of his wonderful effects.
Firstly, given the current trend, was there ever a temptation to shoot Inception in 3D?
We did do a test, got a bunch of shots, which we converted into stereo over in Los Angeles. I have to say the results were extremely encouraging. It was very impressive what the stereo guys managed to do on it, but, unfortunately it was just a little too late in the day; these things do take a while to get right. It would have been a post-conversion process had we had the time. Who knows maybe on Christopher [Nolan’s] next film he’ll decide to go that route. The way we use effects on Chris’s films, they are very much in support of the story. The script is king and everything that we do takes its lead from that.
What does being a visual effects supervisor on a Christopher Nolan film entail?
The effects supervisor is the head of the visual effects department, and is responsible for the design and execution of all the visual effects in the film. There’s another department called special effects, and visual and special effects normally get lumped together by the general public. But within filmmaking, visual effects is everything that is generally worked on in post-production, and paid for out of the post-production budget. So it’s all stuff like computer graphics, green-screen work, adding monsters, space ships, colour correction, wire removals, that sort of thing. Special effects are all the physical stuff that happens for real on location, like explosions [and] crazy rigs. The Bat-mobile for example, was built by Chris Corbould’s special effects department. Chris Nolan doesn’t work with a second unit, he shoots everything himself, but what we do is we go away and we shoot all of the things that you otherwise couldn’t see.
How early on were you brought into the process on Inception?
My job on Inceptionstarted right at the very beginning of pre-production. Chris called—I was standing in the middle of Disneyland with my kids—and he asked me to come in to read the script, which I did inside a locked room with somebody guarding the door; I got like two hours to read the script. He called me up immediately after and said, ‘Right, so where do you think the effects go?’ Then that conversation would carry on through pre-production, where I’m breaking down the script, working out every moment where an effect would be, what techniques we might use, how much it might cost.
The script is king and everything that we do takes its lead from that.
So his sets are naturally very collaborative?
Yeah, he wants all of his heads of department to be there on set, all of the time, or to be accessible, because there’s a continual ongoing creative discussion. You’re working on the film, and Chris might say, ‘What about if we do this?’ or ‘Do you think VFX can remove that rig?’ or ‘What can you do to add this background?’ Then further afield, you’re looking at a location and he’s saying, ‘Hey this would be a good idea, the way this building looks, it could be incorporated into Limbo City later on.’
How did you go about making Inception’s visual effects look so authentic?
You’ve got to take lots of references. When we were doing the Paris Street folding over, there are hundreds of thousands of photographs of those buildings taken, digital photos, which helped us build this very detailed model of the city. Out in Canada we were constantly taking pictures of the mountains, and the changing weather conditions, so we then had material to stick into the green-screen windows on the set, when they’re inside the base, so it’s got continuity of what you’ve seen outside. We’re constantly gathering information like that.
How much digital space do you need on any given film?
The great thing is that computers keep getting cheaper, or they get more powerful for the same price. The storage for it, just talking about hard disk space, our first movie, Pitch Black, we generated just under, I think, two terabytes, just under two thousand gigabytes of information for that film. We had a shot on The Dark Knight, which just in that one shot alone, was over two terabytes of data. Inceptionwas about one hundred terabytes of data. So it’s a hundred thousand gigabytes of data. The software has become more and more sophisticated and easier to use.
How did you create the show-stopping zero-gravity scene?
That was real old-school stuff, because Stanley Kubrick had worked out a lot of these techniques for 2001. One of the key things in that film was the way that the set was built. You’ve got the corridor set, and we had a version of it on its end, so the floor becomes the wall, and then the performers are dropped in on the set, on wires from the far end of the set. The camera is on the floor looking up at them, so their pendulum-type action actually becomes them bouncing from walls to the floor to things, and that’s a much more convincing zero-gravity look than if they’d shot it vertically, with the cameras looking sideways. The great thing also is because you’re looking up at them, the wires are behind them, so you can generally hide a lot of the wires, and then we paint out the other stuff.
What’s your take on that final shot of the spinning top at the end of Inception?
I honestly don’t know. Some days I think it falls, some days, I think it doesn’t. As far as Chris is concerned it either falls or it doesn’t. If he does have a definitive answer, I’m afraid he’s never shared that with us. Ultimately, it’s about what the viewer brings to it. It’s an invitation to re-examine the film. •
Inception was released in the UK on Blu-ray (including a limited edition briefcase set), DVD and digital platforms on December 6, 2010 from Warner Home Video. You can read our interview with practical effects master Chris Corbould in movieScope #18
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 19 (November/December 2010)