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Interview with VFX supervisor Scott Farrar

Who has the most important job in the world of Hollywood blockbuster? Directors? Maybe, but you can liken a director to the CEO of a company, sitting in the comfort of a folding chair shouting orders through a bullhorn while everyone else does the work. Actors? Do you know how many directors (and producers) are salivating at the thought of computer generated synthespians who can be programmed with lines, show up on time, don't argue with the director don't doesn't cost $20m to hire? Writers? Haven't you heard the joke; how did the blonde try to make it in Hollywood – she slept with a writer?

What's the most important thing about a big budget blockbuster? The special effects, of course, and Scott Farrar, Visual Effects Supervisor for XXX2, routinely works alongside names like Lucas, Spielberg and Zemeckis who bring us the biggest movies in history.

Having performed visual effects duties on Peter Pan, Minority Report, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, The Mummy , Deep Impact, Men in Black, most of the Star Trek films, Backdraft, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, the Back to the Future series, the Cocoon films, several Disneyland simulator rides, Who Framed Roger Rabbit Willow, Young Sherlock Holmes and Return of the Jedi, and with an Oscar win and another nomination under his belt, Hollywood would surely collapse without him...

But speaking from LA, he describes his job as one of deference to the director – a sort of special effects problem solver. "My basic job is to work out with the director what the design and the style of the movie will be when it's put together," Farrar says. "That means we have to agree on the philosophy of the film – the look and the style – and communicate that to the Director of Photography; is it muted tones, is it dark, is it bright, etc?

"The style that Lee [Tamahori, director of XXX2] wanted was of good colour, he wanted it to be photo-real, so it looks like you can walk out or fly in a helicopter or drive in a high speed camera car into these real environments and have them look like you've this it in camera."

Since Farrar started out as a cameraman and editor in the seventies and eighties, films have come a long way, and so have the tools an effects supervisor has to play with. Want a spaceship to fly over a planet? You no longer have to shoot cardboard cut-outs or models with a 35mm camera.

"We have a huge variety in the types of shots we can do now," Farrar says. "We design all the shots, then shoot everything with the first or second unit crews – the backgrounds, live action, green screen and stunts. Then we put all the pieces together and nowadays usually do some digital compositing or animation to put all the elements together and that's the finished shot we give the director. Digital was the greatest thing that ever happened because now the possibilities are so much greater and there are so many more choices and better ways to do great shots."

A great example he describes is of the train chase that'll finally be revealed to audiences now XXX2 is in cinemas (releasing internationally today). The train and action surrounding it were put together using a variety of methods, but it's the background (which you won't look at twice) that's the interesting part.

"We shot maybe six or seven thousand still pictures to populate this background so no matter where the camera was, whether it was high or low or which angle it was looking from, we'd have buildings or silos or water towers or lights or road graders – whatever might be next to railroad tracks. The photos made up this huge library that you could literally drive the camera through like a virtual set, and it looks pretty good."

With experience like Farrar's behind the visual effects in XXX2, looking pretty good will be easy.

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