Paul Franklin specializes in turning the imaginary into reality. As the visual effects supervisor for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and now Inception, Franklin is well-versed in helping directors like Christopher Nolan populate their cinematic worlds with larger-than-life computer-generated images.
However, in spite of Inception's lush, physics-bending effects, Franklin's work on Nolan's cerebral sci-fi film was surprisingly measured.
"Some of the more spectacular imagery of the film - the street folding over in Paris, characters creating architecture out of thin air - are VFX shots that we created from a combination of live action and copious amounts of digital animation," Franklin told Wired.com in a phone interview.
Wired.com spoke with Franklin about his experiences planning, crafting and polishing Inception's dreamy visuals to work with Nolan's fastidious brand of filmmaking.
(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points follow.)
Wired.com: Did most of your work on Inception end up being CG-based?
Paul Franklin: A lot of it was, but we used a miniature for a sequence featuring a giant, James Bond-like base out in the snow. At the end of sequence, in true action-movie style, we blow it up. The great thing about miniatures is they give you this chaotic reality that digital hasn't quite gotten to yet. Using CG versions of complicated action like falling buildings, explosions or certain lighting effects are all predetermined by the nature of the software and the ideas that went into it. In the effects world, there's still a lot of useful randomness in real-world physics.
Wired.com: How did you balance Nolan's devotion to realism with the film's patent unreality?
Franklin: That was the challenge on the VFX side. It was about remaining faithful to the "reality" that was shot on-set and using effects to subtly bend elements like physics, space and time. For instance, we have some great set pieces like a fight scene that takes place in zero-g. We built sequences like that to be very stylish, but not excessively stylized to hide effects work. Due to the amount of light and high-contrast images in Inception, we were very much committed to the same high standard of photorealism that we held for Batman Begins and Dark Knight.
Wired.com: Surely that made some of the grand illusions harder to pull off. Which one gave you the most trouble?
Franklin: By far, Limbo City at the end of the film. Part of the challenge was that this was an effect that continually developed during production. In the script, two characters wash up on a beach and look up at this incredible crumbling city. The city itself is definitely described as architecture, but it's supposed to look like a natural landform.
Again, this is very easy to picture in your mind, but getting to the reality of what that should look like on film turned out to be a little more challenging. We went through the normal design process of having artists build concepts, and Chris laid out his ideal vision: Something glacial, with clear modernist architecture, but with chunks of it breaking off into the sea like icebergs.
For a long time we just couldn't get it right - we'd end up with something that looked like an iceberg version of Gotham City with water running through it. So, what we came up with was a basic model of a glacier, and then one of the designers at Double Negative came up with a program that filled the open spaces with modernist architectural blocks. It was just a matter of methodically adding in elements like roads, intersections and ravines until we ended up with this extremely complicated (but organic-looking) cityscape.
Wired.com: Richard King (Inception's sound designer) said he was able to pull a lot of recording cues from descriptions woven into the script. Was it the same for VFX?
Franklin: Sometimes. For something like the Paris-folding sequence the script basically said, "Ariadne [played by Ellen Page] looks down the street as it folds in on itself, forming a giant cube universe." It reads as a great description, but it doesn't explain the process of how the elements transition into the end result. So, in designing these effects we had to address a lot of the outlying questions: How does the lighting change? What happens to the people walking and driving on the road? Should it fold as if on a hinge?
These decisions started as conversations describing different ideas, and then we went through the process of having artists producing concept sketches. From there, we created rough computer animations [called previsualization] to give us a working idea of what this one line of script would look like in motion. It's a very fast, interactive process.
Wired.com: How interactive are we talking?
Franklin: Being able to previsualize and change the placeholder animations on the fly gave Chris insight on how to most efficiently shoot the live elements for the greatest impact. In fact, there was one point later on in the production where Chris was walking around on location with my MacBook, directing Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page based off this basic animation we'd mocked up. It ended up being a very collaborative environment.
Wired.com: Collaboration makes sense, but was there room for improvisation as well?
Franklin: As a director, Chris wants you to bring your creativity to the party and offer something up. For example, there's a sequence in Paris where Ariadne conjures up a bridge across the river Seine. That scene - and the effect it called for - wasn't originally part of the script. In scouting locations, we came across this bridge with intricate iron archways, which led us to chatting about its symmetrical design. We sort of came up with this idea of Ariadne building a bridge in an equally symmetrical fashion - starting from opposite ends in tandem until the construction meets and completes itself in the middle. A lot of the VFX ideas for this film came from being at these locations and incorporating some sort of observed reality.
Wired.com: At what point in the production did the VFX work start for you?
Franklin: I was brought in right at the beginning. Christopher [Nolan] called me up and asked if I wanted to read the film. Of course, I had trek out to L.A. and read it under close guard - they put me in a room on the Warner Bros. lot, locked the door behind me, and had someone posted outside over the two-hour time limit I was allotted to read the script.
From there, Chris and I had ongoing back-and-forth conversations about the scope and the VFX shots needed as we started the search for shooting locations.
Wired.com: With all this amazing imagery in Inception, did you spend a lot of time waiting for things to render?
Franklin: Actually, the visual effects shot count on Inception was about par with what we had on Batman Begins. We came in at about 500 shots, whereas Batman was about 620. That's actually fairly minor when compared to some of today's visual effects epics, which can have something like 1,500 or 2,000 VFX shots. Our goal was to build on the existing reality that'd already been filmed.
Wired.com: With Inception behind you, what's next? Any word on the new Batman film in the works?
Franklin: Nothing has been announced yet. It would be absolutely brilliant if I could work on it, but nothing has been set in stone. I will say this though: After working with Chris and the fantastic crew, it would be great to reconnect and thrill everyone with another great film in a couple year's time.
Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures