Interview: Inception VFX Supervisor Paul Franklin

A chat with Christopher Nolan’s favourite visual effects wizard.

It’s the most talked-about film of the year, and we got the chance to have a chat with the man who made Inception the visual feast that it is.

Born in Cheshire, Franklin worked his way up as a CG animator to form his own company, Double Negative Visual Effects. With the effects house in huge demand for blockbusters, Franklin is the senior in-house supervisor, and has worked with Inception director Christopher Nolan on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. For Inception, he and his team were the sole creators for the visual effects, and in our extensive interview, we find out why.

Can you give us an idiot’s guide as to what exactly the visual effects supervisor does?
The visual effects supervisor is responsible for the design and execution of all the visual effects. There’s a basic definition here that needs to be explained. Most people refer to it as special effects. Within filmmaking, special effects actually refers to the physical stuff that happens on set - the bangs and crashes. For instance, the big rotating corridor in the movie, that’s a special effect and it’s a separate department. Visual effects, we’re the guys that do all the digital stuff with computers, all the stuff in post-production. As the supervisor, and the head of the department, I’m on the film right from the beginning of pre-production, right the way through the shoot, and in post-production. Aside from the director and the producers, there’s very few other people who are on the film for as long as the visual effects supervisor. So my job will be to read the script, work out where to use visual effects to tell the story, come up with the techniques and design the effects, work out how much it’s all going to cost.

Your company Double Negative has an incredible list of films that you’ve worked on, but this is one of the few you’ve been hands on with.
Increasingly now, filmmakers are starting to come to larger visual effects houses like Double Negative, and saying, I want you to do all the visual effects on the film, and be part of the filmmaking process, design it, execute it, and deliver it. That’s what Chris asked us to do with Inception. I’ve worked with Chris on both the Batman films as visual effects supervisors, but there were other visual effects vendors working on those films as well. This time around, Chris asked me to head up all the visual effects on the film, and do it all with Double Negative. He wanted to take it back to the 1970s. In the days before computers changed the way we did business, the visual effects department would just be another part of the movie making process. And this thing of having stand-alone companies doing it is a relatively recent innovation. Chris wanted to take it back to integrating with the whole process, with one person he was talking to. That’s what we were able to give him.

I read that you were under guard when reading the script, is that a normal thing in Hollywood?
It’s normal when it’s Christopher Nolan! It’s not normally the case, no! Script security is increasingly important, because there are so many guys online… you know, it’s like bragging rights. There’s always someone who’s a little bit indiscreet, even at the studios. These people follow you around even when you’re out on location, they’ll come up and ask you innocent questions in the street, and before you know it, they’ve got a tape recorder and you’re on the internet! That happened to me once on a film a few years ago. Chris recognises all that. He uses a sophisticated combination of modern security and old school techniques. There are no electronic copies of the script for example - well, Chris has one. Other movies will email out a pdf of the script, so you can read it on your iPhone on the train! That will not happen with Chris, and if you want to read it, you’ve got to travel to Los Angeles and sit in his locked office, with Jordan - one of the producers of the movie - outside guarding. Two hours to read it, Chris phoned me up immediately and asked ‘what do you think? where do the visual effects go?’ It’s quite a challenging script to read!

What were your first impressions of the Inception script?
I had to keep up with the opening sequence, where you’re first introduced to these multi-layered dreams, and you’re snapping between different scenes with the same characters. That was quite challenging to wrap your head around at first, because I had no idea what the film was about. No clue. I was in LA for the Oscars, for The Dark Knight, and I was with my family in the middle of Disneyland, and he asked me to come in and read this script. That was the first I had heard about it.

Was Chris quite descriptive on the page when it came to the visual effects he wanted?
Chris’s scripts are descriptive enough that you understood the story. But in terms of the physical detail and the mechanisms by which they would happen, that was not there. And deliberately so, because he wants you to offer up your own ideas and bring your own creativity to the process, and that’s one of the most fantastic things about working on this show. He very much wants to engage your enthusiasm. So something like the Paris street scene, where it folds up into a cube. The script would say ‘the street begins to fold in the middle, then it forms a cube of a city, with everything sticking to the gravitional planes’. Then the art department went away, visited the location, and took photos. They roughed out some concept images, but there was no indication of how to go from A to B. That’s when Chris asked how to do this. The only guidance he gave us was that he didn’t want it to bend like rubber, he didn’t want the building to look like they were plastic or stretching, or anything that looked magical or supernatural was out. He wanted it to feel like there was a massive heavyweight mechanism driving it.

This is where the fact we’d worked together on the Batman films came into play. On Batman Begins we were on the streets of Chicago, and we had this scene where we raised all the drawbridges over the river. If you were staring down one of the city canyons, these towering streets of skyscrapers, looking down the end you’d see the end of the street sort of hinging up. The sidewalks, the road marks, the lamp-posts lifting up. I thought, there we go - the street is folding. What if we take that and extend it, and it’s a series of hinges, curling onto itself like a monstrous caterpillar track. Eventually, the irregular nature of the Paris buildings lent themselves to it, like teeth locking into place. I showed the knocked-up animation to Chris, and he was ‘that’s it, that’s the shot’. We showed it to Leo and Ellen on location so they could understand what was going to happen - Chris used my laptop to cue their reaction. That typifies the process. The challenges were primarily creative ones - interpreting what Chris had written.

Was there anything that stumped you as a team?
No, but there were some things that were more difficult than others. The Paris street, limbo city with the crumbling cliff face of architecture. The art department and our own concept artists couldn’t come up an image Chris was happy with. Well we had this idea it was like a glacier, crumbling into the sea, with architectural icebergs floating off. But the concept images always ended up looking like icebergs with buildings embedded in them, or a frozen city. They were too fantastical, too science fiction. Chris wanted something that was recognisable. So we had the idea - take a glacier and fill it up with buildings. We had to write software to do this, to build it up like a Lego-type glacier. We ended up with a crazy mutating city set of cliffs, but when you get closer you see all the buildings.

(I asked whether the Holocaust memorial in Berlin was an influence for one scene of limbo city, but we had crossed wires, and Paul thought I was referring to another sculptor who had done a Holocaust memorial in Vienna, and it turns out her work did inspire Inception in some way.)
There are definite parallels and it comes back to something Chris said, that there are a lot of obvious influences in Inception, but there are ones that are not obvious. And there are ones that aren’t even obvious to us making the film at the time. I’m familiar with Rachel Whiteread’s work, and the famous sculpture she won the Turner prize for, the inside of a house called Ghost, and that image did come back to me a few times when we were working on the outskirts of limbo city. The central towering spires of limbo, they were more to do with the concept of these design cities early modernists came up with, like Le Corbusier with La Ville radieuse (The Radiant City). It influenced the design of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and that’s what we’re doing. We wanted this sense of idealistic monumentalism, but the idea is that it’s a failed utopia. It’s a visual metaphor for the dreams that Cobb and Mal have when they’re down in limbo. At first it’s this wonderful environment with limitless possibilties, then it’s a prison, oppressive and overbearing. We wanted something that was a very recognisable visual signature, so every time we put those rows of skyscrapers in there, you knew you were in limbo.

There’s an elegance to the visual effects like I haven’t seen in any other film, would that have been a team effort with the costume designers for example?
Certainly all the other heads of department, myself, stunts, art department, our fantastic costume designer, we were all in one place and were continually having discussions. You have to discuss green screen material - do you use green or blue. You talk to the costume designer and that’s what dictates what you shoot on. There’s no great mystery as to why it’s green or blue!

How were actors like Leonardo DiCaprio coping on set, because he’s not used to this kind of genre?
He’s really cool, and very professional. He’s got a very, I guess, lively interior world, I imagine. His ability to imagine himself into whatever environment it is. Like something like Shutter Island, where he’s putting himself back into the 1950s and an alien environment, the same sort of skills come into play when he’s trying to put himself into limbo beach or a zero gravity hotel!

You can now pre-order Inception in a Limited Edition Blu-ray briefcase: triple format, spinning top totem, Theatrical Dream Machine Leaflet, and art cards. Released, along with standard Blu-ray and DVD, on 6th December.