Interview: Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin talks Interstellar: “There’s no limit”

Paul discusses his journey from a Cheshire school boy to visual effects company Double Negative.

With a resume including Harry Potter, Batman and Inception, it’s not hard to see why Paul Franklin is one of the most successful British visual effects supervisors around today. Forging a close working relationship with fellow Brit Christopher Nolan, Franklin has worked his way up through the industry since the 1990s, with his most recent work on Interstellar earning him an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

With Interstellar being released on DVD and Blu-ray today (30th March), we had a chat with Paul about his journey from a Cheshire school boy to founding the hugely successful visual effects company Double Negative.

What first inspired you to get into visual effects?

I grew up watching 2001, Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who. All the usual suspects! They always fascinated me. It was about creating the world and immersing myself in it. I remember the moon missions and obviously I couldn’t go there myself so I wanted to create something like that so I could. I started as a sculptor and a painter, then doing short movies. After that I discovered computer graphics and tried to get in on the ground floor. I was using animation, bringing stories and art together and getting paid for it via low budget corporate projects.

Jumping forward to today and the advances in technology compared to when you first started. How is working in the industry now compared to back then?

I think now more than ever film makers are realising that there’s no limit. You’re increasingly asking yourself not how but why I am doing it. It’s all about getting the point across. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Christopher (Nolan) and develop the relationship and I’m very much in tune with what he likes. He has good ideas and asks things that might have been thought impossible but we’ve proven ourselves time and time again. That’s the most important thing about today – always pushing yourself and others.

Does your approach to visual effects differ on each project? Inception is completely different from Interstellar for example.

No matter what it’s like, it always starts with the story and script. Chris is a believer in putting as much reality as possible into it. We try to find a place where we can do physical effects and at least have a part of reality involved. The effects, especially for Inception, were at the heart of the story but certainly grounded in the reality of the world itself.

Interstellar shows the wonders of the universe. There’s no black hole that we can go out and point a camera at. So it differs in terms of having an abstract idea and concepts but there’s a certain amount of fact tied up in there. The problem is that there’s no reference for a lot of it. Inception was surreal but a first person view of reality and it needed to look real because it involved real places, yet no one really knows how the experience would be in a worm hole. You’re warping space time and while people have ideas, there’s no 100% fact there. So the great thing was that we had an advisor and leading authority that gave us the actual physics.

Of course then it’s interesting to have comments from the scientific community and see how they take the movie. Physics people took it okay and some others complained but it was often down to misinterpretation. There are a lot of weird things happening in the movie and the physics were examined as much as possible, and Chris was very receptive to input. We also have a book out that explains a lot in greater detail.

Did you take any inspiration from other science fiction films or do you feel it’s important to create your own unique identity and style?

We’re certainly careful not to copy, but you do take a certain amount of inspiration. Take something like 2001 – that’s the granddaddy of all these films. You want to make something that lasts as long! For us we tend to look at a wider range of reference pieces so not just the sci-fi films that you would expect. The genre does repeat itself so we cast a wide net over things like modern art and 19th century apocalyptic paintings and experimental photography.

You’ve worked in various genres. Is it important to have that variety and something that interests and pushes you?

In the end it’s all storytelling and I love a challenge. We don’t want to imitate everyone else. We all have our own visions and unique creative responses. Certainly you have to always look at pushing the envelope and we try to do that with every project.

Do you think it’s more difficult to wow audiences now when the technology is at a constant high level? Developments aren’t as obvious, just like with video games.

You do get massive leaps every so often and it’s true that in recent times that hasn’t necessarily happened. I was involved with video games when the PSX was around and that allowed designers to come up with rich experiences that they couldn’t have dreamed of doing before. Now each advance is incremental. It’s partly down to the way you look at things. If you think about it, television hasn’t really changed a whole lot in terms of the experience of watching things, but the developments work around that like online streaming.

Not everything will work. It’s an exciting time for people to experiment and see what happens. Story telling is eternal regardless of how you do it, and we have tales that last forever. Eventually everything comes down to the story and how it is told. You will always have continual revolution but the story at the heart of it will never go away.

How do you follow a huge success like Interstellar?

I honestly have no idea! But truthfully I feel like that after nearly every project. I remember when I did Batman and I thought that was a high point. How do you beat reinventing such an iconic character? Then Inception came along and I had no idea how we’d top that, but we achieved so much with Interstellar. It’s nice to feel satisfied with what you’ve done and be open to a world of possibilities going forward.

Interstellar is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 30th March.


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