Click here to return to the main site.
Scott Farrar - Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar is one of the top specialists in Hollywood. In 1985, he shared a technical Oscar for the special effects in Ron Howard's Cocoon. He began his career as an effects camera operator for Industrial Light and Magic. His film credits include his Oscar-nominated work for Howard's Backdraft (1991), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), and Mimi Leder's Deep Impact (1998). Darren Rea spoke with him as Transformers: Dark of the Moon was due to be released on Blu-ray and DVD...
Darren Rea: You're credited as Visual Effects Supervisor for Transformers: Dark of the Moon what did your job entail on a day to day basis?
Scott Farrar: Essentially I'm the director of my crew, which creates the visual effects. To do that I start very early, I'm one of the first ones to meet with the director after a script is ready; I get together with Michael Bay and very quickly try and look through and line out which shots we think are visual effects and how we are going to do them and look at things like cost.
Then we do a lot of artwork. To design new characters we get artwork from the Los Angeles artwork production office and I have my own art crew; my own art director. So we work a long time to turn 2D art into a 3-dimensional robot which is moving in the computer so that we can analyse the shapes. And that takes week, it takes about 15 weeks just to build one robot model.
So we do all this pre-production planning; pre-visualisation; art and design; scout the locations, we formulate a game plan, how we're going to shoot scenes at the various locations and what equipment we might need. That's about six or seven months before we shoot, and then we go to the locations. We started in LA, Chicago, Florida, Detroit...
So we shoot for about 100 days, all the time sending shots back to ILM and Michael cuts the film as we go. I'm with the production the entire time to serve as a referee of how me might fit the robots in. I make a lot of suggestions how to shoot it - where to aim the camera and so forth; shot design. And then, when we've done shooting, the rest is completely post production; putting that work in that was not there when we photographed in the first place. And that's it. I start with about 30 or 40 people, and by the end I've got about 350 people working on the movie.
DR: Is there every enough time and money?
SF: What I've learned... I've gotten sort of a sixth sense on where I think we're going to have problems. I wasn't born with it, but I've learned to feel this and when I feel there's a section of the movie where we might be in trouble I gather all my group together and we jump on it. We make sure we've got enough people to work on the shots and developing the ideas. It's just like a sports game. The ball moves around the court all the time, so what is worrisome for a little while moves further on. You attack it, you get people working on it, you get shot approvals, Michael likes it, I like it, and then it's time to turn your attention to something else. You do have limited resources, you only have so many people to work on these things. Plus at ILM you might have four or five other shows that need crew and every once in a while they'll borrow people that I need, and I'll borrow them back later on, so it's constant sorting out the planning of how you're going to get it done.
DR: Was there one effect in the movie that proved to be the most troublesome?
SF: Ah, let's see... Most troublesome? Well, you know, when Cybertron moves closer towards planet Earth and starts to make the electric connection.... What does that look like? Is it clear, does the audience understand what's happening? We have views from Earth looking up and inside Cybertron looking down.
Some of the shots were shared by ILM. Some of the ground based shots were ourselves, and some of them were Digital Domain - they did a portion of the work. For a while, though, it all goes back to the drawing board - is it clear to viewer? And for a while it wasn't, so that was problematic. And pretty soon you get a spattering of shots that are sort of working, and then you can link new shots to those. And then it's okay [laughs].
DR: The industry has changed so dramatically since you've been in the business, do you ever look back nostalgically before the days when computers where so widely used?
SF: I think I shot thousands of space ships in my life, so I don't know if I need to do that any more [laughs]. That's back when I was wondering: 'What am I going to do after I do this job. When am I going to get a real job?'
I really enjoyed that time. I was an effects cameraman, learning motion control and I loved that stuff. But I don't look back because it's really exciting - all the new things we can do now that we couldn't do then. I think most people would be surprised how many things we learned when we were working with just cameras and models; the optical printer days. You're still using time curves to run the motors - that's basically a curve of movement across time - and it's the same thing in computer graphics. A lot of the things that we've developed have just rolled into what we do, although I think computer graphics are more explicit and its cleaner work, ultimately. I think the shots look better frankly.
DR: What's the one thing that CGI can't accomplish effectively at present and how long do you think it will be before the technology is available?
SF: Well, I've been beating the drum for better light tools because one breakthrough I've tried to do, and I think audiences have really enjoyed it, is the fact that we've really made computer graphics work look more photo real. You've got to give computer graphics objects a lot of rules for the layers of information that it has to carry as well as how it sees light.
I've worked very hard with my crew to try and move it out of computer graphics lighting and more towards studio lighting or location lighting. Just because the sun is out doesn't mean you only use sun light. You add lights. You might block out the sun and change the key light and add ten or so more lights and all the other things you use in live action. I've tried to institute that into computer graphics. It's a lot better, I think it's pretty successful. But if you could see the tools, they're still archaic, so I've got a lot of CG folks working with me to make it more user friendly. That's a big deal, because every shot is all about the light.
DR: Watching the movie the effects seem to get bolder and more impressive as the film goes on so that the audience is constantly in awe of what's happening on screen. Was this a conscious decision when making the movie; that each act would top the last as far as the visual effects were concerned?
SF: Well, [laughs] it kind of surprised me as well. In fact, watching the final cut I was thinking: 'Wait a minute... did we see that sequence yet? And then it turns up in the third act.
I think the film is jam packed with production value. That's the one thing that Michael Bay really delivers on. He's not unlike George Lucas or Steven Spielberg because you plump down your money to see a movie from one of these guys, and you get a lot of value for your money. At times it may be almost overwhelming but it's also great for successive viewing too.
What I really liked is that we tried to build in dramatic breaks and intervals. The last movie that we did was messy because we started in just before there was a writers strike - and Michael would say this too - things were not quite as organised when we started and therefore it wasn't quite as clean and dramatically well laid out as this one was. He spent a lot of time on the script, a lot of time on the third act, so that it all made sense. And I think that shows.
DR: Do you remember the first effect in the cinema that really blew you away?
SF: Absolutely. I remember something that may have stimulated me to get into the business was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad by Ray Harryhausen.
I grew up when most movies that had a monster in them was a guy in a rubber suit or a puppet. It was usually pretty crude and they spent more time on the reaction of the people looking at the monster than showing it.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which was stop-motion, he didn't cut away all the time and he showed the actor in the same frame as the monster. It was magic. He had successfully achieved a technological breakthrough for audience. When we look back it was really simple - it was rear screen projection with puppets at the front. He was a smart man and he figured out how to do things all by himself, no crew. He knew lens and cameras and knew how to set it up. You're photographing things at different times and it's all got to be put together so it looks like it was photographed at the same time. And he did it and it was just awesome. He'd do long cuts, that's what I remember. He didn't cut away. That was fantastic.
Those movies are still charming. I have to emphasize - one man doing all of it. He's come to visit us at ILM numerous times, I think the first time was in the '80s and we've got this big picture of the Cyclops and Sinbad - it's about 5ft x 6 ft and each time he comes to see us he signs it again with a new date.
DR: What does he think to computer animation?
SF: I think he's a fan. The whole idea is can you make things better and he had to innovate with the tools at hand at the the time. I have to say it was clever stuff that he did. Doing what we do, we still pay tribute to people like that because wherever you are in time you still have to innovate.
DR: Can you still go to an effects picture and enjoy the film without picking the visuals apart?
SF: Yes and no. I recently went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes and I could tell that certain shots people worked on harder than others. I'm sure it's always a matter of time, but I was overwhelmed by the amount of work. Fur is tough, animating a face is tough, all those things and you're trying to tell a story with characters you want people to care about. That movie certainly did that. But yes, I sort of switched in and out of looking at the work and following the story. But most of the time I just watch the story, even if the effects don't succeed on every level I sort of forget about that at a certain point.
I thought District 9 was a totally different approach; cheaper approach. No lights added, the way we do, go with the available light only - you record the environment and that's the lighting. It's handheld HD and I think it absolutely worked.
DR: What are you working on at the moment?
SF: Well, I'm between pictures, as they say. We're waiting... I can't commit to anything because we're trying to resolve whether we're going to do another Transformers and if so, when that starts. If I'm available then I get thrown on to a picture pretty quickly and if I did that there's not enough time to do another movie between the end of Transformers III and the beginning of another one. Each of our movies takes about a year and a half, so I'd do second unit directing, which is a few weeks, then I help out with other movies that are in house right now. I've been helping out a little with J.J. Abrams's new Star Trek movie - Roger Guyett's the lead supervisor on that. So I do that sort of thing and that's a lot of fun.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is released through Twentieth Century Home Entertainment from 11 October 2011.
This interview was conducted on 03 November 2011