FX supervisor Chris Harvey interview

We chat to the FX supervisor behind Zero Dark Thirty about the state of the effects industry, and what he thought of The Hobbit's 48fps...

In a career spanning the course of a decade, Chris Harvey has worked on the special effects on such films as X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Watchmen and Battleship. But with Zero Dark Thirty, Harvey and his fellow artists at Image Engine faced a rather different challenge from making the impossible look physically plausible: he had to help director Kathryn Bigelow restage the manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

Harvey was required to create a number of intricate effects shots – most significantly, a night scene that involved top-secret American stealth helicopters. Dramatically, the film would either stand or fall on how photorealistic these sequences were, and it has to be said, the results are extraordinarily convincing. Using Black Hawk military helicopters as stand-ins for some scenes, Harvey and his team spent countless hours modelling and texturing virtual stealth helicopters and integrating these with the shots captured on location.

To mark the home release of Zero Dark Thirty, we talked about the complicated process of bringing these sequences to life, before moving onto the state of the visual effects industry in general. Are effects artists given enough credit for their contribution to movies? What advances might we see in film effects in the next few years? And most importantly, what does Harvey think of The Hobbit?

What was your approach to Zero Dark Thirty‘s effects initially, because this was a film that had to look extremely realistic from beginning to end.

Ad – content continues below

One of the things we wanted was to do as much as we could in camera, mainly to give it a sense of believability. I mean, Kathryn [Bigelow] wanted it to feel authentic, very raw, very gritty, so we tried to do everything we could in-camera that was possible. That was what led to one of the choices of making sure we were filming real Black Hawk [helicopters] on set, rather than pointing at an empty site.

Even though we knew we’d have to replace them , and we’d have a lot of work cleaning all of it up, we figured we’d be starting with something much more realistic, that the actors would have something to respond to, the DP would have something to point his camera at. He’d have all this auxiliary environment that kicks up leaves, that just helps add to the grit of it. That’s pretty important.

Was there one particular shot that was the most difficult to achieve?

I don’t know that there was one specific shot that was hard to achieve. I mean, the helicopters themselves were difficult for a lot of reasons. One of the big challenges was, due to safety concerns, you had to have real military pilots – and they weren’t allowed to fly at night, again because of safety concerns for the crew. So all the helicopter shots – all the stuff around the compound – were filmed between three o’clock and five-thirty, sort of daylight getting into dusk. Then the Zero company shots were done separately in California at about noon.

This meant that we had to really heavily regrade all of the plates to match the midnight hour the film was taking place. And those grades and levels of light were really challenging across the board, all the way from compositors to the lighters that had to deal with the low levels of light. 

Kathryn Bigelow’s clearly great with working with cinematographers and effects artists to get the look that she needs. What makes a good director for a film with a lot of effects in it?

Ad – content continues below

That’s an interesting question. Two things, I guess, and they almost sound opposing, but they have to be in the right balance. I think one thing, for me, that’s important, is that the director has a really good sense of attention to detail, while at the same time really maintaining a sense of the big picture. So she doesn’t get lost in all the minutiae that isn’t important, but rather she focuses on the details that are important to the story, and doesn’t lose sight of that.

I think that’s really key, because it means you don’t waste time on things that are unnecessary or unimportant. And I think the other thing is having a director who trusts you. That makes things easier, because there’s a level of respect and trust between you. She trusts that you’ll do your job, and you trust the decisions she’s making.

The work of the cinematographer comes into play as well, and this year we saw Claudio Miranda win an Oscar for his work on Life Of Pi. That was a very effects-heavy film; do you think there’s a new type of cinematographer coming through who’s good at working with effects artists?

I think there is. I mean, this show was a little different, because at least we had stuff on set to point the camera at. For a cinematographer, it must be similar to an actor: it’s hard to work with green screens that are so all-encompassing. I mean, what are you framing?  But we do a lot in post; we do a lot of reframing and things like that, not because of any fault of the cinematographer, but simply because they don’t know what they’re pointing their camera at. Sometimes we have to help the framing and whatnot.  But their role isn’t diminished at all, when it comes to that sort of thing.

I definitely think there’s a new [kind of cinematographer] – even if it’s not so much new in terms of technique and style, but new in embracing visual effects.

It’s a new consideration.

Ad – content continues below

It absolutely is, yeah. 

Remaining on the topic of the Oscars, we saw Rhythm And Hues won Best Visual Effects for Life Of Pi, but then they went bust, and there were protests from other visual artists. Do you think effects artists get enough credit for what they do, and do you think the industry needs to change in order to reflect on how reliant it is on them?

That’s a pretty sensitive subject. I’d say yes, I think they do deserve more credit. I don’t necessarily agree with all of how they think they should receive that credit. Some of the arguments out there are, I think, a little naive, and they’re coming from some artists who don’t understand the big picture of what’s going on with film. But that being said, there does need to be credit where credit’s due, you know?

Just in terms of effects in general, there’s a lot of names being left off the credits of a film, because in your contract it says you’re only going to have 25 names during the end credits. So they’re, “Sorry, you can’t list those 500 guys that worked on the film.”

That stuff ‘s kind of silly. It’s a cost thing, but at the same time it’s like, people do deserve credit. Then there’s the fine line where credit doesn’t necessarily equate to a piece of the profit, and that sort of thing. There definitely needs to be some shift in the industry – and not just from the studio side, but also from the visual effects side – there are things that need to be adjusted for a growing industry.

The industry’s still pretty young, in terms of businesses in general, and very fast growing, and it’s starting to mature to the point that something that worked 10 or 15 years ago needs to be rethought a little bit and adjusted. But that’s across the board, I’m not pointing a finger at one thing. It’s everything from the facilities to the studios – there’s only so far you can grind something down before it breaks, and everyone has to make adjustments in order to be more efficient and profitable. 

Ad – content continues below

There’s a sense, perhaps, from audiences as well, that you can just do anything with computers, and that it’s somehow easy because it’s all done with machines. Are there certain effects that are still difficult to achieve with the technology we have at the moment?

Oh, yeah. Computers have advanced and technology allows us to do some pretty amazing things. But at the end of the day, it’s the artist that’s pushing that forward, and making those adjustments, and driving the computers.

An analogy is that there are these really fast cars that go around a race track at incredible speeds, but if you take the driver out of the equation, they’d just crash into the wall. So you know, visual effects aren’t that different.

That’s where it’s a shame, how people don’t realise how much work goes into these things. How much effort some of these artists are putting in. At the end of the day, they’re still artists, and they’re still working really hard to make those images. And really, a lot of stuff’s hard. There are the big things that everyone talks about, like really capturing the performance of a character, or fire can be challenging – we see it all the time, but it’s still hard.

Fluid – again, we see it all the time, but to make it look real isn’t ever a trivial thing. Even stuff that should be somewhat easy is always a challenge – to make something fit just right into a photograph, you know? You’ve got to put something in that wasn’t there. There’s a lot of little nuances and things that aren’t technically hard, but artistically and creatively it’s difficult. You want it to look aesthetically nice, but at the same time, you don’t want to call attention to it. You’ve got to find a balance. 

From your position as a supervisor, you must see the bleeding edge of effects all the time, and where they might be going. Is there anything you’ve seen lately that’s made you think, “Yep, we’ll see that in the next year or so”?

Ad – content continues below

I think that stuff that’s interesting right now – and there’s all sorts of things you’re going to see – is in tissue and skin. Those sorts of things that are being developed. And all those things are going to add the one percent on top, and really help it.

The stuff that’s going to make a huge impact on our lives as visual artists, I think, is other stuff that’s behind the screens – the stuff that people won’t necessarily be seen on screen, as such, but that will help effects get to the screen. That’s everything from new technology that’s on set, which helps us get the data easier, where data acquisition is less manual and more reliable, and for rendering. Every time something gets faster, we push it harder.

But at this point, I think it is starting to get to the point where we can really push things hard, and our rendering, when using things like the cloud, our resources are going to increase. I think there’s some interesting advances in that area that are really going to help things.

Recently, we saw The Hobbit come out, which was shot in 48fps. Some are saying this could become the industry standard. What’s your opinion on that? Do you think it’s the way forward, and how would it affect your job?

I don’t know if it’s going to become the standard or not. There’s a lot of debate about what it’s going to do to increase the fidelity of what’s on screen. And one of the arguments was, let’s go over to 4K, specifically in cinemas for 3D, because with 4K everything’s going to be a little bit sharper.

What Cameron and Jackson are proposing is that, with 48 frames-per-second, you have less blurry images because the shutter speed’s faster. The human eye sees things at about 60 frames-per second, and a lot of people were arguing that 48fps was very uncomfortable, and made things too sharp. But really, it’s not at the sharpness they see things in every day, it’s just that they’re not used to seeing things that sharp on a flat screen in that way. So I don’t know if it’ll be [the standard]. I enjoyed it – it didn’t bother me when  I watched it at all. It certainly made, in some ways, the 3D experience easier on the eye, and personally, I really like 3D, so I think it worked with 3D quite well.

Ad – content continues below

In terms of how it affects my job, that film in particular was both 3D and 4K, and 48 frames-per-second. So if you want to talk about data size, a typical film – let’s say a 2D film at 2K – we’ll say that’s a one in terms of the amount of data. When you go to 4K, that’s four times the amount of data; then you go 3D, so now you’re at eight times, then you double the frame rate, so you have 16 times the amount of data.

So  what sounds like a small shift is 16 times the amount of data we have to push around. So it’s a pretty significant difference [Chuckles]. And in terms of things like animation and level of detail, because it’s sharper, it’s less forgiving. So you have to be that give that much more scrutiny to all that detail.

So that, inevitably, is going to push budgets up quite a lot.

Absolutely, yes!

With that, we’re sadly out of time. Chris Harvey, thank you very much.

Zero Dark Thirty will be available on Blu-ray and DVD with Ultraviolet from June 10th.

Ad – content continues below