Director 's dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty made for one of 2012's standout films. Even though it received only one an Oscar for Best Editing (it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), the movie's commentary on modern history will outshine its lack of Academy Awards. The film aired the United States' dirty laundry, showcasing the somber attitude of the first decade of the 21st Century. As the film is released on Blu-ray and DVD, we're still struck by how unsettling and grueling the film still is.
In addition to standout performances and direction, the drama showcased the work the film's VFX supervisor, Chris Harvey. You may not realize that 90% of the secret helicopters were digital in the film, but it's a testament to the use of subtle CGI.
We recently spoke with Harvey about his digital effects work in big budget blockbusters, smaller films and Zero Dark Thirty, and some of his current projects like Fast & Furious 6 and R.I.P.D.. Check it out below.
Zero Dark Thirty is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.
SP: Hey Chris, how's it going?
CH: Good, how about yourself?
SP: Great. First of all, I'm sure people want to know your backround. Your at Image Engine, obviously, and you were at Prime Focus, but how did you end up in Vancouver?
CH: I've been in Vancouver from the point I knew I was working in film. I went to a technical animation school out here years ago that was affiliated with Nintendo. I did a little bit of work with Nintendo earlier on and then freelanced. I found myself in LA working on some films geared toward animation and then I came back here to Vancouver. I almost went to WETA to work on the original Lord of the Rings series and then I found out that my wife was pregnant, so I didn't want to travel all of the way to New Zealand. I ended up at a company called Frantic Films, strangely enough based in Winnipeg, but they had satellite offices in LA and Vancouver. I came back and sort of ran their Vancouver division. When I came on, I was number three and then we built it up to about 150 people. Then, it was bought by Prime Focus. After a few years, I decided it was time for a break, so I took five months off and then went to Image Engine.
SP: What made you make that change?
CH: Just a change in lifestyle more than anything. Really, I just needed a break from the industry. We went to Hawaii for almost two months and just spent time on the beach and unplugged from teh world for a bit. When I came back, I just decided it was time for a change, so I talked to a lot of different studios. Image Engine had the most attractive offer in terms of work and life balance, so I went there and they've been true to their word. They really have a good sense of priorities. It's not just about work.
SP: You've obviously had a great success with Zero Dark Thirty. Could you talk about the difference between working on a dramatic film like that - that achieves such critical acclaim - and then working on a more action-oriented film like Battleship?
CH: You know, it's really interesting. I actually really enjoyed working on Battleship. Zero Dark Thirty was a bit different from what I typically do. I was so close to the creative process and part of it, not just being a facilities advisor. It was super rewarding to work directly with Kathryn [Bigelow] and the editors, the production designers, the DP, everyone. Being a part of that inner circle of the film and getting insight into their world and how they do things and how we can creatively problem solve together. It was really refreshing and a great experience.
SP: I have two assumptions since you're based in Vancouver: You're either able to go on location since projects are shot there or you just have no contact with the production whatsoever.
CH: Unless you're also hired on the production side to supervise, it's usually dealing with the production supervisor, whoever that might be. In the case of Battleship, Universal contracted ILM to handle production side supervision, so we just dealt directly with them. In other cases, you just deal with the person the studio has hired as a production supervisor. You may meet and you may have some conversations with the director, but really your main point of contact is that supervisor. You're kind of one step removed from certain processes of the film, whereas on Zero Dark it was just me and Kathryn. You know, that's who I talked to about making decisions on what to do with a shot. It involved other people like the editors and whatnot, but at that point you're just in there with what's going on. Depending on the supervisor, you know, sometimes they want something slightly different from what they want or they're on the same page. When they're on the same page, the process is great. Sometimes it's easy to misinterpret something that someone says and so being one step removed makes it that much more difficult in certain cases to try and nail what is wanted. When you're talking to the source, you can drill down to the real essence of what they're looking for.
SP: Is there any sense of security when you're working on something like Fast 6, which does obscenely well at the box office, versus a new movie or IP?
CH: Not really for myself. I'm not that concerned. Certainly, good box office numbers are good publicity for someone, but the work also speaks for itself. With something like Battleship, I think everyone involved on that show did a fantastic job. The work looked highly polished. It didn't necessarily make that much money at the box office, but if you show the reel - it still looks really good. Ultimately, it comes down to how good of a job you've done. Sometimes the publicity is just publicity.
SP: What's a standout scene from Fast 6 that you worked on?
CH: Double Negative handled the plane crash. They were the primary vendor on the film. There were also a whole bunch of other vendors. There were something like 2000 shots in the film. It was a huge visual effects movie. It was just a massive undertaking. We did a real mixed bag of work on the film. We had scenes like environments, set extensions, and we had a pretty cool destruction sequence. There was a clip of it in the trailer when he's driving and giant parking structure collapses around him. We did a pretty big destruction sequence there, which was really cool. That sequence was our really meaty shot.
SP: What about RIPD? Are you mostly working on creatures?
CH: Yeah. I was involved early on the show to hlep push from the backend. I had to roll out of the show to do Zero Dark Thirty. What Image Engine did was creature work. We have three creatures that we did in the film. Two of them are pretty significant characters with a lot of shots around them.
SP: What are your favorite creatures that you've worked on?
It seems like often it's the more recent stuff. Battleship was a blast. There was a certain level of collaboration. We got the work from ILM and they had already started on the designs. Quite often, you're handed what it looks like and you don't necessarily have a lot of input. Normally, you can't change it, but ILM was very collaborative and very open to new ideas. ILM just really let us do it. It was super exciting to be able to get in there and redesing certain things and develop what characters could be, and then ILM would take what we'd done and use that in their shots, which was really cool and a lot of fun.
SP: Can you give us anything to expect from Elysium?
CH: I am not working on it, but Image Engine is. I can tell you, it's pretty dang amazing.
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