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After the Gold: Paul Franklin on Life After the Oscars and the Future of VFX

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Inception earned Paul Franklin a VFX Oscar. (Photo by: Darren Decker/©A.M.P.A.S.)

So it’s true – a certain number of our “contenders,” profiled starting in early fall, go on to win awards. Like Oscars.

We oughtta take this show to Vegas.

Meanwhile, though, we’re content to stay here in L.A. and catch up with some of the below-the-line winners, like, in this instance, Paul Franklin, the VFX supe for Inception, who grabbed the Oscar in the visual effects category for the work on director Chistopher Nolan’s Inception done out of London-based Double Negative.

Franklin had already won honors from both BAFTA and the VES, so perhaps the actual odds in Vegas of an Oscar win wouldn’t have netted us much, and certainly Franklin was both gracious and grounded when we caught up with him.

“It the short term, it doesn’t change things much,” he agrees, noting his next job was already lined up – overseeing digits for Nolan’s Batman follow up, The Dark Knight Rises. “We were back at work the following morning at 11 o’clock,” he says, “having a production meeting.”

That would be the Monday after Sunday’s Oscars, which may have precluded any late hours at the Vanity Fair party.

Franklin underscores that he’s glad the film itself was recognized “across all major award categories,” noting that the movie went further in popular perception “than a summer film.”

“It helps when you’ve got a show like Inception,” he allows, handicapping his own run through awards season. And he adds that, even in a film rife with slick digital work, voters “increasingly look at the quality of the storytelling” when doling out the accolades.

Inception was nominated for eight Oscars.

But he’s also clear that the accolades were not all his, calling it “recognition of the work the team did” – not only his visual effects team (Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Pete Bebb) but Wally Pfister’s statue-winning cinematography, and two sound awards, in both the editing and mixing categories, (along with the raft of nominations, including for best picture).

There’s no guarantee he’ll win next year, even though he’ll be finishing up the latest Batman, which focuses a lot on the “background fabric of the Gotham City universe,” as opposed to Inception’s effects, which were specifically about “telling the story.”

So as an Academy voter with an award in his pocket, what will he be looking for? Franklin thinks that with no clear “paradigm shift” on the FX horizon – previous grails of realistic water, hair, fire, skin, etc., having been reached, and the next grail of an entirely believable human being still some years away, and computer graphics advancing “relentlessly” – that it will come back to the story after all.

“It helps when you’ve got a show like Inception,” says Franklin.

Do the effects serve the tale, rather than overwhelm it? Merely looking cool is no longer enough.

As for his own work, Franklin also mentions that Nolan and Pfister “are very big fans of film” – as in, the specific medium, not the overarching art form. In fact, somewhat surprisingly, Nolan doesn’t even use a digital intermediate; it’s all photochemical.

And in response, Franklin & co. “built a pipeline that embraces that.” After each job with the director, he thinks, “this will be the last time we’ll get away with doing this,” but the films obviously do well enough, and actual celluloid contains even higher resolution, still unmatched by digits, for those IMAX shows.

On the other hand, Franklin realizes that there are “less and less reasons for film labs to stay open” and eventually, a change will come. Since he already works that way on the Harry Potter films as Double Negative’s supervisor, he’s “happy to work either way” on the movies he oversees.

And whichever way he works, with ever more robust rendering power (“more and more horsepower,” as he terms it, albeit usually squeezed into the same postproduction schedules), the “various obscure bits of technology” in his tool set become “standard practice” with each new film.

So he’s already starting with a more advanced tool set, than the one that wowed ‘em in Inception. And among the digital screwdrivers, levels, hammers and hacksaws, rests the shiny bald head of Oscar too.

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