I have a very special treat for all of you science fiction fans out there! Recently I had been given the rare honor of interviewing the very gracious and equally fascinating Julian Parry. Mr. Parry has dedicated himself, through his career as a visual effects expert, to bringing some of our favorite movies and television shows to life. You can see his amazing work in ‘Aliens,’ ‘The Marine,’ ‘Octopussy,’ ‘Ancient Egyptians,’ the cult television hit ‘Farscape,’ and so much more. Though sometimes he has worked on projects that have fallen outside of the realm of sci-fi, he grew up with a strong appreciation and love of the genre which is apparent through his devotion to his work.
Currently he’s the Visual Effects Supervisor for Starz’s ‘Camelot,’ a stunning show which depicts the life and legend of King Arthur.
Please keep reading this exclusive interview with Julian Parry to find out what made him choose the career he did, his experiences on the sets of ‘Camelot’ and ‘Farscape’ and some of the funny mishaps he’s had along the way. Also at the end he shares some excellent pictures of past projects – be sure to check them out!
If you’d like even further information on Mr. Parry’s work, visit his website at http://www.julianparry.com/.
Also, in the weeks to come Mr. Parry has graciously offered to do a story/interview with me that’s going to be dedicated exclusively to the realm of ‘Farscape.’ Be sure to stay tuned for this!
1. Please share some of your early sci-fi influences. Who were they, and what contributions of theirs led you on the path you’re on today?
Thinking back, I can remember the early ‘Hammer House’ horror movies and James Bond. Also back then there were the blockbuster movies of their time with stop frame animation from the master Ray Harryhausen – ‘Sinbad’ & ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ all being part of my early cinema experiences.
‘Star Wars’ certainly played a final tipping point along with ‘Alien,’ ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ but also Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’.
Living in the UK we had weekly doses of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Thunderbirds,’ ‘Captain Scarlet’ and ‘Stingray’, along with ‘Blake 7,’ ‘Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’ and the long running ‘Dr Who.’ So, thinking about it now, I really did have a rich upbringing of Sci-Fi!
I’ve always been good at art and I could sculpt even at an early age. My first award winning piece in early grade was a very large Tyrannosaurus Rex made from dough to the complete surprise of the head teacher. The family home was also a very creative environment and both of my parents were very supportive of my strange ways. This however was tested on the days I chose to reenact battle scenes of World War II in the garden with homemade sets and pyrotechnics. Needless to say I was grounded a few times, but I’d use the time to invent and build a new spaceship. It really wasn’t until secondary school and hanging out with a few friends who were into film making that I found that my craft skills came in handy building sets for them.
I joined a local community arts group called ‘Free Forum’ in my late teens and it was there whilst experimenting in different media I decided on the career I have now. It’s always a challenge for the careers office to hear someone ask for a job at a studio building Daleks.
2. You’ve had such a rich career background. Please share more about what you do behind the scenes to bring movies and television shows to life for viewers.
The early years were the footings into the area I specialize now. At the age of eighteen I was working with Eon Productions on (James Bond) ‘Octopussy’. I remember the producer, Cubby Broccoli, calling me into his office one day as he just wanted to chat about my background and asked why I had chosen special effects as my career.
Back in the 80s Special / Visual effects wasn’t the field it is today. There were no Vfx colleges, not even film schools; it was a very strange career choice. On those early Bond films I worked for John Richardson and his Special Effects Unit covering mainly the then called ‘Model Unit’ (now known as the Miniature Unit).
Where computer graphic image (CGI) builds cars, truck, tanks in the computer, back in the 80s we built those items to scale, and filmed them for real with all sort of crazy tricks like wires, smoke and mirrors. This was the mainstay right up to about 1985 with ‘Aliens,’ as this film was the pinnacle of miniature, optical and in-camera effects feature film. After this point in time, CGI was really making great leaps and bounds. ‘The Abyss’ and ‘Terminator 2’ are both great examples of CGI and its now revolutionary entry to film making. I could see that an amalgam would emerge and that’s when I chose to cross over. I really enjoy being across every technique and pulling old solutions out of the bag along with the new funky ones.
3. Your current project is ‘Camelot’ on Starz. As the Visual Effects Supervisor, what are your responsibilities?
The way I see it is, as the visual effects supervisor on a show, it falls to Supervisor to guide, instruct and inform the production to the best creative way to achieve the ‘tricks’ in the script and also, in some cases, to direct the sequence. It’s my job to work with the directors and producers to work out the most efficient, safest way to shoot a visual effect. This can vary from pulling something on a piece of string, right through to complex CGI.
It’s not all about just getting the visual effect, as this needs to be achieved in the scope of the production, materials, shooting period allowing and budget. This is sometimes akin to sculpting with a blindfold. On ‘Camelot’ the mix of visual effects type is as broad as I’ve ever had. From castles (buildings) to the infinite magic of Merlin, it gives me great scope to be across many solutions.
4. Can you give us an idea of what an average day behind the scenes is like on the set of ‘Camelot?’
My day starts with everyone else on set early. I’ll join the shooting crew for what we call a ‘block’ through of a scene, and then workout if and where the green screens will be required and what magic is required for the day.
Camelot was shot in Ireland and whilst the landscapes are stunning, there are times we need to keep the 21st century out of the frame. On a more complex sequence I’ve normally worked out the visual effects shooting order / procedure way ahead of time and endeavor to hit those beats. Just like a cooking recipe, there are some set guidelines, thereafter there’s room for a little creative flair. Some days I may oversee one small shot, other days I can be running from set to set to set, but the day eventually ends and I’m normally looking forward to the next day’s challenges.
5. Have you had to travel extensively for your job? What places have you gotten to see that you otherwise might not have visited if you were in a different career field?
I’d say nowadays people in the film business need to travel. It’s part of the business. Even the early James Bond movies, whilst based out of Pinewood Studios, also had that little exotic location.
If it weren’t for this career I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the travel opportunities open to me. This is going to sound nuts, but the best location I’ve been to is a submarine – only in this business do we get to visit these strange and wonderful places. Sadly though, it’s not all glamour and business class – there are downsides. Long haul travel, inoculations against bugs, jet lag, weird and wonderful people, bureaucracy, tight budgets etc, etc.
6. In terms of travel, where would you like to visit next that you haven’t already had the opportunity to go?
I’m very lucky. I’ve travelled almost all over the film-making globe and that’s given me a insight to places that most just don’t get to see based out of the resort hotel or villa. Away on location means you get to work with the local people and gain access to areas that wouldn’t normally even be an option to a traveller. Film companies are always trying to find that extra special place or undiscovered location. This also brings its hazards as well. Regardless, it allows unprecedented access to the people and surroundings.
South America is one place I’ve not yet filmed in. Oh and I’ve never actually filmed in Los Angeles! That would be fun one day.
7. You also worked on the set of ‘Farscape,’ a highly successful science fiction show that to this day has quite a devoted fan base. What was your favorite part about working on that show?
Yes, the Jim Henson Company, back in 1998, put a creative design team together and its outcome was ‘Farscape’. This was one of those rare shows where one gets to be a part of the initial concept design and then take the show through its first season. My role ended up as Supervising Art Director – after that initial design period. It was filmed at Fox Studio’s Sydney Australia, which was an amazing experience and adds to the previous question.
I think the overwhelming experience of Farscape has to be the collaborative nature of how all departments weighed heavily on the final look and feel of that first season. Also the feedback from the fans and critics was one that was rewarding, one review saying the visuals brought a ‘cinematic feel’ to television. And yes, the crew, producers and the locations all made this to be a benchmark show in many ways.
May I also say the ‘Farscape’ fans are some of the best I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
8. In turn, what challenges did you face while on the set of ‘Farscape?’
The main challenges were keeping the scripts and the visual as alien as possible. As mad as this sounds we’re earth bound and we can’t go anywhere other than earth (laughs). Consequently it was coming up with the strange and amazing that was my daily drive.
Take a close look at the detail of that show. Like most Sci-Fi there are ‘future’ clues – we, like ‘Star Trek’, had our equivalent of the iPad and headsets which one now sees with mobile phones. I’d like to think we were ahead of the curve on many of its interfaces, remembering this was back in the late 90s. Moya was/is an organic vessel with a little bio slant – it was fun to read the scripts with “he takes the blue and the red wire” when really Moya was made up of only veins and tendons.
9. Growing up, did you imagine you’d be working in this field? What other dreams or aspirations did you have if it wasn’t working in entertainment?
I’m sure I was down to be a zookeeper of some sort (yes really) but this role can’t be further apart from that. I know I was driven at the beginning and once I knew film was what I wanted to be a part of there was only one direction. I’m pleased to say it’s a direction I’ve been committed enough to stick to.
10. What’s been your favorite project to work on thus far? Why?
This is a hard question to nail in one. ‘Aliens’, for its great Vfx practical experiences – ‘Farscape’ because of the collaboration and the fun time with the then ‘Jim Henson Company’ – The WWE movies (‘The Marine, ‘See No Evil’ and ‘The Condemned’) because they, too, were great fun to make and now ‘Camelot’, because like ‘Farscape,’ the production team is passionate about the outcome, and I believe it’s evident on the screen with regards to the richness of the final images.
11. Where do you see the entertainment industry going at this point in terms of technology? For instance, do you see it improving to such a level in the future that the movies of today will look outdated? Or do you think technological innovation (in terms of special effects) has plateaued?
That’s a great question – in 2003 I could see 3D movies would be common (again) by the end of the decade and they are. I’m not necessarily convinced audiences are all in favor of 3D but time will tell.
In some ways we have plateaued with Vfx technology; there really isn’t anything we can’t do nowadays. The days of ‘locking’ a camera off are gone (because it was difficult to track a moving image to create mattes). Computer imagery integrates seamlessly in the most part these days, unlike years ago when one could really pick the CGI moment, the blends really should be invisible.
But if you take a look at ‘2001,’ that movie was made in the 60s and still holds up today. There’s a lot to be said about approaching a visual problem and its ultimate solution, with or without the high-end CGI equipment.
I think the best thing to come out of our inventions and years of knowledge is releasing the director from some of the boundaries we once had. The director is far less confined by Vfx stipulations of the filming process. Yes, the green screen is still used extensively, but here too things are easier. If anything it’s now more about speed of completion of a Vfx scene, one that’s executed within modern day production deadlines. This is where I find the technology is excelling.
On a sci-fi note, the hologram is probably the next full step we’ll take, but here again, like 3D, it will ask the viewer to watch and view a movie in a new way, in that it will no longer be an image projected against a wall in a darkened room. No, like many of our technologies our environments change (e.g. books are read on electronic tablets). There also comes a point, hinted in great sci-fi books, that at what stage does the viewer become the viewed or the involved. An example: can you imagine watching a film like ‘Aliens’ or ‘Jaws’ in 3D or as a Hologram? An amazing experience? I’m not sure I’d be at the front of the queue; the 2D visions were scary enough!
12. Without giving away any of your tricks, what would you say is actually the most difficult aspect of your job? For instance, do you ever run into uncooperative actors, or do you have to worry about people disagreeing on a particular Vfx idea?
The tricky aspect on a film or on most projects is keeping on budget. Many times, like all departments, the visual effects department are asked to supply a Ferrari on Ford money (and that’s nothing against Ford; they just don’t go as fast).
Directors and producers don’t always understand the technical aspects of the visual effects procedure, and that’s ok – it’s one of the reasons I’m there. A good friend quotes this line, “I’ve messed up more than you’ve got right”‘ and by this he means “maybe listen to experience” and I must have some of that by now.
13. As a writer, sometimes it’s hard for me to leisurely read what others have written without analyzing it. Taking into consideration what you do for a living, do you ever find it difficult to immerse yourself in movies since you’re probably very familiar with how they’ve done the special effects?
No. When I line up for that ticket and grab my popcorn I’m like everyone else, especially if it’s a film that I’m dying to see. If the effects are good and they wash over me, then surely I’m no different to the guy sitting next to me who will nowadays call out the bad effects. And this is one of the things I enjoy now when a JP project comes out. As shameless as this may seem, regardless of the project, as long as no one mentions or calls out the visual effects, I’m happy – I’ve done some B-rated shows in the past but no one has dissed the effects; I see this as positive and a validation of my efforts.
14. Are there any movies or television shows you’ve watched that you wish you could’ve worked on but didn’t?
I loved the ‘The Matrix’ and here’s the thing; if you watch that movie now and you slow-mo or analyze it (I know I said I didn’t), that movie is actually a little rough around the edges with regards to Vfx – but hey, who cares? It’s a great film.
The ‘Transformers’ film from 2007 was stunning; the CGI integration of the transformers was amazing. ILM sure do know their stuff. Other movies included JJ Abrams ‘Star Trek’, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and maybe ‘Avatar’.
15. Vfx probably vary greatly from project to project. But are there any distinct differences you run into when you are working on a television show rather than a movie? Do you prefer one over the other?
Yes with TV and film there is one very distinctive difference – screen size. Yes its true that most of the USA has no TVs under the size of 22″ and maybe the standard is 47″ (laughs), but when you are composing a frame for TV one should be more mindful of the composition. Saying this, yes, movies transfer well to TV but when you’re watching it you know it sure would look better on a big screen.
I believe if you were to ask a camera person, they would also argue that a certain type of drama is staged by how a camera is used within a screen, and this is why I believe there is a difference. As for the visual effects, as most of our TV work is at High Definition which brings its own set of complications say over PAL or NTSC Standards. I must say I love film.
16. Have you had any really “strange” experiences during your career – either while traveling, on set, etc?
All the strange experiences involve animals or insects (laughs). I’ve experienced a large infestation of red grasshoppers in bed at night, escaped a very upset lioness and scaled a 12′ wire fence enclosure (South Africa), and been chased by a brown bear in deep snow whilst on location in Romania. On a human note, I’ve spent many long flights with great actors and crew alike but my flight with the great Syd Cain is still memorable (now 93 and retired). He was Production Designer to the early James Bond and Stanley Kubrick films, a film making legend and a master of film story tellings.
17. What will you be working on in the future? Do you have your next project lined up?
The million dollar question. What’s next? One never really knows until you’re standing on set. There’s, as always, a few things talked about of ‘up and coming’ projects that are either amber lit or on flashing red!
In recent months some great feature projects have been announced. The ‘Alien’ prequel (s) and ‘Blade Runner’ prequel/sequel. They are actually something I’d look forward to seeing.
On a wish list, I would have loved to have been involved in an original telling of ‘Hellboy’ (I think Hollywood got the first one wrong-ish) and I’m a big fan of ‘The Preacher’ – to see that on the screen – amazing!