The SFX talents behind The Matrix, 300, Game of Thrones and more
By Joseph Fahim
When special effects (SFX) make-up maestros Chadi Abdo and Dan Frye, whose works include renowned blockbuster movies and series such as The Matrix, 300 and Game of Thrones attended Maskoon, the Arab World’s first film festival for horror, sci-fi and fantasy films, and the hottest ticket in the regional cultural scene this year, Newsweek Middle East made sure to relay their experiences to its readers.
Syrian SFX supervisor Abo, and veteran American make-up artist Frye, discussed their work, the function of SFX and the importance of make-up in storytelling and the influence of technology in contemporary filmmaking.
Chadi, you started your career in SFX at a time when this discipline didn’t exist in the Arab world. How did you get your break?
Chadi Abo: I’ve always had a passion for SFX but couldn’t study it in a formal fashion in Syria since we didn’t, and still don’t, have film schools. So, I decided to study architecture. I then went to France to do my post-studies in architecture in 2000. That was the year of The Matrix, which marked a new direction in cinematography. It’s this leap that The Matrix made that convinced me to quit architecture and study filmmaking there. I then did a short animated film, which was ranked as one of the top shorts of the year and went to many festivals. The film caught the attention of (prominent SFX French company) BUF, who brought me along just as they were finishing Fight Club and readying work for Panic Room and The Matrix sequels.
The short film was the most important step for me because I had to prove that I can tell [a] story with SFX; to prove that I have a vision.
Dan, what’s the role of a make-up artist in a genre increasingly dominated by computer generated imagery (CGI)?
Dan Frye: The main factor is movement, in the sense of what the character is needed to do and what the action entails. CGI was not really good for close-ups in the past; Jurassic Park, for instance, relied on animatronic dinosaurs for close-ups, whereas building the full dinosaurs was impossible to make for real and that’s why they had to use CGI. You can’t do both though at the same time because it would confuse people and appear unbelievable.
What excites you about the projects you accept?
DF: Like all technical jobs in film and TV, you always try to get certain feelings across. There’s a lot of design work that has to do with performance. Most people who work in horror [films] like scaring people, and fooling them. That’s what excites us the most: playing this game on the audience.
What’s the difference between working on big Hollywood productions like Harry Potter or The Matrix Reloaded and small budgeted films like Shaun of the Dead?
DF: In smaller films, technicians have five or six jobs to do on set, whereas in big productions, all tasks are divided. In Harry Potter for instance, there’s a first, second and third assistant director; the crew is much bigger.
In Shaun of the Dead, I was working on a dummy before an important scene. While I was preparing it, director Edgar Wright came up to help me carry it in. That sense of comradeship and lack of formality is almost absent from big-budgeted movies.
It’s more hard work on smaller films, but it’s much more stressful in mega productions where every bit of money is worried about and agonized over. There’s also more creative freedom in smaller films, more room to come up with ideas, unlike big productions where all concepts and every detail have already been hashed out, and that’s down to the directors and the actors who are usually not allowed to pitch in the creative process.
CA: With SFX, it’s the other way around. In order to achieve perfection, to tell the story in the best possible way, you definitely need a big budget for visual effects (VFX). The problem lies in the fact that most productions don’t conduct any studies to determine what effects they need; they simply discover that as production rolls on. Things are changing now though, as technology becomes more accessible, cheaper and easier to master, so even smaller films can now feature solid VFX.
How does your relationship with the director influence your work?
CA: For me, it helps me leave a distinctive mark on the project that can be detected and traced from one work to another just as the directors do from one film to another. Working with the Watchoskis, David Fincher, Oliver Stone, Michel Gondry, Luc Besson, and Zack Synder influenced me a lot. Storytelling can be shaped differently from one filmmaker to another, and the narrative and visual signature of every filmmaker reflects on our work a lot. It’s never the same process.
DF: We don’t really have a relationship with the directors; it is more like very little contact. You are part of a team and so you deal more with line producers who are mainly concerned with budget. Hierarchy controls these relationships in makeup.
Who’s the filmmaker you had the most memorable experience working with?
CA: That has to be the one I actually haven’t met yet: Zack Synder (300; Watchmen; Batman Vs. Superman). He sees filmmaking from a very different perspective. Even though he’s an unabashedly commercial director, but I think he certainly has a very unique storytelling personality that has influenced a lot of filmmakers.
DF: For me it’s (American cult director) Frank Henenlotter who did Basket Case and Brain Damage. He’s a real film nut. He loves his ‘50s and ‘60s b-movies and schlocky films. He’s self-deprecating, very funny, very outlandish. He’s a real showman.
What’s the difference between working on TV and movies?
DF: TV tends to be faster. I think there’s a lot less design process; TV doesn’t have the luxury of going through different designs, testing and choosing the best on offer. Money is certainly tighter, but it’s also more straightforward.
CA: For me, TV is like fast food. With cinema, no matter how small the project is, you’re tasked with creating different textures and layers comprising the fabric of the story. That’s not the case with TV.
How’s working in Arab film and TV different from Europe and Hollywood?
CA: I realized early on that in order to create quality SFX that can meet the standards of Hollywood, you need to direct the scenes yourself, because the filmmakers and producers find SFX too complicated to manage.
Budgets in the Arab World are also much smaller and stories aren’t always adapted to use SFX in their best form. In a major film in Hollywood, 10 to 35 percent of the budget goes to VFX, whereas in the Arab World, the biggest production doesn’t dedicate more than five percent of the budget to VFX. Producers in the Arab world rely solely on actors to sell their work rather than VFX.
But there has been a visual effects leap in this region over the past six years. However, we’re still at the beginning. A major problem with Arab content is that VFX are used as necessities or an instrument to solve problems, but not as an attraction or an added value to the picture or a tool.
What’s the most challenging project you’ve worked on?
DF: That probably has to be Brain Damage. I worked on a character who was going through a drug withdrawal; his physical condition grows worse and worse. He had circles under his eyes, his skin became pale. The challenge was getting the pitch or level right; you don’t want it to look silly or funny, but you also want it to be as effective as possible.
CA: Handling the CG crowd in the battle scenes of Oliver Stone’s Alexander was daunting because the technology at that time didn’t allow us to perfect those sequences, especially since Stone was always asking for more. But we succeeded eventually.
Historical TV drama Omar was another difficult project. MBC, producers of the show, wanted its look to match Alexander and the challenge was achieving such high visual quality on the low budget the producers had for VFX.
Both Frye and Abdo were impressed by the interest shown in SFX by the people in this region at Maskoon festival which was held in Beirut a month back, and the dynamic duo promise many more exciting projects going forward.