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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Talk With Eric Barba – Visual Effects Supervisor for Tron: Legacy

Closing out my Tron: Legacy coverage (at least until my Blu-ray review), I’m happy to include  an interview with Academy Award winner Eric Barba who served as the Visual Effects Supervisor for all the 1,565 shots completed at Digital Domain and six other companies across two continents. His earlier credits span films including “The Fifth Element,” “Supernova,” “Zodiac” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – for which he won an Oscar for visual effects.  Prior to joining Digital Domain in 1996, Eric worked at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Imaging on shows including “SeaQuest DSV,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the Emmy award-winning pilot of “Star Trek: Voyager,” and others.


Q – Now that Tron:Legacy has been viewed by the masses, how was the reception of Jeff Bridges’ rejuvenation?

Eric Barba: The overall reception to Clu was good.  We had all types of reactions of course, but most enjoyed the character.

Q – What are you working on right now, and what are its challenges? What experiences from Tron Legacy are valuable to you now? 

Eric Barba: I’m working on a few projects with Joe Kosinski actually.  I’ve learned so much over my time on “Legacy” that all carries forward.  I’m not trying to be vague, but there really is so much I learned from the experience.  I like to say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Q – Are you involved in the new Kosinski project of Black Hole?

Eric Barba: I hope to be when that project moves forward.

Q – What was it that inspired you to get your line of work in the first place?

Eric Barba: Like a lot of artists in the visual effects world, I was inspired by everything from Star Wars to the original Tron film.  But what got me intrigued with visual effects, was the idea that computers could be used as art and design tools to help make things that we hadn’t seen before.

Q – How did you get involved with Tron: Legacy?

Eric Barba: I had worked with Joe on a few commercial projects before, and we both kind of shared a mentor in David Fincher.

Q – Will you be involved with the animated series Tron: Uprising at all?

Eric Barba: No, unfortunately.

Q – What percent of TRON Legacy was visual effects? Would you say the movie was 90% your work?

Eric Barba: I would say that probably 85 percent of the film had a visual effects component.

Q –  Are there any “easter eggs” you or your staff put in Tron Legacy’s effects that we should look for?

Eric Barba: Yes, there are easter eggs. I hope you enjoy them.

Q – Were you a fan of the original Tron?

Eric Barba: I was a huge fan of the original.  I remember seeing it in theaters, and being totally blown away.

Q – During the disc scene, was I mistaken or was some of that influenced by the arcade game Disc of Tron?

Eric Barba: I loved playing Disc of Tron as a teenager, but it wasn’t our inspiration.

Q – Can you tell us about the inspiration for the evolution of the Light Cycles?

Eric Barba: I think Joe has spoken about how the original Syd Mead design was an open cycle.  But due to the computing power of the day, that was scraped for a simpler design.  Joe wanted to bring the original idea back, and make the new light cycle an evolution of the original.

Q – What was your favorite part of working on Tron: Legacy?

Eric Barba: I really enjoyed working with so many talented artists.  Everybody on the show was very motivated to make the best of their part.  From Joe to every single artist, there was a sense of making something that had to live up to what came before, and we felt we had to give 200 percent.  Collaboration would be the key answer.

Q –  How was it different working for a first time director such as oe Kosinski contrast with working with a veteran like David Fincher?

Eric Barba: Joe didn’t act or work like a first time director. Every director works differently based on their own experiences, and Joe brought his vision as strongly as any director I’ve worked with.

Q – The facial expressions on Jeff Bridges were more realistic in the grid than in the Real-World-Sequences. Is facial animation and replacement of characters easier in fully animated exteriors? 

Eric Barba: All of the facial expressions were driven by Jeff, and made from his facial movements.  Facial animation at the photo-real level is incredibly difficult for many reasons.

Q – What would you say to an aspiring filmmaker trying to get their foot in the door?

Eric Barba: Kick the door open. Make a small movie with whatever tools you have available, tell a story, and then do it again.  I tell young artists that one of the best director reels I’ve seen was a guy who shot everything in his bedroom on a hi8 camera, and he was the star.  Practice your craft, and if you have talent, it will show.

Q – After winning an Oscar are you given more creative leeway when working on a project?

Eric Barba: The Oscar win was an incredible experience to say the least.  But what gives me the creative leeway is the same thing that did before the Oscar.  And that’s just trying to give whatever director I am working with the best possible solution to their visual problem, whether that be in artistry or technical execution.

Q – Do you have a favorite scene that you worked in the film?

Eric Barba: Yes. I think for me, the Disc Game sequence is the favorite.  That sequence went through a lot of changes and complex problem solving and I was very happy with the final result of the team’s efforts.

Q – In relation to your earlier movies – for example Button – is there a fundamental change in the workflow? 

Eric Barba: The “Button” workflow was a challenge in that it hadn’t been done before.  We took everything we learned from “Button” and then strapped it on the entire Tron universe, and Stereo 3D. So, yes.  The workflow got much more complicated.

Q – Are you signed on for any possible future sequels?

Eric Barba: Nothing has been announced yet.

Q – How many visual effects do you think you’ve created in your career?

Eric Barba: Well, if I had a dollar… It’s kinda like dog years or millage or something. I have no idea.

Q – How do you feel about the original film?

Eric Barba: The original film has a very warm spot with my inner child.  It will always be that way.  And of course getting to meet and work with Steve Lisberger was pretty great.

Q – Did you feel a lot of pressure because of the original film? 

Eric Barba: Yes, we felt a huge burden of living up to what all the Tron fans would want this movie to look and feel like.  It was constantly on my mind.  The first film made an indelible mark on me, and that was a tall order for us to live up to.

Q – What was your favorite sequence in Tron: Legacy, as a fan?

Eric Barba: As a fan, the Safe House Sequence where Sam meets his dad after all the years.   I think that sequence is really great and had minimal help from visual effects.

Q – Did the look of the original movie limit you in your creativity? How did you visually tie the original film and the sequel?

Eric Barba: I don’t think the original film limited Joe.  I think Joe had a really clear vision of what he wanted to do and he embraced the evolution of the grid.

Q – Did you try to create something to be as mind-blowing as the original movie or it was all about evolution?

Eric Barba: Of course. It was my goal to make the film as visually stunning as possible, but only the audience can tell me if we were successful.

Q – What was the most time consuming scene when it comes to special effects?

Eric Barba: The shots that involved Clu were the most time consuming.  If I had to pick a particular scene, it was probably the scene where Sam meets Clu.  The lighting in that scene provided challenges and we spent a lot of time making all of it work.

Q – The 3D effects in the final film are seamless, how long did that take?

Eric Barba: Thank you so much for that nice remark.  It took two and a half years from when I started till when we delivered.

Q – What are your thoughts on the uncannny valley and how it pertains to this movie? 

Eric Barba: I have property in the Uncanny Valley.  I don’t like to go there often.  It’s a place that is difficult to get past, and I do wish to sell.

Q – Which movie was harder to do as far as de-aging it’s stars?  The process seemed to work better with Button so I was wondering if that was due to the way it was captured.

Eric Barba: Tron was far harder.  The de-aging in “Button” was not nearly as big a leap, and certainly not in 3D.

Q – What was the most rewarding part of this film for you?

Eric Barba: I honestly enjoyed working with so many talented artists.  When you have a highly motivated team that just can’t wait to get to work in the morning, that makes the whole thing fun.  Then when they see the final result and are happy to have spent their time working on it, it makes it very rewarding.

Q – If there is a sequel, will you be involved?

Eric Barba: I hope so.

Q – I loved the Tronned-up Disney logo at the beginning – whose idea was that? Also the fireworks scene after Clu captures him – were you subtly referencing Disneyland there also?

Eric Barba: I’m not sure who came up with the idea but we all wanted to do something fun.  We weren’t trying to reference Disneyland, but we did hide something fun in the fireworks.

Q – How does 3D affect your approach to your work?

Eric Barba: 3D affects a lot of the up-front planning.  Traditional techniques for tracking, roto and compositing were much more difficult.  Then on the back end, finishing a shot in 3D means it has to work with the shots around it.  And has to work on a fifty foot screen in a two hour movie.  lot of thought went into the stereo 3D on every shot.

Q – At last year’s Comic-Con I had the chance to interview part of the cast and crew and one of the things I learned was the importance of the Daft Punk soundtrack before starting a take, to settle the mood. Did you have anything similar at your department? 

Eric Barba: We had a tremendous amount of inspiring artwork that we used to motivate the entire team.

Q – Did you also create “invisible effects”in the film, for example to erase or correct things we should not see? Can you cite some specific examples?

Eric Barba: There are plenty of invisible effects in the film.  One good example might be that Jeff Bridges did not sport his natural beard for the shoot and there were digital retouches to the fake beard.

Q – How hard was it to do these visually amazing scenes, but still keep the feel of the original film?

Eric Barba: The hard part was both technical and artistic.  And it was very hard.  If they are done correctly, then you only enjoy them.  I’m glad you thought they were amazing.

Q – If you could do something over for TL what would it be?

Eric Barba: As an artist, you are never really finished.  You always want to work on something, finesse or change something.  But the realities of making a movie mean that at some point you have to let go or it gets ripped from your clutching fingers.  So there are plenty of things I would like to take another pass at.

Q – I think one of the successes of the film is its visual consistency. How did you maintain that consistency, from a visual effects point of view, given there were so many shots and a number of vendors?

Eric Barba: I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that.  It was a great concern of mine.  We worked very hard with our outsource partners to give them every tool we had to help them succeed.  That’s not the norm in this business, but I so wanted the whole film to feel as one.

Q – What’s your favorite aspect of the work you do? What in particular are you the most proud of in terms of pushing the envelope of effects?

Eric Barba: I come from the artist side of things, so I really enjoy making great looking work.  I have to wear my technical hat to push the envelope but I am surrounded by an amazing team that helps figure all the really hard stuff out.  I’m most proud of our planting a flag on the other side of the Uncanny Valley.

Q – Did filming in 3D make you job any harder than it otherwise would have been?

Eric Barba: Filming in 3D made everything harder.  The whole 3D process was new to me and my team, and the rules had not been written, nor the tools when we started.  We had to make stuff up as we went.

Q – Which movie out of all of your projects is your favorite and why?

Eric Barba: Movie projects are like kids.  You love them all, and if you play favorites, someone will be hurt.  They all teach you something that you take on to the next.  Obviously, taking home a little gold statue makes one stand out, but you still love them all.

Q – Did you feel constrained by the look and world setup by the first movie?

Eric Barba: I never felt constrained, but it did take me a bit to figure out what the world should look like once we had the live action plates.  There was a balance in Joe’s vision that had to be worked out from art work to finished shot.

Q – What movie has influenced you the most?

Eric Barba: I have to say Star Wars.  It made a mark on my creative inner child.

Q – Have you seen the Tron segment during the World of Color show at Disneyland? It’s pretty cool if you haven’t seen it.

Eric Barba: I have not seen that.  They don’t let me out much.

Q – Concerning the tools you used, what are the trends on the software- and work flow-side of films? Are there any tools you think will become a defacto standard in the near futures? And (given the choice) what are your preferred tools? 

Eric Barba: We have seen Maya become the standard for 3D animation.  And I think during the time Tron Legacy was in production, Nuke has become the standard for compositing.

Q – Can you speak about your work on SeaQuest DSV and Star Trek: The Next Generation?

Eric Barba: Funny you should ask.  I got to work on SeaQuest DSV at the very beginning and was involved in helping setup a workflow when it hadn’t been done on a network show before.  I got to do one shot on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It was fun.

Q – Any plans to redo the effects for the Blu-ray like the Star Wars Special Editions?

Eric Barba: Not at this time.  I hope they still look good.

Q – Where do you see the advantages of 3D for telling stories? Did you play with 3-D effects to enhance some visual effects?

Eric Barba: 3D is another tool for a filmmaker to use to help the audience feel immersed in the story.  We definitely played with the 3D to help make the Grid a more immersive place.

Q – What creations in Legacy are uniquely yours?

Eric Barba: One of the cool parts of my job is working collaboratively with everybody.  Joe was great with everybody and I would throw out ideas and show him things to see what he thought.  Most of the time he did like what we brought to the table.

Q – Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring film makers who want to get into vfx?

Eric Barba: I always tell people who ask me that question, it’s always the basics that help the most.  Learn to paint, sculpt and draw.  Pick up a camera and learn the fundamentals.  Anybody can learn the software, but if you don’t have the fundamentals, you won’t know what to do with it.

Q – What was the hardest thing you had to design for the film?

Eric Barba: The hardest thing (other than Clu) was the look and feel of the Disc Game sequence.  It was a huge challenge, and I’m happy with how the team rose to the challenge.

Q – Do you have a dream project that you would like to work on, or have you already done it?

Eric Barba: I have been very lucky and so far have gotten to do two dream projects.  Tron: Legacy was one of them.

Q – How important was the early test that was created (and shown to audiences) in realizing the final vfx and approach to the film?

Eric Barba: To me it was a starting point.  But I told Joe that I wanted to go much further with everything and of course, he agreed.  Tests don’t always have the resources you’d like, so it’s natural to know you can do much better if given the chance.

Q – Were you ever present on the set of ‘Legacy’ or were you working only after all of the shooting was done?

Eric Barba: I started on the film before most of the department heads or even the line producer was brought on.  I was on set every day during production and probably, next to Joe, had one of the longest runs on it.

Q – What was, for you, the hardest part of the visual effects in Tron: Legacy? Clu 2 doesn’t count. ;) 

Eric Barba: Establishing the look of the Grid.  When you look at the art work, you would think it would be easy but once you get the live action and a moving camera, it’s actually a challenge to make everything work visually and still be interesting.

Q – Was this film your most difficult assignment in terms of effects? If not, what was?

Eric Barba: This film was by far the hardest thing I have ever done.  It was a huge challenge.  From a visual effects standpoint, so much had to be invented and live up to what we all remembered and loved about the original Tron.

Q – Did you work with Luc Besson for The Fifth Element ?

Eric Barba: I worked on The Fifth Element, but not directly with Luc.

Q – Do you prefer working on invisible effects for David Fincher (Zodiac, Button) or on spectacular effects ?

Eric Barba: I enjoy both.  I got to flex a more creative side on Tron, but I love both.

Q – What is your favorite special effects shot of all time ?

Eric Barba: This might sound self-serving, but I think the shot in “Button” where an old Brad Pitt flexes in the mirror marks a particular spot on the timeline of film.  But that’s just me.

Tron – The Original Film and Tron: Legacy are available on Blu-ray so order yours now!
























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