Why VFX Supe Chris Harvey Left Hollywood to Join Neill Blomkamp's Indie Studio
'Tron' VFX Supervisor Chris Harvey's work on 'Chappie' led his career in an unexpected direction.
Chris Harvey has one of the most impressive visual effects track records of the past decade: he was VFX Supervisor on TRON: Legacy and Zero Dark Thirty and has worked on such visual marvels as Watchmen and The Tree of Life. He could probably get any job in Hollywood. Instead, he’s turned in the exact opposite direction.
After collaborating with Neill Blomkamp on Chappie in 2015, Harvey joined the celebrated sci-fi director as VFX Supervisor at Oats Studios, an independent production house with an inventive spirit and a mission to change the way movies are made, from production all the way through distribution. The studio has already released two ambitious short films, Rakka and Firebase, and made them available free, directly to audiences—with a request for a $4.99 contribution that will provide fans with a slew of downloadable extras.
"We can read about some new technology that's come out yesterday and be like, ‘Let's try to implement this tomorrow.’ And we do."
No Film School spoke with Harvey before the release of Firebase about the new film's fiery in-camera VFX, lessons learned along his impressive career path, and why he decided to leave Hollywood and join Blomkamp's indie experiment. Watch Firebase below (or pay for it and receive the downloadable assets here), and read on for our conversation with Harvey.
No Film School: THE VFX in Firebase feature a lot of casualties of war, blood, and guts, which seems like it might require a totally different skill set than creating a computerized world, like you did in Tron: Legacy. Are they basically the same process with different outcomes?
Chris Harvey: I guess, fundamentally, it's pretty similar skill sets, but they're just applied in very different ways. The process of what you're getting on set or what you're shooting can be quite different. Something that's a more computer-generated world, like you referenced with Tron, is going to have a lot more green screens and there's going to be a lot more left to create on the CG side. Whereas with something like Firebase, there's a lot more plate photography. Then, we're just trying to integrate our effects into that world. That's similar, but just sort of a different process to get there. With Firebase, we tried to do as much as we possibly could in the camera and then augment where we needed to, because then it grounds it in reality.
NFS: Describe some of the scenes you might have done in camera versus afterward.
Harvey: In Firebase, the art department did a ridiculously good job with a very relatively small budget and time to build the whole world, so we didn't have to do a huge amount of set extensions because we had a small army of people out there creating the army camp, which was pretty awesome.
"Visual effects artists typically don't get to see much past their computer screens. But here, we were shooting stuff literally in the office."
We did a lot of practical squibbing. We put blood hits and then we augmented where we needed to. We had a great special effects team who did lots of explosions. We shot some stuff with Phantoms—huge fireball explosions and stuff like that, simulating napalm, the houses burning. There was a lot of fire!
Again, we did as much as we could in camera, and then we did actually manage to secure an authentic Huey helicopter that we painted and decked up. Then, we recreated a few more so that it didn't look like there was just always one.
NFS: With the blood and burns, how you find the balance between gore and humanity to make us empathize with characters who have injuries that are hard to look at?
Harvey: A lot of that probably comes down to Neill's directing, but there is a balance there. War, in general, is quite horrific. I think a lot of people don't realize how bad it can be, and I can't speak to that. I haven't had to look at someone down the side of a gun. It's more traumatic than people realize.
You can go quite far with that without getting into the completely unrealistic world. But at the same time, you've got the have some character development and characters that people will empathize with like [a soldier character covered with severe and gruesome burns]. He's in the bed and burnt and you see him tell his story through flashbacks. Hopefully, people connect with him. I certainly do because the actor just did a really good job. He's got readable eyes; you can see into his feelings and you feel for him.
"The reason I got into visual effects in the first place was to tell stories."
When fire stunting this kid, he’s completely lit up on fire, and it's just like, "Oh, holy crap." Then you see the results in the bed and he's all scarred and wounded and traumatized by what he saw. All of these different things work together hopefully to connect people with the emotion.
NFS: I would love to hear about your trajectory, going from the biggest budget blockbusters to an indie studio. How did that happen?
Harvey: The simple answer is that it happened through Neill. I worked with him on Chappie. We built a really good relationship, came to be friends, and hung out outside the work scenario. When he told me about this idea that he had for Oats, it sounded pretty good, because the reason I got into visual effects in the first place was to tell stories. I like telling stories. I don't necessarily want to direct, but I like to be part of that creative process of creatively trying to tell a story.
One of the big things that Oats is about is being able to tell more stories. Big-budget, huge-scale productions—while fun, and I still like doing that stuff—are a slower process. You are more limited with the number of stories you can tell and with the freedom of what you can tell, because with the big system comes big politics. That's true whether you're talking about entertainment or anything else. There are more restrictions placed on you.
Harvey: With an indie studio like Oats, there's a lot more freedom to be able to tell more stories and be more creative in what we're trying to tell. That was super appealing to me. It's a huge experiment and I'm pretty gung-ho about taking risks and trying new ventures in general in life. So I was like, "Yeah, let's do this thing."
I called up a lot of friends and elite talent that I've worked with in the past and pitched them on the idea, and we built this VFX team around that. Neill assembled other sides of the team. Everyone's been having a blast. It's a very collaborative workflow. Everyone is working on so many different aspects and scenes. Visual effects artists typically don't get to see much past their computer screens. But here, we were shooting some stuff literally in the office. They're seeing all sides of production. They're opened up to a whole new world, which is awesome and very unique.
NFS: I know that Oats is all about experimenting and taking risks. What kind of experiments are you doing, specifically, in your department?
Harvey: The whole thing! It's funny. I've read different things. People saying, "Oh, well, what's the experiment about this? I've seen horror films before." But the entire process is different, especially at this level—at the scale we're doing it at.
You come from a facility with a few hundred people and there's a huge team and support staff behind you doing every little thing. We started out year one with 10 guys in visual effects and up to just past 20 for year two. But that's still a very, very small team to pull off a lot of work. We're having to do everything from the ground up. The pipelines, everything.
“At Oats, we're trying to encourage even more open-source filmmaking.”
We've been able to experiment with new tools. The big studios, while they have the support team, also are very slow ships to turn, because it's obviously a bigger pipeline. There are more people involved. It's harder to shift and change direction. Here, we're incredibly nimble. We can literally read about some new technology that's come out yesterday and be like, "Let's try to implement this tomorrow," and we do. We can step outside the box and say, "Let's not do it this way just because we always did."
With some of those things, we've discovered that people do it this way and they always have done it that way because it actually works. But in other situations, we're like, "I think people are stuck on this because of tradition but actually, there is a better way to approach it now." Being able to do that at all is very exciting.
NFS: Many of our readers are working on lower budgets or even micro-budgets, but still may want to incorporate VFX into their work. With that in mind, where does someone even start if they're not familiar with VFX but want to try to use some in their films?
Harvey: I would try to connect with someone that knows something. That would probably be my first recommendation. The community's actually pretty good and more open than people think. ArtStation is a pretty awesome place to find artists, in general.
Even talking about Oats, we're really trying to encourage even more “open-source filmmaking.” We're trying to get information out there on how we do this stuff. That's why you can go the Steam page when we release something, and for only $4.99, you can buy this extra downloadable content and get access to stuff that you would never have access to, especially if you're not experienced in visual effects.
"If you have questions about a particular shot, all of the artists are on the forum and happily are answering questions and sharing information."
For Firebase, as an example, there are three main creatures that you see in the film. All of those will be released as full assets—not just the model, but the animation rigs, all of the textures, and all of the elements. People literally could take that and start playing with it themselves. We'll give all of that stuff away for what would normally cost a studio to pay a facility tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of dollars to do that in a real-world scenario.
Then we've got the Oats forum up, as well, where we encourage people to ask questions. If you have questions about a particular shot, all of the artists are on the forum and happily are answering questions and sharing information. We're really trying to promote that, "Hey, why don't you guys learn how to do this stuff too? We'll help."
NFS: Well, that is exactly what No Film School does, as well, so I think we're kindred spirits and we really appreciate what you guys are doing. We’re excited to see the next pieces that come out.
Harvey: I hope people like them as much as we do!