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What does an Academy Award winning visual effects specialist do at the culmination of 25 years of career successes and a prolific filmography? If you're the UK-born Paul J. Franklin, you set your certifiably keen eye on a new challenge and go after it full force.
If you haven't seen Franklin before, rest assured you're no stranger to his talent; he's responsible for the astonishing visual effects for some of Hollywood's favorited blockbusters in recent history, and plenty of independent projects to boot. In fact, his VFX team boasts two Oscars for the brilliant aesthetic they brought to Christopher Nolan's Inception and Interstellar, respectively; lest we forget the mind-bending world-scapes he rendered for The Dark Night, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and others. No wonder the legendary Nolan has kept calling Franklin back, film after film, to bring his imagination to life onscreen. Next up? His directorial debut.
True to Franklin form, he recently enjoyed a warm and well-deserved induction into a new subset of the cinematic elite by way of the short film The Escape, which he directed and wrote. The sci-fi short, riddled with an all-star cast and collaborators, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and tells of an ordinary man presented with an extraordinary opportunity; it's a cautionary tale centered around what it means to be flawed and human.
In his interview with OMNI, Paul Franklin discussed his most recent film, his illustrious career trajectory, and why the art of visual effects captivates him so.
OMNI: What was the genesis for the concept of The Escape?
Paul Franklin: I adapted The Escape from a short story by Robert Sheckley called “The Store of the Worlds”, which I first read many years ago when I was a teenager. The story had a big impact on me back then and it stayed with me over the years. As I got older, developed a career and started my own family, I found that the ideas in the story began to resonate more strongly than ever. A few years ago, when I began to think about ideas for a short film, I realised that Robert Sheckley’s story would be a wonderful place to start as it had everything that I was interested in exploring onscreen – a heightened world with a strong human story at the heart of it.
What elements of Sheckley's ‘Store of the Worlds’ stand the test of time? Which are no longer true?
“The Store of the Worlds” was written in the 1950s and some of what you might call the period detail no longer holds true, but really they’re just superficial things, the literary equivalent of the fins on the tail of a classic Cadillac – the fins have long gone, but we still drive cars in our modern world. The heart of “The Store of the Worlds” – the story of a man caught in a moral dilemma, burdened with longing for something more than his allotted portion – is still as relevant today as it ever was.
Is humanity better or worse now than as depicted then?
I think it’s much the same, really, but I do think that we have a better understanding of the world that we live in and that perhaps makes us a bit better than we used to be, at least I hope it does.
What was your creative process like for this film?
The biggest challenge for me creatively was to work out how to take Robert Sheckley’s story and make it specific to my own experience, updating it for the modern world and placing it into an environment that was a bit more personal. I thought about that for a long time and then suddenly, just around the end of 2015, it fell into place. After that I quickly wrote the script and sent it to my friends Jessica Parker and Jessica Malik, who are two brilliant young UK-based film producers with an interest in strong, character-driven genre stories. They liked it and we began working on putting together a cast and crew that would get behind the film – we were tremendously excited to discover that so many people liked the script as much as we did!
Describe the protagonist's chosen fantasy world–what determined that particular imagery? Or, is that not even the point?
Warning: Spoilers! Lambert’s fantasy world is not what the audience thinks it might be, in fact it turns out to be very mundane – a comfortable middle-class family life without any fireworks or great dramatic or romantic adventure, and that really is the point, that the lives that we lead are actually rather wonderful and beautiful if only we make the effort to see what’s right in front of us.
The locations in the “dream world” were carefully chosen, mostly in South East London around Greenwich and Blackheath, which is where I have lived for the last 25 years – it’s a part of the world that’s very special to me and so it is too for the central character in the film. When I was planning the shots with our director of photography, the masterful Mick Coulter, we decided to go for a deliberately understated but classically elegant approach – the imagery is rich and beautiful without grandstanding. It’s a nice life, you might say, so why is Lambert so keen to leave it?
What was it like to have your directorial debut film have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival?
It was very exciting to be part of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and an incredible honour to be in the presence of so many great filmmakers. The audience response to the film was fantastic and it made it extra special for us as filmmakers that we were premiering the film in New York City, the home town of author Robert Sheckley.
If you can distill it down to one message, what is the moral of the film?
Perhaps one day we will all dream of ordinary lives.
How did your extensive career experience help you in creating The Escape, creatively or logistically, and did it pose any limitations?
Over the years of my career I’ve worked on all sorts of films at all levels of the industry – from zero budget student shorts all the way up to Hollywood blockbusters costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and one of the key lessons that I’ve learned is that a filmmaker’s most precious resource is time, you never have enough of it.
For a short film, The Escape is quite ambitious - we wanted to tell a complex, multi-layered story which required multiple locations and some complex technical setups so we made sure that we planned everything as well as we possibly could, giving us the maximum amount of time to shoot each scene which in turn allowed our amazing cast to really get into the characters and bring the story out. I’d definitely say that the luckiest filmmakers are always the ones who go onto set fully prepared!
Through your VFX designer prism, what is your all time favorite movie scene?
My all time favourite VFX moment is a shot from the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (retitled Stairway to Heaven in the US) which was produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film’s story centres on a WW2 British RAF bomber pilot, played by David Niven, who should have died after he bailed out of his burning plane without a parachute, but the angels miss him off their list and he is granted more time alive on Earth, falling in love with an American Airwoman radio operator (played by Kim Hunter) during the brief span before the heavenly forces realize their mistake.
Niven’s character is put on trial for his life in heaven (depicted in glittering monochrome), at a crucial moment in the court proceedings the trial is adjourned and the camera pulls back, showing the extent of the celestial courtroom, a huge arena, the camera keeps traveling and the arena keeps expanding until it becomes the heart of a galaxy whirling in the celestial firmament. The shot shows its age (it’s over 70 years old) but the concept at the heart of it, linking the intimate personal crisis of a man on trial for his life and love with the balance of the whole universe, is as strong as it ever was. For me this shot embodies all that is wonderful in the use of visual effects in filmmaking - the ability to connect small, personal emotions with events at the biggest possible scale.
Favorite Christopher Nolan project (that you weren’t a part of!)?
I love all of Chris’s films – they are all striking and powerful pieces of filmmaking. Following, Memento and The Prestige are all extraordinary films, but if I had to pick a favourite I think it would be Insomnia, which I think is just brilliant – the foot chase across the floating logs is a great action sequence and the dynamic between Robin Williams and Al Pacino is amazing.
You can follow Franklin @pauljfranklin