Supervising the Supernatural

With a decades-long career in movies and an Academy Award to his credit, Eric Barba is a master of visual effects. Meet him in our interview. 

Supervising the Supernatural

With a decades-long career in movies and an Academy Award to his credit, Eric Barba is a master of visual effects. Meet him in our interview. 

Terminator: Dark Fate had a mind-blowing 2,600 visual effects shots. Virtually every shot in the film had at least one visual effect.

The work was split up between 14 visual effects vendors—including ILM, Digital Domain, Rebellion VFX, Method Studios, Blur Studio, and WETA—with more than twenty teams scattered across the globe: from Singapore to London, Australia to Vancouver, Munich to San Francisco. As the film’s visual effects supervisor, Eric Barba had the daunting task of coordinating all those vendors, giving them coherent creative direction that captured director Tim Miller’s vision, and managing their output on time and on budget.

Barba brought 25 years of experience to the job—he earned an Academy Award for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and has a filmography that includes Oblivion, Gone Girl, Tron: Legacy, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Fifth Element.

We invited Barba to describe what it’s like to manage an army of creatives spread around the world, the highs and lows of inventing industry-defining digital scenes, and how he got into this line of work in the first place.

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Create: You started off in the early days of CGI animation. Can you tell us a little about what the business was like then, and your trajectory from digital artist to visual effects supervisor?

Barba: I had a circuitous route in that I really wanted to be a car designer. That led me to ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, one of the top places for industrial design. Probably three-quarters of the way through my education, they introduced us to this computer software on Silicon Graphics machines. At that time, they were $60,000 machines that ran this $120,000 piece of software called Alias.

In some ways, as an artist I had been playing catch-up to my peers, guys who’d grown up with pencils in their hands and were just so talented. But the computer immediately leveled the playing field. It was a brand new toolbox. One of our instructors had used Alias on the 1992 Batman Returns. I was intrigued: You mean, I could take these artistic skills and computer skills I was learning, and work in movies? 

When I graduated from ArtCenter, I ended up getting hired by an Alias reseller company to drive around with an SGI and show people what could be done with their software. The very first place they sent me was to Universal’s backlot, where they were setting up to do SeaQuest 2032 for Amblin television, Steven Spielberg’s company. They had put together a small team to do R&D using Amigas and Video Toaster, and I had a three-week assignment to show these guys what   could be done with Alias. They were doing amazing stuff, but in that era if you compared Amiga to the SGI, it was like comparing a souped-up Mustang to a Ferrari. After three weeks, they made me an offer I couldn’t say no to, so I left the reseller company and joined this young team of artists doing visual effects for a Steven Spielberg show.

I fell in love with it. I was able to use all my traditional design skills and apply them to computers and work with this amazing team. When that show ended, it led me to Digital Domain, and that led me into the film business.

“With visual effects, I never felt like I was going to work; I always felt like I was going to play.”    

Create: What did you like most about it?

Barba: With visual effects, I never felt like I was going to work; I always felt like I was going to play. And as an artist, it fills that need to create and contribute. I literally would get up and couldn’t wait to get into the office to see the renders that had come off the farm from the night before, or get back to whatever I was working on the day before, because I got an idea of how to make it even better. Or now as a supervisor, being able to see what these talented artists I get to work with are putting out, and help them to make it better.

Create: On a huge undertaking like Terminator: Dark Fate, how do you divide the work between various effects houses?

Barba: It is all very tricky because we had a short post schedule and more than 2,000 complex shots to be delivered. You need to break up the work, no one vendor has that size team ready to go. You try to line up your key partners ahead of time, so you’re building your assets during the shoot. Then as the edit starts to lock, you start to see these chunks of work, and you know one partner will do a particular task well, or another piece would be perfect for this team over here.

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As your schedule gets shorter, some partners will say they can take more work on, or if a sequence totally blew up or we just added another hundred shots, they’ll say they can’t get it done in time. In those cases, you end up adding partners to help you finish. We had a great number of amazing partners on this film, and we needed them.

Some of it unfortunately is budget: These movies cost a lot of money to make, and digital effects aren’t cheap. So working with the visual effects producer, we’re always trying to figure out the puzzle to get the highest quality work we can afford. It’s a tricky combination of quality, speed, and cost.

Create: How closely did you work with director Tim Miller on Terminator?

Barba: Very closely, every day. That’s pretty much the job, from beginning to end: Making sure the director’s vision gets up on the screen.

I’m usually brought in as one of the first department heads on a film to help the director and the line producer break down a script to get an idea on what the cost is going to be on the visual effects, and get the director’s vision so we can plan accordingly. Then you go into scouting, figuring out what you’re going to shoot, and then the pre-visualization stage, showing the director ideas, and working with the DP and production designer to try to get their vision into a cohesive piece with the visual effects. And then during the shoot, you try to keep it on budget, keep your plan going, and take every measurement you can think of on set, so you don’t get caught flat-footed in post.

“Visual effects is a team sport, and a sport of passion as well. You have to put a lot of yourself into it every day to make it work, like any artistic endeavor. But that’s what makes it fun.” 

Every director has a different creative process. Some are incredibly tight and buttoned-up and know exactly what they need, and others need flexibility in the editorial room. As the work starts coming back in, you’re making sure it is creatively up to what the director is expecting, what his vision is, giving your input as a creative partner, and making sure that it works editorially with the rest of what the DP shot.

On the post side, we sat with Tim daily. He is amazing to work with because he knows what he wants and he has a background in visual effects. He was in the editorial suite probably 70 percent of the time, and with me and the visual effects team 30 percent, going through the submissions. That percentage changes as we get closer to delivery and editorial gets wrapped up, it flip-flops. But we spend a tremendous amount of time looking at work together, and constantly doing notes.

Create: It must be hard to coordinate work on the individual shots between different vendors.

Barba: It is pretty complicated, and some sequences were coordinated very tightly between partners. Fortunately, we have a great relationship with the supervisors. For example, for the factory fight scene, we sat together with the VFX supervisors from ILM and Digital Domain and mapped out the damage that would happen across the course of the sequence, because their shots were intercut there so closely. It was really important that there was good continuity between the shots, but also that the look of the work, in terms of the development of the black liquid metal, was consistent between the two, so it didn’t look different depending on who was doing the shot. So we mapped it all out in artwork first, in terms of where the damage was, and how much they would have at the start of the shot versus at the end, and where they had to hand that off to each other.

So after a big hit from Grace, ILM might model out the damage to the face, and then they would pass that off to Digital Domain who would carry it forward for two or three shots, and then pass it back to ILM for another shot. It was certainly a little complicated, but it ended up working out well because we had a plan established up front.

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Create: How do you keep going, month after month, at that level of detail and that pace?

Barba: Visual effects is a team sport, and a sport of passion as well. You have to put a lot of yourself into it every day to make it work, like any artistic endeavor. But that’s what makes it fun.

It’s not a 9 to 5. In my case, it’s more like 5 am to very late in the evening, because people are all over the world. We had partners from New Zealand to Czechoslovakia, from Montreal to Vancouver. As soon as you get off the phone with one partner, you have get on the phone with the next. And that one’s behind, where are the shots, we need those, let me text that person while I’m watching this one’s work. It becomes a big machine to keep running smoothly.

My day is, arrive in the office, grab my cup of coffee, and immediately start looking at all of our partners submissions. I have a team that is constantly ingesting shots, and it gets published into our internal system, and I go through the work and make my own notes visually. Then I go into our screening room and look at the work on our big screen. In some cases, I’ll immediately jump on the phone with the supervisors at that partner, in other cases we’ll have time with the director to go through stuff, or work with the visual effects editorial team to cut shots in and see them in context, and get feedback back to these amazing partners as quickly as possible to maximize the iterative process and the time.

Create: What’s your favorite type of shot?

The artist in me loves the shot where you you could take any frame and make it into a painting. Because you’ve thought about the composition, and the color palette, and where your eye is going, and it just looks like a piece of art. Those are the ones that probably satisfy me the most.

That, and when effects are seamless, when the audience doesn’t know you were even there, they just get sucked into it, those are the most rewarding. Because then you’re using all the artistry to the point where it disappears.

I think the opening shot is a good example of what we try to do to grip the audience. We see these T-800s walking out of the surf, and it’s a reminder of what we’ve seen before with the hunter-killers and the T-800s, and it’s reminiscent of Terminator 2, but it also looks completely believable and beautiful, the juxtaposition of this beautiful beach in Spain and this horrific event.

© 2019 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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