Paul Franklin: Gold Sandbachian (Full Version)

“We went to see a production of Macbeth. I blagged my way onto the trip after making an impassioned plea, and many years later got to work with one of the actors on Inception. That was a moment when things came full circle. It was Sandbach School that had given me that opportunity.”
The transition from school to academy may well be a common one for students across the country these days. Going from school to an Academy Award, however, is a different proposition entirely.

Interview by Ryan Grant

Paul Franklin is one of a select group of outstanding professionals to have proudly achieved the latter. Having joined Sandbach School in 1977 at the age of 11, Franklin’s work as a visual effects supervisor has since taken him around the world and onto the sets of famous, critically-acclaimed films including Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight and Venom respectively, often working closely with world-renowned director Christopher Nolan CBE.

While popular ‘70s and ‘80s television shows including Doctor Who provided much inspiration throughout his childhood, it was his education and involvement in numerous after-school activities which provided the platform to go from extracurricular to extra-terrestrial.

Franklin admits moving from a small primary school in Brereton village to the vastness of Sandbach School was the first “spooky experience” of his youth and, as a love for astronomy and science fiction quickly developed, many more would surely follow thereafter.

“I was moving to a school with a whole bunch of kids I’d never seen before,” he says, sitting down for a coffee in Soho, in the West End of London, where he is based today. “We’d been wearing uniforms at primary school but it was more strictly enforced at Sandbach and it looked quite smart. It was also a much longer journey for me because I wasn’t going to the local village school anymore.

“I remember thinking at the time ‘this is going to be much tougher than primary school’ just because of the homework and the scale of the place; I think Sandbach had 700 or 800 students at that point and got even bigger while I was there. One thing you were really aware of that year was the history of the school, because it was just after the tricentennial and there was still evidence of it all around the school. They had flower displays with the dates on by the cricket pitch and I remember that first day really clearly – meeting the masters and entering this new world.”

Indeed, with Holmes Chapel’s nearby comprehensive school yet to be established, Sandbach School represented a step into the unknown for Franklin and many others, but it was here that he would meet like-minded people, those who shared his affinity for art and comic books, among other hobbies.

“Those are probably my fondest memories, the friends I made” he adds. “At Sandbach, I formed lots of friendships based on mutual interests and I’m still in touch with people on Facebook and Twitter.
“One friend of mine who joined a couple of years later, Peter Swailes, had an interest in art like me and it was through the school that I met him – I’ll always remember painting a mural on his bedroom wall!”

Of course, it wouldn’t be until several years later that computers were introduced en masse to the students of Sandbach School, giving Franklin and his friends more common ground and room to explore their imagination.

Before then, he would marvel at films and books, soaking in every available piece of information on how they were created, without knowing that he would one day be responsible for many iconic movie moments of his own.

“My inspirations are very British,” he says. “I was inspired by Doctor Who in the 1970s and remember Star Wars also having a profound effect on me as an 11-year-old. I was tremendously excited; I bought every bit of literature and couldn’t afford many of the toys, but did lots of Star Wars drawings.

“Those Hollywood films felt a bit unapproachable because they were clearly very expensive to produce, they were very slick, and as a child you couldn’t really see a way into them. Doctor Who was a little more home-spun and you could imagine building your own space craft out of cereal boxes, and the guys who worked on those shows would show up on Blue Peter to explain how they did it.

“The BBC was very keen to explain to people how things worked, and the Hollywood people less so, so that was great. A British comic book, which still gets published today, was another inspiration – it’s called 2000 AD. That appeared when I was 10, in early 1977, and it was very exciting because it had that kind of spiky energy to it. I taught myself to draw initially by copying them, and got my first bit of artwork published when I was 12 or 13.

“It’s really the lower-key things that were my inspiration because they had the look of something you could get involved with yourself, and they were being made here in the UK. There were some really great books published just about the production of Doctor Who and how you managed TV production in the 1980s, and so you learned all about what the different staff did and that was important.”

Franklin soon became involved in the school’s astronomical society, which was founded by a fellow student – Nicholas Booth – who was a couple of years his senior. After Booth’s friendship with astronomer Sir Patrick Moore led him to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he would return to school armed with space craft films and simulations, which would be shown on an old projector during assemblies.

It was a period which piqued Franklin’s curiosity, “kicking off my interest in the idea of using computers for animation and graphics,” as he puts it, and he’s never looked back since.

“I managed to persuade my father to buy a video recorder in 1980, and they were insanely expensive at the time,” he adds. “My father was fairly suspicious about what this thing would be used for, but me and my friends used that to make a crewed edit by plugging a couple of them together.

“Later, the school began to introduce computers. I remember looking into one of the maths rooms and they had a whole bunch of BBC Micros lined up – part of the home computer revolution – and it was a time when we used to make great computers here in Britain, not just those brought in from outside. It was things like the Sinclair Spectrum and the ZX81.

“I remember being amazed because I was very interested in computers, anything to do with them fascinated me. The maths teacher – Mr Thornber, I think it was – said to me ‘these aren’t for you, you’re too old.’ I was 14 at the time and they’d decided they weren’t going to teach computing to anyone in the third year or above, so that was that, but it did spur me on to go out and buy my own computer! I bought a Sinclair ZX81 which cost me £70 from the WHSmith in Macclesfield, which about £350 in today’s money, so a fair amount of saving went into that at the age of 14.

“I mowed a lot of lawns, washed a lot of cars and did paper rounds to get that one, but it was definitely exciting to know the machines were in the school too. I’d been waiting for the time when a computer was affordable. A friend of mine at the school, his father had an early Apple 2 computer, which I think he’d got through work and I was fascinated by it.”

Franklin would go on to study chemistry, physics and biology at A-Level and had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a scientist but, upon leaving Sandbach School, he instead followed his heart, pursuing his true passion.

He chose to study yet more A-Levels in history, art and English, before going to Northwich to attend what was at the time Cheshire’s School of Art and Design. He was now on a new path, one which led to a place at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University, where he was a member of St John’s College and studying fine art.

It was there that Franklin would have his first experience of filmmaking, frequently collaborating with director Ben Hopkins, with whom he began to experiment with the emerging new medium of computer animation.

“Getting into visual effects and animation… that was probably the big breakthrough for me, and the seed was sowed while I was at Sandbach School,” he continues.

“I changed my mind and realised I wasn’t really cut for the life of an academic scientist or one working in industry; I worked on my father’s lab for a summer and it made me realise how difficult it was, so I switched subjects. That’s where I really got into film-making, meeting like-minded students at university in the mid 1980s.”

But what of his childhood passion for space and sci-fi?

“Ending up on Interstellar was a culmination of that, I guess, because you’re working on a sci-fi movie and that’s what I’d set out to do. I’d always wanted to work on a movie with robots, spaceships and alien planets and, weirdly, despite being in the industry for over 25 years by the time I got to work on Interstellar, I’d only ever done one low-budget sci-fi film! “It was called Pitch Black, it was made in the late ‘90s and it introduced Vin Diesel to the world. It’s a good, alien and space thriller. Interstellar pressed all the buttons for me and ticked all the boxes, so it was great.

“The real ‘pinch yourself’ moment with Interstellar was getting to work with Professor Kip Thorne, who was our science advisor on the film and one of the greatest scientists in history. He’s up there with Einstein and Enrico Fermi, people like that.

“I was gobsmacked to be told by our director, Chris Nolan, that we’d be working together. We were in LA and he handed me a whole bunch of notes and said ‘I don’t really understand all of this, you need to go and talk to Kip and figure it all out, because it’s going to be really important to the visual effects.’ It’s like being sent off to go and see Stephen Hawking, you know? He was a very close friend of Kip’s, and came along to the premiere of the film, so that was amazing. I’d worked on films with advisors, but to get to work so closely with someone at that level, which then gave the film – in my opinion – real integrity in terms of the way the science was portrayed, was an important thing.

“I couldn’t believe I was constantly emailing Kip, and it all goes back to the science I’d studied at Sandbach, really.”

As Franklin says, it is his working relationship with Nolan – a man he “was very lucky to be introduced to” – that has led to many of his opportunities on some of film’s biggest titles, which in turn have led to some of his proudest career moments. With a visual effects budget of $35 million on Interstellar alone, it’s work which can only have seemed a distant dream during his school days.

Asked to expand on the inner workings of filming and where his role fits in, he explains it can often be dependent on the director and type of film, with visual effects-heavy movies such as those which make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe taking up plenty of post-production resource.

“Different film-makers will have different approaches,” he reveals. “On Chris’s films, we pretty much always use practical pyrotechnics for gunfire, but another might not like that. Those are the sorts of discussions you have very early on; then, by the time you shoot the film, you’ve already decided that balance. You then get into post-production and most of the crew has vanished by that point and it’s just you, the director, the editor and post-production crew.

“My team will go from 10 people to 2,000 on a big film like Venom – about 1,800 people worked on that in terms of visual effects. All of those guys are looking to me to tell them which way to go and then I’m in constant conversation with the director and editor.

“By the time you get to something like Inception or Interstellar, the stakes are very high. You’ve got a lot of responsibility and a lot of people looking up to you but, at the same time, it’s insanely satisfying to sit in the IMAX theatre and see the first images of the black hole coming out on the big screen. Probably the most satisfying moment for me on any of Chris’s films was when we had a cast and crew screening of Inception at a screen on Leicester Square. We created the visual effects for that film at a building I can see from here, on Shaftesbury Avenue, and everyone came to the show.

“When my name came up on the credits – it was the first time I had what’s called a full-card credit where it’s just your name on screen – there was this rousing cheer and that was great. It was the first time many of us had seen the film and we just thought ‘this is going to be a huge hit’, so that was pretty exciting. I’m proudest of managing to get to this stage in the first place and I’m proud of the fact I’ve managed to do it here in the UK. I had the option to go to LA and San Francisco in the ‘90s, but there was a group of us working here in Soho who felt we could build something new in London.”

Franklin would win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and the BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects for Inception in 2010, and a second Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for Interstellar four years later, capping years of hard work in an ever-evolving industry.

Both were considered among the best films of the decade, with Inception receiving critical praise for its screenplay, direction, themes, action sequences, visual effects, musical score and the performances of the ensemble cast. It won four Academy Awards in total and was nominated for four more, grossing over $828 million worldwide. Interstellar had a worldwide gross of over $677 million (and $701 million with subsequent re-releases), making it the tenth-highest-grossing film of the year.

Franklin admits he and his team never set out with the specific goal of winning an award, citing an element of luck as an important factor, though there can be no denying the brilliance of his work.

“Had Interstellar launched a year earlier, we’d have been directly up against Gravity and I’m not sure which of those would have won,” he explains. “What is satisfying is when people remember the movie and the work you did, particularly those five films I did for Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight sort of transcended the superhero genre and became a film-making phenomenon in its own right – audiences loved it. Inception as well is an extraordinary hybrid genre, so it sticks in the mind, even 12 years after its release. People might like something now but it might just go out of their minds in a few years’ time.”

While films and the memories associated with them may come and go, what remains for Franklin is a fondness for his upbringing, an important part of which took place at Sandbach School. It was there where his passions and friendships blossomed, taking him down a route even he had never expected to take.

His ideas and work have taken him to the depths of space and back again but, as he looks back, it’s an extraordinary career which can be traced back to his roots in East Cheshire, where doors were opened to a world of possibilities.

“Being at a school like Sandbach taught me how to be organised and how to figure things out,” he says, summing up his experiences.

“One of the teachers, Mr Gresty – who I think passed away a few years ago – organised a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon when I was in sixth form, and we went to see a production of Macbeth. I blagged my way onto the trip after making an impassioned plea, and many years later got to work with one of the actors on Inception. That was a moment when things came full circle.

“I remember watching that production and thinking ‘I’d love to be involved in that’ and it was Sandbach School that had given me that opportunity.”

Everyone at the OSA would like to extend their sincere thanks to Paul for his time.