Fractured FX Interview
FRACTURED FX: It’s Not All Ones and Zeroes by Christopher Valin as featured in Gravity City Digital Magazine Issue #1
A behind-the-scenes look at creating practical visual effects at one of the industry’s leading effects houses.
With the near photo-realistic quality of CGI effects in modern films and the hundreds of names of digital artists that scroll by at the end of practically every movie you see, you might assume that all special effects these days are created on computers. But you’d be very wrong.
Practical effects still play a huge role in many features and television projects, especially in the genres of horror and science fiction. Even some directors with the ability and budget to do virtually anything with CGI prefer to use practical effects for some shots, including JJ Abrams on the recent Star Wars films. And it’s not just the blood and gore that you’re seeing that’s “real” rather than digital. Often the makeup and costumes are created by practical effects shops, and the puppeteering and suit performing are as well. The effects shop could be doing anything from just creating a nose or ears for a character to nearly all of the makeup, costumes, and effects you see on the screen. Even many of the tattoos you see on characters are created and applied by practical effects teams.
Fractured FX is an Emmy award-winning special effects company started by Justin Raleigh, a twenty-five-year veteran of the special effects industry. After launching his career at Stan Winston’s studio, he started his own company in 2010. Fractured has created visual effects for such projects as Aquaman, Westworld, The Knick, Watchmen, Tron: Legacy, The Conjuring universe films, and recently, Swamp Thing on the DC Universe streaming service. Their team has been nominated for multiple awards, winning an Emmy for American Horror Story in 2015 and a Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild Award for Westworld this year. They even worked with Boston Children’s Hospital to create lifelike simulations of infants so that doctors get a realistic feel when they practice performing surgery.
We spoke with Fractured FX’s project coordinator, Michael Ezell (who also started out with Stan Winston Studios), about the company and the process of creating visual effects.
What exactly does a practical special effects shop do? How is it different from CGI?
The role of the practical FX shop has changed over the years. We all create prosthetic makeups, from old age to creatures, as well as injuries, bleeding wounds, etc. as makeup effects artists always have. However, in the last few years, we have done quite a bit of “hybrid” effects, where our practical pieces are married with VFX/CGI. For instance, we’ll do a mangled jaw injury as a full appliance, but we’ll also use green, blue, or black makeup on the areas where the actor’s face shows through, so the VFX department can create “depth” to the wound.
How does the process work as far as the company getting hired to provide effects for a television show or film?
We receive scripts or concept designs from Production, and we bid on the show competitively against other makeup effects houses. Once the producers make a decision, the show is awarded to one or more shops (depending on the size of the show), and we begin the process of life-casting actors and putting together various designs and sculptures. This involves the director, costume designers, production designers, and their art department, depending on what we happen to be building.
Other than the shows for which you’ve won awards, are there projects that you’re especially proud of?
We absolutely loved working on The Knick, a turn-of-the-century hospital drama from Steven Soderbergh. His staff was a delight to work with, and the project gave us a chance to create amazing surgical procedures from the early days of medical care in America. (Some of them would be unbelievable if there wasn’t an expert on staff to verify doctors really did these things to human beings in those days.)
Were there any projects that you were extra excited to be a part of?
Swamp Thing will stand out as one of our proudest accomplishments. The level of detail and artistry on the various creature suits, gore effects, and mechanical puppets we created allowed our artists to go for broke and create something truly iconic.
How did you get started in the business?
I got started in a weird way. I had just left law enforcement, and a friend got me a job doing “grunt work” at Stan Winston Studios.
A senior mold-maker at that shop started teaching me how to make molds, and I began to get work as a mold-maker. I worked for several years, learning various skills, before Justin Raleigh gave me an opportunity to be a project coordinator. I’ve been coordinating shows for over ten years now.
Do you worry that computer-generated effects are going to completely take over the business eventually?
Not really. It’s very expensive to do CGI work, and plenty of directors still prefer practical effects, or at least a combination of the two. Practical pieces on set tend to help directors, cinematographers, and actors because they can interact in real time and not have to guess what the shot will be once the computer renders it.
What would you say is the most misunderstood part of special effects on the part of viewers?
After watching Face Off, people think these amazing effects are easy to do and are accomplished in a very short time. Nothing could be further from the truth. It takes months of hard work and dozens of people to create a great suit or a fantastic creature makeup that will hold up to weeks and weeks of shooting under various conditions.