Next time you’re waiting for extra butter on your popcorn, give a thought to who’s making the big screen do all that other popping. Ever since television began battling the silver screen for primacy, movies have been fighting back with ever snazzier special effects. And since the late 1960s, John Frazier has been one of the top blam artists, planting charges and lighting fuses.
Watch the trailer for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen .
He’s the special-effects supervisor on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (opening June 24), and that’s just the latest in a long line of blockbusters for which Frazier has figured out novel new ways to make things run, fly, swim, burn, and blow up real good. In the 45 years since he got noticed for designing spooky effects for a haunted house–themed night club in Los Angeles, the California native has been responsible for thrills, chills, and explosive laughs in well-known items like Airplane!, Twister, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, and Basic Instinct.
Frazier first reached something like his head-honcho position—also called special-effects coordinator—in 1986, on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, of all things. Many John Hughes, Clint Eastwood, and Steven Spielberg movies later, he has received numerous nominations and awards for his innovative ideas, finally gripping his first Oscar for 2005’s Spider-Man 2. He also has an enjoyable side business as an FX consultant, usually meaning that producers parachute him into nascent projects to brainstorm with relevant techies. Then he gets to leave with decent paycheques and few headaches. (Drag Me to Hell and The Taking of Pelham 123 are two current titles with Frazier’s name in that position.)
“I make the bullets,” he says with a laugh when reached at his Southern California home, “and they get to fire them. I won’t be there when they’re wetting down the streets, but I may show up when they blow up a building.”
Although Frazier’s department shouldn’t be confused with a visual-effects house—in charge of the everyday tweaking, layering, and blending of heavily composited, blue-screen images—both areas are increasingly digitized.
“Sometimes I miss the old way of doing things, but the advent of digitized visual effects has created more work in the industry than anything else. Without them, a lot of these scripts would still be on the shelf. I mean, when we did Twister, Steven Spielberg wouldn’t green-light the movie until someone could show him a decent tornado. Jurassic Park, same thing: only possible through visual manipulation. Look at The Perfect Storm; you can’t do miniature waves or model-making for something like that. It had to be done digitally or it wouldn’t work at all.”
Today, the computer-generated side has thoroughly taken over from hands-on engineering, which is what Frazier studied back at the start of his long career.
“The last movie we did that was all mechanical, other than maybe one visual-effects shot, was Speed. It was all done live, and that was really Keanu Reeves under that bus, going 40 miles an hour and hanging on to a cable. It was real, but we made it safe. Twister reset the bar for what you could do with things in motion. The big fad now is 3-D, and I don’t know how long that will last, but that presents certain unique challenges. For us, it’s always just about what looks good on-screen. I can look back over some of the things that I did by hand and be really proud of that, and then some of these purely digital effects, well, they are pretty cool!”
The crafty 65-year-old says that interest in visual styles and storytelling themes moves in odd, unpredictable cycles, with dinosaurs ruling the Earth for a while, only to be displaced by historical epics and space adventures.
“It goes from bang-’em-up cars to Star Wars and then back to cars again. Oh, my wife is just reminding me that everything I did for a while had something to do with water: Cast Away, Perfect Storm, Poseidon, Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Frazier is probably as happy as anyone to forget all about Waterworld, as well, now that he’s got the oversized Tinkertoys of Transformers to deal with. But working on a sequel or spin-off (in this case, both) is no guarantee of things falling easily into place.
“These days, the visual-effects and special-effects guys really have to be married, because there’s so much that can go wrong! That’s where a guy like [Transformers director] Michael Bay really shines. He knows just how far to take the live stuff and when to use the CG. But producers are using new people all the time, so we’re always starting over.”
Even though Scott Farrar is resuming his role from the first Transformers as visual-effects supervisor on this new one, there’s potentially different chemistry in every bag of popcorn fodder.
“The thing is,” Frazier concludes, “the challenges always change. No two situations are similar enough to really be sure what you’re doing. And I guess that’s exactly why I’m still at it after 45 years.”