VFX Supervisor

Sean H Farrow

Parts of the VFX process have been remote for years, and Sean Farrow is a master of the seamless workflow and developing a common palette with directors.

Filmography

London Has Fallen

Total Recall

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Spatial acuity, art, technology and visual trickery 

Sean Farrow is describing his transition from visual effects compositor to visual effects supervisor. He makes it clear that it wasn’t all about escaping the dark rabbit warrens of the post house for the bright lights of the film set.  

“I’m not adverse to sitting in dark rooms! There can be lots of camaraderie, but supervising for me was a natural evolution in terms of responsibility, as well as a desire to get involved much earlier on in the process,” he says. 

Having meaningful discussions with the director or showrunner about the storytelling process; liaising with heads of departments on a shoot; working with post facilities; these are the places Farrow prefers to be. 

And so, after working as a compositor on ITV kids show Dream Street and later as part of in-house VFX team on the landmark Spielberg-exec-produced TV series Band of Brothers, he gradually made the leap into supervising. 

His credits now include features such as Total Recall, London Has Fallen and Stephen King’s short horror 1408, as well as Philip Martin’s lavish mini-series Catherine the Great.  

Science vs Art 

With a BA Honours degree in Architecture, Farrow might be considered the perfect blend of artist and technician – but he points out that his chosen profession involves a fair amount of visual trickery.  

“My education as an architect taught me much about spatial acuity – which helps things feel real – as well as light, texture, mood and movement through spaces. But there’s an awful lot of cheating that goes on with VFX. 

“Ultimately, you are working to a 2D product, so yes, maths plays a part, but if you see a cityscape, that may not have been built from scratch, it could be a series of photographs that have been put together to look like a cityscape.” 

“Having that cooperation and collaboration from all departments on a production is key because without it you can add a ‘zero’ to the cost of every task.” 

In-house vs on set  

Farrow has worked as a VFX supe both in-house at VFX facilities such as The Senate and LipsyncVFX, as well as directly for productions. He notes that the two are very different experiences. 

“On a production you’re at the behest of that production for most of the time, and working across a lot of different disciplines. There’s not a lot of sleep involved, but you get to immerse yourself in the creative decisions right from the start.” 

He adds that VFX supervising at a vendor can be equally rewarding: “They often have really deep knowledge of the technology pipelines and processes and are more able to leverage newer technologies to get a job done. There’s also a ready-made team there who all know how to work and collaborate with each other.” 

The importance of relationships 

If Farrow is hired directly via a production, then collaborating with external vendors is a crucial part of his job.  

“The editorial process often splits things around differently to what we might have been expecting from the shoot. So, you have to communicate those changes early and talk through any repercussions. If you have a great relationship with a facility, they will turn around and say ‘OK, let’s have a conversation about that and look into it’, if you haven’t got that relationship it may be a case of  ‘Well, that’s going to cost you…’” 

Multiple vendors 

Quite often on effects-heavy shoots, sequences are divided up between multiple vendors to help ensure that schedules are met. VFX pipelines have been handled remotely and collaboratively like this for decades, not only within Soho’s square mile but also among facilities around the globe. 

For Farrow, spreading work out in this way also encourages creativity. “There might be a lot of things within a sequence that are really important that need to be thought-out creatively. If you can split that up as well, that gives you two or three creative people working on sequences intensely,” he says. 

“It really helps me too. I talk to one person about chickens and another about a car crash. You’re not having those overlapping conversations and can focus more,” he adds. 

Absorbing a vision  

Collaborating with directors on their vision for a VFX design is a gradual process, according to Farrow, which usually includes the director, DP and the production designer. 

“We start by referencing the things that we like and don’t like – other films, TV and also theatre, photographers… until we end up with a common palette. The more that’s absorbed, the more you become this solid team who are all pulling in the same direction and it’s then you start to think within the terms of a particular production. It’s at this stage you can start adding ideas and draw on previous experiences.” 

If Farrow has worked with a director before, he admits his approach is bolder. “I’ve worked with Babak [Najafi] a few times so we know each other’s short cuts and work processes. It means I have a greater confidence in my ideas earlier on and so can throw all sorts of left field stuff out there!” 

He also praises Catherine the Great director Philip Martin’s “extraordinary vision” and openness to his ideas. But it is Band of Brothers visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton (also of Lost in Space, The Da Vinci Code and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), whom he says has had the biggest impact on his early career.  

“I learned so much from him during the early days about process and also creative approach: the passion he has for every show he works on and the way he collaborates with artists and production teams.” 

Remote collaboration 

While elements of the VFX pipeline have been remote for years, the sea change caused by the pandemic has been the sheer volume of it, according to Farrow. 

“It’s easy to forget how much information we absorb when we’re in the same room – just seeing how someone sits – you can tell whether they’re tired or struggling. That doesn’t happen in remote meetings,” he says.  

“If people have a problem, even in the early stages, they need to ‘fess up – it’s about being more transparent that we’re used to being. Even if it’s uncomfortable,” he adds. 

Whatever the circumstances, keeping those lines of communications open with all departments, understanding what they do and what’s important to them, is essential for a production’s bottom line says Farrow. 

“Having that cooperation and collaboration from all departments on a production is key because without it you can add a ‘zero’ to the cost of every task.”  

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Sean on collaboration

“I’m not adverse to sitting in dark rooms, there can be lots of camaraderie, but supervising for me was a natural evolution in terms of responsibility, as well as a desire to get involved much earlier on in the process.” 

“There’s an awful lot of cheating that goes on with VFX.” 

“Having that cooperation and collaboration from all departments on a production is key because without it you can add a ‘zero’ to the cost of every task.”  

The planning and people skills behind great VFX 

Everyone sees the results of awesome VFX talent. What people don’t all appreciate are the soft skills that goes into orchestrating a successful, stress-free VFX workflow. As part of Realise Your Vision, we asked VFX artist and supers to share their tips from prep to post.