Today I am excited to post an exclusive interview with the coolest visual effects producer in Hollywood, Julia Frey. Julia first came to our attention when she posted some great (a little too great in HBO’s estimation) photos of some location scouting done for Game of Thrones on her blog. And I know what you are thinking about her last name and as far as I know, she doesn’t have any relatives named Walder. Besides, it’s pronounced FRY.
Julia has cut a path (sometimes literally) up through the production ranks and has been in “the biz” since 1990, where she began working as a visual effects Production Assistant for the film Solar Crisis (with Peter Boyle and Jack Palance). Julia is not only the Visual Effects Producer for Game of Thrones, but she is also the intrepid adventurer/blogger responsible for making us wish we were anywhere but home on her Julia’s Mexico City blog.
She has worked on some of the most eye-popping films to splash the screen, such as Contact, Godzilla, and Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World. In Walk The Line, her team helped make audiences believe Joaquin Phoenix was the Man In Black, and he won an Oscar a Golden Globe for it. We see her hand (and footprints) in many films, even if we never get to see her. (Sort of—though she did admit to appearing as a “crowd replication” extra at the end where Johnny proposes to June. She’s on a balcony in a pink sweater and sporting platinum blond hair.)
Julia has kindly consented to an interview for Winter Is Coming with the understanding (sorry, fans!) that Game of Thrones can’t be discussed in any great detail. If you’re looking for production spoilers on how potentially awesome Lena Headey’s hair looked during production, move along.
Winter is Coming: Julia, thanks again. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Humble beginnings, early aspirations, bad choices in fashion during high school, etc.
Julia Frey: Thank you so much for the interview! It is rare for a VFX Producer to be interviewed, especially when I work on very “non-VFX” projects, so I’m honored.
I have always loved movies. I learned this love from my mom who took me to movies when I was growing up. She had gone to movies a lot when she was young and passed that along. We both grew up in different small towns and movies were a great escape. It wasn’t until the summer of 1984 (the summer between my junior and senior year in high school) that I had my epiphany about going to film school. That summer was huge: Ghostbusters, Footloose, Red Dawn, Start Trek III: The Search for Spock, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, Across the 8th Dimension and a little movie everyone was DYING to see: Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. I’m not kidding when I say that right in the middle of the mine car chase sequence I knew: I was going to film school. I was going to work in the movies. So when I got back to high school that fall, I applied to four colleges and was accepted to all (ahem) and chose Loyola Marymount University as it was not large. USC was a bit too intimidating to a small town gal who’s high school graduation class had only 33 people.
As for bad fashion choices — dude, I went to high school in the 80′s. Rent the TV show Square Pegs. I’ll say no more.
WiC: How did you get your start, professionally?
JF: In 1989 I got my first paying job was as an assistant editor on a 30 minute short film the Red Cross was producing about AIDS. (Earlier that year I had an unpaid internship through LMU as an apprentice editor on a feature called Deceptions and the assistant had moved onto the Red Cross gig.) I got paid $50/day and was grossly overworked. There’s a fine line between paying your dues and getting taken advantage of. Luckily it only lasted a few months.
In January of 1990 I got a call from a former teacher at LMU who said another former student was working at a place called Boss Film Studios (a visual effects company) and they needed an editorial production assistant. I interviewed and got the job and got my 3rd credit in the biz on Solar Crisis. Being freelance, the job was over in mid 1990 and there was no additional work for me at Boss so I got a job at an editing company in Santa Monica in their vault.
Six months later I got a call from a VFX Producer I had worked with at Boss who wanted to know if I’d be interested in being an FX coordinator. She liked me and thought I’d be good at it. They had just been awarded Alien 3. I said yes. I realized my personality and skills were better suited to a production role rather than editorial and I moved up from there.
WiC: Were there any early missteps, or things you did professionally that you can look back on now and roll your eyes at (or curse the gods, whichever)?
JF: Professionally, no. My career moved right along and I got to work with some fun great people and I made good money and I was working in the movies. My only regret was that I never thought of myself as “creative.” I only saw myself as a good VFX Producer: well organized, a good leader, calm under pressure, etc, etc, etc. It took me years to realize that I needed more stimulation in my job and I had been fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t or couldn’t be on the creative side of the business (the whole business, not just VFX.) So in late 1999 I went freelance and started working on smaller jobs so that I could explore writing. I wish I had started much sooner.
WiC: How has the writing gone so far? Anything optioned, or are you exploring outside of film?
JF: Nothing I’ve written has been seen outside my circle of friends yet. I plan on changing that this year. There are screenplays and half a novel and two non-fiction book proposals, one is for my wacky blog: Safety Graphic Fun (gotta plug my work, man!) I love writing, it can be hard and fun and frustrating a joyful. I often get interrupted by paying VFX work though. I’m trying to strike a better balance on that.
WiC: You worked your way up from Production Assistant to Producer. We know from your blog that part of your job means slogging through muck and mire in order to scout locations for visual effects. Your job seems to be a three-headed monster: the footwork done in the cold pre-production, the standing around in the cold during production and then the post-production phase where, hopefully, you’re not freezing your buttocks off. Is that accurate? For the laymen, what is a Visual Effects Producer?
JF: There are two sides to visual effects producing: The Production side (the client side) or the Facility side (the vendor side). I was a VFX Producer at Sony Pictures Imageworks for the majority of my facility/vendor career. This is rough but basically it can break down like this:
Facility FX Producer:
–Bid on scripts that come in from potential clients and/or bid on cut sequences that are already in post production from potential clients
–When a job is awarded to the company and you are assigned to it, manage the budget and schedule with a team. Also interact with the client on the project to track all info, budget and schedule changes. Be in all kinds of meetings all the time.
–FX facility crews on movies can be as small as five to ten people or into the hundreds. You are in charge of it all, but you do get help in the form of production managers, coordinators, etc. (On the big jobs anyway.)
–Be on set for the shoot (not always possible).
–During post, work closely with the clients to schedule turnover meetings (when they hand you locked picture to begin working on the FX) and to then begin shot reviews, working your way toward Final.
Client side FX Producer:
–Create VFX shot breakdowns (read through a script and make a list of all potential shots that could be in the movie.)
–Create a budget and work with producers to determine what that final number needs to be.
–Send out bid packages to FX companies to bid for you.
–Work with the Producers and director to determine the best company (or companies) to award the work to.
–Work with facility producers to make sure all information is flowing, and track budget and creative changes.
–Be on set for the shoot.
–During post, attend all vendor shot reviews (with or without the director) to get notes back to the facilities as often as possible.
In both jobs you are usually paired up with a Visual Effects Supervisor who is the creative half of your team. They design shots and work with the director to see the film’s vision through the FX department.
WiC: Describe the steps you take, from the inception of a job, day one, to the final day where you can nod your head and say, “Done!”
JF: It all depends on the job/movie.
For a job like Contact, I got to start in the pre-production days and sit in on concept meetings with the client (director, producers, art department, etc). That was very exciting as I got to see ideas come to life in a room then we had to figure out how to make it happen on the screen. My part of that job was to work with the creative supervisors to determine how long this would all take. From that we create a more refined budget and schedule. Then we got into the shoot and because Contact was so digitally heavy and the post schedule very, very short, we started working on shots as soon as they started filming. (Usually you have time to do R&D, build 3d models etc then get into shots during post production.) That meant I was back at Imageworks overseeing the digital work while others were on set overseeing the shoot. Post was fast and furious and we worked our asses off. Drank a bit on Friday nights as well, even when we had 9am dailies on Saturday mornings. (Then later on Sunday mornings.) When we got approval on our last final, we drank lots of champagne and had a hell of a wrap party. But much like a shoot, one day you are working full blast and just a few days later, it’s all over and you wake up in a panic because there isn’t anything left to do.
Sometimes I get hired to work on set only. For Vantage Point I was hired by an FX company to work with a VFX Supervisor on set. The post would be taken over by one of their in-house FX producers. At the time of the shoot, they didn’t have anyone available to be on set, so they called me in. For that job I literally read the script on the way down to Mexico City and was handed a budget that someone else had already done. While on set we (me and the FX Supervisor) worked with the First Assistant Director and the Producer and various other departments to schedule when we would need greenscreens or special equipment, depending on the shot. I collected camera data (type of lens, camera heights, tilt angles, etc) and measured sets and distances and put tracking markers up and whatever else was necessary. We were a two-man-band. (On much larger shoots with 3d elements (creatures, superheroes, etc) you need much larger data wrangling crews.) When the shoot was done, I spent about two weeks at the London facility, downloading all I knew to the VFX producer there.
Other times I get hired to oversee shots in post only. For The Omen, I was hired to be the VFX Producer in LA working directly with the director and editor. The FX were being done in London but they needed someone to oversee and coordinate things in LA.
Sometimes I get hired by either a client side producer or a facility just to do a script breakdown and budget. Depending on the script, this can take a few days to a few weeks. Sometimes I have a VFX Supervisor to work with and sometimes not.
Generally you try to get on a project from the early pre-production days, work on set then see it all the way through post. I love going to a cast and crew screening of the finished film and seeing crew members from set again for the first time in months and they always say, “Hey, great to see you! What have you been working on lately?” to which I laugh and say “THIS!”
WiC: Herding computer graphics whizzes – a little like herding cats?
JF: It can be! In general I loved the camaraderie you get working with many people, day in day out, seeing shots come together, getting to know everyone personally, sharing beer and pizza on late nights, etc. But you can also get bogged down by personnel issues, crewing/staffing issues, human resources issues. Most of that was not my direct responsibility (Imageworks is a large corporate company) but I did have to deal with a lot of that and it got old. I’d rather focus on making great images than having a crew member complain that dailies are too early for him.
WiC: How did you land the Game of Thrones gig?
JF: I had worked briefly with HBO before so they called me to chat about it.
WiC: As visual effects producer, what was your role on Game of Thrones? What were your daily responsibilities?
JF: My role on GOT is as Production (client) side producer. I’ll keep it that simple…
WiC: You’ve obviously read the pilot script for Game of Thrones (by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss); have you read any of George R. R. Martin’s books, or were there separate notes given to you based on what the vision was for the (potential) series? Do some projects hand you a Webster’s Dictionary-sized package of visual mandates while others give only a handful of notes? How much information do you normally get?
JF: I have to admit, I’d never heard of the books before I got the job. I did read the first one while in Belfast and was entertained. I have not gotten to the second book yet.
Every job comes with different levels of visual information. Some jobs are chockablock full of storyboards and designs and concepts and artwork that directly relate to VFX. Some might have very little and they rely on the VFX team to work in conjunction with the art departments and director to create those visuals.
WiC: You’ve worked on other literary adaptations that had certain visual expectations (Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind). Are those treated differently than projects made from original screenplays?
JF: Each project is its own unique situation, so adaptations are not treated differently, in my experience. My job has to start from the approved latest draft of the script since that is what will be shot. And I have to budget for what will be shot. And part of that budgeting is taking what is in the script: “Chiyo climbs up to the rooftop and looks out at the town and how far she has to go.” (or something like that) and deciding what the scene will requires, FX-wise. Then we will budget the cost of the shots and elements after creative discussions with the Production Designer and director.
WiC: Game of Thrones is your only TV credit thus far. How far are you contracted to go with it, or is it all open-ended depending on whether or not it gets picked up? Does a series order mean you’re tied to that one series for as long as it runs? (And would that be a good thing or a bad thing?) The VFX Producer breakdown you gave seems pretty time-consuming. Do you take this one job at a time, or can you actually juggle jobs?
JF: My deal is open ended depending on whether or not it gets picked up…having never worked in TV before, I’m really not sure what kind of deals get made, though in entertainment as in life, everything is negotiable.
I usually only ever take on one job at a time. Makes life much easier. I only do more than one if the 2nd gig is very tiny. Sometimes while working on a job I’ll moonlight on a breakdown/budget just for a bit of extra cash and only if there is enough time. When I have to turn down a job, that’s when the whole networking comes in handy — it’s nice to be able to say, “Thanks for calling, but I’m booked, why not call so-and-so? They are available…”
Good karma is very critical in this biz.
WiC: What is your working relationship with Robert Stromberg like? Also, are there any other people on the Game of Thrones team (other than your own team) that you’ve worked with before?
JF: Robert is the only person on GOT I’ve worked with before. He and I worked together for four years from 2001 to 2005, then he went off to work on some indy film called Avatar. There wasn’t a position for me on that project (it was early days and Robert was mostly doing design work) and to be honest, I wasn’t interested. Blasphemy, I know, but I knew it would eat up my life and I had other plans.
WiC: Julia’s Mexico City is a great blog for anyone who likes to feel like they’re in the front breast pocket of an itinerant traveler. I understand Mexico City was the initial inspiration. Tick off your top three favorite places to travel to (besides home) … and tell me the one place I should probably avoid for next year’s vacation spot.
JF: Rome is my favorite city, Italy my favorite country. The food, the art, the language, the gelato! Maybe I love it so much because I’ve never worked there.
Maui is a great place to be mostly because it’s home. I was born and raised in Hawaii and my parents still live there.
I’ve not traveled around the US as much as I’d like — just went to the Grand Canyon this year for the first time! But with recent visits to Montana and Oregon, I have a bit of road trip fever that may spring up this year. I love driving.
As for where to avoid? Couldn’t tell you that…just do your research!
WiC: Is it legal to “black-and-tan” a Guinness in Ireland?
JF: Ha! I didn’t even ask…just went full Guinness every time.
WiC: Okay, last question: how awesome did Lena Headey’s hair look? (If not her hair, how awesome did Robert Stromberg’s hair look?)
JF: Um, can’t discuss Lena, but can say Robert’s hair was always under a baseball cap.
[Thank you so much to Julia and also to About Yea High for arranging and conducting the interview!]