For Art Center alumnus Eric Barba, things didn’t seem like they could get any better after he won an Oscar for his groundbreaking special effects work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That is, until he got the gig overseeing the special effects for Tron: Legacy, opening this weekend.
For Benjamin Button, Barba was tasked with making Brad Pitt appear older. For Tron: Legacy, his challenge was the opposite: to make a present-day Jeff Bridges appear as he did in the 1982 original. And, it had to appear authentic. Add to that the intense pressure of a cult-status 1982 film Tron (visualized by another Art Center alum, Syd Mead, who we also spoke to this week), and Barba had his work cut out for him.
Barba has been with the SoCal-based Digital Domain visual production studio for 13 years, and like many of the top directors he collaborates with, he’s equally comfortable working in film or advertising. He started at Digital Domain as a digital artist on The Fifth Element and CG supervisor on Supernova before rising to visual effects supervisor for David Fincher’s Zodiac.
As we count down to the opening of Tron: Legacy, the Dotted Line caught up with Barba to talk about his work as visual effects supervisor on this much-anticipated movie, his work and, of course, Art Center.
Dotted Line: How was working on the new Tron film different from others you’ve worked on?
Eric Barba: This was the most difficult project I’ve ever done, for many reasons. It was by far the most challenging. The work we had done on Benjamin Button was considered the holy grail of special effects because we were aging a human face, which hadn’t been done before. The [Jeff Bridges] character Clu pushes that envelope so far, and so much faster, than we expected. We didn’t know that these sorts of effects [such as portraying a decades-younger Bridges] were even possible to do. And working in 3D was new for me, too.
Dotted Line: What are the different considerations when working in 3D?
Barba: It’s incredibly challenging technically, because we’re still in the early stages of learning how to shoot 3D from a how-the-camera-works standpoint. I like to joke that the camera we used to film this will be in a museum at some point as a relic, because if you look at it, it’s actually two cameras strapped together.
And because of this there are a lot of technical challenges and mechanical imperfections, lens imperfections and the like. You have to continuously fix things and put stuff back together. For example, when we’re trying to shoot two actors playing a disc game, if they don’t stand in the correct space on a 50-foot screen, then the shot is ruined. All the techniques we use for tracking—making sure our CG and our studio camera line up—have to be rewritten because they have to be much, much more accurate for 3D. And you have to render everything twice, so it’s twice the disk space. Then you have to have development systems to look at it and judge it. It definitely raises the bar as far as technical difficulty.