Geoff Scott is a revered veteran of the VFX industry and has worked on projects which encompass both film and television. Some of these include London Has Fallen, The Witch and Colossal as well television shows such as Orphan Black. He recently chatted with Martin Carr about his client side VFX role in TNT’s Snowpiercer…
How did you first become involved in Snowpiercer?
I had the great pleasure of working as the VFX supervisor on a show called Orphan Black, for which Graeme Manson was showrunner. Which was a show about clones starring Tatiana Maslany and I worked with Graeme for five seasons and overall six maths years, from first meeting to last shot delivered. So he had taken on Snowpiercer and they brought me on after a couple of months of being involved with it, because there was initially another VFX supervisor but they wanted to go with a different direction. So both Graeme and the producer Mackenzie Donaldson gave me a call saying ‘hey, you want talk about ice planets and trains?’
Being client side on the VFX how does your creative process differ from Jon Cowley? (FuseFX Head of Studio / Senior VFX Supervisor)
Just as a little history John and I go way back. We used to be colleagues the better part of twenty years ago on movies like Panic Room and Chicago together. Basically my role is to take the vision and try to decipher it from the words on the page. So I take it and have to figure what that really is in the real world. I’ve designed the train alongside concept artist Alex Nice who did the actual design, but it was all based on me pushing the train towards an art deco diesel punk kind of style. So it is my job to design everything that is not on the floor. If it’s outside in the world both in terms of shots and aesthetic this all comes under my purview.
What would you say were the key considerations for the showrunners going into the project?
For Graeme his big key consideration was to keep it real. We are set in a very modern immediate time so we have designed everything to be as real as possible. We have taken into consideration what extreme cold does to the environment, we have trees that are just shattered. Plus the good thing is I am Canadian so I live in winter so I just have to open the window for reference. So we have tried to make it a realistic, mechanical and electrical beast of a machine. Every time I wanted to put a frozen tree Graeme was like ‘well, technically it should have shattered and then I would disappear down these deep research holes where I was like yes, but with certain trees their sap forms glass so that act as structural rigidity’. So there is always that balance of making sure you have enough which is not just flat empty fields of snow. Then constantly the other thing was to make sure we kept a touchstone on the fact that this is earth and we are not on some Hoth like planet. So we are constantly going ‘hey, look in the background there is some remnant of humanity.’
How did you go about establishing the train itself as a character?
Initially it was about the aesthetic and making sure it felt real. So we researched trains and I fell in love with one called The Mercury which is one from the 1920s. Then we built on that aesthetically incorporating both that one and another I really liked called The Duchess of Hamilton. Again it was about trying to find its face but also I am a huge fan of the graphic novels. I got the original books during the Eighties and Nineties when I was a teenager and we didn’t want to disregard anything there from an aesthetic point of view. Then there was the matter of designing the shots to say this thing is two and a half storeys tall, it’s a monster, it’s a beast how do we present that? So, years ago I interviewed at a miniature company in the UK and a guy said ‘hey, when you’re filming miniatures the one thing you never want do is never contain it in the frame, always have a little piece of it sticking out a bit. That way it feels like you couldn’t get your camera far enough back to show it all.’ So when we are dealing with a train which is sixteen kilometres long you can’t frame it all, you have to be in the upper atmosphere to see it all. So I took a lot of those things which I picked up along the way and tried to include them. Very rarely do we see the entirety of the engine and if we do it is done like a helicopter shot.
What elements in your opinion define the identity of the show as separate from the feature film or graphic novel?
To be honest there is a lot more character development across the series. With the film it was like this wonderful reveal of ‘here’s another car, lets marvel in it’, while people basically raced to the end. Our show is a bit more of a mystery with class struggles and it’s not a linear class struggle. Which I feel is at the heart of what Graeme has created and much more in keeping with the spirit of the graphic novel.
What challenges did you face having a clean slate from which to create this world?
With the world itself it was about finding those aspects of humanity to bring back into the outside world that didn’t feel contrived. So when we went near a real world place we weren’t seeing that one icon thing which everybody knows. Like ‘oh we are going through London so we mustn’t see Big Ben’ but still making it recognisable. We also had a map we are working to and making sure we could actually be there based on the speed this train is going. We tried to be very particular and in the beginning used actual rail lines, but we deviated from that a bit just to give ourselves more flexibility.
What choices do you weigh up before becoming involved in any project?
I always like working on something which has an interesting script. Even if I get the vision wrong as long as it sparks a little interest or excitement in me I’m in. Like working with Graeme on Orphan Black, because normally when you get a script it can become a bit mechanical. I don’t read the dialogue because it doesn’t inform what the shots are. I worked a movie called Fallen years ago and I had someone else look at the script and they got so caught up with the dialogue they missed the point. I’m like ‘you missed the fact it says London is burning in the background’ and they were like ‘I thought it was about what the characters were doing’ and I was like ‘yeh, but now we have to add that to every shot we’re doing’. So with Graeme I didn’t have to read his script before signing on. After five years of reading his scripts I never got tired of reading them. In fact most of the cast and crew would get excited when there was a new draft and that is how they would spend their lunch hour. They would download it onto their phones and spend their time reading it.
What projects are you working on right in isolation that you can talk about?
We are currently working on season two of Snowpiercer and it is so big I am busy twelve hours a day which is nice.
Describe your perfect Sunday afternoon.
Honestly it would be having nothing to do, a couple of cans of beer, building some kind of cosplay prop or something like that with my son.
Snowpiercer airs on TNT every Sunday.
Many thanks to Geoff D E Scott for taking the time for this interview.