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November 2014
Issue: September 1, 2003

Subtle effects for Freaky Friday

By: By Ken McGorry


Freaky Friday was directed by Mark Waters. Visual effects were done at Pacific Title.
LOS ANGELES - Amid this summer's intensified climate of visual-effects-driven feature films, there remains a breed of VFX professional who's most proud of the invisible work, the stuff even fellow pros might not recognize. Moreover, there's one visual effects supervisor we know who prides himself on the effects he never created. That is, those scripted jaw-droppers that he was able to talk the director out of doing because they would cost too much or end up on the cutting room floor - or both.

Freaky Friday is one summer film that could have been rife with kitschy effects, especially considering the dramatic transformations the two principals, a mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter (Lindsay Lohan), undergo. But Disney's remake, directed by Mark Waters, won over summer audiences with the old staples - story, characterization, acting and heart. And this is a climate perfect for veteran VFX supervisor Peter Donen, a master of the effect you never noticed and the one you never knew you'd missed.

Donen is all about helping the director tell the story; not so much about the bells and whistles. Unlike so many summer hits, Freaky Friday had only 50 or 60 effects shots, all of them designed to move the story along in a convincing way.

Donen is a freelance VFX supervisor with credits going back to Flight of the Navigator and up to The Bourne Identity. For Freaky Friday, he says, "Most of the shots were bluescreens inside of a moving vehicle. There were bluescreens in the french fry scene where Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee are driving in the car down the Pacific Coast Highway, Jamie Lee starts to eat a french fry and Lindsay says, 'That goes from your mouth to my thighs!'"


Master of disguise: Peter Donen prides himself on keeping his effects invisible to the naked eye.
Using bluescreen for such scenes is really about economics, Donen says. "It would have taken them three days to shoot those three scenes in the car, at the very least, driving around on a towing dolly and getting the coverage with 20-minute re-sets. And we could go out and shoot the plates in two or three hours and shoot all of the bluescreens for all of those scenes in one day.

There were also some quick shots like burn-ins on TV sets which were more about not knowing which piece of footage was ultimately going in there.

"It was a lot more about being expedient," Donen says.

Sometimes Donen seems more expedient than his director, even though that could mean less work for him and a smaller crew. One shot called for Freaky Friday's mother-daughter characters to exchange bodies for the first time. The shot involved the camera's flying out of the daughter's bedroom window, hovering high above their home, and then flying back down into the mom's window to signify their changing bodies. "I said, 'You know what, Mark, that's a really cool shot but I don't think you're going to like it and I'll show that to you." Donen created an animatic of the house shot as a "crude 3D model" and previsualized the camera move through and above the house. He showed it to Waters who then agreed that the shot was too much "about a house" and not enough about the two characters.

"My training is in telling a story," says Donen, whose father is the film director Stanley Donen. "My job is as much about getting it achieved and not to spend huge amounts of money and have it end up on the floor. I'd rather spend all of the energy, time and money doing things that are in the movie that people don't notice."

When Donen got started in effects, one of his mentors was Billy Abbot, "a very, very famous visual effects guy for his day. He did Logan's Run and was the head of the effects department at 20th Century Fox and he said to me, 'Never do a shot that calls attention to itself. Never put a camera in a place that you wouldn't put it if you were doing the shot for real.' So I take the position that I'm a magician and that I'm there to help the director tell the story and instill awe.

"On The Bourne Identity, I got the best review of my career which was Ebert and Roeper saying what they really loved about the picture was the complete lack of visual effects. And there were over 150 shots."

Donen has worked in optical, visual effects and animation houses of all sizes and has dealt with all manner of compositing systems during his career, including Inferno, Shake, Cineon and Matador. But he insists that the "box" matters less than the person sitting at it. "Boxes are not what cost time; decisions are. Can you cut faster on an Avid? Yes. Do we cut faster on an Avid? No."

For Freaky Friday he worked at Pacific Title with Mark Freund in charge of compositing "and everybody did really good work." Regarding Freaky Friday's interior car scenes, Donen says, "Oliver Wood lit the interiors of the cars really well. He's the DP and he and I have done five or six pictures together." Donen gave particular attention to matching his background plates with Wood's car interiors to make sure "it doesn't look like the car is driving down the street sideways."

Of his relationship with Freaky Friday director Waters, Donen says with gratification, "He'll listen to you. He's really open and approachable."