Saturday, 5 April 2014

interview: Mark Zarate

Mark Zarate was Visual Effects Supervisor on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. I interviewed him by phone on 22nd February 1996 for a big Lois and Clark feature in SFX. Tragically, Mark passed away in September 1998, aged only 39, from complications which arose during an operation to treat appendicitis

What does your role as Visual Effects Supervisor actually entail?
“I'm in charge of co-ordinating different departments: pyrotechnics, practical effects, wardrobe, art department, storyboards. Then I supervise it all through post-production. I'm also a 2nd unit director so I do a lot of green screen work. I work with effects editors and compositors.”

Although a show like this needs effects to work, they seem to be secondary to the characters and their relationships. How does the production team balance the two key aspects of the show?
“I think it's beneficial that it's a character-driven show, so there are no gratuitous effects. The effects are there to enhance the Superman/Clark character. They also appeal to a younger audience. I try to let the effects live within the environment of the show. Stylised is the word I use for our effects. We always bear in mind that this is a comic book genre. We pick bright, wild colours for things. We try to stay true to the comic book nature of the original.

“For example, we add a blue cast to Superman's superbreath. Originally we had quite realistic looking breath, but it was just kind of grey and uninteresting, so we gave it a slight blue cast. For his laser eyes we photographed real lasers, but they looked too real, so we pumped up the red chroma on them and made them look more like we wanted them.

What did you do before working on Lois and Clark?
“This is my second season. I joined after the first season. Before this I did mostly commercials. I did big-screen effects for Michael Jackson's Dangerous tour and Paul McCartney's world tour and a couple of music videos. I worked on Shocker for Wes Craven and did some work on Total Recall. I also designed the titles for the Sharon Stone movie Basic Instinct.”

What differences do you find in working on a weekly series rather than a one-off movie or commercial?
“I really enjoy working on a regular series. It allows you to develop the effects further, and give them co-ordination. A commercial is really a one-trick pony. But the more times you see an effect, the more boring it becomes. We are able to put in lots of neat little gags, on things like the various gadgets that the villains come up with.

“Obviously we have budgetary and time constraints. The schedules are pretty hectic. Sometimes the writers do come up with ideas that we really can't do on the show and I say well that's great, but that's really going to have to wait until we do Lois and Clark: The Feature.”

How many effects do you have in an average episode, and how many people do you have in the effects team?
“The visual effects crew - including editors, supervisors and so on - all told there are about a dozen of us. There are about 30-35 visual effects per episode. But on 'Virtually Destroyed', which is the episode that Dean Cain wrote, there were 97 separate effects that we had to do in eleven days. So we got some freelancers in, and worked hard, and fortunately they tripled the budget for that one.

“It's very much a team effort on this show. We, the visual effects team, could not achieve what we do without the co-operation and smooth running of the other departments. It's unusual for me, coming from commercials, to work with the same team for so long. I really think I'm going to miss the atmosphere of this show when it ends.”

Were you responsible for the terrific time machine in the ‘Tempus Fugitive’ episode?
“Jim Paul designed the time machine. We wanted to go for that real HG Wells/Jules Verne look, but use 21st century effects for its appearance and disappearance - actually give it some glow and some effects rather than just have it fade away.”

How do the cast cope with some of the physical requirements of the special effects sequences?
“I'm a big guy, and I've gotten into some of the rigs that we've worked with to try them out and see what they feel like, and let me tell you, it was less than pleasant. The cast are great about the effects. We put them on platforms or hang them from wires. None of that feels comfortable, but they're all troupers.

“Obviously, Dean has to work with most of the effects, but he's in great shape, he really is. As for Teri, well Lois gets into all sort of precarious positions, trapped on ledges or falling out of helicopters or whatever. But they're really good, and they're always in a harness so there's no danger.”

I can imagine there might be a bit of competition to get the task of strapping Teri Hatcher into her safety harness. Do you use your seniority to claim that job?
“No, I don't get to put the harness on Teri. I put my name in the hat but I didn't get picked. I wish it was me, but no, we have a couple of people whose job is to put on the harnesses and check that they're properly secured.”

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