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July 09
2017

ISSUE

Summer 2017

JOHN FRAZIER: SORCERER OF HAVOC

By CHRIS MCGOWAN

While he is most renowned for the spectacular havoc he wreaks on movie sets, special effects veteran John Frazier both creates and destroys. Yes, he sends cars spinning through the air and is responsible for the biggest explosion ever filmed with live actors. He worked on the plane crash in Cast Away, tipped a battleship for Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and flipped frigates in this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Yet he also fabricates memorable movie props in his Sun Valley, Calif., shop – sculpting futuristic cars, Transformers robots, Black Hawk helicopters, vintage locomotives and whatever else directors want out of foam and fiberglass and other materials. When blockbuster movies need a touch of fantastic realism on a massive scale, Frazier’s firm Fxperts gets the call.

Even after you win an Oscar (one of three Academy Awards), there are household chores to attend to.

For an airstrike on unruly robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Frazier ignited more than 1,000 gallons of gasoline and 300 sticks of dynamite – creating the biggest of about 15,000 explosions he’s conducted to date. (Photo copyright © 2008 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Frazier has been a special effects supervisor for the Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man and Transformers franchises, as well as Speed, Twister, The Perfect Storm, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, The Lone Ranger, and other spectacular films that have pushed the effects envelope. He has coordinated special effects on 115 movies to date, won three Academy Awards and garnered 10 additional nominations for his contributions. He shared an Oscar in 2004 for the special effects on Spider-Man 2 and shared the Academy’s Technical Achievement Award in 2014 for the design and development of the Pneumatic Car Flipper, a device that has become  the industry standard for tossing cars in disaster scenes. He shared another Academy Award with Mark Noel for inventing the NAC Servo Winch System to fly cars and heavy props through the air on wires. Frazier is the go-to guy for either building or blowing things up for directors like Michael Bay and Clint Eastwood, with relationships that have lasted decades. His effects wizardry will be on display this year with the newest Pirates and Transformers movies.

“It has been good. I have been blessed for 52 years now,” says Frazier. “When visual effects came along, everyone said, ‘You guys are going to be dinosaurs.’ That may happen someday, but not in the next 10 years.”

His five decades in film and television started by happenstance. In the early 1960s, Frazier was just another teenager in L.A.’s sprawling San Fernando Valley, dreaming of “football, surfing and girls.” Lots of neighbors worked in the film industry, but he had no connection to it through family or friends and no aspirations in that area. The closest he got to the world of special effects was visiting Disneyland on his high school’s Grad Night and being mesmerized by the Enchanted Tiki Room with its animatronic birds. “I looked at the talking parrots and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Abraham Lincoln was cool too [Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln].”

TOP to BOTTOM: John Frazier (standing) working at Elvis Presley’s Aloha from Hawaii 1973 special, the first show seen around the world live via satellite. John Frazier with “Otto Pilot” from Airplane!

However, he seemed destined for a different path. “There was plenty of good work around in Southern California. My family background is construction and that’s what I wanted to do.”

He enrolled in Los Angeles Trade Tech to study high-rise construction and freeway design. While he was there, producer Jack Shafton hired him to work as a carpenter and handyman at his house on weekends. The year was 1963. Shafton created puppet characters for television shows and commercials and was also involved with The Haunted House nightclub at Hollywood and Vine. Frazier built some bars for the club and worked on “little mechanical creatures” that were part of the club’s decor. Recognizing the young man’s abilities, Shafton got him a full-time job at NBC.

“I didn’t know what special effects were. In those days you didn’t even get screen credit.” When he reported to work the first day, along with a group of other new employees, he was told, ‘You five work for that guy, and you five work for those other guys,’ and I was the odd man out. They said, ‘You go with those special effects guys.’ That’s how I started out – by accident.” He thrived there, and a year into his job his boss left and Frazier was running the department – at the age of 20.

“When visual effects came along, everyone said, ‘You  guys are going to be dinosaurs.’ That may happen someday, but not in the next 10 years.”

— John Frazier

“It was a lot of fun, incredible.” It was the golden age of live television and Frazier worked with Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Laugh-In and The Gong Show, providing whatever was needed for shows or skits.

For the runaway train in 2010’s Unstoppable, director Tony Scott contacted Frazier and his company, Fxperts, to orchestrate a two-locomotive derailing sequence. It featured redesigned, lightweight versions of a conventional diesel electric locomotive. Frazier’s team took eight weeks to build two 50,000-lb. locomotive action props, each powered by a Freightliner FL70 engine. (Photo copyright © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.)

He even helped create the iconic Pillsbury Doughboy, who first appeared in 1965. “At NBC we didn’t do special effects on the scale of features. Bob Hope called me in once and said, ‘I want you to see this thing we did years ago.’”

They watched an old skit with a gun. Frazier recalls that Hope said, “’Look at the gun, it’s going to blow apart. Okay, John I need you to make that for me for tonight,’” Frazier remembers. “I said, ‘Mr. Hope, with all due respect, there’s probably 300 man hours in making that gun do that.’

“He said, ‘Okay, hire 300 guys and it’ll take you one hour.’” Another time, shortly before the first Apollo moon landing, Hope called Frazier and asked, “‘What do you know about the lunar rover?’ I said, ‘Not much.’ There were no pictures published of it. It was all classified. Hope asked, “’If I show you a picture, will you make it for me?’”

LEFT: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson run for their lives in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which featured the biggest explosion with live actors in movie history. (Photo copyright © 2008 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

In a scene right out of Men in Black, two government men in sunglasses arrived. “They had a tube and they pulled blue prints out of the tube. ‘You can’t take pictures. You can take a measurement but you can’t write anything down.’ It was basically a dune buggy with a parabolic reflector. They put the blueprints back in the tube and left. These were Secret Service guys or something. I made it for him and it looked just like the one on the moon.”

Frazier worked in live TV for eight years and transitioned to movies with Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Joe Lombardi [special effects for The Godfather and Apocalypse Now] had suggested that Frazier should make the leap to feature films. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come play with us?’ Variety shows were dying out,” recalls Frazier, who worked with Lombardi on Apocalypse Now. In the ‘80s, Frazier coordinated special effects for everything from Airplane! and War of the Roses to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

He scaled up his inventiveness working with directors like Clint Eastwood. For Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire (1993), Frazier co-developed “rubber glass,” a silicone rubber product that breaks or crumbles into pieces that look like broken glass or ice. It was Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994) that elevated him into the realm of high-budget action pictures. It was “my big break,” Frazier recalls. “I hooked up with [producer] Ian Bryce.” Waterworld and Twister followed, and then producer Gale Anne Hurd sought him out for Armageddon. “Michael Bay gave me the job and I’ve been with him for 22 years. We were in right place at right time. I got some good breaks.”

Bay wanted to send vehicles flying through the air in down- town Los Angeles and Frazier had to come up with a solution. At the time, car tossing was a noisy proposition that involved an explosive charge. And people were moving back to downtown in that era to lofts and apartments and they didn’t want to hear loud booms.

TOP to BOTTOM: John Frazier and Michael Bay in a rare relaxed moment for both. John Frazier with a hot rod manufactured at Fxperts, Inc.

Frazier decided to do it pneumatically and co-invented a “car flipper” device (which has a thick steel plate attached to a steel lever structure and modified hydraulic rams) that not only was quiet but enabled precise control over automotive acrobatics. It could shoot the car straight up in the air, flip it end over end, or explore even crazier possibilities. Frazier estimates that he flipped 50 or 60 cars alone for Transformers: Age of Extinction and perhaps 500 for all his films with Bay. The device became an industry standard and won a 2014 Academy Award for Frazier, Chuck Gaspar and Clay Pinney. “We didn’t know how big it would be.”

“CGI has generated work for all of us. Spider-Man has to be digital and without CGI he’d be another superhero on the shelf. For Twister, [Executive Producer] Steven Spielberg said, ‘Show me a tornado and I’ll green light your  picture.’”

— John Frazier

Bay also enabled Frazier’s penchant for pyrotechnics. For Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Frazier created the biggest explosion in movie history, on a set in White Sands, New Mexico. For an airstrike on a group of unruly robots, he ignited more than 1,000 gallons of gasoline and 300 sticks of dynamite as stars Shia LaBoeuf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson ran for their lives. “I’ve done 15,000 explosions” to date, observes Frazier, with a hint of glee.

A replica of the U.S.S. Oklahoma atop a giant gimbal was rolled in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. (Photo copyright © 2001 Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Bumblebee, a robot from the Transformers franchise, was constructed in John Frazier’s shop. (Photo copyright © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Frazier is also able to handle explosions of the auteur variety. “Bob Zemeckis, Sam Raimi and Clint Eastwood are mild guys and  don’t scream. I’ve only seen Clint Eastwood raise his voice one time. But some people need that.” Bay is one of those. “Michael Bay can scream and yell and vent on me –I don’t have an attitude. Some people can’t get things done unless they’re yelling. I don’t know of a big action director who doesn’t scream. They all do.” Despite the histrionics, Frazier likes the way Bay challenges him. “You have to have your shit together. He knows what he wants. For me, when making the Transformers movies, there are just two people – Michael Bay and me.

Frazier is also a gimbal guru and Frazier used an outsized one to roll a full-scale replica of the USS Oklahoma battleship for Bay’s Pearl Harbor. “No one has done them bigger,” he notes. “And we have a good track record for safety.” He has also employed giant gimbals for the various Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

John Frazier’s car flipper sent vehicles flying in the urban destruction scenes of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. (Photo copyright © 2005 Touchstone Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection. All Rights Reserved.)

Frazier’s shop creations, mechanical effects and explosions bring verisimilitude to the screen and compete with digital effects, yet he acknowledges that CGI has helped his career by making certain types of movies possible. “If not for CGI, all these scripts would still be on the shelves.” Marvel’s focus would still be comic books. “CGI has generated work for all of us. Spider-Man has to be digital and without CGI he’d be another superhero on the shelf.

For Twister, [Executive Producer] Steven Spielberg said, ‘Show me a tornado and I’ll green light your picture.’

The fabled city of Alamut in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was created as a miniature. (Photo copyright © 2010 Disney Enterprises/ Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

“CGI has gotten so good in the last 15 years that when they say what I did was all CGI and Isay, ‘No, we did it all,’ I take that as a compliment. But 15 years ago it was an insult.”

Frazier feels that movies with CGI need footage from the real world as well. “You need real stuff. The individual [director] will say, ‘Whatever you can give us live, we’ll take it. It gives us depth.’ There’s something about it being live that takes the edge off it. You just can’t get it in CGI.”

Since so many big-budget action directors keep knocking on Frazier’s door to give him more work, it would seem he knows what he’s talking about. And he still has one of the most fun and unique jobs in the world. About it, he comments, “In the morning I can’t wait to get to work. I just can’t get enough of the business.

“If I could, I would make all the movies.”



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