Conversations With Production Designers & Art Directors
Author: Tom Lisowski
Tom Lisowski is a production designer who has designed swamp mazes shot in China, crumbling cliffs in Utah, future arenas in South Central, dilapidated tenements and twisted laboratories under luxurious mansions...
William Anthony is a Los Angeles-based commercial and editorial photographer specializing in portraiture, lifestyle and documentary imagery...
Guest photographer Nelson Cragg is an award-winning cinematographer who shoots and directs television, feature films, and commercial projects.
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Pixar production designer Ralph Eggleston explains that while the production process is different with animated films, the design thinking is the same. An Academy Award winner, Eggleston has contributed his artistic vision to features at Pixar since Toy Story. Over the years he’s production designed a series of beloved, animated blockbusters including Incredibles 2, Inside Out, Finding Nemo, and more, all adding up to a worldwide gross close to 4 billion.
AS: Normally live action production designers go from one project to the next, not knowing what, when, or where the next one will be. What is it like being a production designer with the security of going into an office every day? RE: It’s akin to to the old studio system in a way. I start before we have much of a script at all, and I’m there all the way through helping out with marketing and merchandise. The longest show I’ve ever worked on was five and a half years and that was Inside Out, the shortest was Incredibles 2, which was two and a half years.
Hannah Beachler made a name for herself designing critically-praised independent films like Creed, Fruitvale Station, and the Best Picture-winning Moonlight. Now she oversees $30 million art department budgets for films like the blockbuster Black Panther, for which she won an Academy Award. She’s staying busy during the coronavirus epidemic and will soon be prepping Black Panther 2…
AS: Is all film work shut down for you because of coronavirus? HB: I was on location in Detroit with Steven Soderbergh and the production said, We’re on hiatus. We’re going to be back in a couple weeks. So we just walked away. We didn’t wrap anything. We left our offices as-is, warehouses, everything. But now we’re finally getting the call to wrap out. And to me that kind of indicates that we’re not coming back anytime soon.
AS: Do you have any thoughts about how the industry might start back up? HB: A few weeks ago Variety called me about a Tweet I’d sent out about some of the film companies and how they’re handling the pandemic. My basic sentiment is the bigger the film’s budget, the easier it will be to handle. The larger the studio, the easier it is. I see the bigger movies coming back. And movies are still currently in development. That hasn’t stopped because those people work remotely- all the illustrators, concept artists, animators, set designers.
Rick Carter is a legend in the field of production design. With Avatar and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, he designed two films that have each made over two billion in the box office. He’s spent a career teaming up with three of the greatest filmmaking visionaries who ever lived- Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Robert Zemekis, to create such classic films as Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future II and III. To date he’s won two Academy awards, one for Avatar and one for Lincoln. Most recently he designed Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I connected to Rick in the middle of the worldwide Corona virus pandemic, with our industry on hold…
AS: Is all production and prep shut down for you because of the Covid 19 virus? RC: It really is. There’s some prep going on but for the most part it’s shut down. People are trying to figure out when they can actually start up a production and how to do it because getting people together is not an easy task. Keeping people safe is the first and foremost thing. Secondarily, what kind of art can we create in this environment? It will have a profound impact on what movies are and how they’re made.
The job of production design is not going to be dependent on what we’ve had in this last epoch. Production design is not a static thing. Just the advent of computer imagery into the process caused a development that we’ve all had to adjust to, those of us who’ve been around for a while. And here comes another change and this one’s going to be very, very trying but I think it will lead to great solutions. Designers will have to really help designthe production, not just what it looks like.
Lee Ha Jun designed arguably the greatest film of the 2020 Oscar season, the Korean movie Parasite. He was nominated for the best Art Direction Oscar and won the Art Director’s Guild award for Best Contemporary Production Design. The film itself won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. His team built and dressed almost every set in the movie from scratch, including an entire city street that was flooded. I was elated to discuss production design with the artistic visionary behind this masterpiece.
A huge thank you to Juhee Yi of Neon for translating!
AS: Director Bong Joon Ho told me that you built a section of the city for the amazing flood scene in Parasite. Can you tell me a little about designing that exterior set? LHJ: There is an actual location in Seoul that has a similar look but since we had to flood the street in the scene we built the whole neighborhood in a water tank. We went location scouting where there are still apartments that have history. I designed the set by looking at the photos from the location scout and also referred back to the semi-basement where I used to live as a university student. When I was living in the semi-basement I hated having a toilet full or mold but later I realized I could draw from that experience!
Mark Friedberg’s beautifully gritty design was the dark soul of Todd Phillip’s Joker movie. The film is an unconventional, uncompromising blockbuster that has surpassed the one billion dollar mark in the box office. Not all of Mark Friedberg’s movies have made over one billion dollars, however. His heart’s in the indie world and he’s designed a long list of indie classics from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited to the more recent Selma and If Beale Street Could Talk. And for Darren Aronofsky he created the giant biblical ark seen in the big budget epic Noah. Below is some deep insight into this design genius’ process.
AS: How do you go about creating the specific universe of a movie like Joker? MF: The way I design is I want to understand the world before I make it. I’m not making a world and then trying to understand it. I’m not making sets and hoping they go together. I like to work from concept. There was this sense of the city being an oppressive force bearing down on Arthur [Fleck, the Joker] that was in the script. But there were also strong references to Taxi Driver and that era of filmmaking and to living in New York City at that time. It took a while with Todd [Phillips, director] and I driving around to figure out what our Gotham was, what was Arthur’s Gotham really. Everything in the visual world of the story both advances the plot but also cues us emotionally, in the way the score helps us understand what to feel and the costumes help us better understand the character.
Dennis Gassner’s visionary work on Bladerunner 2049 earned him one of 7 Oscar nominations. Of those nominations, he took home an Oscar in ‘91 for his unique take on the 1940’s gangster film Bugsy. Before he designed Bladerunner 2049 or the innovative Sam Mendes war film 1917, he had been the exclusive James Bond production designer -he created the look for Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre. These big budget extravaganzas are far removed from his early work on Coen brothers’ movies like Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing…
AS: What drew you to the field of production design? DG: My journey began in Vancouver, British Columbia and took me to Portland Oregon, Eugene Oregon, then on to Berkeley and Los Angeles. I’ve pretty much covered the West Coast. I was studying architecture at The University of Oregon when I went to see this technicolor film by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia. It was my first Cinemascope film. The scale of it was so enormous and the power of the film was so awe-inspiring I said, Who was the architect of that? I wanted to know more and investigate the field of production design so I took my van and my two-year-old daughter and my wife and we moved to LA. I went to the Art Center School of Design, the old school on Third and Highland, and I connected to that world of thinking. They’d just started the film program and I got to make short movies. There was also graphic design and fine arts, transportation design and advertising design. It was thinking beyond anything that I’d experienced before, in a multitude of facets.
When I saw photos of Guy Hendrix Dyas’ design work on Passengers my mind was blown. You may remember my interview with Guy back when he had his first Academy Award nomination for Inception but with Passengers he’d taken it to the next level. Here’s an update on his process…
AS: Is sketching as important to you now as it was the last time we spoke? GHD: Sketching is all I do when I start a project. I’ve got this routine now where I’ll read a script and get an 8.5” x 11” sketchbook and basically sketch the entire film. This sketchbook becomes my bible. It becomes my go-to place when I’m thinking of handing out projects to my staff to develop.
AS: After your initial meeting with director Morton Tyldum did you then go off and create a lot of sketches to bring back to him? GHD: I turned up to the initial interview with many of these sketches. I’d been given the script and was excited by it. This is a script that has no monsters, no guns, just raw science fiction in the greatest tradition of films like 2001 or even Silent Running. It’s a wonderful film because it makes you think about moral choices. It makes you think about love and life and your own existence. The script had been knocking around in Hollywood for many years and I never thought I’d get a chance at it. But when I was up for it I grabbed it, and ran with it.
Colin Gibson invented a fleet of road warrior vehicles while designing the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, essentially becoming a “War Boy” himself in the process. A far cry from his more traditional work on Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, the world he brought to life for Fury Road was brutal and unforgettable and won him his first Academy Award…
AS: Your collaboration with director George Miller on Mad Max:Fury Road was mind-blowing. CG: There’s nothing like collaborating with a towering imagination to give you a head start to mind-blowing. George showed me a room full of storyboards and no script and said, This looks like it’s right up your street. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to take quite so long! It was the year 2000, which was the same year as the Sydney Olympics and so it was either the Olympics or Fury Road and my back had been playing up so I took Fury Road. But it turned out to be slightly longer than a four year turnaround!
Adam Stockhausen brought his artistic style to the Wes Anderson masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel and southern plantation realism to Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. He was Oscar-nominated for both and won for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Since then he’s continued to design Wes Anderson movies and has also become Steven Spielberg’s production designer of choice. But before all this he was inventing ways to keep blood off hardwood floors for Wes Craven…
AS: I hear you just wrapped your job as production designer on Steven Spielberg’s St James Place… AS: Yes, we just finished. It’s a true story. We shot half in New York City and half in Berlin with a brief side trip into Poland. It was a wonderful experience for me. I had a blast.
AS: How was Spielberg to work with? AS: Fantastic! We did a lot of sketching. We’d work things up and then go to see him and show our materials and it was a wonderful collaboration.
Eve Stewart has been nominated for four Oscars to date including for the tremendous historic epic Les Misérables. She’s perfected a distinct British realism for Mike Leigh’s films and an enhanced historic realism of Tom Hooper’s. When I interviewed her she was extremely busy designing the worlds of the Muppets and Frankenstein’s monster. AS: Your movie Muppets Most Wanted is about to be released. How was the transition from the more serious Les Misérables? ES: After Les Mis I thought I would do the polar opposite and so I designed the Muppets Most Wanted film. A bit of light relief after the harrowing scenes of Fantine dying!
AS: Did you shoot that in America? ES: The majority was in the UK but we shot a little bit in America.
AS: How was working with James Bobin on the Muppets different from the Tom Hooper and Mike Leigh films? ES: Really interesting because I thought it would be very different but it was actually just as rigorous! James Bobin was really clever and really fast and really thorough. It was actually quite a similar experience!
AS: You’ve done many films with Tom Hooper -is he a really visual director? ES: He is a visual director but more than that he’s a very good conductor of visuals. I’ll always overdo it and just get loads of stuff together because I’m really enthusiastic. He’s very good at filtering and kind of conducting it like a piece of music.