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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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.
AS: Was everything built on stage for Les Misérables? ES: Almost everything was a set on a stage, yes. With the exception of the outside where we did the funeral and the big elephant scene.
AS: Was the elephant based on something that actually existed? ES: Yes, it was in the original novel. So I read the novel thoroughly and I found out that this elephant had been constructed by Napoleon to celebrate his successes in Egypt. It was made out of plaster and began to rot when he ran out of money. And in the novel Gavroche and all the other little urchins of Paris live in it.
AS: Was it a huge construction? ES: It was a massive construction! It was 48 feet high and you could climb up inside it. We had one big enormous studio in Pinewood. It must have been about 250 feet by 130 feet and by the end with all our sets we only had about ten foot left and all the monitors and stuff had to be snuck in around the back one of the sheds.
Rick Heinrichs designed two of the greatest films ever made, the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and The Big Lebowski. He also designed two of the mega-budget Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Star Wars film The Last Jedi, and multiple Tim Burton films including the awesome Sleepy Hollow for which he won an Academy Award. We caught up with him at the next-generation entertainment studio Fourth Wall, where he was helping to envision the future of entertainment. AS: What are you working on right now? RH: When I finished Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie in London about a year ago I met up with the guys who run Fourth Wall Studios. The future of our industry has always been a big question in my mind. Are we going to continue to be able to be making the big feature films that we’ve been making in the kind of numbers that we’ve been making them in? And there’s the brave new world of distribution over the internet. What are the sort of economies we are going to look at now if indeed we’re going to be producing and designing films that are going to end up on a small computer screen?
As a production designer I love to build sets but when you’re in a structure that doesn’t allow you to build sets what are you doing? We’re using a lot more digital and virtual sets. But it’s life-sucking to work on a greenscreen set. The challenge is, How do we make it a usable tool that is actually cool to work with? AS: When designing films like the Pirates of the Caribbean series do you spend a lot of time on these greenscreen stages or do you go out on location? RH: For the Pirates movies I was all over the Caribbean and the Bahamas and Hawaii. And I think I saw every bit of Hawaii from a helicopter, every bit of every shore of every island. Which is not a bad thing to do. We’d take boats around islands with the director Gore Verbinski and swim in to shore because it was too rough to dock the boat. And then we’d discover that the beach we’re scouting is called Tiger Shark beach! If we’d swum in a couple hours later there would definitely have been tiger sharks! Or we’d be lead out on goat trails on cliffs where you can fall two-hundred feet to your death. You’re walking through jungles where people get killed all the time from falling coconuts. It was this life-threatening and physically taxing but an incredibly stimulating adventure at the same time. You’re going to these really remote, beautiful places that nobody gets a chance to go to and imagining how you’re going to use it in a movie. It’s really an unusual thing to get to do and I love that aspect of it.
AS: You’ve also worked with the Coen Brothers. RH: Yes, being able to work with those guys was a wonderful, early career milestone for me. Of all the movies that I’ve done over the years Fargo and The Big Lebowski are two of my favorite movies. And its just one hundred percent those two guys and their ear for dialog and their head for creating characters and
Nathan Crowley brought Modernism and scale into Batman’s formerly Gothic world, creating masterpieces of cinema with his friend Christopher Nolan. While his fifth Academy Award nomination was for Damian Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, he’d already been Oscar-nominated for four films with Nolan, including for the historic war film Dunkirk…
AS: When you were in art school did you have any idea you’d be a production designer? NC: Not at all. I was thinking about continuing on with the School of Art and Design at Brighton. But I ended up getting hired after I got my art degree by a bunch of architects to draft. I did that for two years and it made me realize I didn’t want to be an architect! No one was doing anything interesting. It was what I call business architecture and it was really uninspiring. I ended up thinking, Shit, I don’t want to do post-graduate architecture, even though I love architecture. That was in the late Eighties just as Thatcher destroyed England. It was time to leave.
I ended up coming to LA. I drove old sports cars across America for a while that were being shipped to Europe. I’d take the I-10 and drive them from LA to Jacksonville, Florida. My friend and I would buy old Porches and Spiders, I’d drive them across and ship them to him in England where he’d sell them. It was just enough money to live on in LA. And then that economic crash happened. We got left with a few sports cars and we couldn’t sell them. I realized I had to get a job in LA somewhere!
And then I walked into Small’s, a bar on Melrose, and bumped into a friend from art college who’d been working in Hollywood for a few years as a set designer. He said they needed set designers on Hook. There were none available because the Universal backlot had burned down, weirdly, and they’d hired everyone off the set designer’s roster to redraw Universal. My friend said, You can draw, can’t you? AndNorman Garwood, the production designer on Hook, (and on Brazil) hired me as a junior set designer in the old MGM drafting room and he got me in the union. It was a couple of fortunate events.
AS: How did you make the jump from Set Designer to Art Director? NC: Norman came in and said, You don’t know anyone in Hollywood, do you? How are you going to get a job? I hadn’t really thought that far. He said, I know the designer on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So he went next door and got me a job on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I didn’t even know I wanted to do art direction. I was on it for eleven months as set designer and didn’t get credit. Then they needed someone with Roman Coppola on second unit. I ended up doing all that puppeteering, the mirror work, matte projection, and hours and hours of cutouts for the opening sequence. That’s where I really got into the magic of art direction. I’d always been interested in optical illusions. Even though I wasn’t an art director and shouldn’t have been on stage I basically got assigned second unit and there I realized I wanted to be an art director. Then I went to work on Star Trek as a set designer again because I needed a job but it made me realize I didn’t want to be a set designer anymore. I didn’t want to draw, I wanted to be on stage. I quit that show and got hired as an art director on an independent Abel Ferera film with Madonna, Dangerous Game.