Robert Stromberg won an Oscar® as production designer on the highest grossing movie of all time, Avatar. His second Oscar® came from Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, which is currently the sixth highest grossing film worldwide. Beginning his career as a matte painter, he remains a leader in visual effects.
AS: You’ve said that production designers don’t need to feel threatened by visual effects these days because they’re involved during the physical production of a movie. Whereas traditionally visual effects would only happen in post and the production designer would be long gone.
RS: Sometimes you get a kind director that will keep the production designer involved with that part of it but most of the time the production designer leaves the show right after the physical production is done and then the design part of it actually falls to the visual effects vendor, the visual effects supervisor and the director. They create what goes into those greenscreens and so on. With the new technology you’re seeing what will be there on the day you’re shooting the physical set. It gives the production designer input and they have a say in what the design should be.
Because I come from visual effects I know how much stuff that I personally designed for movies well after the production designer was gone. That’s why on Master and Commander I created this new role which I called visual effects designer. That was the person who would take over when the production designer left the show and be the mouthpiece for the director and the visual effects supervisor and the vendor. So there would be a creative entity still continuing along into post.
AS: Keeping one design vision.
RS: Yes, and of course respecting what the production designer had done. I was talking to Rick Carter about this. He’s great because not only is he interested in knowing how it all works but he also knows the value of what the new technology can do for you. He’s an old school production designer who obviously knows the nuts and bolts of traditional production design. After working together Rick can now go to another project and have a greater toolbox to play with. It’s not only about what’s going to be inserted later, it’s also about how much to build as a physical set or not.
AS: It affects the resources that you spend on the physical set…
RS: A lot of times the physical sets can be overbuilt. Especially in these days when budgets are constantly being scrutinized and getting smaller, we need to find ways to streamline and accommodate these budget changes. So one way you do that is have a better understanding of exactly how much you need to build or not. It makes a lot of dollars and cents to the studios as well.
David Warren was nominated for an Academy Award this year for his work on Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a film that effortlessly bridges the practical with visual effects. As an Art Director he learned from the best: Oscar® winning production designers Dante Ferretti, Roy Walker, and John Box.
AS: What was it like working with Terry Gilliam?
DW: There is a certain amount of chaos. There’s quite a lot of creativity and imagination. I think to a certain extent that part of the job is understanding where he’s coming from and getting on his wave-length. That’s common to a lot of directors. What’s interesting with Terry is that in the opening stages of preparation he’s all about giving. It’s all about getting it from Terry. Some directors want to be pitched. But Terry is very forthcoming and he puts a lot of information down on paper because I think the design of the film is something he’s particularly interested in doing.
I could see a circumstance arising where if you’re a designer who doesn’t have a lot of graphic skills but instead is a very good organizer and a good interpreter then I could see Terry simply feeding you all the information.
AS: You were saying before that he does sketches himself as well?
DW: Yeah, he does. He uses Photoshop really well and he does it really quick. And I think the task is to kind of fill in the bits that he doesn’t do and also to challenge the ideas that you might not think have gone far enough. He does provide a lot of information up front but you’re always thinking, There’s no way you can run off and build that! or There’s not way you can do that as a matte painting. That means another circuit of sketches and drawings and improvements.
So in a way he raises the bar very high in terms of art department work but the trouble is it’s all that much higher to jump over! People ask what was the most difficult aspect of the film. Well, in the opening stages it was just sheer quantity. I know there were two designers but it felt like we were doing two movies in a way. We were doing a physical one with normal set decoration, props, art direction, the wagon, and all that kind of shmutter, and then we were doing a visual effects movie through the mirror, 650 shots. I know a lot of people talk about Avatar being the world that was explored to the nth degree, which was fantastic, but every time we went through the Imaginarium mirror Terry wanted to see something different. It was a very labor-happy film from that point of view I think.
Patrice Vermette was nominated for an Academy Award this year for his work on The Young Victoria. He rose from the world of Canadian music videos and commercials and moved on to features like the award-winning independent C.R.A.Z.Y. Now, with his Oscar® nomination for The Young Victoria, he’s hit the big time.
AS: You met he director of The Young Victoria, Jean-Marc Valée on a short film?
PV: We met on a short film in 1995. It was called Magical Words. And then we went on to do lots of TV commercials together. In 2002 he came to me and said, Do you want to do a feature film with me? And I said, Well, yes, sure. And he said, I’ll give you a script and you tell me what you think. And I fell in love with it. It was called C.R.A.Z.Y.
AS: That film won numerous awards.
PV: Good writing by Jean-Marc. And then he brought his close collaborators with him for the adventure in England.
AS: When you shot The Young Victoria in England did you bring your crew from Montreal or hire a local British crew?
PV: I hired a local crew. Because I felt they have a great expertise over there for period films. To bring my own crew from Montreal on that endeavor, on that adventure, would have asked too much from them. Because they would have had to start from scratch. I read for four months to try to acquire as much knowledge as I could about that period in time and about all the characters that were real, the characters in history. I went a bit mental, just to acquire the knowledge. But people in England have done period films before and they already have an expertise so it becomes just about bringing my approach to their art.
Patrick Tatopoulos production designed the blockbusters Independence Day, I, Robot, and Live Free or Die Hard. He is also famous for creating incredible creature effects for films such as Silent Hill, the Ruins, and the Underworld series, the last installment of which he directed. I ran into Patrick on the slopes at Big Bear and he agreed to tell us some of his secrets.
AS: You went from effects to production designer and now to director- how did you first start out?
PT: I left Europe and came to the States to be a sculptor or designer for creature effects. The thing that actually appealed to me the most about moviemaking was special makeup effects. That was my first big target. After seeing the movie the Thing I said, This is what I want to do. So in a few weeks I sculpted a bunch of creatures- I was in Greece at the time- then I took pictures and came to the States. I had a few meetings but the one that became really, really important was with a company called Makeup Effects Laboratories. Those guys ended up hiring me and getting me my Green Card so I could work as a creature sculptor. I spent a year or so sculpting, making molds, and designing creatures for them on a few small movies that came to the shop. I built a couple of creature effects for Star Trek: Next Generation and then a company came and we had to do Beastmaster 2. They saw my drawing said, Hey Patrick we have a great production designer on board but he doesn’t draw. We would like someone like you to be the art director.
On that small project I started to discover the world of the art department and production design. I worked with Alan Jones who was a very cool designer, very open minded. I still wasn’t really calling myself an art director per se but I had a bit of experience. I went back to concept art and worked on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a few movies where we got into the world of concept design.
My big, big break was my meeting with [producer] Roland Emmerich. Roland saw some of my concept work for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and said, Hey we’re doing a movie called Stargate and we need a concept artist on board. I jumped in and started to work in the art department again –designing the whole city of Stargate. Then Roland said, Hey, we need quick designs of warrior Egyptian creatures. He liked the drawings very much and said, Patrick, I love your design. Now who’s going to build it? I said, You know what? Let me build it for you. I was a bit ballsy but Roland was a very open-minded person. He liked the design so much that he said, You know, you should do it.
Michael Novotny worked with James Cameron on True Lies and Terminator 2 and designed K-19: The Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow. With these $100 million features and many episodics under his belt, he is currently production designer on the hit CBS crime drama the Mentalist.
AS: What first got you into the field?
MN: Probably painting. I always painted, starting around 14. And then in our small town of 3,000 I was able to get a free pass to the movies for 6 months at a time by doing very bizarre, outrageous cartoons. The cartoons depicted what happened on the balconies and in the main seating area when a bunch of animal-like teenagers came in. The manager liked them so much he would put them up on his office and I could get in for nothing. So that was my first commercial art deal. I was a kid -you’re just trying to be cool. That’s when I found out that art was cool!
And then I was fortunate enough to move to a town near Pittsburg that had a high school where they could offer advanced art. We did subjects like intaglio etching. We had very high-pressure presses, kilns; we did stained glass. From there I went to Goddard College in Vermont, which was a very experimental college with a very small campus of maybe 200 people. David Mamet was my dorm mate. There were no grades, you designed your own courses. I studied the bushmen and Kalahari by producing large sand paintings, 8 by 16 feet. When I left Goddard I went to the University of Pittsburg and I went into premedical studies. I did a lot of physics and chemistry and that sort of thing. But soon I’d had enough and I left and went to England. I started a communal theater company, Footsbarn Theater, with a group of friends from Goddard College. It’s still going in France.
AS: Were you involved in set-building there?
MN: Totally. I was painting, we did a lot of sculpting. We wrote all our own pieces. They were folk tales of rural England -tales and legends of the giants, the formations of St. Michael’s mount, King Arthur’s castle, Camelot. Everybody had to do everything and I was really much better at painting than at performing. But everyone had to have their time on stage. I did that for about 4 years in England and then we did 6 years based out of Amsterdam. We did almost every Western European city. From North Africa all the way through to Scandinavia.
Daniel Novotny is the production designer on the insanely popular TV show CSI. It has been both the most watched program on television and the most watched scripted show at various times in its ten seasons to date. Dan has designed over 60 episodes and counting. He estimates each 45 minute episode has a budget of 3-4 million.
AS: What was your first introduction to the field of production design and art department in general?
DN: I was building models and miniatures in my dad’s model shop. He made underwater effects for Jaws 3D –that was his first movie. I cut the foam and made latex molds, sharks, and plants. So I learned about fake plants -I learned about spraying them and painting them.
Then I was on a Barbie Doll commercial with my dad. I might have been ten or twelve. They were shooting into this little glass tank where Barbie was on the beach. They carved out the bottom, which was Plexiglas. It looked cool to me but when they got the camera set up they couldn’t shoot it because of the the glossy reflection on the bottom of the Plexiglas, underneath the water. So they had to empty out all the sand and put in black paper. The black paper got wet but it didn’t matter because now they could shoot it. So I learned about coming up with art department solutions kind of young.
One of my dad’s early production design jobs was when he was working for this visual effects company 4-Ward Productions. For features sometimes they subcontract out these big visual effects shots, they’ll give you a check for like $300,000 and in return they get the sequence. You know that shot in Terminator 2 where Sarah looks through the fence and imagines the explosion and it’s like the end of the world? My dad was the production designer for that visual effects shot -just that shot. So that was the first time I realized that, as a production designer, he’s actually not really making anything but he’s still responsible for it. So he did all the drawings of all the palm trees bending over and all the houses being blown away and he designed the sequence. That was pretty cool. And over the years I just watched him work as an art director and as a production designer and kinda saw the way the whole system worked.
John Muto designed one of the biggest live-action comedies of all time, Home Alone. His extensive list of features also includes one of my own personal favorites from the 80’s, River’s Edge. He worked with director James Cameron on Terminator II/3D and visual artist H.R. Giger on Species. These days he co-teaches production design at AFI with renowned Hitchcock production designer Bob Boyle.
AS: What brought you into production design in the first place?
JM: You know for me, my training is entirely in writing- I have no design training whatsoever. I got out of college and I always wanted to be a writer. I don’t know if I wanted to be a comic book writer, or a movie writer, -some kind of writer. Which I think, by the way, is a better preparation for production design than most art schools. Because movies are about story. And of course that’s the biggest problem we have, is getting good stories. Working with lousy scripts, believe me, in film school that’s a big problem. So that’s what I studied in college. I went to Berkeley. I got out of college and I actually applied to film school and I got in but I just couldn’t bear to go. I’d had it with school and I didn’t know what I should do. But I had a strange desire to get into show business and of all things I got mixed up with a theater company that was really a dance company.
And I had this sort of odd fantasy of being a dancer, because I loved dance films. I had no talent but I was young and I was very strong and very thin and so I could actually keep up with people who had talent. A little bit. Enough that I got into a dance company. Which just recently had a revival of one of their ancient pieces from the 60’s at the Redcat downtown. It’s actually a famous piece of avant-garde choreography that they rarely did. When I was with them they decided to do it because a film company was going to document it. And the guy who did our lights was sick. So I wound up doing the lights. I was the natural choice. I wasn’t in the dance really but I was doing the lights. Although I wound up moving with the lights as if it was a dance. But the upshot of the whole thing was that I got involved with the film company. These guys did commercials and one thing let to another and I got into animation.
I did some animation for them because even though I didn’t have any particular talent as a dancer I had learned so much about movement and I had kind of an intuitive way of dealing with drawing and animation so it was all very natural.
Among JOE GARRITY’s extensive credits are seven Christopher Guest movies including the classic comedies Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind. ARTSTARS met him in his office at the American Film Institute to discuss his career and the production design profession as a whole. He heads up AFI’s Production Design department, while at the same time continuing to work as a designer in the industry.
JG: Most people who are artists -they kind of figure it out or see it when they’re small. I drew as long as I could remember and then I got this little marionette puppet and I started to be curious about what kind of environment that I could put this little thing in. So there was an interest in creating spaces where they weren’t. And environments where they weren’t. And then stage crew in high school became a very interesting thing to me because I got into these group efforts. I like the idea of being with others to create something and so stage crew became another step for me. And the idea of putting a show on was very interesting to me too. It was a real social thing and at that point I wasn’t a designer of anything but I was part of constructing the sets and painting the scenery and running the lights and being there to run the show and pulling the fly system and all that. So much fun. And so I really enjoyed that and thought that would be what I would do.
And then a movie camera was introduced to me, a Super 8 camera, when I was in high school. I got really into the idea of seeing things, not where you sit in the chair and you look at a proscenium arch from one perspective and lighting focuses the eye, but instead I could choose how to see things with my little camera. So I got fascinated with the language of film and telling the story that way -through this little machine.
AS: So you made your own movies?
JG: I started to make little movies and then I went to college -I went to Temple University into the film department. They made documentary films so I was making documentary films but the theater department was connected so I was always over in the theater department helping with the sets and designing some smaller productions over there. I learned how to draft and I learned about getting serious about designing the sets. Yet I loved the movies, the language of film, so I said I want to combine these somehow and then someone told me about the American Film Institute. I applied to AFI and I wasn’t accepted the first time I went in and then I tried again and got in. It was a one year program at that point and I learned totally by just doing.
There was a production design department and I was one of two that were in that year and so the two of us were busily working on shows and learning. Just learning by doing -it’s a great way to learn- and I got through and did some programs and got noticed by a designer from one of the thesis films that I did and I started working for that person for a couple shows.