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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Jess Gonchor knocked it out of the park with his first movie as production designer: Capote. Since then he’s had his hands full delivering realism with style on the Coen brothers’ movies such as No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and Hail Caesar, the last two earning him a pair of Academy Award nominations. Demonstrating he was not locked into the world of poetic violence, he also designed Greta Gerwig’s classic historic romance, Little Women.
AS: You live in New York City but do you do all of your work out of New York? JG: No, I’ve probably designed three movies here but no, I just like it better here. I think every director that I’ve worked with lives in New York. Maybe it’s just coincidence but it’s worked out that way. I like LA too but this is where I call home.
AS: You get hired out there and then come to LA to do movies or travel to various places? JG: Various places. Most of the movies begin in Los Angeles. They evolve from a studio or independent. I can only think of one movie that didn’t get packaged up and born in Los Angeles. Sometimes I have to go out there. The majority of the time it’s somewhere else. Nowadays they seem to be making movies somewhere else besides Los Angeles. They make a lot of them in New York. But you tend to have to travel to some of the other places for some of the cooler scripts.
AS: It seems that’s happening more and more these days with all the tax incentives in other states. JG: Yeah, that makes it very attractive to shoot a movie in Louisiana or New Mexico or any of those places. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to those places and have a good shot at using them for what they are. I haven’t been asked to go to New Mexico and shoot a movie about Ireland yet -which, believe me, they do! Really I think the most talented people are in Los Angeles. And it’s hard to get something off the ground there these days but hopefully soon.
John Myhre has been nominated for five Academy Awards and has won two- one for his amazing work creating an entire Japanese village in Memoirs of a Geisha and another for the Best Picture winner Chicago. His enthusiasm for design has taken him across genres: he’s designed everything from musical blockbusters to period pieces to stylish action films and he’s not slowing down any time soon…
AS: What project are you currently working on? JM: I’m working on a really exciting project called Snow and the Seven which is a live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being made by Disney. That alone is really fun –I’m a huge Disney fan and just finished Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for Disney and they were really wonderful to work with. But the really exciting thing about it is that it’s set in 19th century China. Snow is a colonial English girl. She has a step-mom who’s actually not bad at all but who gets possessed early on in the story by the spirit of an evil Chinese queen through an ancient Chinese mirror that they find. And Snow needs to flee away from her mother who’s out to get her. She flees through the wilds of China and runs into the Seven. But they’re not seven dwarfs, they’re seven warriors. Warriors from all around the world who are part of this organization and have been around for thousands of years. They keep the world safe from evil. Evil like evil queens. So Snow actually becomes one of the Seven and really becomes a warrior princess. It’s almost a superhero movie in a fun way and much more Pirates of the Caribbean than a kid’s traditional fairy tale story of Snow White.
Guy Hendrix Dyas is a rock star in the world of film design: he designed Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terry Gilliam’s The Brother’s Grimm, Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and during this interview he was hard at work on what was then Spielberg’s latest project, Robopocalypse. After studies at the Royal College of Art in London and Chelsea College of Art and Design he went from industrial designer to visual effects art director to concept artist and finally to production designer where he quickly rose to the top of the field…
AS: I was amazed to hear how much of Inception was practical versus CG. Is it true that the foundations of the fortress in the snow were made out of ice? GHD: To our surprise many people have commented on how they thought the hospital was a real location but this bunker-like fortress doesn’t exist. Very early on Chris [Nolan] and I made a crude clay model of this set, Chris wanted to create something akin to what he’d seen in some of his favorite Bond films, that’s how we came up with a mix between military, governmental architecture and Panopticon prison design. Very quickly it became apparent to us that this set would have to be divided into two separate builds. The interiors were built on stage in Los Angeles while the multi-level exterior was built at approximately 7,000 feet in altitude.
Kim Sinclair won an Academy Award as Set Decorator/Supervising Art Director on the record-breaking blockbuster Avatar and has also production designed numerous films, all from his home base in New Zealand. He lives on the cutting edge where virtual and practical sets come together, as exemplified in his work as visual effects art director on films like The Adventures of Tintin with Steven Spielberg, and as supervising art director in Avatar 2 for James Cameron…
AS: On the first Avatar your primary involvement was the physical sets? KS: We shot all the live-action in Avatar here in New Zealand. If at any time, in any frame, there were humans either in the foreground or the background, any humans at all, they were shot in Wellington. We provided a lot of large sets. The vehicles, the weapons, the props, the dressing. It was all pretty straightforward but the trick was the integration into the digital world. There were shots that were purely digital and there were shots that were purely live action. However, a large percentage of the movie featured digital characters in real environments or real people in digital environments. And that was really the challenge.
AS: What was your process collaborating with Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg? KS: Rob Stromberg headed up what we used to call the virtual art department, in LA. He had a team of designers and they designed the look of the planet, the look of the vegetation, and they headed up the creature designs. They did some 3D modeling but basically that went to Weta Digital in New Zealand.
Robert Stromberg won an Oscar as production designer of one of the highest grossing movies of all time, Avatar. His second Oscar came from Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, which has also made over one billion in the box office. A leader in visual effects, he began as a traditional matte painter and now directs.
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 into post 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. But 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 for his work on Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a film that effortlessly bridges the practical with visual effects. Over the years he’s risen from art director to production designer, learning along the way from the best: legends 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: 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.
Patrice Vermette rose from the world of Canadian music videos and commercials to being Oscar-nominated for his work on The Young Victoria and Arrival. His career has since taken off with award-winning features like Vice, Sicario, and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune…
AS: You met the 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 share some of his wisdom.
NOTE: Following our original interview stick around for a 2020 addendum with Patrick’s updated take on the current state of our industry…
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 and 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.
Michael Novotny worked with James Cameron on True Lies and Terminator 2 and production designed K-19: The Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow. With these $100 million features under his belt, he moved on to designing a series of episodics including Better Call Saul, The Affair, and seven seasons of 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 in 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 Pittsburgh 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.
A second generation production designer, Daniel Novotny made a name for himself with the insanely popular TV show CSI. It was both the most watched program on television and the most watched scripted show at various times in its fifteen seasons. He has worked nonstop since then, designing back-to-back episodics including Gotham, The Arrangement, and Outer Banks…
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 4Ward 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 saw the way the whole system worked.