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.
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!
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!
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.
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 eighties, River’s Edge. He worked with director James Cameron on Terminator II/3D and visual artist H.R. Giger on Species. We grabbed lunch while he was co-teaching production design at AFI with the late Hitchcock art director luminary 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, just 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.