Grant Major does big movies. He was nominated for Oscars for all three Lord of the Rings films and won for Return of the King. He also received an Oscar nomination for Peter Jackson’s King Kong. When he’s not doing huge blockbusters, he likes doing smaller New Zealand films close to home like Niki Caro’s Oscar nominated Whale Rider. When I caught up with him he was in the middle of production on an Auckland-based independent feature, Emperor.
AS: How did you end up working on big, epic movies?
GM: A lot of my career was influenced by Peter Jackson’s trajectory. I started off doing some moderate-sized films with him back in the mid-nineties and then he segued into the Lord of the Rings and of course I was there for that. And then after that, King Kong. But I’ve got a family in Auckland and I’m very keen to spend time here so I take on small jobs to be able to stay in Auckland if I can. Which is what I’m doing at the moment. Working on The Emperor, a story about the possible war crimes against Emperor Hirohito in Japan in 1945. But I do need to keep my foot in the Hollywood scene as well so that’s why I did Green Lantern a short while ago.
AS: What skills help you handle those big projects?
GM: With any project you put in the same amount of effort and the same creative impetus. The big ones are obviously a longer haul with a lot more financial commitment. It’s a bigger decision-making process. There are more people looking over your shoulder and more people with an opinion about what you should be doing. You need to be able to fend off that sort of overview. It can work for you but it can also stifle the creative decision-making. It’s just being ready and having the strength for the long haul. You need to have a lot of stamina.
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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.
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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.