AS: Nathan Crowley puts the whole movie on a long wall that includes every single scene in the movie, represented with imagery. Do you ever do anything like that?
RC: Always. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t. I call it the movie-scape. I used to call it the film-scape before film went away. You can traverse it by looking at all the images and feel like you’re looking at the movie. On Avatar not only did I lay out all the scenes linearly across but I also put them at three different levels. Like an EKG, I had yarn taking us up and down, moving left to right through all the imagery of the movie so that you were at the Kansas level then you had the Pandora level, the Na’vi level, then you had the phantasmagoric level which was the Eywa level. It progressed with the images that we were working on plus research, literally the Wizard of Oz and Apocalypse Now. It ended up having some impact on the movie. That’s why Col. Quaritch says, You’re not in Kansas anymore. He references that.
AS: Should production design be visible or invisible? Should a set become a character in the movie?
RC: It’s never binary. In the question is the answer. Sometimes it’s more this and sometimes it’s more that. Sometimes it’s more of a character. You know the Gump house in Forrest Gump or the Tara house in Gone with the Wind. Where literally you can’t imagine the movie without the place because the place orients you to what your emotions are. So it functions like a character.
But sometimes it helps when you prioritize the importance of a set, to not go too crazy with architecture and details if you’re only trying to get across something in relationship to what came before and what will come afterwards. This can help you on the budget because you might first think, Well, this is a very important scene because it’s a palace with a million details. Then you realize, because of its impact on the movie, it really should be something that instead you work out with the cinematographer to do a long lens shot and have it be out of focus or see just one part of it. Those decisions are happening intuitively all the time in budgeting, the decisions of what to make, how to shoot it, and how to edit it.
AS: Speaking of budget and resources, what advice would you have to someone going from a small or medium budget movie to a $200 million dollar movie? Is it the same job or are there specific things to watch out for?
RC: Well, again, it’s both. Ask Hannah Beachler about that one! I’d spoken with her before Black Panther came out and I could see the determination that she had to bring that vision to the screen. She might not yet have had all the technical chops to do all those things, but nobody does. Nobody has all the chops to do everything all the time. And so you have to bring people together and find a way to get the director to believe that what you’re doing can lead to what they need. The main thing you say is just, Yes. And you try to make it the best way you possibly can. Hannah had the relationship with [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler and he knew that she would take whatever directions that he could give. She knew how to keep it cohesive and then reach out to all the people that she needed to help support her on technical levels. It comes across so well because you feel the intuitive nature. Only certain types of people are capable of doing that.