AS: How do you see things changing in the film industry with CG replacing practical sets?
KS: About ten years ago people started to say, You guys’ll be out of a job soon. It’s all going to be digital. And we were like, Yeah right. It’s kind of gratifying that Avatar, which has the most digital content of any film ever made also had the biggest art department I’ve ever put together. The live action part was 88 days. With Jim the average day is a 15 hour shooting day. That’s quite a lot of shooting on practical sets. If you’ve got an actor it’s a lot better if you can put a real background behind them. It’s better for the actor, it’s better for the director.
Secondly, this process is pretty expensive. It’s kind of wanton to say you can do away with the sets with digital ones or just green-screens. That’s a device on 300, it’s been done to give the film a look but I think it’s a stylistic thing and I don’t think it’ll ever replace sets. The digital world allows you to do things you can’t otherwise do. And if it allows you to do things you can’t afford to do, that’s well and good. But for the vast majority of dramas you’re going to want people and you’re going to want a set.
AS: What are the characteristics that are needed to be a great set decorator and also a great production designer?
KS: Everybody in the art department needs the same skill set: to be artistic and practical. Our role is to help the director tell a story. I’m amazed how many people I meet in the film industry who aren’t driven by that narrative. Everything we do should be helping tell the story. What color is this curtain? If you’re choosing a color at random or because it looks nice you’re not doing your job as far as I’m concerned. What’s the director doing in this scene, what’s the set doing, what’s the point of it? Is it a comedy? Is it a film noir? The decisions you make are narrative driven. So I do think that needs to be part of your makeup to be successful in the art department. And you have to be able to think abstractly but also be practical and be able to deliver things on time and on budget. There are a lot of really talented artists out there but my God I wouldn’t want them in the art department. You might employ them for the art department but you wouldn’t want them in it!
AS: Do you still do any sketching yourself when you’re working on a project?
KS: No. We joke that nobody in my New Zealand art department can draw! There are so many talented conceptual artists and illustrators whom I employ. A little sketch on the back of a napkin is about as far as I get these days, if you’re lucky!
AS: What do you say to people who are just getting into the industry? Any advice for them?
KS: These days I have to say that it’s essential that you have computer skills -but don’t get seduced into thinking that’s the be-all and the end-all. They can learn Maya but then maybe they’re going to sit behind a computer the rest of their life doing modeling when they could actually be a really good art director. Computers are just tools, you need to know how to use them and be familiar with the applications. But I still think its much better to get a bit of life education. Get out there and watch movies and do things. Travel. Get experience.