But I favor the subliminal thing. Your job is not to distract from the story. However, sometimes the set or the prop is the story and in that case it becomes the forefront. It may become more important than the actors. But it’s really story-driven. What I hate is sets that are overly flashy and complicated and too important for their own good. Look at me! Look at me! I’m an amazing set. It’s silly. It would be like a film where people just drive a car, and the car itself is not another story point. You find some amazing Ferrari or something. Then everybody watching the movie is going, Oh wow, look at the Ferrari! It takes you out of the story. The same thing goes for sets. It really depends on the story. I favor the background thing, I’m more of a background guy.
AS: Are you involved with previs a lot?
KS: No. When previs started it was a good idea but what happens now is that the movie becomes de facto designed during the previs stage and then the art department becomes involved later. You’re reverse engineering things and it’s very unsatisfactory. So the answer is no, on Avatar we weren’t involved in the previs at all. A lot of the sets got delivered to us as MotionBuilder files. MotionBuilder is a plugin for Maya. It’s like a video game -you get an environment that you can walk-through or fly-over with your mouse. We got sets delivered to us that were from the previs that they used for motion capture. We would actually walk around the set virtually, taking screen captures and saying, What do those steps do? They go down. How may are there? Really just like you were visiting a location and doing a location survey. In Tin Tin a similar thing is happening but we’re finding that during previs they’d made design decisions that really would have been better made by a production designer or art director. You do reverse engineering and you get these performance parameters where, for example, the table is a certain height, a door is in a certain place and so on. It’s a constraint on the look of the film. I would really make a plea that people doing previsualization in film employ a production designer earlier in the process.
AS: The director gets the 3D model version stuck in his mind?
KS: The director gets used to seeing it. The previs guys always say apologetically, Oh, it’s just a placeholder. Well, it’s a placeholder that gets into the director’s psyche. The problem with Tin Tin is that in the previs they didn’t care about what year the movie was set. It’s set post war in Europe and we have to come up with that sense of time and place. It’s an important part of your role to give it that sense of authenticity. Sometimes we can’t change what’s been established in the previs. And we have to do workarounds which can be pretty unsatisfying.
AS: You’re forced to change the design to accommodate the previs…
KS: Yeah, absolutely. The role of the art department in the digital production of films is still being fleshed out. It’s the same for director of photography. The lighting, how digital films are lit, is still being thrashed out. As is the role of camera-people in digital production. You know they’ll have big challenges too.