Grant Major

AS: What has kept you guys working together so long?
GM: Well, I’m not doing The Hobbit, that’s being done by one of my art directors. But before that it was well over ten years on the same projects. When we met I’d been designing for not even four and a half years and Peter had been doing these small, very cheap “splatter movies”. Very wacky horror films. His producer asked me to work on a film called Heavenly Creatures which was made on the south island of New Zealand and we got on really well. We basically rose through the ranks together I suppose. Heavenly Creatures was really successful so he asked me to do the next one. And that was pretty successful so he asked me to do Lord of the Rings and that was successful so he asked me to do King Kong and so on and so forth. He has loyalties to the people he has employed before and we’re friends.

AS: You have also collaborated with the director Niki Caro on several films, completely different from the Peter Jackson style.
GM: I like the diversity. I very much like to mix things up for my own sake. But Niki and I have known each other for equally as long. She’s a bit younger than me. She went to art school and asked me to help her with some of the student short films she was working on and we’ve kept on going from there. We socialize together. She’s got young kids and I’ve young kids and we see quite a lot of each other socially so it’s been a very fruitful collaboration really.

AS: Did you go to art school yourself?
GM: Yeah. I went to art school in the nineteen seventies. Back then it was called Auckland Technical Institute, now it’s out of Auckland University of Technology. There was no film design then and I studied graphic art. But I wasn’t really interested in going into advertising. My first job was in television and I ended up doing quite well. I ended up staying on the first job for three and a half years. I went over to study set design with BBC television in London which at that time was quite a big production institution. Studios working on 24-hour shifts. There were 100 set designers, assistants, buyers, librarians, and so on within the art department back then. Going from such a tiny industry here in New Zealand to the BBC was just fantastic. That was my true apprenticeship. And then I came back here and the film business was just starting up. I called myself an art director back in the 1980’s and then segued into production design in the 1990’s.

AS: What was your first job title in the industry?
GM: Assistant set designer. It was pretty much on-the-job training. I was given shows to design straight out of art school. Having a graphic arts background at the time was very useful because back then the set designs were a lot more painterly. The other good thing about starting in that situation was that I could experiment with things that are actually being seen by the public. Within about three weeks of getting the job I was sent down to an island in the very south of New Zealand called Stewart Island to design a television film based on castaways. Here I was, straight out of art school, on an island both propping and designing and building sets for this drama series. Starting on the deep end, but it was really a fantastic learning experience.


  • Tom, this is a wonderful blog, thanks for the info.

    Do you have any advice for aspiring production designers? I live in Philadelphia and recently finished architecture school but I very much want to design films.

  • Glad to hear you like the blog! The best advice I’ve found is to just get out there and start doing it. Work on low budget videos, short films, commercials, anything you can get your hands on for low money. A lot of these directors will call you when they start doing features. And then call you again when the features get bigger budget. K.K. Barrett started with commercials and music videos for Spike Jonze, Grant Major started on smaller movies with Peter Jackson, and Jack Fisk rented a van and brought his own tools out to Colorado to go do Terence Malick’s Badlands. He not only found an auteur to work with throughout his career, he also met his future wife, Sissy Spacek.

    Also, you may want to move to LA or New York or anywhere there are schools like USC, AFI, NYU where talented directors are just starting out and looking for designers….

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  • Thanks so much for the response.

    I’m actually working on a short film with an old friend of mine who just graduated from USC and is trying to become a director so I guess I am on the right track! He lives in and will be shooting the film in San Diego but we’ve been able to work together so far by way of email and it’s been a lot of fun. I guess I will see what comes of it! If nothing else I’ll have some material to add to my portfolio.

    Thanks again!

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