Grant Major

AS: When working with illustrators like that do you start by giving them a napkin sketch? Do you tend to do any sketching yourself these days?
GM: I used to do all my own stuff in those earlier films but on these bigger films being able to sit down and spend a day drawing is well nigh impossible. There are just too many projects going on at the same time to be able to do that. My drawing skills have dropped away a little bit, I must say! I do still draw quite a lot on the smaller projects but when it comes to projects like The Green Lantern, I had a huge amount of time and people to do concept work and it worked really well. Having the drawing skills is great, to be able to sit down and draw with the illustrators and do napkin sketches and things like that. But I don’t end up working on finished illustrations that are pitch documents for the director and producers.

AS: In those early stages of conceptual design what kind of references do you look at? Do you look at a lot of other films?
GM: I tend to want to dash things out. Sometimes the first ideas are the best ideas and sometimes they catch. I try to get the first ideas out without a lot of research and reference. After that phase I immerse myself in the world of whatever it is I’m designing. The one I’m designing at the moment is Japan in 1945. There’s a huge amount of visual material that exists. You’re able to just sit and flip through images and read books and look at movies that are to do with that. I immerse myself in the world and then try to revisit these early ideas and see if they’re any good. I dash out early stuff and then do studied stuff in time.

AS: K.K. Barrett said that sometimes when he’s doing a romantic comedy he’ll look at westerns, instead of just using all the standard romantic comedies as reference. Or he’ll go for a walk around the block and be influenced by what he sees.
GM: You’re continually taking things in. Even for movies that haven’t even been made yet. Try to have a life that exposes you to a lot of experiences. Travel and go to design exhibitions, go to plays, go to see lots of movies, go to fashion shows. You subconsciously pull away good ideas. You give them a neural address and they stay there for years sometimes.

In those early stages, before you get swamped by the practicalities of the whole film process, you’re grabbing things that can be quite original. Oblique ways of looking at something. You try to get original ideas out first.

AS: Are you involved in a lot of the character design? For example, in The Lord of the Rings or Green Lantern?
GM: In Lord of the Rings that was really done by WETA workshop as a sort of contract. Although having said that, Andrew and John and I developed a lot of them on pencil first and then they got made by the WETA workshop. But on Green Lantern Ngila Dickson, the costume designer, and I invented all of those. They were based on existing comic book characters. Neville Page and Aaron Sims were the illustrators who worked to our brief. It always involves character design up to a point but we played a much bigger role on Green Lantern than on Lord of the Rings.


  • 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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