April 22nd, 2011

The art and design of “Chloe” – interview with Phillip Barker

I happened to stumble upon “Chloe” almost by accident this week, and it was love at first sight. An erotic thriller drama starring Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson, it’s an exquisite visual treat that i couldn’t leave unattended. The opening sequence sets the intimate atmosphere with soft lights, smoked glass and the camera slowly panning across Amanda’s character gazing at herself in the mirror:

Glass, windows and mirrors are interwoven throughout the various scenes, from the first encounter between Amanda and Julianne in the bathroom to the Ravine House designed by Drew Mandel. As you follow the movie, note how this positions the viewer behind the characters as hidden observers, supporting the progressively increasing intimacy of the plot.

Background elements key off of the skin, hair and eye color of the two leading female characters and vary based on the scene mood. Here is the very first scene featuring Julianne – in the cold and sterile doctor’s office, with the steely green walls, cabinets and lamps keying off of her eyes, and the blurred chart complementing her hair and freckles:

Soft browns dominate the large open spaces in the house, perfectly framing the strong hair color and providing just a tinge of green and blue:

As Julianne’s suspicions grow, the costume colors become progressively more subdued, staying within a very narrow range or green-tinted beige and dark emerald. Here is the second encounter between her and Amanda – note the saturated red fire alarm box that highlights the inner tension of her character and the brown delivery truck behind the window:

The costume designer Debra Hansen provides a little insight into the morphing colors and textures:

There are shapes, colors and structures that are mirrored in the choice of clothing for the characters. On Chloe in particular you’ll find colors and patterns that are connected to the outside environment. For example the coat she wears in the greenhouse and the coat with the embroidered leaves both reflect her exterior surroundings. You’ll notice too, though it’s very subtle, that outfits for Catherine and Chloe begin to echo one another

As the two female characters become more involved, the movie spends a lot of time following their encounters. One of my favorite conversations is initially bathed in a large swath of neon blue washing in from the outside, highlighting the cool and somewhat distant mood of the encounter:

As the dialog becomes more intimate, the camera sweeps to the left, stopping slightly above Julianne’s right shoulder. Rich warm golden browns replace the cool blues, and the green leather becomes deeper and more saturated. Here, even though clearly Amanda commands the scene, i cannot stop looking at the background setting and how it frames the main character. From the wall paint color to the painting to the clothes and hair of the couple holding hands – simply perfect:

And here’s another example of the perfect blend of background elements – with steely greens and muted oranges playing off of the hair, skin, eyes and clothes of the foreground characters:

Cuing the audio track from the next scene is one of the most common ways to transition the viewer into the next scene. As the camera stays to exit the current setting, the audio switches to background noise or the few opening sentences of the next scene, followed by the mostly abrupt visual transition into the middle of the new setting. “Chloe” chooses a different strategy. With its slower visual pace, the transition has an intermediate stage where the camera lingers on the new surrounding environment, guiding the user into the new setting. Cafe Diplomatico is one of the main locations, and here it is in one of these intermediate transitions:

Soft browns spill into this scenery, from the pavement to the brick walls of the adjacent building. The attention to details is amazing considering the fact that these are public locations not fully controlled by the production crew. Here is one of my outside favorites, with the much cooler grays and turquoises that accentuate the ulterior motive behind Amanda’s manipulations:

The interior design of various locations follows the mood and tension levels between the characters – from the slate grays of the house to golden browns of the hotel room:

Phillip Barker is a man of many talents. Between writing and directing his own short films, he also works as the production designer for major movie productions. He’s graciously agreed to answer a few questions i had about “Chloe” in particular and on movie art and design in general.

Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to work on “Chloe”

Phillip: I am a visual artist who has always been interested in film. I currently combine two careers, one as a production designer for feature films, and one as a visual artist who makes his own ‘art ‘ films and installations. Atom Egoyan saw an installation I had made in a gallery and expressed interest in working with me. We have been working together on most of his films since then. Our first collaboration was ‘Salome’, an opera he directed for the Canadian Opera Company where I designed all the multimedia projections, and the first film I designed for him was “The Sweet Hereafter”.

Kirill: Most of the scenes in the movie take place indoors. Have you used existing locations with slight interior tweaks, or was most of it built from scratch?

Phillip: I designed and built the third floor of Julianne Moore’s characters modern glass house. It had to seamlessly flow with the actual location. The set included the master bedroom, bathroom, David’s study, 2 staircases and a view to an 80′ long photo mural outside the windows. We also built the hotel bedroom and a few other sets. Sometimes we added to existing locations, for example we built a smaller greenhouse within the large greenhouse of Allen Gardens, Toronto.

Kirill: How much of the set design was influenced by eye color, hair color and skin tone of the main characters?

Phillip: We found neutral colours, and greens to look the best with Julianne’s and Amanda’s hair and skin tone.

Kirill: When Ann Rutherford told the producer David O. Selznick that he can save a lot of money by having the “Gone with the wind” actresses wear flannel petticoats under their hoop skirts, he replied that maybe the audience wouldn’t see them, but the actresses would know they weren’t silk. How important is it to create a complete set even if some parts of it are never seen by the audience?

Phillip: Sometimes I make things interesting for myself, the set dressers and the actors by accessorizing the sets beyond what is seen. For instance, in a main location we would sometimes fill drawers and cupboards with objects that would help define the background of the character. Pertinent books will be used on the shelves… these sort of things often become featured, and can provide the freedom to invent new scenes and to shoot spontaneously.

Kirill: You’re operating within the confines of the script, director’s artistic vision and, sometimes, specific external locations. Do you see this as a factor that limits your creative freedom, or rather a welcome challenge?

Phillip: I enjoy the challenge of working within boundaries. Because I write and direct my own films, often I get involved in the scripting process. I may suggest different locations that may tell the story better, or an action that could replace dialogue. Most people in film recognize the advantage of allowing ideas to flow in a collaborative way. Sharing ideas in the planning of the film is what I enjoy most about film making.

Through discussion I try to find visual language that becomes a coda for the film. Images of texture, colour, light and wardrobe are gathered specifically to the film. These images are put together in a book which is reproduced and distributed to the crew and cast. This “look book” becomes useful for specific references to style, period, but also just to inspire and remind ourselves during the shoot what we set out to do.

Kirill: Open space and cool glass surfaces surrounding the “Chloe” characters at home, soft rich colors and textures bathing the two actresses having an intimate conversation at a coffee shop – what is the importance of the scene setting and background elements in supporting the main story line?

Phillip: In “Chloe” glass became an obvious material to use whenever we could. Catherine lives in a house of glass and all that represents, the erotic voyeuristic nature of glass and windows, the way glass changes with extremes of cold and heat (like the story and the setting), and the way glass reacts when we touch it. It’s like an invisible skin.

Kirill: Computer-generated environments traditionally seen in sci-fi movies are becoming a more mainstream production tool. With the ever increasing sophistication and progressively more powerful capabilities of modeling and rendering software, do you see the filed of physical production design endangered by this trend in the next couple of decades?

Phillip: I enjoy the use of CGI in extending and enhancing real sets. If the film needs to be naturalistic, care must be taken not to overdo CGI and to build into computer generated scenes small flaws that you may experience when shooting something real. I often oversee the CGI work to make sure it fits.

Kirill: And on a perhaps related note, what are your thoughts on the growing presence of 3D productions in feature films?

Phillip: Film has a very short history and the way we read and interpret film is constantly changing. Technological breakthroughs and advances in film production very quickly become accepted, as the audience learn and adapts to new ways of looking. Interestingly, the older technologies remind us of the past and therefore possess a power of nostalgia. Technology becomes our history, it’s how we define ourselves and helps tell our personal story. Our storytelling, and our fascination with light is timeless.

And here i would like to thank Phillip for his outstanding work on the movie and encourage my visitors to watch it and keep an eye not only on the plot, but on the visual surroundings.