August 15th, 2017

Production design of “Safelight” – interview with Tom Lisowski

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tom Lisowski. In this interview he talks about what production design is, when it needs to stay invisible and the misconceptions viewers have about the field, how the transition from film to digital affected what happens on set, balancing artistic and financial aspects of a production, shifts in the world of story telling between features, episodic TV and streaming services, as well as his work on music videos and commercials. The second half of the interview is about Tom’s work on the recently released “Safelight”, a journey of two troubled teenagers that takes them from a highway truck stop to a road trip down the California coast to photograph lighthouses.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Tom: I went to art school where I studied painting, and after that I started doing art for video games. My forte was environments – basically the same thing that I do for movies now. Because I was doing games I was hired to do a mural for a city cafe set on a TV show. The mural had some videogame-style characters in it. The production designer of the show asked me if I could also draw pictures of the sets. I ended up becoming her art director for a few different projects, TV and features. I discovered production design through her. I did go to art school, but at the time I wasn’t aware the field of production design existed. I love how through your interviews you’re bringing awareness to a field that most people are unaware of.

People know that there’s a director, a cinematographer, and actors, but they don’t know there’s a production designer. A lot of times that’s a good sign. They are in an environment and they don’t know that it was created by someone. If you do a good job, they believe it’s a real place.

Kirill: When people ask you what you do for a living, is it hard to make people understand, especially when we’re talking about productions set in the modern day? After all, we all are surrounded by these environments every single day.

Tom: There’s definitely a misconception about movies set in the modern day. Everything is recognizable, and you’re not in a cave or a castle. The misconception is that someone just showed up with the camera and shot everything. But it’s the same as when you’re writing a novel and choosing what part of an experience to describe. In a movie you’re very careful to choose what the audience sees.

Also, certain things generally look bad on camera, for example white walls. And there are certain elements and props that you use to tell your story. If a character is cold, you want your set dressing to communicate that. You tell the story through the environments, and everything in that whole movie is supporting that story. Everything you do is based on telling the story, whereas in real life everything is totally random [laughs].

Kirill: I like that you mentioned that if you do your job well, it is unseen in a certain sense. As a viewer, I want to follow the story and not look at that wall. You want to send that subliminal message, but not be explicit about it.

Tom: Exactly. We always talk about whether the production design should be invisible or visible. It depends. If you’re going to an alien planet, you’re showing an environment that nobody has ever seen before. A big part of the experience is seeing something amazing, and the audience is definitely noticing it. You’re looking at that environment, and it becomes a huge part of the experience. Some people say that the set becomes a character.

But at the same time, you don’t want the audience to be thinking about it. If somebody is designing the costumes for the characters, you want the viewer to believe that they just woke up that morning and put those clothes on. If you start thinking about what goes on behind the scenes, it takes you out of the story. But there are movies where our work is center stage.

Kirill: Does it help to have the digital pipeline on the set, where you together with the director and the cinematographer can see on the monitor how the sets are captured by the camera?

Tom: That’s especially important for the on-set dresser. They are making sure that everything that needs to be in the frame is in there. I try to be on the set as much as possible. I’m always there when we open the set and start shooting. As much as I can be I’m there to see the set through to completion.

However, a lot of the time I’m also hard at work on the next set. Often the next location isn’t available until the very last minute, so we have to be building and dressing while we’re shooting something else. So I’ll be there, looking at the monitors to make sure everything looks good, and then I have to be off to the next set. I’ll have my on-set team continue to check the monitor constantly.

Nowadays you can see the edits as you’re working on the movie. Not long after you shoot it you can see a rough cut of the scene you just did, and the director will know if something’s missing. Back in the day you had to wait forever for the film to be developed, and then for somebody to cut it together.

Kirill: Do you remember a sense of things going unnecessary slow back then?

Tom: You had to trust your gut and use your imagination a lot more when you couldn’t see it. And all the amazing film-makers didn’t see any of it back in the day when everything was done on film. They would go with their gut and hope that everything was great. Now you can see it sooner, and that makes you become a better production designer, faster.

Kirill: Bringing you back to the beginning of your career on set, what was the most surprising thing you saw around how movies are made?

Tom: I was always blown away to see the really big sets. The mechanics of it is amazing. You see a big cave, and you think that somebody brought in all these big rocks. But it’s all carved out of foam, and painted amazingly well. Or you’re looking at the walls of this mansion, and they are just a very thin piece of lauan plywood. It was eye-opening to see a lot of that stuff.

When I went from video games to the world of movies, I loved the physical aspect of everything. I loved that you can stand in front of it, look at it and walk around it. Before that I had textured polygons on a computer screen. But seeing everything in real life was a big part of the magic of it.

There are also sets where you use forced perspective, with smaller things in the back and bigger things in the front. That tripped me out early on, and I try to use that in my sets sometimes when we want to make the set seem bigger. We had this graveyard set, and we built it all on a stage. We wanted to make it feel like it went on forever, so the trees in the back are smaller so that they look like they’re further away.

Kirill: But in a certain sense that physicality is not real, where as you say, those rocks are carved out of the foam, and there is nothing on the other side of this thin wall. It’s meant to be seen by the camera, and not by me as the viewer being directly on that set.

Tom: That’s true. If you walk around the other side, there’s nothing there.

Other times you are shooting on a practical location. You’re in a real place, like Jack Fisk designing Revenant, for example. They were walking through the snow and icy rivers every single day. But as a production designer you still need to control the world that the camera sees to tell that story.

Kirill: Apart from your feature work, you’ve also done a lot of music videos and commercials. How different are these worlds?

Tom: The approach is completely different for all three of these. On commercials you have all these different factions- you have the client, the agency, and the producers, the director. A lot of different people are weighing in on something that is seconds long. You end up going back and forth discussing a table lamp for weeks. You’re literally showing them different pictures of lamps, and everyone has an opinion. Commercials are a lot more of a corporate thing. It’s less of a creative storytelling. There are lots of cooks in the kitchen. TV can be like this as well when you’re initially creating a design presentation for the network.

Music videos are different because you’re not really telling a story. Occasionally you might be, but people aren’t worried about continuity. It’s going to be cut together in an abstract way. You might design this amazing set, but if they run out of time before they shoot it, it’s not a big deal. They can edit it differently, and it won’t make any difference. But in a movie you’re telling a story. So if you miss that set at the end of the day, part of the story is gone.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each one of the mediums. My personal preference is features.

Kirill: How do you approach researching your productions?

Tom: I’ve done movies in other countries, and I love scouting different locations such as ancient temples that I would never see in any other circumstance. My responsibility is to decide what part of those environments are going to best tell our story in a cinematic way.

Kirill: Do you usually have enough time to scout during the pre-production phase?

Tom: I would say we usually do. That comes down to having a great location manager. If you have a great location team, then it’s great. And if you don’t, it’s going to take a lot longer, and it will be a lot more work for everybody.

You could always use more time with every aspect of a production. These days productions are always cutting down prep time. But I’ve never really felt that I needed more time to find more locations. I have had situations when the location manager wasn’t great, and I ended up having to find most of the locations myself. I don’t advise that [laughs].

Kirill: This is what I find fascinating, to think about how many people come together to work on each one of these productions, and how a well-done film is told through one unified voice. Are there big clashes going on behind the scenes making decisions on how to tell those stories?

Tom: There can be clashes. It’s a big collaborative process, and one of the most important parts of my job is to communicate with everybody. All of us go back and forth with our visions, but we need to be on the same page. Even after construction starts and we start building sets, we need to constantly share imagery between the director and the producers and the cinematographer, so that everybody remains on the same page. You don’t want anyone to walk in and be totally surprised by what’s going on.

On commercials there are a lot of people involved from the agency or the client who have no connection to the process, and maybe they’ve never done it before. They want to provide input, and the trick is for us to handle it in such a way that they can learn the benefits of the existing process.

Kirill: There’s the artistic side of telling the story, and there’s the financial side of staying within the budget. Does it feel that you are wearing two conflicting hats on the set?

Tom: I wouldn’t say conflicting, but the financial side is a huge part of it. If there was an unlimited supply of money, you could do anything. Back when I was doing games we were limited by polygons. The trick is to use what you have to do something amazing.

Often you’ll have a setback and you won’t have budget for something, or you won’t have the time to fly something in, and you end up finding a solution that is even better than the first idea. Sometimes those challenges can actually help you, but at the same time you can always use more money in order to have more options.

For anyone who is thinking about going into the field of production design, a huge part of it is understanding the financial side [laughs]. You are not going to be hired again if you go way over budget, no matter how great everything looks. If you are unable to deal with the money side of it, people are not going to want to work with you.

Kirill: Does it get easier after a few productions, as you get a sense of how much time and money certain things take?

Tom: Definitely. The more experience you have with it, the easier it becomes. Without even writing down any numbers, I have a rough idea about the budget, and that comes from experience.

Kirill: When you get a script, how deep does it go into the details of the environments? How do you approach reading the script and relaying the visual ideas of it for the interview with the director?

Tom: The main part of your first meeting with the director is presenting your vision of how you see yourself designing the movie. The more information you have about the script, and the more specific you are about the movie, the better.

The production designer Bo Welch said that it’s all about breaking the code. You have to crack the code of the script. For me that involves going through every little detail about the script, notating every prop and piece of set dressing, and through that process I somehow crack the code. Sometimes it’s faster and sometimes it’s slower. But you get to the point where you come up with a central metaphor of the script. You discover what the characters are trying to find. If you realize what it’s really about, everything that you do can reflect that.

Kirill: How was “Safelight” for you?

Tom: It was a fun movie to work on. It’s fulfilling to live in and design a different time period, and tell something very specific. We shot it in California at a fake truck stop. I also enjoyed going to all the different lighthouses. We went up and down the California coast on our scouts, photographing the lighthouses and getting pictures to use as the props for the main character. It was a great experience, to break out of the motel and the truck stop, and go on a lighthouse road trip.

Kirill: So this fake truck stop is an existing location where they’ve already shot a few other productions.

Tom: Yes, that’s what it is. We didn’t have to build it. We brought in set dressings and props, but the framework was already there. We put up a different sign for the outside of the truck stop and we might have built one wall, but most of it was there. It was similar to shooting in a real gas station.

There are two truckstop sets like that outside of LA. One of them was built for the Dennis Hopper movie, “Eye of the Storm”. After the movie finished shooting they kept it up and started renting it out. The original production designer wasn’t in on that deal so he went off and built another, very similar set to rent out, and that’s where we shot “Safelight”.

Kirill: Would you say there’s a certain visual language for the last few decades for US productions? Let’s say that the ’70s are usually portrayed with a warmer, earthen color palette, and the ’80s have more vibrant color in them. Is it limiting in any way for you that you’re not “supposed” to stray away from those conventions?

Tom: I think it’s something you can control and play off of people’s expectations. Sometimes you can go totally against those expectations, and sometimes it’s a nostalgic nod to, say, the genre films that were made in the ’70s. You want to evoke that feeling, and it becomes a huge part of the story that you’re telling. And other times you go against that and you present the ’70s that no-one has ever seen before.

Kirill: How did it go on “Safelight” with deciding on the visual language?

Tom: Our references were those warm vibes that you were talking about. We looked at certain references, and we wanted to evoke that feeling. We didn’t want to make a huge statement or throw people off. It was more about going back to a certain world, and once we’re in that world, to tell the story.

Kirill: Do you find yourself paying a lot of attention to what you put in the frame? Say, you can’t put a modern car in a movie that is happening in the ’70s.

Tom: That’s a huge part of it. Occasionally something will come up, and someone will point out that no one ever would have had this pair of sunglasses in the ’70s. Then sometimes the film makers will want to use it anyway, because it helps to tell the story better, or it shows that character in a more stylized way. Sometimes you take a poetic license with certain things, but other times you want to be totally accurate with everything. Still, sometimes it’s cool to be the ’70s feel from the viewpoint of a modern eye.

Kirill: What does that mean? To have a more permissive license to use more modern elements?

Tom: Not necessarily to bring modern props to the set but, for example, you might want to use more contemporary color choices. Often, when you watch a TV show from the ’60s or ’70s, some of it looks so dated and cheesy, but there are ways to evoke the same time period without it looking cheesy to us today. Although at the same time there are some films from back then that aren’t cheesy at all, the styles are still cool today.

When you design a movie, you want to have a total control over that. You want to have control over whether you go over the top, or have it feel totally naturalistic.

Kirill: As you went along the coast to shoot the lighthouses, did the weather cooperate?

Tom: It did, although it was really cold and windy at some of those lighthouses along the northern coast of California.

Kirill: Now that some time has passed since you’ve worked on “Safelight”, what stays with you as it becomes a part of your past and you look back at it?

Tom: On that movie I’d say lighthouse architecture! There is quite a variety out there.

Kirill: Perhaps it’s not relevant for “Safelight” as you were working with an existing standing set, but how does it feel to see the sets that you’ve dreamt up being torn down and destroyed?

Tom: I’m usually glad to see them go and for the materials to get recycled. They’ve served their purpose. A long time ago we built a set for a production, and after the movie the stage asked us if we could leave it there for future productions. It was a basement set with a winding staircase, and we put a lot of and work into it. At the time we were happy to save the time and money we would have used to strike the set.

It was up for years afterwards and it was used by a bunch of different productions. People made holes in the walls, and it went through all these transformations. On one hand we were saving the environment, and on the other hand people were seeing it in the way that was it was not originally intended. I had mixed feelings about it but in the end it was cool that other people could make use of it.

Kirill: As the production winds down, and some months pass as the post-production does edits, sound, music, color correction etc, and then it eventually gets to the movie theater, how does it feel to watch one of your own movies? Do you look at the finer details of each set? Do you get to enjoy the story that you already know?

Tom: It depends on how much time has passed. Usually, if it’s a well-made movie, I get caught up in the story. But it’s tough. You know too much about it. Definitely the more time passes, the more objectively you can see things.

And when I watch other people’s movies, if it’s an amazing movie with a compelling story, I forget to look at the production design. But if the movie is not great, I sit and study the production design for two hours.

Kirill: What keeps you going in the industry? I’d imagine you spend a lot of time away from family and friends, with long hours once a production starts rolling.

Tom: I love making movies. It’s the creativity and the adrenalin of the whole process that keep me going. It’s much harder to have time off [laughs]. The harder question would be what keeps me going in between productions.

It’s definitely not all glamour – in reality we’re working hard seven days a week. But the thing is that you’re working that hard to create something magical. That’s the cool thing about it. You’re telling a story. You’re creating something. When you’re doing a film or a TV show your only job is to tell a story to people, and that’s an exciting thing. That’s a fun process, no matter how hard the work is.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the shifts between the worlds of feature films and episodic television, where so many great stories are being told these days on larger canvases afforded by multi-hour episodic arcs?

Tom: It’s interesting, and I’ve actually just started work on prepping a TV show. I normally do features, and it’s a whole different thing. The process is different, but in the end it’s a series of sets that are telling a story. Instead of telling that story over two hours, you do that over multiple episodes. My job is similar in that I’m need to find a good way to visually tell the story.

There have been amazing shows with amazing production design in them in recent years. “Stranger Things” comes to mind. Even shows without sci-fi in them have some great production design, and producers that recognize the value of good production design.

Kirill: What’s the major difference? Is it in having the show creator who is the equivalent of a movie director, as they might have different directors and cinematographers coming in to individual episodes of the same season, and you are there as a guardian of the consistent visual look?

Tom: In TV often it’s up to the production designer and the DP the maintain the look of the show because the directors are transient after the first couple episodes.

Kirill: I love seeing how the world of story-telling evolves, with so many different channels that creators have to bring their stories to life. Good storytelling is there, no matter what format it is wrapped in.

Tom: That’s true. It’s constantly changing. As we evolve into more virtual reality [VR] experiences we are still going to be telling those stories visually, just using different tools.

Kirill: There’s definitely a lot of interest in VR in the consumer electronics market. I don’t know if it’s going to be a vibrant storytelling medium the way films are. Perhaps it will take a couple of generations that are not going to be held down by the existing vocabulary and conventions to explore that medium, much as it took a few decades for film-makers to break away from the conventions of the theater stage.

Tom: I predict that it will become a lot more important. It will change the way that stories are told, and the audience will become less passive. At the same time, as artists we want to create a piece of art, and to have control over it. We want people to experience a specific story, and not just have a random experience.

A huge part of our job is what we put into the frame. But I can see the future where you’re watching a horror movie, and you see something in front of you, but then hear something behind you, and can’t help but turn your head to see what it is. Your experience of the story will change depending on where you decide to put your focus.

Virtual Reality will ultimately change the way stories are told and experienced. But I still love watching old black and white movies, and I’m always going to love the traditional film medium. At the same time, I am excited to see how we’ll share our experiences in the future.

And here I’d like to thank Tom Lisowski for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the craft of production design, and on what went into creating the worlds of “Safelight”. Tom also is one of the founders of ArtStars.us, a site dedicated to conversations with Hollywood’s leading production designers and art directors.

“Safelight” is out now on DVD and other digital formats. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!