March 20th, 2017

Invisible digital worlds – interview with Dan May

Last month I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Joel Collins about the production design of the extraordinary “Black Mirror”. And today I am thrilled to have an opportunity to talk with Joel’s colleague at Painting Practice, the VFX art director Dan May. Dan’s portfolio is as wide and deep as the variety of positions he has explored over the years in the art department – from concept artist to matte painter to pre-vis artist to art director to, most recently, the crossover roles that bridge the worlds of physical and digital. In this interview we talk about the role of a VFX art director and where it fits in the ever-evolving world of art and technology of feature films and episodic TV productions, diving deeper into the intricate universe of “Black Mirror”.

Kirill: Please tell us about how you started in the field.

Dan: I’ve been quite lucky. My dad was an actor, and when I was at school I already knew I wanted to do something in set design. I used to go to theaters and see him play in musicals and other productions, and when I went backstage, set design was always magical for me. You could be in a mundane space on the outside, and then you go inside on a stage and there’s something amazing – a forest or a New York street. You walk behind it and there’s nothing, just plywood and people smoking. There was magic in that for me.

I pushed in that direction when I was at college. Originally I was going to do theater design, and I did my internship at the Royal Opera House making models. I had a really good tutor called Moira Tait who had lots of connections in the industry and a lot of her students become senior people in the industry that are often looking for new juniors and apprentices. I spent the first year of my career working on a list of people I’d like to work. Every Monday morning my job was to go down that list, find them and ask if I could come over to see what they were doing. Lots of people replied that they didn’t have time, but eventually you’d get lucky and they invite you to come over and show your work.

Eventually I got a few breaks and I started at the bottom of the art department, drawing things like windows and doors, going on set and doing the things that you do at the bottom of the ladder. You’re making tea, driving to get prints, helping to dress sets – there’s lots of things to do. And I enjoyed that.

I was always into the CG (computer graphics) side of things, and when I started out twenty years ago, it didn’t really exist. Some people in the art department were starting to use computers, but mainly it was in VFX (visual effects). I started using 3D modeling software early on, and a lot of people were freaked out by it. I did very early pre-vis on some set designs, helping the art department to calculate where the back windows go.

At that point I was getting quite a few jobs, and I was able to go around and see different designers. At that time Joel Collins was doing commercial and music video work. I went to show him my work, and he was really into it. He didn’t understand all of it, but he knew that the computer side of things was going to be good. We did a few smaller jobs together, and I continued to work on bigger feature films, doing 3D set design, drawing in the computer. As I was getting better at it, I worked with Joel quite a lot. We were doing much bigger productions at that point, working with people like David Slade, Hammer and Tongs and Traktor.

We started traveling around the world to places like South Africa and Prague, doing a lot of high-profile work. I’ve gained a lot of experience in set design, and at the same time I was quite keen to do VFX and post-production design. We were building our sets, but also designing matte paintings for post houses. That evolved and grew to the point about ten years ago when I said that it was what I needed to do. And if we wanted to do it well, we needed more equipment and more people to help us.

Back then we started getting into pre-vis which was in its early infancy. They’ve been doing a lot of it in US, but there was only one company doing it here in the UK somewhere in Soho. There was that gap in the market, so we started pre-vis. We kind of got lucky because nobody was doing it at that stage. I did pre-vis on “Quantum of Solace”, “Angels and Demons” and a couple of other big films. It was a fast learning curve because a lot of people didn’t understand what it was for. It frustrated people.


Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: What kind of a frustration are we talking about?

Dan: It’s a tool that needs to be used right, and to be engaged with by all the department heads. Otherwise it costs a lot of money and doesn’t gain anything for anyone. Everyone needs to have time and energy to feed into it for it to be of any value. Otherwise you have people best-guessing what the director and the cinematographer and the production designer want to see.

But over time it has changed. People now understand what it’s for. It’s more productive and efficient, and that’s what I’m doing right now for my next production. Everyone is engaged, and it’s essential to the pipeline. We have people building sets and making shots, and it’s all working very fluidly.

That took us ten years of understanding what the company does, and understanding how the computer tools have evolved. The ethos of our company is about how the two worlds, that of the traditional art department and that of visual effects, are combined and how they work together in pre-production for the shoot to be better, as well as for post-production to be more efficient. If it works, the final product is more creative and better for it.

It’s still very much work in progress. People are changing the rules trying to figure out how it works. Who drives the pre-vis? When does the VFX start? There’s an enormous amount of VFX work on these big-budget productions these days. It might be something invisible that you don’t want the audience to be aware of – like set extensions for period films. You don’t want the audience to see that it’s CG. It’s part of the rollercoaster ride of going to see a film. You want to see beautiful shots and amazing things.


Matte painting for “Nosedive” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

“Black Mirror” fits in a different camp. VFX wants to be invisible and accepted as a part of that world. But at the same time, people are interested in us trying to predict what’s next. They want to see a less showy and a more realistic version of what the future might look like. I can’t talk for the creators or the producers of the show, but in general the opinion of VFX that Joel and I share is for the show to be pared down. It has to be believable and acceptable. I think that’s what people like about it. It feels like a very believable universe. It’s not too glitzy.

There have been moments in the third season which are more traditional VFX shots. They’ve been generated from scratch in CG, but they had to be completely photo-real. We didn’t want them to feel created in any shape or form.

That’s where we are at the moment. The company is a mixture of concept design, matte painting and motion graphics. We’re in this weird space between an art-based pre-production company and a VFX house. We do use fairly expensive bits of software and equipment to do what we do. It’s the same tools that a VFX house would use, but primarily for the design purposes. We have to create a place to house that, to have an office with the people that service that equipment. I suppose that by necessity we are a production company of art work and art creation that can service any point in the production process.

In the ideal world, like with “Black Mirror”, we service from the very beginning seed of the story all the way through to the very end. On most of the episodes of the third season it was myself, Justin Hutchinson-Chatburn or another freelancer Sean Mathiesen who VFX-supervised all the shots to the very end. I was also the VFX art director for Joel on most of the show, and Joel did the production design for all the episodes.

So we’ve started at the very beginning in terms of conceptualizing what the VFX would look like. And then it’s our responsibility, but not necessarily our job, to facilitate the look of those and get them signed off by Charlie, Annabel and the directors, so that everybody is happy with the final result. We wouldn’t necessarily do that through our company. It would be done with vendors like Framestore, Glassworks and Jellyfish.


Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

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March 3rd, 2017

Production design of Vinyl – interview with Bill Groom

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Bill Groom. His career in the art department spans four decades, and includes feature films such as “A League of Their Own”, “It Could Happen to You”, “Perfect Stranger”, “Milk” and “Eat Pray Love”. Most recently he worked as the production designer on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” that earned him four straight Emmy awards, as well as on the first (and unfortunately the only) season of “Vinyl”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the industry.

Bill: I went to graduate school at Tulane, New Orleans and then after that I taught for four years at the Stony Broke University in New York. When I was at school, I always imagined I would have a career in theater, and a friend of mine once told me that these careers are not linear. I think she was right about that. Some things present themselves along the way, you make choices and that leads to another choice. That is how it evolves.

When I was teaching, during the summers I worked with a friend of mine who had friends at Saturday Night Live. When there was a job opening there, she let me know, and I went there for an interview. That what started me on the path to television and movies. Eugene Lee was the designer on SNL at the time, and I assisted him. He also did a few made-for-TV movies for PBS, hiring me as his assistant. He ended up turning one of them over to me, and that’s how I got started.

I did several of those for PBS. The first one was “Life on the Mississippi”, and the last one was “Huckleberry Finn”. And I continued working on SNL as I was doing those, because those productions were mostly done during summertime, except for the last one which overlapped. I made a choice there and didn’t go back to SNL. I’ve worked on SNL for four years, and by the end of it I was 28 years old. I’ll be 66 next month, so that tells you how long SNL has been on [laughs]. I could’ve spent my entire career on that one show. But I’ve enjoyed the different things that I’ve done since then.

Kirill: And that’s when you moved into the world of feature film, doing art direction and production design.

Bill: First I designed several TV shows for PBS, and through a few director contacts that I’ve made I did a couple of network pilots. And at some point I’ve decided that to really quickly move into the feature world, I needed to get to know it a little bit. At the time, all those years ago, it was probably a bit more different from television than it is now.

I think that now some of the work in TV is more interesting than some of the work in features. It’s almost 40 years ago that I’ve started in TV. A friend of mine used to say that TV was broadcasting and not narrowcasting. That was 40 years ago, and now it’s pretty much narrowcasting. These shows have much smaller audiences than they did in the day when I was first doing TV.

It seems to me that TV is doing a lot more interesting work and taking more chances in some ways than features. There’s a lot of money riding on features, and that has an effect on choices that are made from the production standpoint.

Kirill: And some TV shows attract a lot of talent that used to work exclusively in the feature world.

Bill: Partly it’s because of the work that is being done in television and what the premium cable networks are choosing to produce. I think that’s what draws the people who expected to have a career in features and weren’t that interested in TV five years ago.

I saw that happening. I was offered the job at the “Boardwalk Empire” at the same time as I was being frustrated with the feature project that was on and off for over a year. We would be on for a few months, and we’d be off, and then it would come up again. It was all about trying to make sense of it financially. I was pretty frustrated with it at that point, and they offered me “Boardwalk Empire” that was fifteen minutes from my front door. It was an easy choice [laughs].

I really like the people making the show, and the show itself. I took the job and haven’t done a feature since. Last year I did “Vinyl” and we had hopes for it to go on for a few years. They’ve announced the second season and then cancelled it. I had already moved on from it because Terry Winter left, and a lot of people who I knew and that were working on it left as well. I wanted to take this summer off and take care of some personal things.

Unless a really interesting TV project comes along, I’ll probably think about going back into features for a while. I did a project in Canada that ended a month ago. It’s called “When We Rise” and all my old friends from “Milk” – Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black among the rest – are involved with it. It’s a mini-series that will be in ABC in February. It’s about the history of the LGBT movement in San Francisco from about 1971 to 2015. It’s just a great team of people to work with, and I really enjoyed that.

When I first started it, they were OK with the idea of me going back to “Vinyl”, but I didn’t have to as it turns out. So I was able to stay with it until it was done. I’m really excited about it and I think we did a great job. It was one of the broadcast networks doing premium cable material, really. It was quite challenging because budgets are a bit lower than they are for HBO, Netflix, Amazon etc. Everybody worked very hard and I think we’ve produced a nice series.

Kirill: It feels to me that stories that were once told in mid-budget feature dramas are being told as episodic television these days.

Bill: That’s been happening for a while for the mid-level dramatic productions that I always thought would be the projects that I’d be doing when I started out in film. I did one action movie years ago. It actually wasn’t an action movie when we started [laughs], but it kept getting rewritten, and each time it got more action in it. I was offered other action movies after that, and it wasn’t just hand-crafted enough for me. It was too big, and I enjoy being a little more hands on with every department and every part of the art department.

It was “Money Train” and it was one art department in Los Angeles and one in New York, and more than a dozen set designers, and set decorators on both coasts. For its day it was a big-budget project. And I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the more hand-crafted projects.

I think you’re right about TV being the place where mid-level interesting dramatic stories have settled. The production that I mentioned being frustrated about struggled because of that. It finally got off the ground – it was “Selma”. I was quite excited about doing it with Lee Daniels when he was directing it. By the time it was made, Lee had moved on to something else. It was the struggle to get it going, and it was about money, about not being able to make it for the number that they wanted to make it for then. I don’t know what the budget ended up being on that project.

That’s the struggle with the smaller indie projects. They are really hard to do. It’s a lot of work. You’re working for not quite enough money to pay your bills [laughs]. On some level you’re kind of subsidizing the project, and that works for some people.

I did a little movie called “Paper Man” with Jeff Daniels, and I loved the script. But at a certain point in your life when you have certain responsibilities, you can’t do those movies all the time. You can take a moment to do something you really like and not make your standard rate doing that, but you can’t always work for those projects at a certain point in your life.

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February 25th, 2017

Screen graphics of “Mars” – interview with Nawaz Alamgir

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Nawaz Alamgir. In this interview Nawaz talks about the beginning of his career doing trailer graphics for feature films, the switch he made to doing screen graphics through a number of self-initiated fantasy UI projects, and the work he did for “Bastille Day” and “Morgan”. And all of that is the introduction to Nawaz’s work on the six-part first season of “Mars” for National Geographic. The show combines documentary-style interviews on the state of the space program in 2017 with a scripted narrative of the first manned expedition to Mars in 2033. We talk about the screen graphics work that spanned over the period of nine months, what went into designing those screens and incorporating them into the narrative on set, as well as in post production.

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

Nawaz: I left university knowing that I wanted to do something design-related. There were lots of options to choose from, all entry-level web design work and similar things. I ended up getting a job as a web designer at the video games company SEGA. I was there about four years.

Youtube was just started to grow, and back then around 2005 you had to have a really jazzy website. In my third year at Sega I got my hands on a copy of AfterEffects, and we started doing video work, as web sites started becoming video-heavy. I started doing web sites doing animations and video.

I remember when the first “Transformers” came out, and I saw the trailer graphics, and I was amazed. I researched the companies who did that, all of them in LA, as I never noticed that kind of graphics before. I always loved trailers, and I thought it was perfect. Over the next year I taught myself various tricks to be a trailer graphics artist, and then decided that it was time to jump ship.

At that time one of the companies, Create Advertising, opened a branch in London. There were between 20 to 30 trailer houses in LA, and only two or three in London. Long story short, I got a job there, and I’ve spent the next four years doing loads of trailers graphics. My first job was “Black Swan”, and then came “The King’s Speech”. They were just trailer graphics for the local UK market. Sometimes my graphics would go to US, depending on who took the lead.


Trailer graphics for feature films. Courtesy of Nawaz Alamgir.

And during my last year there I noticed that UI in film was kicking in. Mark Coleran was the first time I ever saw UI in film, and I kept on thinking how anybody can be so detailed. Back then there wasn’t as many resources, and I wanted to get into doing that. I knew it was pretty tough to get in.

About three years ago I left my full time job at Create and went into the world of freelancing. It got to a point that even though the company I was working for was good, I did all I could with trailer graphics. It was time for a change. My idea at the time was to work fewer hours, because at that point I had a few deaths around me which put things in perspective. I took off three months, and I’ve spent that time traveling.

I freelanced at loads of different places doing small motion design jobs as well as doing a few film titles sequences for a year, until I decided to start creating some self initiated UI and screen design projects. I wanted to build up some work to show that I could do UI work and also gain some experience from working on projects.

I did a few UI videos and put them on Vimeo, and the one that did well was FUI Echo, getting to 45K views on Behance. At the time I wanted to do two things – end title sequences and UI. They are completely different, but still related.


Self-initiated FUI Echo project. Courtesy of Nawaz Alamgir.

I messaged a couple of studios in London. It was rather generic, saying that I’m not looking for work, but I’m a big fan of your work and this is what I’ve done. And literally the next day I got a message from London based studio Fugitive Studios (who have a great portfolio of film titles) saying that they just got a UI project for a film.

This was for “Bastille Day” which is now called “The Take” because of the terror attacks in France. We did 87 different shots, all in post. Those were really generic CCTV cameras, a screen hacking the bank, CIA computers and that kind of stuff. The director said that he didn’t want generic blue screens for the CIA. He wanted white, but the problem with that is that the screens are lit already going into post, and the actors’ faces are lit blue from the screens. So you kind of have to use blue, and we went with a lighter shade of it.


Screen graphics for “Bastille Day”. Courtesy of Nawaz Alamgir.

It took me five weeks to do these shots, working with other guys at Fugitive. They loved it, and the director loved it, and I think it looked pretty cool on screen when one of the post houses did the screen replacement. That was my first job done, and literally a few weeks later they called me and said that they have another UI job for the film “Morgan”, they said that it’s a small, $5M-budget film in the same vein as “Ex Machina”.

One of the owners would go to speak to the director, and come back describing the idea of a UI that kind of lives inside the CCTV and tracks the footage. There was some UI in the film already, and we were doing the overlays and a few other shots. We did the nano-technology tracking shots, with generically looking stuff.


Screen graphics for “Bastille Day”. Courtesy of Nawaz Alamgir.

Kirill: As we’re talking about “Morgan”, what kind of a brief did you get? Did it talk about who developed the technology – the corporation sponsoring the research or that small group of scientists on that farm, and how that affected the sophistication of the UI?

Nawaz: The only comment that the director said was that it had CCTV tracking, and that he wants it to look cool. We had a rough assembly of the film, and as we watched it, it felt corporate-y and institutional. You’re not really interacting with it.

We knew that the opening shot of the film would be some kind of a UI overlay for a CCTV. The note said that it would have two data sources for their vitals. Morgan’s throughout the whole thing should be calm and stable, while the other one would be spiking red because they’ve been attacked. That was the only brief. We wanted to make it subtle, and a bit futuristic.

This is what we started with. At first I tracked it the AfterEffects tracker, but it didn’t look right. So I literally manually tracked it, and it looks more realistic that way. It’s almost like you’re using face tracking on a phone, where it slides all over the place.


Screen graphics for “Morgan”. Courtesy of Nawaz Alamgir.

Kirill: In a case like this when you don’t have a very detailed brief, did you have multiple iterations with director’s feedback.

Nawaz: Luckily we hit it on version one. The director liked it, and in part it was also about time and budget constraints. It was already at the editorial stage at the time. Another company did the generic interfaces for the computers, and we added another layer of sophistication to it.

There was a scene that shows how the nano-technology works, and we did that. I remember watching a talk somewhere, and that guy specializes in medical CGI stuff. We got him to join us and work with us. I did some tracking, random numbers, emulated uploads. It was a real simple job to do.

Then came the end title sequence for which the director sent a single image of a DNA strand, and he said that he would like the entire sequence to be like that. His initial idea was to get the DNA samples of all the actors and put them on screen, but there was neither time nor money to do that. So we just faked it. Each card had its own DNA strand on it, and as the time continues, it loads different things. It was quite simple end title sequence. It wasn’t my first one, but it was my first major one. I was quite happy with it when I saw it in the cinema.


Screen graphics for “Morgan”. Courtesy of Nawaz Alamgir.

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February 22nd, 2017

Production design of “Black Mirror” – interview with Joel Collins

“Black Mirror” is a show like no other. It’s an anthology set in a world just around the corner, a world that is at times soothingly tranquil, and at times achingly terrifying. It’s a world that shows the great promise of technology, and is not afraid to explore the dark corners of how that technology can undo the fabric of our daily social interactions at work, with friends and within family.

Last year I interviewed Gemma Kingsley about the screens that exposed that technology in the first two seasons of the show. Today I am quite honored to talk with the production designer of “Black Mirror”, Joel Collins. Along with his company Painting Practice, Joel has been with the show since its very beginning. We talk about the beginning of his career, his love of all things physical, how “Black Mirror” started and how it evolved when it transitioned to Netflix, building a universe that spans the different storylines, and working with multiple directors across the arc of each season.

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

Joel: Back in the 80’s I began to train as a fine artist. Before I started that degree, I made a little book of cartoon illustrations. Somebody took that book to an animator and they offered me a job on an unknown project called “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, incredibly I turned it down, saying that I wanted to be a fine artist! Of course, as we all know, it turned out to be a seminal live action animation movie and when I saw the finished thing I knew I wanted to work in film.

I started out at Henson’s, working on creatures for a variety of productions. Quite rapidly I grew frustrated with being an artist and not being in control. Five years later, as I was working on “Lost in Space”, I had an offer to leave and work as a designer on music videos. That’s when my collaboration with Garth Jennings and Hammer and Tongs started.

We eventually did “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Son of Rambow” together.  I’ve always had an interest in other areas too, be it puppets, creatures, animatronics or special effects.

It seemed that I was always getting involved with projects that didn’t feature just standard set design. That’s one of the reasons why “Black Mirror” was so attractive to me as it gave me the chance to do a huge array of stuff, a lot of it actually inventing things and making 3D objects. I’m currently on the fourth season. So far my company Painting Practice has done three seasons and worked on the title sequence, the motion graphics, visual effects design, VFX shots, conceptual production design, product design – it all adds up to a very holistic creative view.


Concept artwork for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.


Graphics for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: Going back to things that you’ve worked on – puppets, creatures, animatronics – those have been replaced almost entirely by digital effects.

Joel: It’s a lost art, and I trained in it just before it was lost! [laughs]. What I learned about live action, when I started out 25 years ago, is the same thing that helps me do VFX today. I often find myself working with 3D artists who pretty much live on the computer and don’t have a concept of the real world. They are happy to do it all in pixels, whereas I really enjoy actually making a prop, I love the physicality of it.

It’s the same as when you sculpt a puppet or a creature. If you do a drawing of a creature, it’s obviously two-dimensional. The next step is to make it in clay, very much as you would take it into ZBrush today. It was the same thing with set design. You sketched it, constructed a cardboard model and showed everybody.

Today it’s all in 3D, but the fundamentals are still the same. If you do a drawing, you can’t tell if it’s a 6-foot or a 10-foot door. It’s only when you make it that you understand the scale. But when 3D was starting, people would quite often do 3D sets or spaces without understanding the real world and its issues.

Kirill: For me as a viewer does it really matter if it’s done using a physical model or in pure digital environment, as long as the universe I’m seeing is seamless and believable?

Joel: We are telling stories. If it’s a really engaging story, the character can be as simple as a sock with a couple of buttons for eyes. Ultimately, whatever tool you have, simple or complex, if you use it properly you will get a great result. If it’s a great story, all you need is that sock, a couple of eyeballs and a great voiceover.

Humans are great at filling in the gaps. We listen to stories on the radio, and ultimately we are using our imagination no matter how much information we’re given. We piece together the bits that are missing.

On “Black Mirror” it’s all about a moment in a human’s life, or the emotion that characters go through. Essentially, human nature meets machine, meets technology. We don’t need to compete with big budget movies to achieve that. Get the story right, capture the look of the ‘world’ in which the characters live, which in this show is often a close match to the world we all know, and you are good to go.


Concept artwork and graphics for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.


Concept artwork for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.

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