June 17th, 2016

A conversation about fantasy user interfaces

A few weeks ago I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to chat with Khoi Vinh about fantasy user interfaces. Khoi asked really great questions, bringing in his experience as a designer and his passion for film. We talked about the overriding directive to support the story, the fantasy bleeding into the reality and, in turn, being shaped by the advances in the world of real-life technology, trying to evaluate how well those interfaces are done, and what might be happening when virtual reality becomes a form of cinematic storytelling.

Here’s the bit where I talk about screens as plot devices that might not seem very believable:

I don’t think that the question here is about how plausible the screens are, but rather how plausible the technology that those screens manifest is. So you’d be talking about the AI engine that is J.A.R.V.I.S. in “Iron Man,” or the AI engine that is manifested as Samantha in “Her,” or being able to track the bad guys via thermal scans in a 3D rotating wireframe of a building in any number of action movies, or even the infamous zoom-rotate-enhance sequences in low-budget procedural crime drama on television. The interface bits are just the manifestation of the technology behind the screens. Are we close to wide consumer availability of J.A.R.V.I.S.-like software? There are certainly a lot of companies working on that.

When we look at the devices around us and see all the annoying bits, and then see those annoying bits not being there in a feature film, that is quite believable in my opinion. So something like not needing to charge your phone every evening or getting a strong mobile signal as you’re driving on a deserted road gets a pass. When we look at the devices around us, and see those capabilities pushed just a few steps beyond the edge of what we see right now, that is quite believable as well. Especially with the recent revelations on the state-level surveillance programs, I as a viewer am not surprised to see similar technology taken a couple steps forward in Bond, Bourne or other similar spy-action thrillers.

The full conversation is over at Khoi’s great Subtraction.com. And as always, the ongoing series of interviews I do with designers working on screen graphics and user interfaces for film and TV is just one click away.

June 16th, 2016

Production design of “Miss You Already” – interview with Amanda McArthur

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Amanda McArthur. As a production designer, she splits her time between the worlds of film, theatre and commercials. In this interview Amanda talks about starting out in the industry and how things evolved over the years, differences between doing production design for film and stage, various aspects of working on commercials, what makes people stay in the field and what makes people leave. The second half of the interview is about her work on “Miss You Already”, a touching story about lifelong friendship between two women played by Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore, and how that friendship is put to the test as one falls ill and the other starts a family.

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

Amanda: I grew up in New Zealand, the daughter of a sculptor and an accountant. And I figure I am something in between. My job involves creating spaces in three dimensions and bringing it in on budget. My mother was a creative force and our home and garden were always full of life, beauty and wonder. Creations would be rising out of lumps of clay, wood or resin on our kitchen bench and finding their way out into the world. My Dad had a workshop under the house. So I guess I have always been surrounded by possibilities.

I grew up partly in the country with three boys having adventures, there was always a mystery to explore, an old abandoned house, a Victorian rubbish dump filled with treasure, a maori burial site, making rafts, eeling and finding the best swimming holes in the river.

I read a lot and this fed into these adventures, we would create our own stories and legends. So I guess it was inevitable I would be attracted to bringing stories to life. Collaborating with a director and finding a visual language for a story is a thrilling thing.

Kirill: What drew you into the industry, and how those expectations compared to the reality of being in the industry?

Amanda: I remember as a child sitting in a cool, dark cinema on a hot day watching a re-run of “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang” and being captivated – the real world on the screen but magical. But my teachers at school were pushing me to be a scientist. I think the movie that changed it all for me was “Blade Runner” – the possibility of another world so beautifully realized blew me away. You always have pictures swirling in your head when you read any story and this made me realize that those pictures can become tangible. I knew what I wanted to do.

There was no training for film design in New Zealand at the time so I trained as an agency art director. A holiday job in a theatre troupe putting on a big summer spectacular was the springboard I had been looking for. And I threw myself into fringe and then mainstream theatre with abandon and did well. Downstage theatre took me on as a trainee and a new post-graduate course at University in theatre design followed. I was the guinea pig, the only student, having my lectures alone.

It was a very exciting time, lots of great new writing. In the theatre you do costume as well. It was a time of experimentation, and learning lots of different skills. I find now that all the best crew I have, have come up through the theatre. It’s incredibly hard work with a few moments of glamour and I find that theatre people have a strong imaginative backbone.

The only difficult thing was being so young and a girl. Sexism in the set building trade at that time was rife and I really had to earn my right of passage with the old construction managers. I won a few awards and then got a grant from the NZ and British arts councils to travel and study in England, at the National theatre and the Royal exchange in Manchester.

I still really wanted to get into TV and film so I knocked on lots of doors and ended up at Granada TV and then the BBC. A student film I designed at the NFTS (set in an imaginary world) got me into commercials because a director wanted that look.

Visual sketch for the apartment in “Piccadilly Jim”, courtesy of Amanda McArthur.

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May 13th, 2016

Production design of “Hannibal” – interview with Matthew Davies

With its viscerally spellbinding world, immaculate visuals and an exquisite cast, NBC’s “Hannibal” gave us three unforgettable seasons. It gives me immense pleasure to welcome Matthew Davies who was responsible for the production design of this show. In this interview he talks about various aspects of building sets on stage and on location, working with VFX department on augmenting physical sets, the pace of production schedule in episodic television, physical safety of sets and people’s reaction to “Hannibal”. In addition, Matthew dives deeper into the particular set details of the FBI office, the Baltimore state hospital and Cappella Palatina from season 3.

On the set of Hannibal’s Palermo house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

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

Matthew: My name is Matthew Davies and I’m a production designer. I came into film through architecture. I studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Towards the end of my degree I recall one of my tutors critiquing my work as being very derivative. He said that if I was going to emulate the work of other architects, I might consider a career in film where everything is copied.

It was like a light bulb going on inside my head. I went to the National Film School for another three years, and graduated again into a very tough industry. I was art-directing medium sized features; then there were the occasional design gigs on low-budget indie films; and in the gaps, I was drafting on big studio movies. Nowhere was I finding anything that combined the satisfaction of having a budget to spend with the creative autonomy that accompanies indie projects. The opportunities were very few and far between in the UK; it is a field oversaturated with talent.

Fortuitously, I ended up by chance doing a film with a Canadian cinematographer, Paul Sarossy, who is probably best known for shooting the movies of Atom Egoyan. He invited me to Canada back in 2002, and I’ve continued working in Toronto ever since. I started with indigenous Canadian directors like Guy Maddin and as the source of the work shifted, I moved on to NBC and cable shows that were being made here in Toronto.

It was this path that brought me into the fold of “Hannibal” and attracted the attention of Patti Podesta who had been hired to design the original pilot. She asked me to share in the design of the standing sets and I subsequently stepped into her shoes on “Hannibal”.

On the set of Hannibal’s Palermo house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Still of the same set from the final cut.

Kirill: Taking you back to the beginning of your career in movies, was there anything particularly surprising as you got into the industry and saw how things worked on the inside?

Matthew: I was surprised how big it is. I don’t think anyone really appreciates when they watch a film that 95% of what they’re looking at is probably shot in a studio environment, including often street sets and exterior scenes. I didn’t really think about that up until I was in film school.

Once you get into a studio environment like Pinewood Studios in the UK, you appreciate how many crafts go into creating a feature, and all the hundreds of thousands of hours of labor and craftsmanship that go into building sets. The relationship between set design and visual effects has become more paramount, and it extends right from the very early stages of the pre-production up to the last stages of the post-production. I think that design has become a much larger and broader discipline than it used to be.

Kirill: Is it difficult in any way for you to convince the production that what you do is a necessary thing?

Matthew: It depends. Experienced producers generally know the profits of investing more into the infrastructure of the show. On “Hannibal” it cost production an estimated $40,000 premium every day when we were shooting outside of our studio. So, generally speaking, if a set cost less than say $40,000, it was an automatic green light to build. And that doesn’t even take into account whatever had been allocated to the art department. It was an economy for production to be based around the studio rather than on location.

Other shows are location-based, and it’s by necessity. They have a small shooting crew and small lighting packages; they are very footloose and can move quickly. But when you’re working with a large unit, everything is slower. The time it takes to set up and pre-light in a studio is a fraction of the time because it has already been done many times before, and everybody knows the ropes.

Whenever there was a budgetary pressure on “Hannibal”, the producers would generally try to force Bryan Fuller [show creator] and his writers back into a pre-existing set.

On the set of Hannibal’s office. Still from the final cut.

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April 25th, 2016

Production design of “The Hunger Games” – interview with Philip Messina

In the last 15 years his career has left an indelible mark on the silver screens. Through his collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan, Gary Ross and Francis Lawrence, production designer Philip Messina has worked, among the rest, on “Erin Brockovich”, “Traffic”, “Solaris”, all three “Ocean’s”, “8 Mile”, “The Last Airbender” and the upcoming “Free State of Jones”. And it has unquestionably been almost impossible to escape the juggernaut of “The Hunger Games” franchise, with Philip working on all four films in as many years.

In this interview he talks about the world of big-budget productions, returning to work with the same director on multiple projects, various aspects of physical sets and digital / CG environments, and designing movies that are watched on a variety of screens in our daily lives. In the second part of the interview Philip delves deeper into the intricately built worlds of “The Hunger Games”, talking about the schedule pressures of designing and shooting the two back-to-back parts of “Mockingjay”, approaching an existing universe from the book trilogy and translating it into on-screen visuals, defining the totalitarian spaces of the Capitol and finding parallels in the world of technology between the imaginary world of the franchise and the world that we all live in.

Stills from Avenue of Tributes sequence in “Catching Fire”.

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

Philip: My name is Philip Messina and I’m a production designer.  I got into the industry in 1990 as a set designer, which was really a draughtsman, working with Stuart Wurtzel who was the production designer on the film “Mermaids”. I had never worked in the film industry before or even knew that these jobs existed.

They came to Boston to make this movie, and I worked on it for a few months and instantly fell in love with the film business and specifically the art department. I drew little bungalows and designed a lot of signs from the ’50s and the ’60s. That was back in the day where people didn’t really know what Hollywood did. There were no DVD extras or that kind of stuff, and I had no idea that there was a film business that took what I loved about architecture and design, and transformed it into films, which I also loved. It was a very transformative experience for me.

I then was lucky enough to work on several films based in the Boston area after that. I was uncredited on “School Ties” which featured Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were local actors. I also worked on “House Sitter” where we ironically got to build a dream house for an architect. Then I saw very quickly that if I wanted to move up in the business, being in Boston was probably not the best place to be, that it would probably go faster if I moved to LA or NY. My wife and I got married and we both restarted our careers in Los Angeles, and I worked my way up from set designer to art director through the ’90s.

In 1999 I was fortunate enough to design “Erin Brockovich”, and then right after that “Traffic”. I had previously art-directed “Out of Sight” for Steven Soderbergh, and he gave me my break on “Erin”. It was crazy start to my career as a designer – both “Erin” and “Traffic” were Oscar nominated for best picture in 2000. That started an almost 10-year collaboration where Steven and I made all three “Ocean’s” movies, “Solaris” and “The Good German”. It was a very fun time. “The Good German” was in black-and-white set in post-war Berlin, “Solaris” was a ver heady science-fiction film, the “Ocean’s” movies were huge builds and we got to shoot all over Europe for “12”. It was quite an adventure, and my wife Kristen was the set decorator through all those films, and we got to travel and work together. Those were some of my favorite years in the film business.

Then I began to do films with other directors as well. I designed “8 Mile” for Curtis Hanson and “The Last Airbender” with M. Night Shyamalan with whom I worked as the art director on “Sixth Sense” years before. “8 Mile” was a gritty drama set in the rap world of Detroit and “Airbender” was a big fantasy movie where we got to do some great work on a very large scale. Then I ended up doing “The Hunger Games” with Gary Ross whom I had met through Steven Soderbergh. I’ve also just completed “Free State of Jones” with Gary – that’s coming out in the next couple of months. After the first “Hunger Games” I was asked by Francis Lawrence to complete the next three films in the series with him and ‘suddenly’ 4 years went by where I was almost exclusively designing that series

So that gets us up to the present day where I’m in Montreal working with Darren Aronofsky on his next film which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem – we start shooting in about 7 weeks.

Top: concept illustration for Katniss airlift sequence by Nathan Schroeder, courtesy of Philip Messina. Bottom – stills of the sequence from “Catching Fire”.

Kirill: As you collaborate with the same people, director or cinematographer, on multiple productions, does it become easier as you can anticipate what each side expects from the other?

Philip: Sure, it becomes easier. You know people’s strengths and weaknesses, and that goes both directions. He knows mine and I know his, and you are able to complement each other more easily. I worked with Francis Lawrence on three movies, with Gary Ross on two, with M. Night Shyamalan on two, with Steven Soderbergh on nine or ten. I tend to want to cultivate relationships with directors that I find interesting on projects that appeal to me. As I’ve worked through my career, I find that there are different things that appeal to me at different times in my life.

I’ve done period movies, I’ve done a couple of science-fiction movies, I’ve done fantasy, and this movie that I’m working on now is sort of undefinable. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, and if you know Darren Aronofsky, he has a very unique voice as a director. This is very exciting.

It’s really about working with creative people that I find exciting, whether it’s a cinematographer or a director – hopefully it’s all of the above. When it all comes together on one film it’s kind of magical. That’s what you’re always hoping for – a chemistry that all of us are able to put our best work forward and have it add up to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Kirill: It’s great when everything clicks together.

Philip: And at the beginning you don’t know but there’s always hope. It’s always a new start and you don’t know what it’s going to be – it’s just words on a page that are open to a myriad of interpretations. Sometimes it’s a great script that becomes better, and sometimes it’s a great script that doesn’t turn out as well, and sometimes it’s an OK script that turns out really well [laughs]. There’s no formula to it. It’s very interesting. We’re all making a piece of art together. We’re all artists creating, and if the creation sort of gels, it’s magical.

Top: concept illustration for Victory Village in District 12 by Joanna Bush, courtesy of Philip Messina. Bottom – still from “Catching Fire”.

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