August 28th, 2016

The screens of “Black Mirror” – interview with Gemma Kingsley

It’s a rare thing to see a television show that dares to challenge the status quo of how stories are told and to explore new ways to bring stories to our lives. While “Black Mirror” has only given us seven episodes in its two seasons so far, each episode was an unbelievably bright star that shone light on how the evolution of technology can change our lives as individuals and as a society, in excitingly positive and terrifyingly negative ways at once.

It brings me great pleasure to have an opportunity to speak with Gemma Kingsley who was in charge of defining and creating the screens that exposed the technology of “Black Mirror” in episodes such as “15 Million Merits”, “Be Right Back”, “The Entire History of You” and “White Christmas”. In this interview she talks about her career as a graphics designer and art director, the variety of productions she works on, and the ways to describe how technology can evolve in our lives without having that depiction overtaking the main story line. Gemma also dives deeper into the details of what went into creating the screens for each particular episode, as well as her thoughts on the pervasiveness of social media in our daily lives.

The screens of “White Christmas” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

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

Gemma: I do motion graphics, as well as art department graphics and art direction. I used to work at a TV news station doing motion graphics, and then I completed master of art in production design for film and television. After that one of my teachers offered me some work in the feature film world. I took that job, and from there continued working on various drama productions.

Kirill: What do you do as a graphic artist on a feature production?

Gemma: Sometimes I do motion graphics, especially if it’s a smaller production. On larger productions I usually do props, anything from designing tents and ship sails on a film like “Pan” to things like parchment letters for “Dracula”. On that movie they wanted the set to be a part of the story, with old wall murals from Romania. The production designer has asked me to design the wall murals into the sets of the monastery and the chapel and castle. If you look at the backgrounds of those sets, you can see the wall paintings and murals, and that’s what I did there.

The screens of “White Christmas” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

Kirill: When you talk with people and they ask you what you do for a living, are they surprised to hear that everything needs to be designed?

Gemma: I find they are surprised at how much work goes into it. A lot of the time, especially with features, they don’t realize that copyright is a major issue. You can’t just take products and use them, especially if you’re talking about famous brands. You might approach a company to use a brand of theirs, but if the storyline doesn’t reflect well on it, the brand will simply say “No” because it puts their brand in a slightly negative light. So even though they would get marketing from having been seen in a big film, they usually say “No” unless it’s being shown in a very positive light. You usually have to make up a new brand that is similar, but is not actually that brand.

Kirill: As you work on these productions, who do you work with in your immediate professional vicinity?

Gemma: If I’m working there as a graphic artist doing props, it’s with the art director or the set decorator. They contact me and ask me to come and work for them on that particular production. And if it’s something like “Black Mirror”, I work as a separate entity and not through the art department. There it’s more about post-production work, even though I start before the production starts filming. I usually work with the writer, director and production designer. You work through it into the post-production, even after the art department has wrapped.

The screens of “Be Right Back” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

Kirill: Do you do anything professionally outside the world of feature film and episodic television?

Gemma: I work at Sky Sports which is a major sports channel in the UK and Ireland. I do motion graphics for them. Working from production to production takes a lot of hours, and you have a lot of responsibility. I like to take a bit of time out, and work for Sky Sports where I don’t have to work six days a week. I’m finishing a job right now, and then going back to Sky Sports. It allows me to still earn the money while I don’t have to work very long weeks. They allow me to be flexible with my schedule.

It allows me to refresh myself until the next big job that comes along. The hours are very long, and it’s a lot of hard work. It’s very rewarding, but very tiring as well. When you finish, you kind of want to rest for a little bit.

Kirill: Where do those hours go when you’re working on one of those bigger productions?

Gemma: It depends on the job. If I work as a graphic artist in the art department, most of my time is spent in the office. I also go out to the printers to make sure that the prints are exactly the way I wanted them, on the correct paper and with the right look. Sometimes I’ll be on the set, measuring and looking with the set decorator or the production designer. We’ll talk about what it is that they want to put in certain areas, so that I can see what I’m filling. Sometimes, when you’re there, you see what they may not see immediately in my field.

On “Black Mirror” I was in my office the majority of time, and then I went on sets to show the actors what it was they were supposed to be doing. They don’t see the final graphics, so they don’t know what it is that they are supposed to be doing. If I’m not there to do that, the raw material ends up costing too much money to fix. The animations that I’m doing on those screens needs to match what the actors are doing, and it makes my job easier and more cost-effective for me to be on set rather than trying to match motions the actors are doing after the fact. We are both on the same page then and it’s choreographed correctly.

The screens of “The Entire History of You” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

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August 16th, 2016

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with John Hill

His first production was the original “Tomb Raider”. Since then, he contributed screen graphics and fantasy UIs to productions such as “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Spy Game”, “Terminator 3”, “Thunderbirds”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Prometheus” and the last season of “24”. And for his latest project, he was the creative supervisor overseeing hundreds of screens in multiple locations on the latest installment in the Bond universe, “Spectre”. It gives me great pleasure to welcome John Hill of Vincent Studio to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.

Screen graphics for Q’s workshop in “Spectre”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

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

John: I initially studied fine art and painting, focusing more towards graphic art during my foundation art course (the course tutor highlighted the long term plights of becoming a fine artist). I did a degree in Graphic Arts and then started to freelance in central London. I then worked at a small company designing club & venue visuals, where I learnt 2D animation.

I then was asked to work at a company in Pinewood Studios designing computer graphics for film sets. My first feature was the first “Tomb Raider” film where I was asked to design the POV shots for the robot fight scenes in the opening of the film and then the title sequence, which was really exciting for me back then. I remember waiting 15 minutes for my G4 to update each frame in AE. I stayed on working full time in Pinewood for the following 2/3 years at Useful Companies working on most of the action films that came into Pinewood and Shepperton studios like “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Spy Games”, “Thunderbirds”, “Terminator 3” and others, designing UI graphics, shooting onset video and doing live playback.

I then worried about becoming too focused on UI graphics and wanted to broaden my horizons a little, so I decided to go freelance and started working at various studios around London before setting up Vincent. I continued working on films like “GeForce”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Prometheus” and “Spectre” whilst doing motion graphics and VFX projects.

Kirill: What can you tell us about Vincent studio?

John: We creatively direct, design, animate for film, gaming, commercials, broadcast and live events. We also do on-set supervision for playback and VFX post production work. We called ourselves Vincent simply because we quite liked the name and its ambiguity. I run the studio and co-direct projects with Rheea Aranha.

Kirill: What drew you into the field of designing for feature films, and how has that changed since you’ve started working professionally in it?

John: I stumbled across it to be honest… I was’t getting much out the job I was in at the time working, so a friend working on a Bond film introduced me to Useful Companies who offered me a job as their art director, so I moved. Back then UI GX and video playback for films was not particularly well respected or deemed very important in the film making process… even though we were often relied on to bridge storylines in scripts and make key story telling moments. It was still a relatively new department in film… especially UI and computer GX. Most directors and productions designers were getting their heads around using computer GX for set design and story telling as it inevitably became part of current technology and everyday life.

Kirill: Your work spans a wide diversity of projects. When you meet a new person and they ask you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?

John: This is always a bit of a weird moment for me. I never really know how to sum up what I do in a singular job role and tend to waffle on about various projects and films I’ve worked on… I usually end up saying I’m a creative director, but I’m really a visual artist looking at any form/medium to tell a story in the most clear and interesting way. I’ve found over the years I can learn most new programs or disciplines like live action shooting/directing and post production/VFX fairly quickly… although it’s not getting any easier, I must say! I’m very hands on.

Screen graphics for “Terminator 3”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

Kirill: If you look back at the work you did for Terminator 3, how much has your field has changed in the last decade? Do you expect the scope and intricacy of your work to continue evolving at a similar pace in the next decade?

John: I think the world of UI GX has changed considerably in the past 15 years. It is now an intricate part of many sci-fi and current day films, providing unique storytelling moments and is a great fabric to dress and light film sets, as well as a great asset to play with in post-production.

Way more time is invested by film directors and productions to create beautiful graphics and UI VFX as they not only look great but are fantastic at telling complicated stories cost effectively. It will continue to evolve at an exponential pace, I think.

Screen graphics for “24”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

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August 15th, 2016

Cinematography of “Gotham” – interview with Crescenzo Notarile, ASC

It’s no secret that the world of episodic television is going through a period of tremendous creativity. Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working to bring a fantastic variety of story telling to the screens in our lives, it is my delight to welcome Crescenzo Notarile, ASC. His career spans close to three decades, and in the last few years he has worked as a cinematographer on “Ghost Whisperer”, “CSI” and, most recently, the second season of “Gotham” – for which he is nominated in the category of outstanding cinematography for a single-camera series.

In this wide-ranging interview Crescenzo talks about the changing field of cinematography, the rising bar of story telling on screens big and small, the crazy pace of working on half the episodes in a 22-episode season, collaborating with different directors over the course of that season while maintaining a consistent visual language throughout the arc of the show, what happens when the show heads into the post-production and his collaboration with his colorist and the VFX department, and how easy (or hard) it is to find a simple answer when people outside of the film industry ask him what it is exactly that a cinematographer does for a living.

crescenzo1Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what drew you into the industry.

Crescenzo: My father was in the field of advertising, working as an art director, graphic designer, and illustrator… He was in very high demand at the time – a quintessential ‘Madison Avenue Mad Man’. One of his photographers at that time was Richard Avedon, and when I was a young boy, 4-9 years of age, I had the privilege and the opportunity to watch Richard work with my father, even though I was not aware of his fame at the time of course.

Both my parents were artists, (my mom was an interior designer, sculptress, and painter), and we had hundreds of art books all around the house. I too wanted to become an artist, a photographer, and it all started when I was watching my father work. I was conscious of this at that time, and knew I had wanted to be a photographer ever since I was 5 years old… Soon thereafter, my father brought home my first 2 cameras; a Brownie, and a Polaroid – all for me! They are now trophied in a glass case in my office.

Kirill: How much has your field changed since you joined it professionally?

Crescenzo: They say that it takes a lifetime to become a cinematographer – and it certainly does! Every day is a learning process, perpetually shifting. It might be a new view point of aesthetics, new stimulation, new technology, new equipment, or a new philosophy in the way I think about my work and how I should approach it at my current state of mind. It might be the barometer of our pace of our society, our culture, and how we story tell our lives at this time of life. It changes day to day to day. You never stop learning in the art of what we do – because art is life!

From the beginning to now, it’s still a growing process. In fact, the more you learn, the more you realize you have more to learn. That’s the paradox of it all. You filter all that information and knowledge inside your heart, mind and soul, and you try to collectively use that to fuel your sensibility to express your stories. When you become sharply in tune with this personal ever changing growth, you now realize, your learning starts all over again because it’s a different plateau of thinking – thus, a different aesthetic and different approach to your personal execution…

This day and age we have new technologies and new equipment. Sometimes you need to be a computer engineer to shoot something these days. It’s constant learning. To be honest, it’s not gotten any easier. That’s for sure. It just becomes more arduous and more challenging as we progress as a culture, as a society and in the field itself. There’s just so much information out there, so many choices, so many options, so many opinions, so many approaches, so many menus, and an infinite amount of stories to tell…

Kirill: Is it due to growing expectations from the production values, or perhaps the technology is getting more complicated?

Crescenzo: I think, mainly because of the so-called, “bar”… The intellectual bar, the creative bar, the bar of the audience wanting more – that’s what makes it more challenging and difficult with each passing year. The bar itself keeps rising and rising. There’s so much brilliant content out there right now. There are so many wonderful shows, and it becomes more challenging not only to surface yourself above the few that are around you to be nominated, but also to just watch the content itself.

You can only watch so much. There’s only so much time in the day, and one’s personal time in their day. That becomes challenging as to what shows you want to electively choose to watch, and why do you want to watch those shows. It is challenging for the networks, the studios and the executives. The bar keeps rising, not just at the creative level, but also at the  physical content level.

Courtesy of FOX’s “Gotham”.

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August 11th, 2016

Production design of “The Double” – interview with David Crank

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome David Crank. In recent years David worked as art director and production designer on productions such as “The Master”, “Inherent Vice”, “The New World”, “There Will Be Blood”, “John Adams”, “Water for Elephants”, “The Tree of Life”, “To the Wonder”, “Lincoln” and his most recent “Concussion”. In this interview he talks about the art and craft of production design and how it evolved over the last couple of decades. The second part of the interview is about David’s work on the remarkably crafted sets of “The Double” – a dark satirical comedy whose visuals grip you from the very first frame and don’t let go long after the movie has ended.

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

David: I worked for about ten years designing sets and costumes in theater, and then switched over to film around 1990. Film was what I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have that opportunity in Richmond where I grew up. I enjoy both disciplines, but I like being able to concentrate on one project intensely and then go on to the next one, whereas in theater you needed to have two or three going on at the same time in order to make a living.

Kirill: If you consider storytelling in these two mediums, theater and film, are there any big differences, or is it sufficiently similar?

David: There are different techniques you use, but to me, the storytelling aspect of it is fairly similar. If it happens to be on stage, you can do it one way, and if it’s on film, you can do it in another way. But your ultimate goal is still telling an interesting story in an exciting fashion, and hopefully, engage people. In terms of design, there are small technical differences, but really, design is design. You still apply the same knowledge and skills to both mediums.

Kirill: To me it feels like you have the fixed space on stage, and you can’t take the viewers closer or farther away in the same way that a film camera can.

David: True, you still do the same things. In film you do close-ups and shift the focus with the camera, but in theatre, you can also control the focus on stage by directing the eyes of the audience through design and lighting. It’s a different scale and done in a different way, but, in effect, you’re still doing the same thing.

Kirill: Do you find that some stories lend themselves to be better told on stage vs film, or does it depend on the talent of the storytellers to take advantage of the stronger sides of the specific medium?

David: There probably are some that do lend themselves to being better told on stage. I think, however, it’s similar to the question of what is better – a book or a movie? In a sense, you should be telling the same story, but taking a different path to get there. The method of each will be slightly different, and while you get certain things from a book that you wouldn’t get from a film, you also get certain things from a film that you wouldn’t get from a book. For me, with film, the main thing that you have to always be aware of is using a cinematic language vs. a stage language. How can you tell something in a movie in a way that you can’t tell it in a play? That’s what you focus on. That’s how you tell your story.

Layout sketches for John Rolfe farmhouse set on “The New World”. Courtesy of David Crank.

On the sets of “The New World”. Courtesy of David Crank.

Kirill: As you said, you started working on films in the early ’90s. That was before digital tools were as powerful and prevalent as they are today.

David: I started my career working mostly on historical dramas, because that’s what came to film in Virginia. Initially there was very little CGI used on projects that I was on, except to change the occasional background. The sets were built fairly complete.

Kirill: But even on historical dramas it gets pretty expensive to build very big sets.

David: Yes it can! When we did with “John Adams”, we had a massive number of sets to construct, many that were too large to build completely. We designed what we wanted them to be, and then sat down with VFX people and talked about what made sense to build in reality and what made sense to build digitally. You split up the work that way. It would be lovely to build it all, but nobody has the money for that [laughs]. You just attack each set separately and see what makes sense.

Sometimes you might build a bit more, because if you can do whole scenes without having to augment them with CGI, it might ultimately be cheaper for you. But, you might have a single shot that wants to pull back from there and show more building above, or more buildings beyond, and, that’s when it makes sense to add CGI. It’s different in every single case. There is no formula. You look at the specific problem, and you discuss how to best solve it.

Big top circus tent set on “Water for Elephants”. Courtesy of David Crank.

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