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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April 25th, 2016

Production design of “True Detective” – interview with Alex DiGerlando

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is a great honour to welcome Alex DiGerlando. In this interview Alex talks about his experiences in the art department in the last 15 years, the changes that digital has brought with it and how it affects the world of feature and episodic productions, the evolution of cinematic storytelling in the world of episodic television, physicality of sets and digital set extensions, and the importance of defining and creating history for each and every set. Midway through the interview we talk about his work as the production designer on the “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and then dig deep into the strikingly designed worlds of the first two seasons of “True Detective”.

Alex DiGerlando on the set of “True Detective”. Photography by Lacey Terrell.

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

Alex: I was always interested in the movies. My uncle is a film editor, and I grew up visiting him on sets and going to his office in New York and watching him cut together scenes. That always seemed exciting to me, especially since I liked movies so much.

I went to NYU to study film theory in the Cinema Studies department. I worked with a lot of my friends who were in the film production program, but my studies were purely theoretical so I didn’t have any technical training. At that time I was working as a development intern for Ted Demme’s production company, Spanky Pictures. I was learning about films from script and development side, and another intern who was working there was making a short film for class and asked me if I would help.

We went to her grandmother’s house to shoot this film, and I felt out of place because I didn’t have anything to offer in terms of using lights or loading the camera or anything like that. But what I did notice was that no one paid any attention to what the space would look like. They just thought that they’d just shoot at the house, but they didn’t think anything beyond that. I, not really knowing what to do with myself, started poking around.

I found these old cameras, thinking that they might be cool for the characters, so I put them out and dressed them onto a shelf. I kind of took it upon myself to make this room a little bit messy to go with the character, and the director really liked that. She empowered me to go for it, and that’s what I did. It sort of happened by accident. It was even before I ever thought about doing this for a living or before I was really all that conscious of production design as a job.

Kirill: So you discovered the field of production design by yourself.

Alex: I didn’t even know what it was. The room looked empty to me, so I thought I’d better make it look better. The bathroom was too clean, so I brushed my teeth and spit the toothpaste into the sink to make it look like a slob lived there. Doing these little things that I was not taught to do but were just instinctual.

From there I started becoming interested in the art department. At that time, at NYU there wasn’t much focus on the art department, so a lot of kids were just not thinking about it when they were making their films. Or, when they did think about it, they were spread too thin, leaving it by the wayside. So a lot of my friends started asking me to work on their films in that capacity.

And then, when I was in my senior year, Jon Kilik, a friend of the family who is a producer that works with Spike Lee a lot, told me that Spike’s art department was looking for a PA [production assistant] on “Bamboozled”. I was really excited about that idea, even considering taking a semester off. It would’ve been my last semester to go work on that, and Jon said that I should finish school, but maybe I could do an internship. That’s what I did. I ended up working a couple days a week in the art department of “Bamboozled”. And then, finally full-circle, I just designed Spike’s last movie “Chi-Raq”. So it began with Spike and it has come back to Spike.

Once I started PA’ing in the art department, I did that for a long time before I designed. I met up with Mark Friedberg, who really became a close friend and mentor. I worked for him for many years, and he started giving me more and more responsibility.

Isometric floor plan of “Black Rose” bar set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: What kinds of changes have you seen in the last 15 years since you’ve started working on features and TV shows? Is there anything that affected you in the transition from film to digital? Is there any difference for you between the two?

Alex: Not really. There are little things. Working my way up through the art department, I learned the time-tested way things were done – what kind of colors are good on film, for example. When I was a PA, there was always the talk of avoiding white, and printing every prop piece of paperwork on off-white or cream or grey paper, because that would read as white, but it wouldn’t blow out the camera. And I see less of a necessity for that.

I don’t know if it’s the quality of video that is more forgiving, or if it’s just working with younger DPs [directors of photography] who are less put off by the effects of white. On both seasons of “True Detective” we did a lot of sets with white walls. Years ago, when I was learning about the art department, that was always described as a no-no, unless the scene specifically called for white walls for dramatic reasons, and even then you had to find the perfect shade of grey that would read as white.

That’s a change. I think there’s a little bit more freedom to embrace things as they are. It’s similar to how for years in the film industry, going way back, if you found a lens flare in your dailies, you would have to reshoot. That was considered a mistake. And somewhere in the 70s people started embracing the lens flare and looking at it as a benefit or an aesthetic choice. Now there are certain things that come along with video that are similar in that respect.

Video cameras are also a lot more sensitive in some ways than film, and a lot of DPs that I work with now are much more interested in using practical lighting – physical lights and fixtures that you see on-screen as opposed to movie lights that are behind the camera. A lot of my job has become working with the DP and the gaffer to light the scenes, because all the lighting is coming from within the set. Back in the day you would place lamps, but ultimately there would be a soft box on ceiling or movie lights strategically placed that were going to do the heavy lifting of the lighting.

Adam Arkapaw [cinematographer] on True Detective season 1 used lights when they needed to, but so many of the sets had the bulk of their lighting from practicals. And then sometimes he would hide LED strips under ledges or behind furniture to give definition.

Isometric floor plan of mayor’s office set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

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April 19th, 2016

Production design of “Brooklyn” – interview with François Séguin

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome François Séguin. In this interview François talks about splitting his time between the worlds of film, theater and opera, comparing the pace of work and various aspects of storytelling in each, what makes people stay in the industry despite crazy hours and pressured schedules, shooting on location and building sets on stage, the advances in digital equipment and how that evolution is affecting the overall rhythm of a feature production, and the importance of set physicality. The second half is all about his work on the gorgeously designed “Brooklyn”, delving deeper into the details of researching, defining and building the sets that span two worlds bridged by the story of one girl played by Saoirse Ronan.

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

François: To go back to the beginning, I was in a theater group in college, and everybody had to be on stage. I didn’t want to be on stage, but I was with friends, and somebody asked who wants to take care of the set. I raised my hand, and he told me that he’d give me just a little part in the play so that I could do the sets. I was happy, to not be on stage. That’s how it started.

After that I went to theater school in early 1970s. I did theater for a few years, and at one point the play that we did as a young group with other people from my school had a film adaptation. I went from designing a set for the play to the same thing but on film.

I mix them. Some times I don’t do much theater, and some times I go back to it. These days it’s half and half between film, theater and opera, and I also did three shows for Cirque du Soleil.

Kirill: How much different are these for you? In theater and circus I’d imagine that you have less control over where people are, their viewpoints and what they’re looking at.

François: The point of view is different from a movie because you don’t have the camera, so everybody has their own vision of the action. But in modern theater, with all the technical advances and especially the lighting, you can mimic the camera. You can focus the vision of audience so they have the same view.

These are different experiences, but it’s all about storytelling. What is the story you’re going to tell? And depending on the medium you have different tools to do that. I like to move back and forth. I think it’s healthy mental exercise to go and think about detail, about where the camera is going to be, about where everybody is going to be sitting. It’s a bigger stroke when you do stage, and much more detailed on film, more like a fine painting.

Kirill: Do you think you have more control in theater because you don’t have as many people that can change what you put on the set?

François: In a way, yes. I just received an email last week from this person who liked “Brooklyn”, but he thought we didn’t have enough crucifixes and other religious images. We were shooting in Ireland which is a very catholic place, and we had them on each and every set. But the camera decides to not put them on the screen, so it’s not visible.

I don’t miss the control. I think that the important thing in the end is the effect on the audience. How do they leave the world that you have created and how do they react to it? I’m not a control freak. It’s more about emotional connection with the spectator that is important for me.

Kirill: Do you think there are stories that lend themselves more naturally to be told on film and not in theater?

François: I did one movie a long time ago; it was an upbeat musical with different storytelling. But on most movies you’re closer to the story, you’re creating an emotional world that is very tied and connected to the reality.

In theater you go for the emotional and intellectual concept of the play. I recently finished “Waiting for Godot”. It’s a classical play written in 1948 with a very elaborate description of the set, but I decided not to go there. It’s a play about people waiting for Godot, but he never comes and they are there waiting forever. I designed the hourglass, and at the end the sand is pouring down from the top, and then it disappears and you see bones.

For me this is more exciting than to do a bedroom scene in a movie. But I’m as happy to see the audience respond to this play as I’m happy to see people respond to “Brooklyn”. You touch people, and that’s what you want to do. There are different tools to do that. Some people sing, some people write, and I do sets.

Kirill: You’ve been doing this for 40 years or so. How do you avoid repetition? How do you avoid getting bored?

François: Sometimes I do get bored. But you don’t get bored when you have a common project and everybody is involved. It can be opera or anything really. It’s about everybody focused on one goal, and if you’re lucky, you have the director who can guide everybody – in whatever medium it may be – to go in a specific direction and to have a concept for the story you’re telling.

Sometimes the script might not be good, but at least it’s a good experience because you focus and everybody wants the same thing. You have somebody driving not the content, but the emotional commitment from everybody. A good moment for me is when everybody connects to the same purpose to tell whatever story we are telling. It can be opera, theater or film.

Kirill: Does it matter to you how people view your work? Do you look at the reception from the critics, from the general audience, at how well a production does financially at the box office?

François: The box office results is mostly about how many people see it, and as I don’t have any financial part in that, it doesn’t matter for me. But it means that people enjoyed the movie. I did a couple of important movies in my life that I’ve really connected with, and when people say that they’ve hated them, it’s a bit painful – because it’s a movie that I really believed in. I did a couple of movies that I’m really proud of, and some people still talk about them, even though that was 30 years ago. They were not blockbusters, but they made a statement and they survived. That’s a good thing.

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April 17th, 2016

The magic of visual effects – interview with Venti Hristova

In the last few years her career spanned such a variety of productions as “Gangster Squad”, “Speed Racer”, “Immortals”, “Terminator Salvation” and “Avatar”, taking on roles as diverse as painter, compositor, designer, animator and supervisor. Most recently, after having joined Cantina Creative, she was the visual effects [VFX] supervisor on “Iron Man 3” and “Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. It gives me great pleasure to welcome the multi-talented Venti Hristova to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.

In this interview Venti talks about the different roles she took on since she joined the industry, the spectacular magic of visual effects and the ongoing evolution of tools and artistic capabilities in the field, how “done” or “not done” is the HUD interface in Ironman mask, the role of VFX supervisor on blockbuster sci-fi productions and her work on the variety of screens in “Mockingjay”.

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

Venti: My name is Venti Hristova. I was born in Bulgaria, I spent my childhood in England and I have been in LA for the past 18 years. My professional path has been paved by two people: the first is my dad, Lubo Hristov.

He started as a traditional animator and background artist in Bulgaria. Later he moved us to England where he became VFX Art Director at Cinesite London. After almost a decade in England he transferred us to Los Angeles. Soon after moving to LA, he founded a boutique Matte Painting company- Christov Effects and Design. Within the past two years my dad moved yet again; this time to Singapore as Art Director for ILM.

I studied illustration at Art Center College of Design and in my graduating year my dad took me to Berlin to work on set with him in designing the digital environments for Speed Racer. That was my introduction into the world of feature films and VFX. In Berlin I met the second most influential person in my professional life, Stephen Lawes.

Stephen is the co-owner of Cantina Creative, a VFX and motion graphics company based in Culver City. When I met Stephen, he introduced me to After Effects and animation and my life has not been the same since. Shortly after graduating from Art Center, Stephen hired me to design and animate graphics for Terminator Salvation at Pixel Liberation Front. Since then I worked my way from animator, designer, compositor to VFX supervisor.

Stills from short film “Gumdrop”. Art direction and animation by Venti Hristova.

Kirill: What drew you into the movie industry? If you go back to the time when you just started on your first feature film productions and some of the expectations that you had, how close (or far) has the reality of working in the industry turned out to be?

Venti: I guess you could say I was grandfathered into the industry through my dad. I was surrounded with his experiences on dozens of prestigious films and it was largely inevitable to become a part of the movie sphere in some capacity. I very much enjoyed matte painting and environment designing and after meeting Stephen Lawes I realized that I thoroughly enjoy animating motion graphics.

Kirill: What was it like to “lift a veil” on the magic of cinema and special / visual effects and see how much work is involved in making that magic happen?

Venti: I would have to say that VFX in itself is a pretty spectacular sort of movie magic that the average viewer is deprived from experiencing. I think that working in VFX is one of the more exciting aspects of the film industry these days because it encompasses such a huge part of the whole film production process from pre-production all the way through post.

Kirill: You’ve had a variety of roles such as matte painter, compositor, animator on production such as Gangster Squad, Immortals and Terminator Salvation. What are your thoughts on the evolving capabilities of digital tools at your disposal, and what they let you offer to the producers and the directors as the years go by?

Venti: The world of VFX tools in constantly evolving, so much so that you can get overwhelmed with the amount of new technologies. There is something very purist and “old-school” with relying primarily on one software such as my commitment to AE, however, the magic opportunities that open up with integrating C4D with AE or even Nuke and exploring the amazing universe of new plugins for blurs, glows, time-remaps, etc. is phenomenal. Looking back at the tools we were using on Terminator Salvation vs the tools we used for Iron Man 3, technology has made leaps and bounds and we have abused all their new flashy updates. At this point I can safely say there are no limits to what we can offer clients and that is a fantastic place to be professionally.

Stills from short film “Gumdrop”. Art direction and animation by Venti Hristova.

Kirill: Is everything can be done and it’s only the matter of time and budget? Do you feel that the demand from the production side is outpacing the evolution of tools’ capabilities?

Venti: I don’t think that production has outpaced VFX tools and capabilities. In the time of ILM and Weta the opportunities for VFX are limitless. There really is little that cannot be done at this point.

Kirill: Back in 2004 “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” was shot entirely on green screen, with all the sets created digitally in post-production. In your opinion, is this something that you want to work towards, to be able to offer complete world creation for any kind of a film production?

Venti: Ironically, Stephen Lawes was an integral part of the creation of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and we met on a movie that similarly relied almost exclusively on green screens/ VFX environments, Speed Racer, so in that regard I have experienced working on that kind of production. That being said, I recently worked on the set of Mockingjay Part 1+2 and it was an incredible experience to walk on a fantastically production designed set with spectacular detail and construction. I think I prefer to work on movies with a healthy balance of movie practical realism and VFX movie magic.

Screen graphics on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

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