April 6th, 2013
When we are surrounded by glowing screens wherever we go, what does it take to create believable and yet attractive computer interfaces for big-budget movie productions? In this conversation Shaun Yue talks about realism in representing the human-computer interaction in “Skyfall” and “Prometheus”, what does it take to place hundreds of live monitors on the set, his work on game cinematics for “Crysis” and “Call of Duty”, and how we may be interacting with information in the next few decades.
Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Shaun: I’m originally from Melbourne, Australia. I studied Multimedia Design at Swinburne University; it was a mix of web, animation, video and graphic design. During that time I worked as a web designer, and this web agency shared office space with a film production company, Exit Films, who made commercials and music videos. I was really interested in the work they were doing, so during the time I was working at this web company – I helped them do motion graphics, and also worked as a director’s assistant. I tried to get on set and see the whole process of what it takes to make a film.
In hindsight I was so lucky with the filmmakers I worked with – people like Garth Davis, Glendyn Ivin, Greig Fraser, they’ve subsequently gone on to achieve so much. It was an experience where I knew I had so much to learn; and was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
After that I kept working mainly in animated commercials, and was then employed by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image which is a cultural institution which exhibits moving image in all forms, from film to games and contemporary art. I did all of their motion graphics promotional work. It was an interesting break from commercial clients, and great to explore a wide breadth of the moving image cultures.
In 2006 I was lucky enough to win a grant with the British Council to come to London and meet with some British designers who I admired. Through that I met Toby Glover who designed “Batman Begins” and a whole host of other screen graphics for films. We got along quite well, and worked together on some projects, and a year later he said “The Dark Knight” was going to be made, and asked if I would be interested, and I said “Of course!”
Kirill: Were you always interested in working in movies, or did it come together like that?
Shaun: I always loved watching movies and loved sci-fi. Whenever I saw a computer on film, I always felt strange. It was one of those things where I felt that maybe I could do that better.
Kirill: Jumping a little bit forward as you talk about making things “better”. The “Alien” franchise started in 1979, and you joined it working on “Prometheus”. How do you define “better”? Is it in terms of raw processing power that you have at your fingertips and how intricate you can get? Is it about improving the interaction design, the visual design, or something else?
Shaun: It wasn’t specifically a technical software solution to making it look more sophisticated, for example I think the computers in Alien are great, they have a very functional aesthetic. But so often screen interaction in film appears very naive, unbelievable as a computer user. And now that I’ve worked on a couple of movies, I can understand why it is a little bit fictitious or a little bit over-dramatized. But back then when I was watching movies, I was thinking that that’s not how computers work, and if I did it, I’d do it properly.
Kirill: And by “everyone” you mean people who are actually into computers…
Shaun: Right, the biggest thing about film is that they have a very broad audience. There’s often dramatic storytelling reasons to present something as it finally appears, rather than being authentic to technology. Balancing design authenticity with narrative concerns is probably the greatest challenge of the job.
Kirill: Is it a back-and-forth process on the set, defining how “realistic” the interactions with computers are? Do you ever get feedback that what happens on the computer screens is too boring?
Shaun: It depends on the movie. For example, in “Dark Knight” all the screen designs – which were designed with Toby Glover and Andrew Booth – are all DOS-based, engineering-based, very realistic, often sparse. It was about believability, and in that case the director never said that it’s too boring and let’s jazz it up. On the other side, “Prometheus” and “Skyfall” are very much about how can we show something that is beyond what a normal person is used to. “Prometheus” is set in the future, and it has to be more than what viewers are used to now, similarly with “Skyfall”, an element of a higher level of computers that the public doesn’t usually see. Obviously it’s a little bit of fantasy, but it was an important aspect of how the directors wanted to present computers in those films.
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March 18th, 2013
In this installment of the “In Motion” series I talk with Tim Grimes about his work on the movie “Last Night”, on switching between working on feature films and TV series, on what changes digital productions bring into the world of crafting physical sets and his appreciation of film as a medium.
Kirill: Tell us about yourself and the path that lead you to become a production designer.
Tim: I started off as a production assistant in an office. I was in bands for a while, and then I moved out of New York, and four months later I moved back and my intent was to somehow get into the film business. I had no idea how that would happen, I was 27 at the time and I ended up getting a job as a waiter. I used to work at “Kim’s Video” in New York and I met this guy who came in and asked me if I wanted to be a production assistant on this film that ended up under the name “Return to Paradise”.
I was interested in the film business, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. After about a year and a half working as a production assistant on a bunch of TV shows, like “Spin City” and “The Corruptor” with Chow Yun-Fat, I became a property person. I did that for a long time, from 1999 to about 2004, and I was really fortunate to have worked on the second season of “The Sopranos”. I was on a bunch of films and met property master Peter Gelfman who ended up being my boss for a long time. This lead me to work with Kevin Thompson, who is a production designer and a friend of mine. He’s amazing and really talented; he just did “Bourne Legacy” with Tony Gilroy [director].
And through Kevin I met Harris Savides who just passed away. He was my mentor, and almost like my father. We worked together on “Birth” directed by Jonathan Glazer, with Harris shooting, Kevin designing and me doing props under Peter Gelfman. That’s how I met Harris Savides and we became close friends. He worked with David Fincher, Sophia Coppola and Woody Allen, he was very picky about the jobs that he would take. He knew that I had a desire to move on, to do something more challenging, to do the next thing. He was getting ready to do “Last Days” with Gus Van Sant and he asked me during the re-shoots of “Birth” if I was interested in joining the crew. I ended up getting the job as art director, which was basically production designer. I was the head of art department, and it was very stressful and exciting. So he basically gave me my first shot, and that’s how I got into production design.
I then went on to do smaller films, continuing to do props on the side. Then I got an agent and that opened a bunch of doors, and one thing led to another. I tried to use the Harris Savides model to not just take any job, but doing things that interested me, jobs that I thought would stand out or I’d learn a lot from, different things that wouldn’t pigeonhole me into a sort of category. That thing can happen pretty easily. And that’s how I took “Last Night”. I had never done a romantic drama; it’s not something that completely interests me and I wouldn’t do them all the time, but I definitely wanted to do one and I thought that Massy Tadjedin [director/writer] was an interesting writer. I liked her take on this simple European-style romantic drama. That’s what attracted me to the project.
Kirill: As you moved to assume larger responsibilities, do you find yourself going back to do the small things on your sets?
Tim: “Last Night” had the budget of $7M, which is not that big. I was heavily involved in it. We didn’t do a lot of building, it was almost all locations. We build this small set for Paris which ended up with flashback photographs that two of the characters look at at the end of the film. It was work on transforming locations. I’m very hands on, I’m there helping the decorator decide what we’re putting up. I’m very much involved on a project like that.
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February 27th, 2013
“Moonrise Kingdom” is by far the most enchanting and charming movie that I saw in 2012. It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to host Gerald Sullivan, the art director of this wonderful production, and to ask him a few questions about his craft, and his work on the movie.
Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Gerald: I am a graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, SCI-ARC. I began working as a set designer in ’95 without much prior knowledge of film making. Since then I’ve had the good fortune of working on a variety of films, gaining insight from many great production designers and working with some of the industries most highly regarded directors.
Kirill: In your experience, what’s the role of an art director in the overall production, and what skills do you bring to the table?
Gerald: An art director takes on many roles throughout the production. We need to be shape shifters. Initially we need to be able to conceptualize the scenery needed to tell a certain story. Budget and schedule need to be established. The art director has to be able to react, adjust and respond to inevitable changes through out each project. We are in constant contact with the assistant directors, the UPM [unit production manager], construction, set decoration, SPFX [special effects], the Director of Photography, the key gaffer, the key grip, etc. Every art director I know has an appreciation for art, architecture, decoration, and the history of each. The best understand we must be learning more all the time, constantly expanding our knowledge, what we bring to the table.
Kirill: From set decorator to art director to production designer. Is it a natural progression, or just one path to follow?
Gerald: No natural progression, no one path to follow. Doesn’t need be a progression that aims toward, or ends up at, production designer. Whatever your best at, and take pride in doing, that’s where you should be.
Kirill: How did you end up working on “Moonrise Kingdom”?
Gerald: I had worked with Adam Stockhausen on a film the previous summer in Michigan. We got along well. I am a big fan of Wes’s work. Adam had worked with Wes on “Darjeeling Express” and a few commercials as an art director. When Adam let me know he was going to work on “Moonrise” as production designer, I let him know I was interested in art directing.
On the set of Bishop family house. Photography by Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Gerald Sullivan.
Outside shot of Bishop family house. This extension was built to match the house and provide the director with what he needed for each scene. It also camouflaged a non-period sun room.
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February 8th, 2013
The work of Mads Berg is a perfect translation of classic poster art into the landscape of contemporary illustration. A flowing effortless interplay of shapes, colors and grainy gradients creates a unique and immediately recognizable style. Mads specializes in posters, editorials and brand illustrations, and his online portfolio is a veritable treasure trove. His art prints are available for sale at Arte Limited, and his extended portfolio is over at Behance. In addition, he’s part of a small team that creates maps for theme parks, amusement parks and zoos all over the world.
Today I am honored to have an opportunity to ask Mads a few questions about his craft.
Kirill: Your style is very unique and immediately recognizable. What are your influences?
Mads: A mixture of everything really. I like paintings, Italian baroque, Dutch renaissance, Danish Golden Age and of course Art nouveau, Art Deco and cubism.
Kirill: Do you see your style evolving? Is there ever a thought of exploring radically different directions? Is there a concern of falling into a certain rigidity of style?
Mads: Evolving my style is not only a popular demand but also an important way to challenge myself and to continue to be curious in what I do.
Kirill: Do you keep a sketchbook to develop ideas in between projects?
Mads: I often keep my sketches or prints of my visuals in progress in my pocket for days to view it once in a while, and to let it mature over time.
Brand illustration for Tuborg Classic. Courtesy of Mads Berg.
Kirill: Do you prefer getting a full artistic freedom for a project, or a more defined direction from the client?
Mads: I do not mind working from a well defined motive or scene, or even a product as long as I have the freedom executing it.
Kirill: Pen and paper, or digital? How has your choice of tools evolved since you’ve started in the field?
Mads: You cannot beat sketching with pencil or paper. But finalizing images on a computer is really wonderful excellent for exploring color tones and values.
Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?
Mads: Vanity i believe. Turning a white nothing into something beautiful.
Kirill: Your final illustrations seem to be reduced to bare essentials. Do you remove clutter until there’s nothing left to remove?
Mads: I try to, yes.
Posters for the Danish Island Bornholm. Courtesy of Mads Berg.
Kirill: And on a related subject, the way you render human body is absolutely fantastic. Would it be wrong to say that it’s one of your favorite things to draw?
Mads: It is indeed one of my favorite things to draw. Apart from depiction of eyes, I think the human body has the strongest attraction in an image.
Park map for Legoland Florida. Courtesy of Mads Berg.
Kirill: You’re part of a small team that creates maps for theme and amusement parks. What is the process of creating a new map like?
Mads: Research and description of style and approach. It’s much about laying out pathways and supersizing the essential features and eliminating the less important ones.
Kirill: How do you bridge the gap between staying faithful to the park layout with abstracting away the unnecessary details? Or is there no gap at all and these are two sides of the same coin?
Mads: A lot of stretching and tweaking has to be made, but as long as the paths connect where they do in reality, quite some fantasy can be used.
Kirill: Do you spend time on personal projects, and how important is that for you?
Mads: I make 50 xmas cards every year by hand. That makes me happy, so that must be important.
Healthy community magazine cover. Courtesy of Mads Berg.
Kirill: Do you think that advances in software tools and global connectivity are making it simpler to start in your field, and at the same time creating more competition and diversity for the clients to choose from? Does it make harder to stand out?
Mads: Global connectivity yes, software no. True talent combined with consistent work always stands out, I believe.
Kirill: There’s a recent surge of interest in mid-century inspired illustration, photography, fashion and design. Do you see this as a younger “digital” generation trying to recreate the old “analogue” look and capture that spirit?
Mads: Yes, nostalgia and the search for authenticity is sign of the times. I think that knowledge and appreciation of visual heritage must be combined with fascination of the new. Past time heroes also copied their ideas.
Left – poster for Air Greenland, right – poster for Hansen’s ice cream. Courtesy of Mads Berg.
And here I’d like to thank Mads Berg for graciously agreeing to this interview. Selected prints available for sale at Arte Limited.