December 29th, 2013

Production design of “House of Cards” – interview with Steve Arnold

Back in 2011, in what was one of the bigger gambles in its history so far, Netflix entered the world of original programming, bypassing the traditional pilot model and committing to a massive two-season order of what proved to be an indisputable success with both viewers and critics – “House of Cards”. In this interview I talk with Steve Arnold, the production designer for the show. Steve, as the rest of the stellar crew, came from the world of big-budget Hollywood productions, having worked as the art director on “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, “Face/Off”, “Unbreakable”, “Spider-Man”, “Van Helsing” and “Appaloosa”. He talks about what sets “House of Cards” apart from the run-of-the-mill episodic TV shows, juggling multiple episodes at the same time, working with different directors and maintaining visual continuity across the entire season, exploring the new medium, how lifting restrictions on episode length and removing commercial breaks affected the structure and delivery of the story, working with VFX department on digital set extensions, and his general thoughts on the collaboration between physical and digital over the last few decades.


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

Steve: My interest in doing what I do probably started when I was 5 years old and my family took a trip to Disneyland. The experience made a very strong impression on me, and my interest in design, art and architecture began there, although I didn’t really know it at the time. When I started college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, and I didn’t see a lot of career options available for someone with a degree in art. I got a degree in music, but eventually decided that I was more interested in theater.

I started doing sets for theater, and did that for quite a while. I went to graduate school for set design in theater and even though I hadn’t planned to do films I was asked by one of my professors to join him as his assistant on a small film he was doing in lieu of attending classes that semester. After that I started getting calls to do commercials, and back then in Pittsburgh we had a fairly good community of film-makers and quite a few projects were being shot there. I had been a starving artist for quite a few years [laughs] as theater doesn’t pay very well, so film seemed a much better option. That’s how I got started. I did quite a few films in and around Pittsburgh before moving to California.


SanCorp building entrance, initial sketch and final set. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: How was that at the beginning? Did you start as an art director and then moved on to be a production designer?

Steve: I started out as a Set Designer, the entry level job in the art department. It’s a draughtsman/architect kind of position, you do the drawings that carpenters use to build the sets. On the East Coast they call the job Assistant Art Director, and on the West Coast they call it Set Designer. I did some small non-union projects, and eventually started getting bigger and better jobs, fairly soon becoming an Assistant Art Director, and then an Art Director. I was fortunate to work on some really large films like “Forrest Gump”, “Spider-Man”, “Face/Off” and “Unbreakable”.

I had always planned on becoming a Production Designer, but sometimes it takes quite awhile to work your way up the ladder. Finally a few years ago I started getting Production Designer jobs doing mostly smaller independent movies before getting the offer to do “House of Cards” which is like television, but with some differences.

When we started the show, none of us really had much experience doing television. David Fincher, Donald Burt (who was the original designer), myself, the Art Directors and Set Designers were all from the feature film world. Fincher has exacting standards and a very particular design aesthetic. We always approached the work like we were doing a feature film that has 13 one-hour sections. The attention to detail, preciseness of all the research and the luxury of adequate preparation time is very much like you would find on a feature film, and unlike quite a lot of television. In many cases television producers try to shoot a series as cheaply as possible. Fortunately for us we were able to avoid most of those restrictions because this was viewed as a completely new and different type of project.

“This isn’t television, this isn’t film, it’s for the Internet” is what we heard when we started. Netflix’s thought was to make the best quality series that they could in an effort to compete with the kind of programing that HBO is known for.


Slugline office space set. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: How much time did you have to prepare for season 1?

Steve: It was about 5 months, quite a bit more than the typical amount of prep time in television. Also instead of doing a pilot, after which the series will continue if it is received well enough, Netflix decided that they would buy two full 13 episode seasons up front without a pilot, and hope that the show was good enough to be successful. It was a leap of faith on their part, as they did spend a fair amount of money doing that.

We had four or five scripts to start with which is rare. With most television series the scripts are quite often not written until the last possible minute, so you’re always trying to keep up. In the first season we had the good fortune to have so many completed scripts up front, but in the second season we were under the gun most of the time, with scripts being finalized much closer to shooting.

Kirill: Would you say it was a more relaxed environment, as you have more material to work with, and also more time compared to the usual television productions?

Steve: I wouldn’t call it relaxed at all. We shoot two episodes concurrently. If there is a set, let’s say the Oval Office, in both episodes, we would shoot all of its scenes in one or two days. The two episodes are commingled by sets. Each episode takes 10 days to shoot, so, for example, the first two episodes require a month to shoot.

You start shooting the first two episodes, and about a week into the 4-week process you get scripts for the next two episodes, and you start scouting for those locations with the new director, since each pair of episodes has its own director. And when he (or she) arrives, you show them what you’ve scouted, you discuss the new sets that will be built, and you start working ahead. And then you get a little bit farther into those 4 weeks, and before the end you are already reading the next two episodes. So you have 6 episodes in your head most of the time.

That was new for me because on a feature you have one script, and you know pretty much everything that needs to be done. Things get changed, added or cut on every project, but on a series where you’re constantly juggling five or six story lines at the same time while you’re shooting on stage and opening every set if it’s a new set, then running around and scouting for future episodes, and trying to read even farther ahead to figure out what you’re going to need – it’s definitely not relaxing [laughs].

Kirill: With such a condensed schedule, do you prefer to build sets on stage, or doing location sets is a good option as well?

Steve: It varies quite a bit depending on the requirements of the script. It’s challenging to do a show like “House of Cards” as Washington D.C. can be a very difficult city to shoot in. You have congressmen, diplomats, and the President and Vice-President around, important people are always coming and going, stopping traffic, and making it very difficult to schedule shooting. Plus there is a myriad of governmental departments and agencies, all with red tape that must be dealt with. We actually did very little shooting in D.C. We used a lot of locations in Baltimore that have a similar feel and scale in their architecture. That’s one of the things that makes Washington unique: It’s architecture has a grand scale that you don’t find in most other cities, except maybe New York.

Depending on the script, we try to shoot on stage as much as possible, because it’s a much more controlled environment. But to get the scope and scale that you find in D.C. on a stage set can be difficult. We used existing buildings in and around Baltimore that had elements like grand staircases or large corridors, locations with monumental interiors to try to give you the feeling that you’re in Washington.


The Oval Office set. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

And then there are a lot of very specific places that are quite recognizable in the show. We had to build most of them on stage. For example, the Oval Office that we’ve built is an exact match to the real one. Those kinds of sets require a great deal of research and a lot of detail to give them the verisimilitude of the real places. Most viewers know what the White House and the Oval Office look like. Images of important places are so prevalent now, particularly on the Internet. We have far better access to all of this than we had 20 or 30 years ago when I first started. Because people see these places on their TV or the Internet all the time it’s much harder to cheat or fake them.

We had a huge industrial warehouse that we used as a stage space which was far larger than you would normally have on a TV series, and bigger I think than many studios. Consequently we were were able to build some monumental sets, one of them being a sizeable section of the interior of the US Capitol building.

Kirill: Although you don’t see the Congress chambers, as most of the action is happening in the hallways and staff offices.

Steve: Yes, you see a lot of corridors, hallways and offices, since a majority of the story takes place out of view, behind the scenes, in more secret, private places. In conceptualizing the design of the show we wanted to avoid the flatness that you sometimes see in sets created for television. We tried to get depth with spaces that are often long and narrow like the corridors and hallways of our Capitol set.

In addition, the townhouse is a long skinny set where there are many opportunities for differentiation between foreground, mid-ground and background. Elements can be layered front to back, as opposed to across the screen, left to right. This was a visual device that we embraced in many of the sets.

Kirill: Does it help to have background in big screen productions, having experience in working with a lot of sets, investing a lot of time into research and preparation of each one?

Steve: I think it has made a difference in how the show looks, especially the attention to detail and the precision and care imparted to all aspects of the production. Fincher is a brilliant filmmaker and an equally brilliant photographer, and his vision informs all of the projects he does. These episodes were shot quite differently from most other television, and partly that involves the way the sets are lit. For the most part our sets are fairly light in color, the opposite of what you would normally do. The tone of the show is very dark and moody. We’re showing the underbelly of Washington D.C., the shadowy behind-the-scenes part of it. Generally you would have lighter characters against a darker background, but we have done just the opposite. We have darker characters against primarily lighter backgrounds. The characters are lit and you can see their faces, but there’s also a lot of silhouetting that happens against these lighter backgrounds.


Dining room on the set of the Underwood residence. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: What about the Underwood residence? Is it a real house, or did you build a set for it?

Steve: It was all built on stage. It’s based on an actual townhouse in Baltimore. We shoot the exterior of the real townhouse when we need characters exiting and entering the house. Our stage set is a match to that house, but all the interiors are built sets on stage.

Kirill: But you don’t have to build a complete thing, right? You don’t have to stack the floors, or even have rooms actually connecting to each other. The downside would be, of course, not being able to do long shots that follow characters as they move around the house, and not letting the actors feel “surrounded” by a complete environment.

Steve: We have addressed that. There are three levels: basement, main floor and second floor with bedrooms and bathroom. It would be difficult to build it all on top of itself like a real house, also it’s more inefficient for access by the shooting crew. So each level is its own set. The basement is a set on the stage floor with a stairway that leads up to what would be the main floor, and you can go all the way up the stairs to the landing. Then the main floor is a separate set on a platform about six feet off the ground. It has a stairway that leads down as if you were going to the basement, and a stairway that leads up as if you are going up to the second floor. And the second floor set has a staircase that comes up to it because it is built on a platform also.

An actor can start going up the stairs on the main floor, stop at the top, then resume the shot with the actor coming up the stairs to the second floor, and it looks like it’s a continuous thing. You cut in between the two pieces of action, and would never know that it isn’t a single set.


The set for the office of the Speaker of the House. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: How does it work out when you work with different directors on different episodes. How do you maintain a consistent visual language while providing at least some ways to directors to have their own take?

Steve: It was decided that we would have one Director of Photography [Eigil Bryld] for the entire season. He was our DP for almost the whole first season, except for the last two episodes where we had a different DP [Tim Ives]. The idea was that both the Director of Photography and I would be the guardians of the look of the show. We established some very basic design tenets that we have tried to maintain throughout the show. There is very little camera movement in most of the shots, and if the camera does move there has to be a really good reason for it. We do not use a steadi-cam at any time in any shots, we always find another way of getting moving shots. In many cases there are just a couple of actors in a room, the camera is set up and we just sit back and watch them act.

In the design of the sets for the most part we try to employ symmetry and balance wherever we can, giving the spaces a subtle sense of solidity and seriousness, along with a feeling that we are in the country’s seat of power.

The other thing that seems to be very critical to maintain is the color palette, the control of light and dark value, and the actual colors of the sets. We use a very narrow range of subdued colors, very carefully controlled. We shoot with The Red camera, and although digital technology is very good and is advancing quite quickly, there are still certain things that we have tried to control and one of them is how the camera reacts to certain colors. We do not use the color red in our sets at all. You will see the occasional red thing in a shot, like a “Stop” sign that we can’t avoid, but otherwise we avoid using red whenever possible in costuming, sets, set dressing – everywhere.

For set dressing, we have used the research that’s available for what would be accurate for many of the sets, but we have also chosen items for certain characters that emphasize and explain aspects of their character. For instance, in Francis’s townhouse and in his office we chose things that had sharpness and edge to them. He’s such a nefarious character, and we wanted things around him to have metaphorical teeth – in very subtle ways. For instance a table leg might be very pointy and sharp, because he is that kind of a character.


Francis Underwood’s office set. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: How much freedom does that leave to the director of the specific episode? Is it mostly focused on the dialog and acting?

Steve: It does limit the directors to some degree. However, most of them are quite clever, coming up with interesting shots and innovative ways of telling the story. They are confined by a fairly narrow set of parameters, for the look and feel of the show. Most tend to concentrate on casting, dialog and acting and all were chosen because their own style and technique were compatible with the overall vision of the show.

Kirill: As you said it’s a new medium, and Netflix embarked upon this rather bold experiment to invest in a few ambitious productions at the same time, without any guarantee of success. Was it difficult to convince people to join the production during the early phases?

Steve: No. I think when you have actors the caliber of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly and Kate Mara with David Fincher at the helm; plus big-name producers like Eric Roth and Joshua Donen, we all knew it was going to be a quality project. Beau Willimon, who is the writer and the creator of the show, had previously written the film “The Ides of March”. He’s a very talented guy who’s been on the inside of Washington D.C. politics, and he understands that world very well. I don’t think we ever had too much trouble convincing people to join the project.

Kirill: There’s been so much uninspiring and shallow content on basic and cable TV in the last decade. Do you see shows like “House of Cards” to be sort of an uprising from the side of content creators, pushing to raise the quality bar?

Steve: Yes. Nowadays, many film studios base most of their work on big, splashy, special effects-driven story lines, and don’t seem to be as interested as they once were at telling adult dramatic stories. But I think there’s still an audience out there for them. Maybe with the success and popularity of shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” coming out of the cable world, the studios will start to see there is a market for higher quality fare on screens that are not necessarily in a theater.


Initial sketch for the Sentinel library. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: Do you see such productions moving to premium cable networks – or Netflix in this case – seeking a more discerning audience?

Steve: Yes I do think they are trying to attract a much more specific audience. “House of Cards” is written to be shown without commercials. The story line is continuous from episode 1 all the way to episode 13, and continues into Season 2. In a way, it’s much more like a novel. For years novels were condensed down into 2-hour feature films, but in actuality a big grand story line can be told very effectively the way we tell ours with 13 or even 26 episodes. People want to see what happens next and follow the characters from the very beginning all the way through a long story arc to the end.

Kirill: And the interesting thing is that you don’t need to force breaks even within each episode to go to commercial breaks. It kind of flows.

Steve: It’s a continuous story thread. That’s the way it’s written, and that’s the way it’s presented. Since all the episodes are made available on the same day, if you want to sit for 13 hours and watch the whole story unfold, you can, and it will make sense. There are no gaps, jerks, or flashbacks needed.

Kirill: And there is no fixed length to an episode. Some are slightly shorter, and some are slightly longer to accommodate the story.

Steve: You don’t have speed up or slow things down in the presentation of the story to fill the required number of minutes for the TV episode. This flexibility in the telling of the story is groundbreaking.

Kirill: You mentioned that it’s television and not television. Netflix wants to be on pretty much all types of screens, except for the movie theaters. Do you put a name of what type of production “House of Cards” is?

Steve: I would call it a hybrid between a feature film and a made-for-television movie. When I first started on it, they told me that it was New Media, and maybe that’s what you’d call it.

Kirill: And on the same topic on being on a variety of screens, all the way down to smaller phones, and the streaming aspect of it where you don’t know what’s the data transfer quality – was it ever a consideration for you to not put too much detail into the frame?

Steve: Absolutely not, and in fact it’s the complete opposite. We shot the first season with the best camera system available. And now there’s a better chip for the camera, and Netflix is asking us to bump it up to the highest resolution. We shot Season 2 with the new camera that allowed us to get even more detail. Some people have very large screen TVs in their homes, and even if they are not sure how good the typical consumer’s connection speed is, Netflix would like to present the show with the highest level of quality possible.


On the set of the Sentinel library, before and after digital set extensions. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: One of the images on your site mentions digital set extensions to the memorial library featured in one of the episodes on Season 1. What role did digital play in the production?

Steve: We have a visual effects supervisor on the show who’s been working with Fincher for around 20 years. Let’s say we’re shooting on stage, and out the window we want to see the Washington monument, we’ll shoot green screen out of the set window. Then we’ll coordinate with the VFX department, telling them that we need to add a certain image out the window, and then we will go back-and-forth on how much expense it will require and how best to accomplish it.

We actually do a fair amount of digital work in post on the show. All the driving in the show, anything inside the vehicle is done on stage, in a room that is a big three-sided green screen space. The car does not move, the actors are in the car, and the cameras are set up around them. We have very long strips of LED monitors hung above the car. We had a camera crew go to Washington, D.C. to drive around and shoot plates for what you see outside when you’re driving. And that is fed into the LED screens above the car. So as the scene is progressing, the LED screens are synched up to emit interactive light to match the light conditions you see in the scenery you’re driving past (that will be added in post). All the reflections on the car windows, the window frames and door jambs is being shot while we’re shooting the actors in the car. Then in post the green screens are replaced with the synced up driving plates, and it works really well. It gives you the sense of light passing over the actors’ faces, matching the lighting that is in the image of the plate.

And as you mentioned, one of the bigger computer-generated things that we did in the first season was the VFX extension of the exterior of The Francis J. Underwood Library. That was a one-story building on location, which was not very modern. We added some elements to it when we shot it, then in post the top of the building was extended per the design that we did in the Art Department to create the modernist look of that building. There were a few other spots where we did visual effects work to enhance things on the show.


The set for Adam’s loft. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.

Kirill: You’ve been in the business since the 80s. Back then it was mostly special effects, like animatronics or matte paintings, and these days it’s almost exclusively all-digital. But we’re not moving towards a place where everything is shot on green screen and then replaced digitally in post. Will it continue being a collaboration?

Steve: I think so. One of the shows I did that had an enormous amount of VFX was “Van Helsing”. We built some of the biggest sets that I have ever been on for that show. It was a combination of massively huge reality-based sets, none of them less than 40 feet tall, with post-production digital extensions. I don’t think that computer generated effects are the solution to all the design issues out there, but they can definitely simplify our lives. They also allow you to make some corrections after the fact. Before digital you had to go back and reshoot things, and now you can also clean up or adjust little imperfections with photo retouching in post. It definitely has helped us quite a bit.

And in the art department itself we still have hand-drawn things and computer-drawn things, but it has made the organization of drawings and other information much more streamlined. It’s much simpler and more efficient to organize and disseminate information to the various departments on a show.

Kirill: And the last question on a more personal level. Do you find time to watch movies or TV shows, to see what you peers are doing, and if so, can you detach from looking at the technical aspects and just enjoy the story?

Steve: Yes, I do try to see as much as I can. I can get sucked into a really good story, but I have a very keen eye for things that are anachronistic (not from the right time period), inaccurate, or jarring to my aesthetic sensibility. Those will pull me out of the story. Most of the work out there, particularly in features, is fairly high quality, but occasionally I’ll see something that bothers me. I think I see both the technical and entertainment qualities of a show or film at the same time.


Gala event, initial sketch and final set. Courtesy of Steve Arnold.


And here I’d like to thank Steve Arnold for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about his art and craft. Second season of “House of Cards” will be available on Netflix on February 14, 2014.

December 6th, 2013

Production design of “The Wolverine” – interview with François Audouy

Make a list of your top favorite tentpole productions in the past 15 years, and you can count on having François Audouy be part of at least one of them. He started his career as an illustrator and concept artist on movies such as Men In Black, Pearl Harbor, Spider-Man, Minority Report and Avatar, shifted to the art director position on Transformers, Watchmen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and then moved to be the production designer or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the recently released The Wolverine. In this interview François talks about his work on The Wolverine that brought him back to his days of reading comics books growing up, researching the history, art and architecture of Japan, designing and building the main sets for the movie, and collaborating with visual effects departments on big-budget sci-fi productions.



François Audouy

Kirill: Please tell us about what you’ve been doing lately.

François: I was the production designer on Wolverine, which was an incredibly exciting and rewarding project. It took seventeen months to complete from start to finish. And I just finished another movie, Dracula Untold, and I’m very excited about Wolverine coming out on DVD.

Kirill: How far did you get into the X-Men universe preparing for the movie? Did you treat this movie as a standalone production not necessarily connected to the rest of the franchise?

François: When I first heard about the project, the only thing I knew about it was that it was set in Japan. And to be honest, that was the thing I was the most excited about. It was a dream of mine to design a movie set in Japan. Every movie is an opportunity for a designer to become an expert in something. So I really thought it was exciting to learn more about Japanese culture and architecture. You’re always looking for an opportunity to learn something.

Having said that, I was also really aware of Wolverine because I was born in 1970s, and I’m pretty much the same age as Wolverine. I remember the comic books from the late 1980s, which, looking back, is probably the golden age of Wolverine. My feeling was that the movies featuring Wolverine hadn’t really tapped into a lot of what I loved about those comics, and a lot of detail with the Logan character who’s so interesting. And I read the script, I thought that it was a great story where we really get a chance to get to know Wolverine a little bit better, and we get to focus on him for an entire movie without the distractions of all the tertiary characters. That was very exciting.


Yashida cottage. Concept illustration over location photography. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: The Japanese culture is rather closed to the outsiders. How did you approach your research phase?

François: It was kind of terrifying in the beginning, honestly. It’s so different, and so deep. There’s so much to learn.

First thing I did was to hire a researcher in Los Angeles to pull images and references. And Jim [Mangold, director] early on decided that he wasn’t interested in making a movie with cliches, like little temples or bamboo forests. I went hunting for settings and places that felt unique and different. One thing that I’m really proud of in the film is that we have this intimate story, but it also takes them through places that are understated, grounded in real, and not so Hollywood-phony [laughs]. I was trying to do something that felt real.

What helped tremendously was that I had the art department in Tokyo, and a group of people who were helping me with the locations. I had a great location manager. I scouted many places in Japan, in the mountains, north of Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka. I went there six times, and over the course of the travels every time I learned more about the culture, as I was surrounded by my Japanese crew going to all these interesting places.


Left – Tokyo love hotel, set built on stage. Right – ice village, set built on location. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: The family compound is one of the central sets in the movie. How much time did you spend on it?

François: That was probably our biggest set, and it was my favorite. It was a very immersive set, a set that you walk into and it feels totally real, even though it was built on a soundstage. Jim was referencing and inspired by “Rear Window” with Jimmy Stewart. It had an apartment looking out into the courtyard, and you can see the world outside and all of the different stories happening. And he wanted the Yashida compound to have the same feel, where you could look and have these views across the central courtyard, and see Mariko’s world, and Yashida’s chambers, and the story dynamic of this complicated family.

I created a set that was pretty much in-camera. We had a big central courtyard with water element, and all of the interiors, and it was very much an in-camera place. And it was a very hyper-modern Japanese aesthetic that was ground and rooted in the ancient flow of Japanese architecture.

And to answer your question, it probably took five or six months to design that.


Yashida compound. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: And the other big set for the final sequence in the science lab was done with some digital extensions?

François: It was originally scripted as a cave [laughs]. But I wanted to bring it back to a more Japanese setting. The movie has a little bit of everything – an old cottage, a billionaire’s compound, an ancient Buddhist temple in Tokyo – and I thought it would be really cool to have a modern industrial lab.

This set was pretty big, 42 feet tall. We built two floors of the tower that was supposed to be 30-40 stories high. The idea was to create an action sequence that happened vertically. Normally these sequences are very horizontal, and we wanted to go down and up instead of just horizontal. We kept redressing our two floors as different floors going down, and extending those floors with the digital set extensions.


Yashida lab. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: You’ve worked on quite a few other VFX-heavy productions. How is the balance of responsibilities between you as the production designer and the visual effects supervisor working for you? Are you losing some of the control over the final look of the digitally augmented scenes?

François: You’re right, as a lot of these films are becoming more synthetic, relying on digital set extensions and digital building out of environments. The studios and the directors realize that too, which is why we bring in the visual effects supervisors quite early in pre-production, so that they can be involved in what we’re doing. I try to keep a very close collaboration with VFX supervisors, and I also try to make sure that I design the digital sets – or sets with digital extensions – in the same way that I’m designing a set I’m building. I don’t really see a distinction whether it’s going to be digital or physical. It doesn’t matter to the audience. They don’t know and they don’t care what’s digital or what’s physical. I really treat that job in the same way.

I work hard to have everything designed and figured out before I leave the production. We hand over all the assets to visual effects for the assembly in the same way that I would hand over designs to a construction crew. They would get a full set of construction drawings, paint references and color ways, with everything figured out before you go and build the set.

Kirill: Although the difference is that for physical construction you’re still on the project, but for digital in post-production you are, for the most part, gone.

François: That’s true, and that’s why it’s important to have a close relationship with the visual effect supervisor which will be overseeing the final construction of the digital assets.

One thing that was great about Wolverine was that Jim had me come by the editing suite at Fox every two weeks over the course of six months. He showed me new things every two weeks, and it was a really great opportunity. He pulled me in, valued my opinion and kept me as a part of the team.

Kirill: And the last question is about 3D productions. How is it working out for you. Is it here to stay, perhaps confined to the tentpole sci-fi productions, or do you see it fading away?

François: I think stereo’s here to stay. I like it, but I don’t like it for all films [laughs]. It can be a great added experience to certain films, and kind of a distraction to others. It’s here to stay, but I don’t think we’ll be doing all films in stereo.


Yashida compound. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.


And here I’d like to thank François Audouy for taking the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions I had about his work on The Wolverine and about his craft in general. Special thanks to Mitzye Ramos at Think Jam for putting me in touch with François. The movie is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and in your favorite digital distribution channels.

December 5th, 2013

The craft of screen graphics and movie user interfaces – interview with Paul Beaudry

Continuing a series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, it’s my pleasure to host Paul Beaudry. You have seen his work on “Avatar”, “The Hunger Games” and “Ender’s Game”, and in this interview Paul talks about what goes into designing screen graphics, drawing inspiration from the latest explorations in real-world software and hardware, holographic and 3D displays as a possible evolution of human-computer interaction in the next few decades, challenges in using technologies such as Google Glass or Siri in film, the ongoing push to create more detailed and elaborate sequences, and his thoughts on working remotely with the current crop of collaboration tools.


Kirill: Tell us about how you started in the field of motion graphics.

Paul: I started out wanting to be an AVID editor, editing documentaries and similar productions. As soon as I finished school and got into the industry, I found out that what I liked the most was coming up with graphics for documentaries and shows that I ended up working on. From there I started teaching myself motion graphics, moving into opening title sequences and getting some cool opportunities.

There are really good communities online for learning. At the time for me it was talking with other people at the great mograph.net site, talking about how to get into the industry, the challenges and technical issues. That’s how I got my start. The software itself is not crazy, and a lot of people learn how to use, for example, Photoshop even though they’re not professional graphic designers or photographers. They way I look at After Effects and other 3D tools that we use is that they are more complex than Photoshop, but not so much so that it’s not impossible to learn on your own. It was years going crazy, huddled over my computer, teaching myself in every bit of free time I had during late nights, not having much of an outside life for sure [laughs].

Kirill: That’s on the technical side of things. What about the design side?

Paul: I hope I’m still learning as I go. It was a lot of the same, learning design and technical stuff together hand-in-hand. I think it’s important, actually. A lot of the conversations we had online was about getting critiques of your work, moving forward in design and technical side at the same time.

Kirill: How did you start building out your portfolio?

Paul: A whole bunch of spec pieces. My interest at the start was not really in UI design for film. At the time not that many people even knew that could be a full-time job. I was more on the television side of things, doing commercials, title sequences, more traditional motion graphics. And it was also doing my own stuff, building up reputation to get real projects.

Kirill: What were those first real projects?

Paul: I was working with the company Frantic Films on a half-hour documentary show for the Discovery channel. I don’t think it ran in US; it was a Canadian thing. I got a chance to do the opening title sequence for them, expressing my interest in doing that, and they gave me my first shot. From there I started doing a lot more work for them, and some stuff for HBO and A&E a few years later, and as a freelancer I kind of branched from there.

Kirill: What’s the story of the iOS music app Anthm that you have in the portfolio section on your site?

Paul: Anthm came out in February 2012, and actually the name is now Jukio because we ran into a bit of a legal issue. That’s something I did with my friends in our free time. It’s me, Tyler Johnston who is a graphic designer, and Ben Myers who I worked with on Avatar. We were having drinks at a bar, and we were annoyed at the music they were playing. So we came up with an app for iOS that lets you request and vote on the music playing in your location from your phone, like a jukebox with millions of songs.

Kirill: Perhaps jumping a bit forward, your work for movie UIs is the tip of the iceberg above the surface, with playback loops or basic interactivity that mostly focuses on the presentation layer. And on the other hand, creating a real application that people run on their devices forces you into the full design and implementation cycle, complete with crashes, bug fixes, feature requests etc.

Paul: My first passion is to create fantasy user interfaces for film, but at a certain point you want to make something that’s real, something that a real user can use. Something that doesn’t only look like magic, but hopefully feels magical to use. Not that Jukio is earth-changing or anything, it’s simply a music app, but there are small UX choices there that feel magical to us and that’s not always something you can do in film. It’s definitely something that we’re really interested in – getting real feedback from people, making something real that can be used to solve real-world problems.

I should mention that none films I can talk about right now had real software in them, everything that’s been released was done in post, but the company I’m working with now, G Creative Productions, has the ability to create real software that’s used on set by the actors while they’re filming. It’s all done using live playback so it’s not a post-production thing at all  – they create real software that the actors can tap, change on the fly and really interact with while they’re filming.

Kirill: And you’re focusing mostly on presentation and interaction part?

Paul: Absolutely. We fake a lot of the underlying pieces. But it’s still more involved than what you do in the post process. There’s a lot more interaction involved, and I think there’s actually a lot more thought that has to go into it. There’s a programming level involved that isn’t there when you do it in post.

Kirill: Is it more challenging to do something that actors interact with on the live set?

Paul: I’m definitely still more comfortable with post production, as I’m still on my first couple films doing playback on sets. There are benefits to both ways of doing it. On the playback side it just looks more realistic. In post production there are different challenges to consider, like the interactive lighting, how the the light from the screen will reflect off of someone’s face, for example. If you do it in post, it becomes a big job to fake the light created by these screens, whereas in playback it’s not really a concern anymore.

In most cases it’s a lot more practical, as the director can actually see the screens while he’s filming on set. On the other hand, in post we can do all kinds of crazy stuff like holograms, the craziest ideas we want and there’s really nothing stopping us from doing it.

Kirill: Well, except for budget and time.

Paul: Time and budget, yeah. We push those pretty hard [laughs]. I think I still prefer doing things in post where we can create this crazy stuff. That’s really where a lot of fun is – envisioning these really far futuristic pieces of technology without concern for what’s technically possible.

Kirill: Avatar is your only released movie so far that did 3D effects. Did that add a lot of complexity to what you did?

Paul: Absolutely. Avatar was the only one that we did that way. It was definitely challenging. It looks great in the end, but it’s not something I’m super-anxious to do again, I’ll say that [laughs].

It’s a lot more interesting to think about something in 3D space. If the user actually has to use it this way, how would you use the layering to enhance user experience, and how would you use the layering in film to help tell the story better. And at the time, getting the technical aspect across was hard because the software tools didn’t have much stereo support. I was at Prime Focus for Avatar, and they had great custom-made tools that would take our After Effects layers and disperse them in 3D space within the scene, really making the compositors’ lives a lot easier.

I worked with Ben Myers and we had basically wrapped up a month and a half early, getting everything into position to be approved by James Cameron, and seeing the end in sight. And we decided that for a lot of hero screens we would rig our own stereo cameras within After Effects, and use those to actually render hundreds of layers of depth rather than just 3-5. That was cool, to come up with that process on our own before it was really a common thing, before the software was geared to allow us to do that easily.

Kirill: Was that for the big holo table?

Paul: I didn’t do the table, but rather all the other 30 or so screens you see in that set. The holo table was fully 3D, and I believe they used 3ds Max which I assume was a bit easier to work in stereo than After Effects had allowed. For us the challenge was to get After Effects to render things in stereo quickly and efficiently, which was a big hassle. We were taking care of those 30 screens across a bunch of shots, so it was a big job to do everything in stereo.

Kirill: Leaving the technical side of things, what about the initial explorations of the overall space? Do you sit down with the director, the production designer or perhaps the VFX supervisor to discuss the general interaction aspects? I’m looking at the list of films you worked on – Avatar, Hunger Games and Ender’s Game – and it’s sufficiently far in the future that you don’t necessarily have to be bound by the limitations of the current technology. Who is involved in defining the interactions?

Paul: I don’t really interface directly with the directors. Usually there’s a layer between us as Gladys Tong is in the case of G Creative right now. There’s a lot of back and forth, pitching the craziest ideas, throwing a lot of stuff out. On Avatar, for example, a lot of things were set out before we joined. James Cameron was on that film for 14 years, I think, and Ben Procter had already done a lot of designs for our screens. It was working under our Art Director Neil Huxley with Ben Myers and others to animate them.

On The Hunger Games we looked at a lot of real-world references, extrapolating them into the future. Where would the surveillance technology be, how it would look in this dystopian future where they can really watch and control everything that is happening within the Games. We looked at Microsoft Photosynth, for example, and we really loved the idea a 3D interface traveling between photos to see something from a different perspective. We used that in some of the screens – if the game keepers have the technology to see and control everything, they surely have some way to view the arena and view everything within it.

Kirill: I loved this idea that you have removed all the intermediary steps for controlling the arena, where the keepers operate on the scaled down digital replica and are able to virtually touch and control every part of the terrain, to manipulate the digital representation and have the physical counterpart immediately “react” to those manipulations. They don’t type, they don’t move a mouse in some kind of intermediate plane.

Paul: That was definitely the most challenging set I worked on. You have 24 people controlling the same computer essentially. They all touch and control the same centered model, and it was a challenge to think about things like what do they need to control, how do they control it, what kind of interactions are necessary when it comes time to throw a fireball at Katniss, for example. What type of stuff they need to do when they knock down a tree? When they unleash the dogs? It’s a fine line as you’re trying to figure out what would the user would want to do in that scenario, and what’s going to tell this story in the most effective way possible, and how we can walk that line. How we can make this look futuristic and feel like a really intelligent all-encompassing model of the arena?

Kirill: Do you still need to stay at least somehow connected to the current technology, to not get too futuristic?

Paul: It’s difficult. Our first focus is on telling the story. We always start from there. Someone needs to throw a fireball at Katniss, and how do we show that? You take real-world references and extrapolate to technology that is more advanced by a certain number of years. What would make that process simpler? What would someone want to see?

For example if we’re working on a medical animation for a film, what would a surgeon want to see if he had limitless technology. What is the ideal way to perform a surgery? Is it wearing something like Google Glass and seeing an augmented reality display in front of you, showing where to make the incision? Maybe the medical animation is using nanobots instead, and the doctor’s interface is used to control them. A lot of this comes from current technology that we see and that we extrapolate into the future. What would someone ideally be using, and can we get that across in our film and still tell our story?

Kirill: You mentioned Photosynth, and I’m sure you have a whole bunch of other references. Are you trying to stay current and read about all the new technological explorations, even if they are not necessarily commercialized? Is it a big endeavor to stay aware of all the new things?

Paul: It’s a big job. I’m interested in these things anyway though, so a lot of my free time is spent looking at new technology. Any time we start a job, we’re looking at references and what kind of crazy stuff is coming out right now – robotics, networking, holograms – really anything. We’re trying to keep afloat of that so we can use it in film and hopefully try to figure out where it’s all headed in the future.

Kirill: I hate bringing up “Minority Report” as I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about it again and again, but it’s a popular example of things going the other way – interactions portrayed in a film that find their way into real-world products. Is this be a two-way street, a sort of a feedback loop between fantasy UIs and cutting-edge actual products?

Paul: Absolutely. “Minority Report” is funny, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a project where it wasn’t referenced by somebody. They did such a good job that it’s still relevant, and I’m sure had a lot to do with things like Kinect. There is that feedback loop.

You look back at old “Star Trek” episodes and how that’s now inspiring people to do medical apps on smartphones. I would love if what we’re doing will inspire people to make something in real life the same way real life is inspiring us to put these things in movies. I saw a Twitter exchange between Elon Musk and John Favreau about Elon trying to get his team to make some of the Iron Man interfaces for real, with holographic displays. And I think that’s powerful. You need people dreaming up the crazy stuff that’s not limited by what’s possible now, and movies are a great outlet for that.

Kirill: You mentioned Google Glass which is, for me, an interesting piece in the sense that it is a very personal gadget. It’s this screen that nobody but the person who wears it actually sees, which makes it hard to use in a movie, as you’d need to switch constantly back and forth between that small screen and what happens around the person wearing that screen. And that’s not necessarily the best story-telling experience.

Paul: That’s actually one of the challenges we’re having now. We’re working on a concept and we unfortunately can’t have something like Google Glass, as the viewer isn’t able to see it easily without switching to a first-person perspective. You see the trend in films for the past few years to use transparent displays, which is maybe not the most useful thing in the real world outside of goggles or windshields – I don’t really want to see through my laptop right now to the wall behind it. But in a movie it helps a lot where you can have a reverse shot of an actor’s face looking through his display. It’s a wonderful device in a film.

And things like Google Glass, as much as we want to put them in film, that’s exactly the challenge. It’s difficult because you can’t really see it all that easily. You have to walk the line, throwing some of your favorite ideas by the wayside because it is a film and we have a story to tell first and foremost.

Kirill: Are you afraid of people watching your films in 25 years and seeing how off-mark they were, or is each one just the product of its time?

Paul: I’m not afraid of it. You look back at some of the great stuff – like “Blade Runner”, for example – and it may look dated now, but at the time it was incredible. I hope my stuff looks really dated in 10 or 20 years, because that means technology has become so advanced that we’ll have better technology in real life than we ever dreamed of in movies, and I’d love to have real technology that actually works like this.

I think anytime you’re predicting what the future will hold, it’s inevitable that some of the stuff will be fodder for jokes. In 10 years we will look back and think “What was that, that’s so ridiculous that they thought in the future we’d be using interfaces like that.” It’s not something that necessarily “scares” me though, I hope that happens.

Kirill: It’s my impression watching sci-fi movies in the last few years – like Avatar, Prometheus or Avengers – that the trend is to use screens everywhere, putting glass surfaces of all sizes and shapes all over the place. That may not necessarily be the way of the future if you look at something like Google Now, Siri or Glass where the visible surface of the technology is receding and shrinking into the background – instead of expanding around us as portrayed in these movies.

Paul: Absolutely. That’s the trend now in real life – smaller screens and more info that is intelligently designed to fit into smaller spaces. In a movie that doesn’t work so well. It’s a double-edged sword. We can’t always put what we think it’s going to look like in 30 years, say. In 30 years I don’t think I’m going to have these giant monitors sitting on my desk anymore.

Holograms are fun in that way. They can get out of your way. They feel a lot more amorphous, taking whatever shape you want. That’s an interesting thing to think about. These little gadgets don’t always translate to film very well, so we’ll always have these giant operation centers [laughs] with huge screens everywhere, whether or not it’s the best user experience.

Kirill: You say that you don’t see your desk in 30 years’ time having these gigantic monitors. How would you like it to look? What kinds of obstacles do you wish to see removed in your interactions with computers in our lifetime?

Paul: It depends on how far into the future we’re looking. Direct brain-to-computer interfaces are absolutely the holy grail, but that’s obviously a long way out. And that’s not something that is going to work well in movies at all.

If you ask about our lifetime, it’s a tough question. The idea of 3D displays is interesting. Right now we’re using stereo displays for entertainment purposes, but I’m really interested in trying them out while I’m working. What kind of interfaces can we design and what kind of obstacles can we overcome if we think and operate in 3D – instead of the 2D aspect that we’re locked to right now? If we can break the 2D plane of our screens, what kind of interactions and experiences can we create?

It’s possible now, but you don’t see many tools using it. I’m looking at After Effects right now, and I see how having depth to not just the viewport, but the interface itself might be able to communicate some ideas better, make the interface more efficient and powerful to use. Perhaps some subtle depth cues could make an interface feel more natural to use.

Kirill: You’re dreaming up these futuristic interfaces and showing us how the interaction feels, and yet you’re still bound to the capabilities and limitations of the current crop of software tools. Is that frustrating in a sense?

Paul: It’s definitely frustrating from the human perspective. I look at a 3D model on my computer, but I can’t actually reach out and touch it, I can’t manipulate it with my hands. I have to use a mouse or a pen tablet and a keyboard in order to manipulate these things and work with them. The idea of a Kinect-like sensor that I can use – and I hate to bring up “Minority Report” again [laughs] – that’s exactly what I’d like to do. It doesn’t need to be an Iron Man style hologram. It can be in front of a flat screen, or augmented reality like Google Glass, for example.

Being able to move my hands forward and manipulate these models that I’m working with, to animate the camera with my hands – as opposed to a mouse and a keyboard. It’s a lot more natural and opens up a lot more room for creativity, if we’re using it in a human-like way with our hands and our thumbs instead of the makeshift interfaces of the mouse and the keyboard. Those are really there because the tactile interfaces were not available. There’s a lot of power there if we can work that way and remove some of the tools coming between our brains and the software we use.

Kirill: Waving your hands around all day long to complete tasks might not be the most ergonomic way…

Paul: To be clear I don’t ever want to be waving my whole arm “Minority Report”-style. That would get very tiring, but the idea of being able to use gestures in 3D space with your hands – and I mean very minimal stuff, not necessarily waving your whole arm around although that does work well in film – I mean letting go of the mouse and the keyboard, and working with your hands like you would if you were molding clay or sitting at a work bench. Not just sliding fingers across a flat piece of glass, but letting go of the glass and using the movements and gestures your hands have evolved to perform naturally.

Kirill: Getting back to your released movies (four so far), has it become easier to do the interfaces on the technical side of things, or do you see the matching rise in demand for details from directors or VFX supervisors? Do those demands scale with the capabilities of the tools you have at your disposal?

Paul: Absolutely, like anything else in visual effects. It scales with the toolset. When we were on “Avatar”, it was a big technical challenge to just account for how much time it took to render something. And that’s not always a concern anymore as computers have become more powerful. A lot of the time I can render something in 30 minutes and it’s not really affecting my day. But at the same time the demands from directors are getting crazier – a lot more 3D holograms etc.

You look at the holograms in “Avatar” – only four years later – and it’s pretty simple in comparison, which, to be clear, is not a knock on “Avatar”. I watched that team go through making it, and it was a huge challenge, and it took a lot of people to make it. And now it’s kind of par for the course in these movies, if you look at the crazy holograms in “Iron Man” and “Prometheus” for example. As our technology to make these films progresses, the demands from directors get more elaborate. We have to always look for new ways of doing things, new ways of tackling those challenges that a new film may bring.

Kirill: So it’s never going to get to a point where the director will say that what you have is good enough and you can stop.

Paul: [laughs] I don’t think so. Usually no matter how good your first version of something is, you’re going to do 30 more versions before it gets approved. That’s good though, you’re always pushed to make something more elaborate. I don’t think anything we’re doing now is any easier than what we were doing when I started out. It’s an arms race. As the technology improves, the demands get more and more elaborate. Even if the software got to a point where designs and animations were mostly automated, I don’t think the directors would want that. They’d want a custom solution, always raising the bar.

Kirill: And there’s also the part where you and your team don’t want to repeat what’s been done in the past on other films.

Paul: Always. We always want to push the ball forward with each project so we’re not just rehashing what’s been done before, by ourselves or others.

Kirill: You’ve talked about the technical aspects of doing 3D, but what about your personal opinion as a moviegoer? Do you think it’s going to take over more genres, or perhaps it’ll remain confined to tentpole sci-fi productions?

Paul: I think it’s going to be a sci-fi, fantasy-only thing. I don’t think it’s going to become more prevalent. The audience has spoken. For huge movies like “Avatar” it works great. It was filmed in 3D which makes a huge difference – as opposed to the post-conversion process where they convert a movie into 3D later. As a moviegoer, I’d rather see a 2D version of the film than to see something that was post-converted. And unfortunately I don’t think the average viewer knows the difference, so they see “3D” in the marketing materials and they think it’s going to be the same as a truly 3D movie like “Avatar” was. I don’t think that effort of post-conversion is worth it, and I hope people vote with their wallets – showing that they don’t like it. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that 3D television sets are selling particularly well either, because the content isn’t even there.

Kirill: It might be slightly different from movies where you pay slightly more every time you go to see a 3D movie. For a 3D TV set purchase you have to have a really good reason – such as a wealth of live and recorded content to justify paying a hefty upfront premium for the device. And that content just doesn’t exist yet.

Paul: Yes. I think in the case of huge blockbusters like “Avatar” it adds to the experience. I won’t name any names, but I can think of some post-converted movies that were very distracting. Post-conversion will hopefully go away, and true 3D will be reserved for the big-budget spectacles who can do it properly. I hope it does, as it definitely adds to the experience when it’s done well.

Kirill: I went to see “Ender’s Game” and it had two surprises. The first one was that there was no 3D version, at least in my area. And the second one was that I didn’t miss it at all, especially in the last part where they are in the simulation cave. It was staged and shot in a very immersive way that made me feel like I was right in there with Ender. I thought I’d be missing the extra dimension, but it wasn’t even necessary for me as the viewer. Maybe I’m too “conditioned” to expect these blockbusters to be in 3D “by default”, and “Gravity”, for example, is pushing that even further by having audio panning around you to follow the camera direction.

Paul: Exactly, it’s not necessary for every viewer. But that being said, if you did see that scene in 3D, I bet it would be just mind-blowing. I generally don’t buy 3D tickets, but for things where I know it was filmed in 3D, or rendered in 3D like the Pixar movies for example – those I find worth it, having millions of layers of depth. And when you have three or four layers of depth in post-conversion, I don’t find it’s worth it. I think people are going to slowly learn the difference. And we’ll never know for “Ender’s Game” unless they post-convert it.

There’s this amazing thing about movies. It’s a whole bunch of people, thousands of people coming together to form this amazing whole. And you go to the theater, and you notice these things, like audio following the camera movement and actors’ positions in “Gravity”, or the screens that we’re doing – that’s exactly what it’s all about. As individuals we’re small part of the massive whole that becomes a movie, and hopefully these details come across.

Kirill: How do all these thousands of people collaborate? As a freelancer working on a particular facet of the much bigger production, do you need to be on the set, to sit in the same physical space with your team, to be available to other departments? How much can be done remotely with the current crop of software collaboration tools?

Paul: I do enjoy sitting with people and working together in the same room. But for the past two years now I’ve worked almost exclusively from my home office. For “The Hunger Games” it was half-and-half, where I’d go to Montreal for a while and then come back here. It worked well, but the tools are sufficient enough now that there are more benefits to working remotely for me personally. You can work on your own time, which is perfect in a creative field like this. Contrary to popular belief, you actually put in a lot more hours than you would clocking in and out of an office every day.

Using tools like Basecamp from 37 Signals, Skype and Google Docs makes it so easy to collaborate online. I personally have never had to be on the sets – there are other highly skilled people on our team at G Creative who do that part of the job. As a designer and animator, it’s not really necessary for me to be there, so online collaboration actually works really well and allows me to just focus on the creative side of things.

Kirill: Is this your field for the foreseeable future – mixing screen graphics for movies and your own software projects?

Paul: That’s my plan for now. I have 3 movies yet to be released that all involved the design and animation of screen graphics. I formed a bit of a specialty before joining G Creative – and it’s their specialty as well so it’s a natural fit. I have this great opportunity to work with Gladys Tong who has over a decade of experience bringing this cool technology to life in film. And in my free time we have a lot of apps and real software we’re working on. It’s definitely a different challenge from film, and I love both aspects. I love making the fantasy UI stuff for film where we can make it as crazy as the director will let us, and not to worry too much how usable something really is. And then in my free time it’s rewarding to make something that does have the constraints of real software. It’s rewarding to make something that people can download and use in real life.


And here I’d like to thank Paul Beaudry for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about crafting screen graphics and user interfaces for movies.

November 23rd, 2013

Illustrators at work – interview with Riccardo Guasco

Riccardo Guasco is an illustrator and a painter working with a variety of styles and mediums – ink, watercolor, acrylic, Chinese brush – in addition to creating digital illustrations for clients such as Eni, Diesel, Rizzoli, Moleskine, Thames & Hudson and TBWA. In this interview Riccardo talks about what influenced his taste, not wanting to be tied to a single technique, and conveying motion in a static medium – particularly in his collection about cyclists.


Photography by Lorenzo De Simone

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

Riccardo: My name is Riccardo Guasco, I am an illustrator and a painter born in Alessandria, a small town in the northwestern part of Italy. I’ve always been drawing: since I was a little boy, I’ve always got the chance to attend art schools, till the School of Fine Arts in Turin. And this experience helped me to improve my hand and my style, up to turn my passion into a job.

Kirill: What informs and shapes your taste and style?

Riccardo: My style has evolved over time, matured with the passing of the years and with the settling down of my passions. During my studies, I got very interested into Picasso’s, Futurist painters’, Russian Suprematists’ and contemporary street art. Later, my passion has been enriched with comics – with the characters coming from Il Corriere dei Piccoli, the first Italian weekly comic magazine -, posters, or thanks to artists creating advertising placards since the Forties – such as Savignac, Cappiello, Seneca, Dudovich. It is a style taking inspiration from simple images, made up of few lines but full of expressive and emotional content.

Kirill: Your portfolio has work in multiple mediums – ink, watercolor, acrylic, Chinese brush. Is this a challenge to yourself to explore different directions and styles?

Riccardo: I love my art can become a language applicable to all media and through every technique. Technique is just a tool, a mean to communicate; the most important thing is having a message. I don’t want to tie myself down to a single technique or even worse to a single software, I want to try them all. My next collection I have in my mind, it will be a ceramic dinnerware set; this technique is really attractive to me, but I have never tried it up to now.

Kirill: What are your thoughts about digital illustration hardware and software tools?

Riccardo: I often use hardware and software tools in my job. Photoshop, Illustrator and Cintiq digital tablet are useful but not essential tools, luckily. As I told you before, I don’t want to tie myself down to a single software or a single hardware. Almost all my works arise from the paper first, and several times I prefer not to switch them into a digital format because I do not want to loose the freshness they have on the paper.

Kirill: How do you approach capturing and conveying movement in this static medium, particularly in your illustrations of cyclists?

Riccardo: My collection about cyclists was one of my earlier works. I wanted to convey the more introspective side of each cyclist, rather than to portray them just as racers; my attention was addressed to their thoughts and their soul, I wanted to tell something only through their profiles. So, I decided to eliminate the bicycle and everything that was redundant for me. And I was left with faces belonging to heroes, profiles speaking about struggle, noses stuck out in order to reach the finishing line they would have passed shortly.

Kirill: Do you ever find yourself so immersed during painting that you lose track of time?

Riccardo: If I could, I would draw nights and days, and if I am doing a job I like I don’t care about tiredness and time passing. I experience like a trance and my attention is completely enchanted by the work till the end. On the contrary, I never spend too much time on the same painting or illustration because I do not want to loose the freshness and spontaneity of the very first idea I’ve put on the paper.

Kirill: What goes through you head when you look at your own work from a few years ago?

Riccardo: It is a continuous metamorphosis, my works and my style change with the passing of the years (luckily). When I go back to my old works, I see naivety and defects that I would not make again now and I think the same painting or illustration would be different today.

Kirill: As you went back to the academic world, do you miss the more hectic side of client work? Any plans to go back to freelancing or agency?

Riccardo: I like to work with customers and/or agencies that ask me for unusual illustrations. I think that facing and dealing with brief and customer’s requirements is like a training. Usually, I try to explain to the customer that first of all we need to rely on each other and have a mutual consideration; only in this way it is possible to discuss and create an illustration satisfying both. I know I have a really peculiar and codified style, and this is a luck that helps me to meet customers who are exactly looking for my illustrations because they appreciate and consider them interesting from a quality point of view.

Kirill: What do you do when you run out of ideas and get stuck?

Riccardo: I think inspiration does not exist. Creativity and ideas are the result of a teamwork of eye, brain and hart. At the end of this process, the hand realizes what the other three players have imagined. This process cannot be stopped because it is like breathing or running: you need training and perseverance.

Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?

Riccardo: The best thing about being an illustrator is the availability in your own hands of a universal communication medium: “drawing”. Having the opportunity to create an image able to reach and touch millions of people in a short time; if you try to think about an image, you realize it is more straightforward than a book, or a song, or rather a movie; but it has a strong tension inside that needs to be well and carefully handle.


And here I’d like to thank Riccardo Guasco for his outstanding work, and for taking the time to answer a few questions I had about his art and craft. You can find his work online at his main portfolio site and his Behance profile. Selected works are available for sale at his Society6 shop.