July 7th, 2016

Production design of “Sicario” – interview with Patrice Vermette

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is an honor to welcome Patrice Vermette. His portfolio spans hundreds of TV commercials, dozens of music videos and such recent notable films as “Young Victoria”, “Enemy”, “Prisoners” and his latest “Sicario”. In this interview Patrice talks about getting into the field in the early ’90s, building the trust with his main collaborators and working with the same director on multiple productions, the impact of high-definition shooting and viewing equipment on his craft, the evolution of digital tools for set extensions, what happens to the sets when a production is done and what makes him stay in the industry even after all these long years.

The second half of the interview is about his work on “Sicario”, from the opening compound sequence, to building the sets of the Homeland Security office, the gigantic expanse of the border shootout, and the intricate setups of the underground tunnels.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the industry.

Patrice: My name is Patrice Vermette and I’m a production designer. I got into the industry around early 1991. When I was a kid in 1977, my dad took me to see a movie called Star Wars and it blew me away, and I started recreating those worlds in my parent’s basement. I didn’t know it back then, but it was the seed that was growing inside me – to want to have that in my life.

I grew up in Montreal, Quebec, and it wasn’t necessarily a reality for us. It wasn’t US or France or Germany or England. The local movie industry was looking much more towards documentaries or political comments.

In 1990 I graduated from the communications program at Concordia University in Montreal. My dream was to make soundtracks and produce albums. In late 1990 / early 1991 I was doing PA work on commercials, and in March 1991 I was invited to work on a video on which the art director showed up totally stoned [laughs]. I had a friend who would come to see my band live, and for those performances I used to make a new decor for each show. That friend was working as a grip on that video, and he introduced me to the director, telling him that maybe I could help out, as the next day the shooting was starting, and nothing was being done.

That director offered me the job, as he pretty much had no choice [laughs]. I said that it wasn’t really what I did for a living, or wanted to do, but I promised to give it my best shot. The next day we had a set standing up with some help from my good friends that had never done that in their life either. And from that day on that director offered me all his jobs as a production designer.


Princess Victoria and Duchess of Kent’s Kensinton Palace Bedroom on “Young Victoria” at Shepperton Studios 2007. Courtesy of Patrice Vermette.

I kind of learned it while I was doing it. I learned so much from my mistakes. Then as you keep on doing music videos, you feel strong enough to start doing commercials. In commercials you meet directors who dream of getting financing to get their movies going. So through these commercials I’ve met the wonderful director Jean-Marc Vallée, and in 2004 we made a movie together called “C.R.A.Z.Y.”

That movie had huge success in Canada and a lot of people saw it at festivals throughout the world, and it gave wings to both of us. Those were my early years.

Kirill: How was it seeing the scope of a feature film for the first time?

Patrice: I used to do pretty big commercials, so it wasn’t a very big transition. I saw that I would work for a longer period of time, and work with characters. I think of production design as the back beat, the baseline, the drums that create the visual rhythms for a story, and that’s always been my approach. If it’s a good story, and I always try to choose my movies based on that, it’s always challenging and exciting.

You might have a small budget or a big budget, but it’s always about the story and the script for me. It’s always quite exciting to support the story and to be invisible. That’s always one of my goals – not to show off, just to be invisible and help tell the story.


Duchess of Kent Drawing Room on “Young Victoria” at Shepperton Studios 2007. Courtesy of Patrice Vermette.

Kirill: You’ve started working 25 years ago. Have things changed much for you? We’ve seen the high-def projection equipment and home TV sets taking over, and almost everything is done digitally. Does that require you to be more detailed and precise with your sets?

Patrice: Of course. You have to be so detailed. When I started doing music videos, that was on 16mm. Then we moved up to commercials and 35mm. Now we’re working with 4K cameras. Everything needs to be so precise, and I feel that it’s super-exciting, because no producer will now tell you that nobody would see something. People will see that, and it’s important to be very thorough on the finishes and details. The camera sees everything now. There is nowhere to hide.

It’s also changed a lot for make-up, hair and scenic painters. Everybody needs to be at the top of their game, because a lot of the things that used to work in front of the camera now do not. The technology has put an extra pressure on us to be very detailed in our work.

Kirill: Does it help to have digital monitors on the set so that you can immediately see what the camera sees?

Patrice: The playback system and the monitors really help. When I started, it already existed, but it was black-and-white and all blurry. We used to bet among the people on the set of a commercial how long it would be until someone from the agency would ask “Is it going to be that blurry and bad?”

Now that we’re living in the digital age, the monitors are great. I think that it took away a lot of “secret” powers from the DP [director of photography]. What you see is what you get, and the DP is no longer seen as the magician. It gives the rest of the crew an opportunity to see how it looks. It really helps everybody, and we’re all less annoying to the DP. We used to ask to look at the set through the camera’s view finder. It’s a great tool now.


A quiet and peaceful maze like neighbourhood on “Prisoners”. Courtesy of Patrice Vermette.

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July 5th, 2016

The magic of visual effects – interview with Jay Grunfeld

His first feature film was the seminal “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. Later on he was part of the team that won the Oscars for best achievement in visual effects on “Golden Compass” and “Life of Pi”. And just some of his recent work includes “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Fast and Furious 7”, both parts of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” and the most recent “Captain America: Civil War”. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Jay Grunfeld to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.

In this interview Jay talks about his last ten years working primarily as a digital compositor on a variety of productions, the ongoing evolution of tools and artistic capabilities of software tools at his disposal, holographic screens and their applicability in the real world, and his excitement about the virtual reality revolution. We also talk about his work as the visual effects supervisor on “Mockingjay”, its technology, screen and holographic projections.

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

Jay: My name is Jay Grunfeld and I work as a visual effects compositor/supervisor. I was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in New City, NY, a suburb of NYC in the Hudson Valley. Growing up, art and talent surrounded me. My parents knew early on that I had an eye and encouraged me to take courses at the Arts Students League and the School of Visual Arts for high school students, in addition to providing me with private lessons as well. My greatest influence is my dad, a graphic designer and a graduate of Art Center here in LA. We worked on a bunch of projects together and he was always encouraging me to try everything and anything because it always leads to something.

I went on to study photography at Cal Arts. The idea of capturing a moment in time within a frame always intrigued me but now, I create instead of capture. Unfortunately, Cal Arts suffered terrible damage due to the Northridge quake of ’94, so I spent the next six months in NY and began learning Photoshop.

After college I became interested in motion graphics. One of my early jobs was at The Picture Mill. This is where Stephen Lawes and I first met. Stephen would later hire me for my first job as a compositor on “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” “Sky Captain” was a truly innovative film as a good portion of it was computer generated. It was a feeling of freedom with an entire large canvas to create. It was on this film that I knew I had found the work I wanted to pursue.


Scene from “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. Courtesy of Jay Grunfeld.

I spent the next few years working at Entity FX as a compositor, which led to Rhythm & Hues where I was part of the creative team that earned Oscars for “The Golden Compass” and “Life of Pi.” I am incredibly proud to have been a part of these films. You could say I earned my masters in compositing at R&H.

Presently, I am working at Cantina Creative. Stephen Lawes and Sean Cushing, co-owners of Cantina, have created a special, supportive environment in which to work. They both encouraged me to try my hand at supervising, which is very challenging and fulfilling. Wearing a different hat within the process I thought I knew so well was humbling.

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?

Jay: I never imagined working on feature films so I really had no expectations. I was always leaning towards fine arts/photography. After my experience with “Sky Captain,” I fell in love with VFX. It is extremely challenging but so rewarding. I knew then I wanted to spend my days in VFX. It’s really about the team aspect of working with different types of artists, each with their own specialty, putting their collective talents together for the same purpose.


Tiger smile from “Life of Pi”. Courtesy of Jay Grunfeld.

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June 27th, 2016

Production design of “The Last Witch Hunter” – interview with Julie Berghoff

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Julie Berghoff. In this interview Julie talks about her ongoing work on commercials, the beginning of her involvement with feature productions as the horror genre starting taking off in early 2000’s, creative collaborations across multiple departments, what makes people stay in the field and what makes people leave, and the evolving landscape of storytelling across various screens around is. The second half of the interview is about her work on “The Last Witch Hunter”, bringing together physical sets and digital extensions, working with live plants, sculpting the impressive sets for the movie, and extending the continuity of sets through post-production via collaboration with the visual effects department.

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

Julie: I’m Julie Berghoff and I’m a production designer for film, TV, commercials and music videos. I’m from Chicago IL and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was always really interested in fine art, drawing and building. I completed a sculpting and a fashion degree at the Art Institute of Chicago. From 1994-2000, I worked for a graphics/model shop in Chicago called Kaleidoscope Imaging.

We worked mostly in table top which is directly connected with shooting food products. I specialized in sculpting oversized models. Some of my favorites were the oversized mini-wheats and Snickers bars and things of that nature. We’re talking about a 2-foot Snickers bar that you crack open with the real product inside. Around 1996, I did a stop-motion spot for Coca Cola, and I built all these models that moved and danced, and I fell in love with stop-motion and decided that I wanted to pursue more stop motion. Which brought me out to Portland Oregon, where I worked at Will Vinton Studios for 1.5 years. I did various positions on a Fox show called “The PJs”. It was a hilarious stop motion show about the project, starring Eddie Murphy’s voice.

Around 2002, I moved from Portland to Los Angeles and started working on commercials. The speed and accuracy of working on commercials was nerve racking. They were very demanding and definitely kept you on your toes. You have to work really fast, you have to be on the spot when you go on scouts with the director and they ask you about your vision, and you have sometimes to draw and build things in days.

Commercials really taught me how to be efficient, smart and fast with fabrication and concept ideas, but there was really no narrative aspect to it. You want to be inspired by your work and the film industry as a whole works incredibly hard. A 60-80 hour week is somewhat the norm. When you’re going to dedicate so much of your energy of you life to something. It’s important to be passionate about it and figure out how to keep the passion. I really take my time in choosing my projects, and I need to feel completely energized by it which is the tell-tale sign.

Kirill: How did the field of commercials evolve for you over the last 20 or so years? You’ve seen the advent of high-definition televisions, and explosion of video on web and mobile devices and micro-channels everywhere. Is anything different for you these days?

Julie: I just did a commercial last week, and I have to say that the client is really the king now. It was a mid-range commercial, and maybe on the higher end the directors have more of a voice, but the clients really care so much specifically about their product, and that’s what they want to focus on. And then, time permitting, you can do some fun narrative or something interesting, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to make the cut.

I still find it to be a great learning platform for people starting off, much better than reality TV shows which I’ve never done. It teaches you discipline of fast film making. Working with a director, scout, producer on all the different platforms of how to make a commercial.

The more you work with people, the more shorthand you have. It’s the same as working with the same director. You know what they like, what they don’t like, how they tell a story, how they move the camera, and sometimes even what furniture style they like. Working continuously with the same people is extremely helpful.

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June 17th, 2016

A conversation about fantasy user interfaces

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

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

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

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

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