March 30th, 2016

Production design of “Penny Dreadful” – interview with Jonathan McKinstry

Some are calling it the golden age of television. In the last decade or so we are seeing an incredible wave of episodic television productions of the highest quality, bringing to life a variety of stories and storytelling talent that explore wider story arcs enabled by the longer format. Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” is undoubtedly one of these shows, with two amazing seasons under its belt and third season returning to our screens on May 1 this year.

In late 2014 I’ve had the privilege to interview one of show’s cinematographers, Owen McPolin. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Jonathan McKinstry who is responsible for the production design of all three seasons of “Penny Dreadful”. In this interview he talks about his transition to the world of episodic television after having worked on multiple large screen movies, the differences in running an art department between feature and episodic productions, and a deep dive into bringing the wonderfully dark worlds of the Victorian era into our lives.

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

Jonathan: I’m Jonathan McKinstry, production designer of Penny Dreadful at the moment, just finished working on season 3.

I started around 1982-83 after having done a degree in interior design. I knocked on lots of doors and did a couple of summer jobs working for Granada Television in Manchester, and then knocked on lots of doors with my portfolio in London, managing to get my first job on a film which was “Return to Oz”. Since then I gradually worked my way through the art department as junior draughtsman, draughtsman, assistant art director, art director, supervising art director to, presently, production designer.

Kirill: Those were the days where you didn’t have a lot of digital tools at your disposal, so you’d either build the sets physically or do miniature sets to emulate larger-scale vistas.

Jonathan: Certainly CGI [computer generated imagery] didn’t exist when I started, and it was all foreground miniatures, false perspectives, matte paintings – the technology that the first Star Wars had, really.

Kirill: And that worked pretty well in the world that didn’t have high-resolution digital cameras, in the television world as well as in feature film.

Jonathan: Obviously making dragons fly was much more complicated, so that would become stop motion or some kind of animation or claymation that they used on my first film “Return to Oz”. But now with computers there are so many things that can be done in post-production, and sometimes it’s the easy option for the director or the producers that they don’t have to make a decision upfront and want to fix it later. It’s not always a cheaper option, it depends on how it’s used and when it’s used.

Kirill: As a production designer you don’t usually get to stay into the post-production phase. Does it worry you that you don’t have as much control or influence over the production design side of the final product?

Jonathan: A little bit. People at Showtime have been very good with me and usually involve me via email even if I’m not working on a project. I’ve had a degree of say over what things should look like, and where possible I’ve tried to give input of what things should look like during the shooting process. Obviously there are quite a few months of post-production when I’m not around.

I think that as long as people set off on the right direction, they’re very skilled at what they do. It’s when they are not set on the right direction, when there’s a mismatch between somebody sitting down at a computer on the other side of the world and thinking about what is being physically created.

Kirill: Especially, if I may jump a bit forward, if you’re talking about a world of Penny Dreadful that is rooted in a very physical world of the Victorian era.

Jonathan: There are still quite a lot of visual effects, a lot of cleanups and animated inserts. But in terms of the 3D world beyond the physical set we’ve built a backlot set and anything above 22 feet is digital extensions. I’ve had as much input as I can to try and guide them as to what I thought that should all look like. They’ve sent me reference images of what they were working on for me to approve.

Even if we are a relatively modest TV series with a relatively modest budget, certainly not an HBO budget, we still are trying to manage and achieve some pretty big looks, as big as we can.

Kirill: Especially when giant high-definition TV sets are quite affordable, and you can pause, rewind and rewind again to take a look at a particularly interesting scene.

Jonathan: The days of “made for television” are long gone now. With 65-inch LED high-definition 4K sitting two or three meters away on a sofa they are probably seeing more details than they would on a big screen in Leicester Square. You literally have to treat it as a movie or even better, certainly for the finishes and details of things.

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March 8th, 2016

The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Jayson Crothers

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my absolute delight to welcome Jayson Crothers. As there’s not nearly enough space in one interview to cover all the features and short films that he’s worked on in the last fifteen years, we’ve spent most of our time talking about the cinematography on the magnificently shot “Amnesiac” and his ongoing work on the TV show “Chicago Fire”.

As the conversation weaves between the details of these two specific projects and the overall world of cinematography, Jayson talks about the glamour and reality of Hollywood, the intersection of passion, hard work and luck that propels one’s career forward, the business aspects of making movies and how things are evolving in the world of increasingly competitive episodic TV productions, the overall job of a cinematographer through the major three phases of film production, the variety of visual tools that cinematographers use to tell a story, creating a safe emotional environment for the actors on set, spending 200 days in each of the last few years shooting 23-episode seasons of “Chicago Fire” and the variety of screens that surround us as the viewers. In addition, he takes a deeper dive in the ongoing transition from the medium of film to digital, how it affects the visual aesthetics and on-set discipline of various departments.

Jayson Crothers on set. Photography by Elizabeth Morris.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, what drew you into the industry, and how you got your start.

Jayson: Like most kids, I grew up loving movies.  Over time my love of watching movies inspired the idea to make movies. I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry and had no idea where to even start, so I took a Super 8 class at a community college. My instructor recommended I enroll in their cinematography course, and as soon as I picked up a light meter things just clicked and made sense.  I continued my education getting a Bachelor’s from Columbia College in Chicago. I was an intern with Panavision and I interned under Tom Priestly, ASC on a film for MGM. Then I moved to Los Angeles and earned my MFA from the American Film Institute (AFI).  After graduation, most people start shooting commercials or music videos, and work towards shooting feature films.  I did it the other way around – I fell right into shooting a lot of low budget features, which I did pretty non-stop up to 2013 when I came aboard the TV show that I’m on right now (Chicago Fire).

Kirill: Allow me to bring you back to when you where studying film in Chicago and LA. There’s a lot of glamour associated with movies and Hollywood, and I’d imagine that there must be quite a few people going to these schools because of that and not because they love making movies. Did you see people attracted to the glamour, only to abandon the field once they were exposed to the everyday grind of the industry?

Jayson: Certainly. I think about my very first class at Columbia. We had around 40 students in our class, and two years later when I graduated I only saw one other person from that first class.

I think a lot of people go to film school, or want to enter the business, because there’s a lot of apparent glamour to it. A lot of people are drawn to that and how exciting appears to be. There’s a promise of money, of fame and success, and it all looks really sexy and glamorous until you’re standing on set at hour 16 in the pouring rain, and you’re ankle deep in mud, and you have a cold, and you haven’t seen your family and your dog doesn’t remember who you are [laughs]. I think that’s when the reality starts to set in for people.

This is hard work and goes beyond just a job. We work freelance, so it’s not just a job, but rather a lifestyle. You’re self-employed and you are marketing yourself. It’s like starting a business but you only have one product, and if that product isn’t working, you’re not making a living. You’re the product.

I think that when people realize that it requires a lot of work and sacrifice, then very early on people learn quickly if it’s for them or not.

Kirill: My impression is that you have to have real passion for the field to stay in it for any significant number of productions.

Jayson Crothers on set.
Photography by Elizabeth Morris.

Jayson: Absolutely. It’s a lifestyle. Being freelance and self-employed is really nerve-wracking for some people. Very long hours is really hard for people. The sacrifice is not something that a lot of people want to do. And it’s not a judgement; for some people it’s just not for them, and for other people it is.

It’s a very specific path, and I think that if you want to have any kind of success in it, you have to be in it for the long haul. It requires an enormous commitment of time, tenacity, and patience.

Kirill: Would you say that in addition to the determination to get into the field you also need just a tiny bit of luck to get to the right production? Is pure passion enough to get into the field and to get ahead?

Jayson: It’s something that people don’t really acknowledge as much as I think they should, but there is an enormous amount of luck involved. Passion is crucial because it’s what initially gets you into pursuing this, and it’s what’s probably going to keep you going when things get hard or when you have a down time. In this business you have ups and downs all the time. So when things go down, you’re going to fall back on that passion to help keep you going forward.

Passion in and of itself doesn’t really mean anything unless you couple it with a lot of hard work. I know a lot of people who are really passionate, who work very hard, but then you need a certain amount of luck and good fortune. You need a lucky break. You need the right project, you need the right people, and you need the right time.

Every success story about people in our industry is a great story and is legitimate. But there’s a lot of hard work that most people never see – it’s that person who’s an “overnight success”, but actually has 10-15 years of toiling away before they “make it”. And these stories, I think, are a culmination of passion, a lot of hard work, mixed with the right project that was done at the right time. If anything, that might be one of the hardest things. People can be very passionate and work very hard for years and years and years before they get that lucky break.

I started shooting features right out of AFI in 2005, and my lucky break came about when I got called for the TV show that I’m on now. That’s eight years of hard work (plus all the work before AFI, which began in 1997) and a lot of close calls, of “I was almost lucky, but not quite.” And it’s hard to see year after year go by and you wonder when, or if, that lucky break is going to come.

People that are successful are the ones that work hard, but frankly are also the ones that have the patience to wait until the good luck comes along. Preparation, good fortune and hard work need to come together at the same time.

Kirill: It’s almost like you need to keep on honing your craft so that when the opportunity comes, you’re ready to pounce.

Jayson: Exactly – all the hard work and passion prepare you for when someone gives you that opportunity, and most of the time you don’t know that the project you’re working on is that opportunity. Something else that’s vital to taking advantage of these opportunities is the mindset that everything you do gets equal weight and equal respect. You treat everything as though it’s the most important project you’ve ever done; that’s, in my opinion, the definition of being professional.

It’s very rare that you work on a movie and you say to yourself that you know it’s going to be the special one. Usually you work on something and you enjoy it and do good work on it, and later on people respond to it. Or they don’t. You never really know.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

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November 25th, 2015

The art and craft of set decoration – interview with Niamh Coulter

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Niamh Coulter. In the last few years she worked as the set decorator on feature films such as “Easy Virtue” (read interview with the film’s art director), “Inkheart”, “Dorian Grey”, “Good People” and, most recently, “Before I Go To Sleep” and “Far From The Madding Crowd”. In this interview Niamh talks about the art and craft of set decoration and its interaction with the rest of the art department, the importance of surrounding actors with physical objects on set, what happens for her during the various production phases, and what stays with her after a production is done. In addition, Niamh takes us on a deeper dive into the details of her two most recent feature productions, “Before I Go To Sleep” and “Far From The Madding Crowd”.

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

Niamh: My name is Niamh Coulter and I am a set decorator, based in London and working in feature film and commercials. I have been in the industry now for over 20 years. It was a very fortunate set of circumstances that brought me here though really it seems like the path was preordained.

I studied History of Art and English at university and followed that for a time working as a fine art journalist.  I ended up traveling extensively in the far east and ultimately living in Indonesia where I worked for an English newspaper in Jakarta for a time. During my time in Jakarta I helped out a photographer friend and started styling shoots for him during the day and working the paper at night.

When I eventually returned to the UK an old school friend got me into the commercials end of the industry and introduced me to a designer and decorator whom I very quickly began working for full time. Commercials is an excellent ‘in’ into film I think, or it certainly was, as we worked with very high production values and very extreme deadlines so the art of making the impossible happen is what we lived and breathed. As it turns out History of Art is an excellent foundation for set decorating – it gives you a great knowledge of period, color and composition and an excellent visual recall.

A few years in I met the designer John Beard, with whom I have now collaborated for over 18 years, and he took me into my first feature which was a Chris Menges film called ‘The Lost Son’. Everything since then I have learned on the shop floor and every job teaches me something new. It’s one of the things I love most about the film industry.

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November 8th, 2015

Art direction in episodic television – interview with Alison Ford

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Alison Ford. Her portfolio spans the worlds of theater, corporate marketing, architecture, illustration, interior design and museum exhibits, as well as extensive work on episodic TV productions including “The Americans”, “White Collar” and, most recently, the first season of “Mr Robot”. In this interview Alison talks about splitting her time between her various projects, the frenetic pace of episodic television productions, a typical week in the life of an art director on one of her shows, and a deeper dive into the particulars of “Mr Robot”.

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

Alison: In college I was a fine arts major, wanting to be the world’s greatest painter. In graduate school, I studied stage design; I was going to be a Broadway star. After school, I started designing sets in a variety of theaters around the country. Life interrupted. In my late twenties, eight months pregnant, I started teaching theatre design. First at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, then later at the University of Iowa where I led the undergraduate and graduate design program for the theatre department.

In the middle of my life (three children and one marriage later), after I’d been tenured at two Universities, I spent a year walking around the block in my bucolic Iowa City neighborhood. I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to return to New York, the home of my heart, and practice what I had been teaching for so many years. That was just after 9-11.

Kirill: Your career so far took you into theater, corporate marketing, architecture, illustration, interior design, museum exhibits and extensive work on episodic TV productions. Is there any creative overlap between these fields, and how work in one affects your work in others?

Alison: Indeed there is. I came to New York with a job at a large firm, designing corporate marketing environments. After a year of selling football and aspirin, I started working for a theatre design consultant and an interior design firm, and occasionally designing museum exhibits. In all those tasks my job was to design and render evocative environments. I learned a good deal from my colleagues in these jobs: how to build a drafting template, how to render quickly in Photoshop, and how sometimes a color palette can be more about texture and value than hue. I was granted access in all these fields because I had the passport of strong studio skills (something I emphasized to my students when I was teaching).

Kirill: How different was the change of pace going from the world of theater to episodic TV? Were there any unexpected surprises during your first couple of TV shows?

Alison: Luckily on my first few TV shows I worked as an Assistant Art Director, designing and drafting sets for other, experienced Art Directors. I learned to draw/draft/model pretty quickly.

I would describe the different rhythms of designing for theatre vs designing for television in this way: designing for theatre is like doing a contour drawing, lovingly tracing the shape of a negative space for five or ten minutes. Designing for television is like gesture drawing, capturing the essence of a walking figure in thirty seconds.

Now working as an Art Director, sometimes I find myself saying to my set designers “Draft it in Magic Marker!” Meaning, that I want them to draft gesturally, schematically for that particular set in that moment in time.

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