August 11th, 2016

Production design of “The Double” – interview with David Crank

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome David Crank. In recent years David worked as art director and production designer on productions such as “The Master”, “Inherent Vice”, “The New World”, “There Will Be Blood”, “John Adams”, “Water for Elephants”, “The Tree of Life”, “To the Wonder”, “Lincoln” and his most recent “Concussion”. In this interview he talks about the art and craft of production design and how it evolved over the last couple of decades. The second part of the interview is about David’s work on the remarkably crafted sets of “The Double” – a dark satirical comedy whose visuals grip you from the very first frame and don’t let go long after the movie has ended.

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

David: I worked for about ten years designing sets and costumes in theater, and then switched over to film around 1990. Film was what I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have that opportunity in Richmond where I grew up. I enjoy both disciplines, but I like being able to concentrate on one project intensely and then go on to the next one, whereas in theater you needed to have two or three going on at the same time in order to make a living.

Kirill: If you consider storytelling in these two mediums, theater and film, are there any big differences, or is it sufficiently similar?

David: There are different techniques you use, but to me, the storytelling aspect of it is fairly similar. If it happens to be on stage, you can do it one way, and if it’s on film, you can do it in another way. But your ultimate goal is still telling an interesting story in an exciting fashion, and hopefully, engage people. In terms of design, there are small technical differences, but really, design is design. You still apply the same knowledge and skills to both mediums.

Kirill: To me it feels like you have the fixed space on stage, and you can’t take the viewers closer or farther away in the same way that a film camera can.

David: True, you still do the same things. In film you do close-ups and shift the focus with the camera, but in theatre, you can also control the focus on stage by directing the eyes of the audience through design and lighting. It’s a different scale and done in a different way, but, in effect, you’re still doing the same thing.

Kirill: Do you find that some stories lend themselves to be better told on stage vs film, or does it depend on the talent of the storytellers to take advantage of the stronger sides of the specific medium?

David: There probably are some that do lend themselves to being better told on stage. I think, however, it’s similar to the question of what is better – a book or a movie? In a sense, you should be telling the same story, but taking a different path to get there. The method of each will be slightly different, and while you get certain things from a book that you wouldn’t get from a film, you also get certain things from a film that you wouldn’t get from a book. For me, with film, the main thing that you have to always be aware of is using a cinematic language vs. a stage language. How can you tell something in a movie in a way that you can’t tell it in a play? That’s what you focus on. That’s how you tell your story.


Layout sketches for John Rolfe farmhouse set on “The New World”. Courtesy of David Crank.


On the sets of “The New World”. Courtesy of David Crank.

Kirill: As you said, you started working on films in the early ’90s. That was before digital tools were as powerful and prevalent as they are today.

David: I started my career working mostly on historical dramas, because that’s what came to film in Virginia. Initially there was very little CGI used on projects that I was on, except to change the occasional background. The sets were built fairly complete.

Kirill: But even on historical dramas it gets pretty expensive to build very big sets.

David: Yes it can! When we did with “John Adams”, we had a massive number of sets to construct, many that were too large to build completely. We designed what we wanted them to be, and then sat down with VFX people and talked about what made sense to build in reality and what made sense to build digitally. You split up the work that way. It would be lovely to build it all, but nobody has the money for that [laughs]. You just attack each set separately and see what makes sense.

Sometimes you might build a bit more, because if you can do whole scenes without having to augment them with CGI, it might ultimately be cheaper for you. But, you might have a single shot that wants to pull back from there and show more building above, or more buildings beyond, and, that’s when it makes sense to add CGI. It’s different in every single case. There is no formula. You look at the specific problem, and you discuss how to best solve it.


Big top circus tent set on “Water for Elephants”. Courtesy of David Crank.

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August 1st, 2016

Cinematoraphy of “Miss Julie” – interview with Mikhail Krichman

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Mikhail Krichman. In this interview we talk about the start of his career in the early ’90s that coincided with the big political changes in Russia, his ongoing collaboration with Andrey Zvyagintsev that included the Oscar-nominated “Leviathan”, how stories cross cultural borders and how stories can change dramatically when they are told in a different language (dubbing or voiceover), and the transition of the industry from film to digital in the last decade. The second half of the interview is about Mikhail’s work on the wonderfully crafted world of the recently released “Miss Julie”.


Mikhail Krichman on set. Photography by Anna Matveeva.

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

Mikhail: It happened almost accidentally. My parents come from the field of book typesetting. After finishing my army service I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I chose the easiest path. I wouldn’t say that it interested me that much, but I didn’t know anything else. I spent a lot of time in printing houses, and I liked the smell of the paint. Those were the things from my childhood that made me start my studies at what is now Moscow State University of Printing Arts.

It was around 1991. They had an arts department, but since I didn’t have any drawing skills, I didn’t have any thoughts about doing graphic design. I joined the department of technical studies, learning about the technology and the process of book printing. After third semester I moved to an extramural study program and started doing part time jobs. Those didn’t have any connection neither to what I do now nor to what I was continuing to study, and from what I remember from those activities, I might have even lost money doing them.


Mikhail Krichman on set.
Photography by Anna Matveeva.

And it so happened that I met a guy that was about to graduate from the cinematography department of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. It was a birthday party, and I asked a question that probably a lot of people ask in a similar situation – would it be possible to visit a set and see how things work when they shoot a movie. We talked for a bit and then he disappeared, and I almost forgot about him. Then after a year he got in touch, saying that he had an opportunity for me to come and visit a set. That was how I saw a film set for the first time – as he was directing and shooting some kind of a commercial.

But that’s not how I started my path to becoming cinematographer. A bit later, again with the help of the same guy, I visited the editing room of a TV station. Back in the 1990s it was simply possible to go there and enter the buildings. The editing room was empty apart from one day a week. It was full with Betacams and mixing consoles, and I remember myself spending day after day reading the manuals, learning how different machines worked, trying to mix source materials that didn’t even belong to me. And after some time I became a junior editor.

Kirill: Without having some kind of a formal education in the field.

Mikhail: I noticed the people who knew what they were doing in the editing room, and started learning from them. It wasn’t overly difficult, and my boss saw that I wasn’t all that bad, so he kept me around. After a while I had a chance to sit through a number of study groups led by a teacher from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. She was teaching courses on editing, and my boss invited her a few times a week to give lectures to me and my colleagues. She talked mostly about editing film, and it was a free-form dialogue. We didn’t have any strict plan, and keeping notes was optional even though we all kept detailed notes. She was a great teacher, and I learned a lot from her, things that stay with me until now.

I’ve spent around three-four years there, and then found the next step in my career. I met Leonid Kruglov who was doing a travel show for a national TV station. He invited me to Cuba to make a documentary with him, which was my first job in doing documentaries. It was only him and me, making a show about Santería and their religious beliefs.

Right around that time we had first appearances of small hand-held digital cameras from Sony. Betacams were already around, of course, but they were bulky and expensive, confining them to studio environments. The small digital camera that we had cost around $3,000 and we also got a wide lens, starting to experiment with this new hardware and what it allowed you to do in the field. It was amazing at the time.

I also started doing music clips, as directors liked that I was both shooting and editing the material. And I kept on doing that travel show, going with a slightly bigger crew of five and two cameras. We did Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Colombia and Peru among the rest. That was already 1999.

And then in 2000 I met Andrey Zvyagintsev that worked at REN TV at the time. He got offered to do “The Black Room” show, choosing a few short stories to shoot. He was looking for cinematographers to shoot individual episodes, and one of my director friends put us in touch.

Kirill: And you continued working with him afterwards.

Mikhail: Yes. We did those three short stories, each one 25 minutes long and not related to the others. The show was received well, and I was contacted by a film studio to do my first full feature, “Binge Theory”. Then I did “Sky. Plane. Girl” in 2002.

Kirill: I remember the years after the collapse of Soviet Union, where a lot of industries underwent very big changes, as what was controlled by the state and the party was now transitioning into private hands. What was the state of the film industry in Russia around 2000?

Mikhail: The industry lost a lot of talented people, key people across all departments, including second unit directors, camera operators and script writers. People lost their jobs during that period, going to other fields that didn’t even have much connection to arts. Some went abroad and some just disappeared.

I wasn’t a big fan of Russian cinema at the time. I remember seeing differences in the artistic and visual quality of American, British and French films. I was also younger, and American movies were much closer to my taste as well. I can’t remember a single local film from the ’90s that had left a powerful impression on me. There were a few indie films that failed to deliver on their promise, and a lot of them went nowhere. Also, due to lack of budget, most of them were not done that well compared to european or American productions.

I think that aesthetics are an important part of making a film. When the form is untidy and messy, the content is sometimes lost. And that was struggling to pull their weight against the smooth form of the American films. It feels that only now I am starting to discover Russian cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky was a formidable figure. I might not have been able to appreciate his content at the time, but the form was powerful.

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July 9th, 2016

Production design of “The Angry Birds Movie” – interview with Pete Oswald

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Pete Oswald. In the last few years he has worked on “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”, both “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” movies, “ParaNorman” and “Hotel Transylvania”. And just a couple of months ago he completed “The Angry Birds Movie” on which he was the production designer. In this interview Pete talks about the magic of animated films, the transition of the industry from hand-drawn animation to CG [computer generated], the yet-unsolved problem of faithfully reproducing human skin, creating animated universes not bound by physical laws of the real world, the job and the responsibilities of a production designer on an animated film, and the overall structure of a production. And as we talk, Pete delves deeper into the details of bringing the Angry Birds story from the original game franchise to the big screen.

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

Pete: I’ve always been an artist. My mom is a painter and a fine artist. As a child, she would teach art classes in our basement. I would sit in the back and draw all day. I always thought of going into this profession, and when it was time to look at colleges, I didn’t really know that animation was a real job [laughs]. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, far away from Hollywood. I didn’t know you could actually make a living in animation until I started looking at colleges in LA. That’s when I realized that a lot of my drawings had an animated feel to them.

I started doing more research. I read Disney’s “The Illusion of Life” and got hooked. I went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to study animation and minor in graphic design. From there I was able to get hired to do my first job at the Cartoon Network, and then my career took off after that.

Kirill: When did you start working in the industry?

Pete: That was around 2003. I got hired by the Cartoon Network to work on the show called “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” as a character designer. I learned so much in my first few years at that studio through some amazing artists. Then I went on to work on “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” at Dreamworks. That was an amazing opportunity too because I got to experience my first feature film. After that I went on to work on “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” at Sony. “ParaNorman” at Laika, then back to Sony to work on “Hotel Transylvania” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”. And now I’ve just finished up “The Angry Birds Movie” on which I was the production designer.

Kirill: Bringing you back to 2003, hand-drawn animation was still going strong.

Pete: Yes, it was. I think we were just starting to get into the CG [computer generated] realm. A few very successful CG films have come out by then – “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” and some of the first Shrek film. 2D was still on the cusp and not quite dead yet. In school they wanted to teach us both, because it’s great to learn both mediums and have an understanding of the entire process.

It was really interesting to see the entire transition from 2D to CG. I think at the end of the day it’s all still about storytelling and it becomes a different technical approach. Both are really great, but the computers are so powerful now and they can do anything you want them to do.


Sketch for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”.

Kirill: Have we seen the last breath of hand-drawn animation, at least in feature productions?

Pete: I don’t think it’ll ever die. In features I think Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” was the last American animated feature film. But Studio Gibli is always creating beautiful work out of Japan, and Hayao Miyazaki is keeping the 2D world alive, and it’s so good. It just depends on how you want to tell the story. Right now CG is what audiences want.

Kirill: What is it about CG? Is it the level of detail, the sophisticated look of it?

Pete: I think so. It’s an easier translation to the real world. We can light and texture things, and make it feel like it looks in real world. And whether it’s more cartoony or more realistic, that’s a separate design theory. Because the computer can do that, I think it engrosses the audience and it makes you feel like you’re in that set, or talking with that character. The textures feel real, the lighting feels real, and I think that’s the sophistication that draws the audience to this.

Kirill: And yet nobody’s been able to solve the look of the human skin. It feels like it’s the last big unsolved piece to getting to photorealism in animation.

Pete: That’s always the really tough thing to tackle. There’s really no substitute for human skin. I tend to like CG things that aren’t realistic, that aren’t photo-real. You have to get everything right for it to look exact. Our eyes are so sophisticated. You can immediately tell that it’s off and that it doesn’t look right.

I come from more of a cartoony background where I like to exaggerate and caricature, and I’m not too concerned that the skin doesn’t look realistic. I like to design shapes that are pushed and expressive. It’s more about the story and the emotion of the characters and environments than the photorealistic aspect.


Sketch for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”.

Kirill: And in stories such as “Madagascar” or “Angry Birds” we might not be looking for the animals to be photorealistic. We’re there to be entertained, and I guess kids don’t care as much either.

Pete: As an audience member, you easily transpose yourself into that world. We’re not concerned that Red from “The Angry Birds Movie” should look like a real bird. We did that on purpose. We made him more anthropomorphic and creature-like. He has a beak and feathers. He’s iconic as a bird, but he’s not a photo-realistic bird. Red had to be appealing and cute because of his anger issues. There’s a great juxtaposition between cute and dangerous. That’s what makes Red a successful character design.

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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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