September 2nd, 2016

Designing with purpose – interview with Russ Gautier and John LePore

In my first interview with John LePore of Perception a few weeks ago, we talked about his studio’s earlier work on “Iron Man 2”, “Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. In this second part on Perception’s work, John is joined by the art director Russ Gautier to talk about their work on the recently released “Batman v Superman”.

We start with the beginning of Russ’s career as a motion designer in the late ’90s and his early explorations of Flash, and talk about the role of an art director in charge of a unified visual language of all the screens on a particular feature film. Then John and Russ talk about the cyclical nature of designing for screens in real world and in feature films, the importance of communicating the story through screens and imbuing each one with a precise purpose, comparing and contrasting the screens of Batman and Lex Luthor and how each one reflects the traits of those two characters, and the particular details of the post-production work that Perception did on “Batman v Superman”. Finally, we close with their thoughts on VR interfaces and general progress of technology in our daily lives.


Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: As we’ve already introduced John in the first part, let’s talk about Russ and his path so far.

Russ: My name is Russ Gautier, and I’m the art director at Perception. I grew up in Northern Virginia and went to VCU in Richmond to get my graphic design degree. At the time at least, it was a very theory-based program which worked really well for me, because I tend to pick up the technical side quite easily on my own. So it was great to spend a lot of my education focusing on the “why” of graphic design.

While I was in school I was really interested in interactive design. I picked up Flash in the late 90’s, which I thought was the coolest thing – it was mind-blowing at the time. I saw sites like 2advanced and the early version of GMUNK’s portfolio (the one with the guy dancing in the onesy and all the animated elements), and decided that’s what I wanted to do: crazy animated interfaces. So I dug deep into Flash while in school.

It was a pretty experimental time back then. There were no standards really. UX was not really a thing. There wasn’t as much concern for usability, at least in what I was being exposed to. People were doing crazy things with interface design, and in hindsight many of them were awful, but they did offer a great playground for ideas.

By the time I graduated I had enough knowledge and experience that I got hired to teach a web design class at VCU while working as an interactive designer at a local design shop. Around that time I discovered motion graphics, got myself copies of Maya and After Effects and started playing with more 3D and VFX. After a couple years I quit my interactive design job and shortly after got picked by the Martin Agency. I spent three years there doing motion design and animation, and with lots of support from the Executive Producers and many other fine people, started what would eventually become Hue & Cry. It was just a small internal design and animation department within the agency back then, and now it’s a proper motion design and animation studio. It was a great experience for me to help build the team there.

In 2012 I moved to New York City. I was doing freelance work here, and in early 2014 Johnny contacted me after seeing my reel. We talked about me coming to work at Perception, and I started a couple months later. It’s been a fun couple years!

Kirill: What is the role of the art director on these productions?

Russ: My job is primarily to establish and keep a consistent style and design language throughout the course of a project, to provide team leadership, help present and sell the ideas to our client and, of course, get my hands dirty designing, animating and compositing. Sometimes I play the role of TD as well. It’s a small shop so I wear a lot of hats around here.


Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: It feels like every new generation of designers rediscovers things that were already known, sometimes decided ago. We’ve had this phase of heavily textured skeuomorphic design, and now it’s all about precise grids, white space and typographical rhythms, where the world of digital design is rediscovering what has been established in print over hundreds of years.

Russ: You’re right, each generation seems to discover similar things, but they bring a bit of their own history and perspective along with them. The next ten years are going to be very interesting, as we’ll have the generation of kids that grew up with the Internet. I didn’t have the internet until I was 14, but kids coming up now have never known a world without it. We’re going to see the younger generations of designers come with such a different perspective on the world. It’ll be interesting to see what they bring to the table creatively.

In a way we are going in circles, but each cycle brings with it a perspective that wasn’t necessarily there before. It’s always evolving.

John: Steering it towards interface design, I think that every designer has to be weary when these waves of trends come. The biggest one recently was the anti-skeuomorphic push two or three years ago. It’s good to be aware of these things and to monitor the waves that are taking place. But any time somebody uses them as a strict bible, it’s a recipe for failure. You overcommit to it. When iOS made its jump to anti-skeuomorphic, it seemed that it lost a lot of little nuances that really helped with the usability. People had difficult time understanding which elements were tappable.

It’s good to be aware of these things, but you have to take it all in moderation. Some of the most beautiful interface design that I’m seeing nowadays embraces certain aspects of flat design standards, but is also comfortable letting in a bit of lighting and depth. You seem them blended at the right ratio, and it can create beautiful nuances and satisfying results.


Screen graphics for “Batman v Superman”. Courtesy of Perception.

Russ: I think that the design style machine is very reactionary, but there’s a degree to which those ebbs and flows even out over time. I think of design trends like plucking a string: it starts changing dramatically at first, swinging one way and then back again. But over time we come to an equilibrium where people aren’t as reactionary – at least until the next pluck happens. It doesn’t have to be strictly skeuomorphic or strictly anti-skeuomorphic. It can be something that toes the line and makes something appropriate for your client and their audience/users.

Kirill: Do you see similar cycles in what feature productions ask you to do?

John: It’s a really interesting area as far as trends are concerned. There is a distinct cottage industry of FUI artists, and we all are very closely very aware of each other’s work. It’s a great and positive community, and everybody is excited to see where everything is being pushed.

I would say that the majority of our clients, particularly in film, are almost unaware of that community and that cycle. Some reference the existing vocabulary of film user interface, going back in history to Star Wars or even before that. Why would futuristic interfaces ever be anything other than glowing blue shit?

We’re starting to see more deviations away from that, and it’s relieving for us. But you always see it as a conscious hazard when you’re working on these projects.


Interfaces for Lex Luthor screens. Courtesy of Perception.

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August 15th, 2016

Cinematography of “Gotham” – interview with Crescenzo Notarile, ASC

It’s no secret that the world of episodic television is going through a period of tremendous creativity. Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working to bring a fantastic variety of story telling to the screens in our lives, it is my delight to welcome Crescenzo Notarile, ASC. His career spans close to three decades, and in the last few years he has worked as a cinematographer on “Ghost Whisperer”, “CSI” and, most recently, the second season of “Gotham” – for which he is nominated in the category of outstanding cinematography for a single-camera series.

In this wide-ranging interview Crescenzo talks about the changing field of cinematography, the rising bar of story telling on screens big and small, the crazy pace of working on half the episodes in a 22-episode season, collaborating with different directors over the course of that season while maintaining a consistent visual language throughout the arc of the show, what happens when the show heads into the post-production and his collaboration with his colorist and the VFX department, and how easy (or hard) it is to find a simple answer when people outside of the film industry ask him what it is exactly that a cinematographer does for a living.

crescenzo1Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what drew you into the industry.

Crescenzo: My father was in the field of advertising, working as an art director, graphic designer, and illustrator… He was in very high demand at the time – a quintessential ‘Madison Avenue Mad Man’. One of his photographers at that time was Richard Avedon, and when I was a young boy, 4-9 years of age, I had the privilege and the opportunity to watch Richard work with my father, even though I was not aware of his fame at the time of course.

Both my parents were artists, (my mom was an interior designer, sculptress, and painter), and we had hundreds of art books all around the house. I too wanted to become an artist, a photographer, and it all started when I was watching my father work. I was conscious of this at that time, and knew I had wanted to be a photographer ever since I was 5 years old… Soon thereafter, my father brought home my first 2 cameras; a Brownie, and a Polaroid – all for me! They are now trophied in a glass case in my office.

Kirill: How much has your field changed since you joined it professionally?

Crescenzo: They say that it takes a lifetime to become a cinematographer – and it certainly does! Every day is a learning process, perpetually shifting. It might be a new view point of aesthetics, new stimulation, new technology, new equipment, or a new philosophy in the way I think about my work and how I should approach it at my current state of mind. It might be the barometer of our pace of our society, our culture, and how we story tell our lives at this time of life. It changes day to day to day. You never stop learning in the art of what we do – because art is life!

From the beginning to now, it’s still a growing process. In fact, the more you learn, the more you realize you have more to learn. That’s the paradox of it all. You filter all that information and knowledge inside your heart, mind and soul, and you try to collectively use that to fuel your sensibility to express your stories. When you become sharply in tune with this personal ever changing growth, you now realize, your learning starts all over again because it’s a different plateau of thinking – thus, a different aesthetic and different approach to your personal execution…

This day and age we have new technologies and new equipment. Sometimes you need to be a computer engineer to shoot something these days. It’s constant learning. To be honest, it’s not gotten any easier. That’s for sure. It just becomes more arduous and more challenging as we progress as a culture, as a society and in the field itself. There’s just so much information out there, so many choices, so many options, so many opinions, so many approaches, so many menus, and an infinite amount of stories to tell…

Kirill: Is it due to growing expectations from the production values, or perhaps the technology is getting more complicated?

Crescenzo: I think, mainly because of the so-called, “bar”… The intellectual bar, the creative bar, the bar of the audience wanting more – that’s what makes it more challenging and difficult with each passing year. The bar itself keeps rising and rising. There’s so much brilliant content out there right now. There are so many wonderful shows, and it becomes more challenging not only to surface yourself above the few that are around you to be nominated, but also to just watch the content itself.

You can only watch so much. There’s only so much time in the day, and one’s personal time in their day. That becomes challenging as to what shows you want to electively choose to watch, and why do you want to watch those shows. It is challenging for the networks, the studios and the executives. The bar keeps rising, not just at the creative level, but also at the  physical content level.


Courtesy of FOX’s “Gotham”.

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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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