March 31st, 2015

The art and craft of production design – interview with Steve Saklad

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 Steve Saklad. After doing art direction for films such as “The Game”, “Red Dragon” and “Spider-Man 2” for the first part of his career in Hollywood, in the last decade he did production design on a variety of productions including “Juno”, “Up In The Air”, “The Muppets”, “Labor Day” and, most recently, the pilot episode for the TV show “Empire”. In this interview Steve talks about his theatrical background, the changes that the art department is undergoing in the last decades, his involvement in pre-production and production phases of his films and his work on 250 (and counting) commerials. In addition, he takes a deep dive into the production details of the “Empire” pilot, “Up In The Air” and the beautiful atmosphere of “Labor Day”.

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

Steve: I’m a theater person deep down. Raised on musical theater since boyhood, I spent all my time in the theater department at my undergraduate college (Brandeis University) and trained in Set Design along with Costumes and Lighting at Yale School of Drama for my graduate degree. I arrived in New York with my sketch and drafting portfolio in the summer of 1981, ready to design my first Broadway show. I designed a few off and off-off Broadway shows during the decade, but primarily was first assistant to the top Broadway set designers on some of the great shows of the 80’s. Little by little, drafting for Broadway seguee’d into drafting for movies. By the 90’s I was a feature Art Director, now living in Los Angeles, and designing commercials on the side. After all that prep time, I was good and ready when my first Production Design opportunities in indie films came along in 2004.

Kirill: What drew you into the world of the art department, and what – if anything – has changed for you since you’ve started working on your productions?

Steve: Like the set design department in theater, the work of the Art department is all about creating a world that didn’t exist before you started. It could be operatic, super-natural or documentarian, it could be the fantasy world of “The Muppets“, or the banal real-world environment of “Up In The Air“. You’re setting the parameters and saying this is what’s important visually to tell the story you want to tell. That’s thrilling.

Sketch drawing for the backstage set of “The Muppets”. Courtesy of Steve Saklad.

Changes since I began in the art department— how much time do you have? When I began, we drafted in pencil on velum paper which was then sent through a diazo machine to make a blue-line print. We carried pagers, sent approvals by fax, and kept quarters in our pockets to make emergency phone calls from pay phones on the corner. The computer revolution has changed the outer tools, but not the process. We still assemble moodboards by hand, still page through books for inspiration, still match fabric swatches with paint chips to arrive at a color pallet. Set models are now often digital versions on a computer screen, although I still prefer the old-fashioned 1/4″ paper models. I still find my way to a design by sketching in ink on buff yellow onion-skin paper and adding markers and whiteout to give it life. But I’m admittedly a relic of another time compared to most designers I know.

Kirill: You’ve spent the first half of your career so far as an art director. What have you carried with you as you transitioned into the role of the production designer, and how does that affect your working collaboration with your art directors?

Steve: It’s a great question. I know the nuts and bolts of running an art department as well as construction, paint and greens departments, I know how budgets are structured and what designs generally cost because I did that job for almost 15 years. I hope that means I’m more compassionate to my art directors, knowing what they’re going through to make our designs come to life. I’ve also been blessed with getting to work with some amazing Art Directors under me, who have taught me far more than I could ever teach them. It’s definitely a two-way street.

Sketch drawing for the final scene in “Up In The Air”. Courtesy of Steve Saklad.

The final still from the movie.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 17th, 2015

The modern landscape of the art department – interview with Caity Birmingham

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome Caity Birmingham. Over the last few years she held the roles of production designer, art director and set decorator on multiple feature film and TV productions, mixing it with working on sketch comedy for web and television. In this interview she talks about what drew her away from directing into the world of the art department, the frantic world of web comedy productions, the ever-increasing diversity of platforms for creating and consuming content in the digital world that surrounds us, and her work as the art director on the recently released “White Bird in a Blizzard.”

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

Caity: I went to school for directing but discovered I much prefer directing inanimate objects to directing actors. I enjoy working in the art department because it still allows me to participate in character development, backstory, tone, mood and setting in a very hands-on way. I got to Los Angeles about five years ago, and worked on anything I could in any aspect of the art department just to meet people and learn things. During the first few years I learned that “internship” can be a dirty word, and you never know which jobs are going to lead to big breaks or long-lasting collaborative relationships; often it’s the ones you least expect. I’ve happily tried every art dept. job from set dresser to production designer. Around the time I was meeting great art people in Los Angeles and getting to work as set dresser on movies like “Like Crazy”, I production designed my first feature “The Wise Kids“, directed by Stephen Cone. I met him through some mutual Chicago friends and filmmakers, and have since designed three features for him. I really value those kinds of ongoing collaborations. I was also lucky enough to meet some great production designers who invited me onto their teams in various roles, including Todd Fjelsted, who production designed “White Bird in a Blizzard”, and hired me as his art director.

My experience so far has been in small independent films (“White Bird” is actually one of the largest films I’ve worked on) and sketch comedy. My friend Katie Byron, another production designer I was lucky enough to meet and work with, who production designed “Like Crazy” and a bunch of other wonderful films, connected me with “Funny or Die” soon after I got to Los Angeles, and I worked on probably 40-50 of their web comedy sketches in between working on movies and other projects. I also interned at Abso Lutely Productions back in 2010 (one of my better internship experiences) and in a very roundabout way ended up back at that company this past year, taking over for Katie as production designer on “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, which is a little sketch comedy/talk show on IFC.

On the sets. Courtesy of Caity Birmingham.

Kirill: What drew you into the business, and how has that changed during the years that you’ve been working on different sets?

Caity: As an undergraduate, I was studying art at a small liberal arts school and at the same time watching tons of movies (this was before Netflix, so I was basically going row by row at the video store), and slowly realizing I wanted to work in film, but not really knowing what that meant. So I assumed I wanted to be a director and went to graduate school to figure it out. I feel really lucky to have stumbled into the art department. Like, how is there this job that combines so many of the things that interest me and that I happen to be good at? Since trying to work professionally in Los Angeles, that feeling has definitely evolved into something a little less purely optimistic. I’ve been paid next to nothing to put my hard work and creativity into projects I found fairly worthless, but for every soulless project there is another great little project with an amazing script and a delightful crew.

Kirill: You’ve been taking diverse roles in the art department – set decorator, art director, production designer. Does that explore different creative parts of your brain? Do you want to avoid repetitiveness in what you do?

Caity: One great thing about the art department is that each job is entirely different, requires different skills and presents different challenges, so repetitiveness is never a problem. I have learned that the best skills you can have are adapting quickly, communicating clearly, and solving problems creatively, and those skills apply to all projects and all art department roles, just in different ways. When I started working in Los Angeles, I was just hungry for any art department job I could get, and the experience was equally valuable whether I was working for and learning from other production designers, or figuring out how to be the production designer myself. Working in a variety of roles has definitely given me a greater appreciation for what everyone else in my department is dealing with. For example, I will never underestimate the work of the on-set dresser. It is a difficult job, and when done well, it adds a tremendous amount to the success of the art dept. and the film/show as a whole.

Kirill: How and when did you join “White Bird in a Blizzard”, and what was your part in the movie?

Caity: Todd Fjelsted is a production designer I’ve been lucky enough to work with on a few projects. He had designed Gregg Araki’s previous film “Kaboom”, as well as a number of other interesting, successful indies. I was already a big fan of the director, Gregg Araki, and when Todd mentioned the project, I told him I’d love to work on it in any capacity. I just got lucky that he needed an art director and trusted me to do it.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 10th, 2015

The art and craft of set decoration – interview with Kris Boxell

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome the set decorator Kris Boxell. You’ve seen her work in the two sequels of “The Matrix” trilogy, “Fruitvale Station” and, most recently, “Blue Jasmine.” In this interview she talks about her first production – “The Right Stuff”, drafting and creating the right look for the specific production, working with on-set green screen environments, the day-to-day activities on the set in her role as the set decorator, her collaboration with production designer Santo Loquasto on Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”, and a deep dive into the impact – or lack thereof – of digital revolution on her craft.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path in the movie business.

Kris: I came out of the television generation – from mid-fifties into the sixties. And at some point, probably in early sixties, they had a movie on every afternoon. I’d come from home to school, and there’d be a movie on. I was watching them and it was rather exciting.

Later I would go to movies, but I wouldn’t stop everything for it. Living in Los Angeles in the seventies, I couldn’t afford first-run films, so I would see revival presentations, usually two at a time, as well as foreign. My local theater would play two movies every night, and it was mostly film noir for months. When I was 18 to 21, it was this amazing exposure to such classic film noir movies, and it’s part of my soul now.

I was in college studying sociology, and then went to graduate school at UCLA, but not majoring in film. There wasn’t a very big film department; I would’ve done media studies, but it didn’t exist. I was a sociologist and a demographer doing research. Then I met my husband at San Diego Comic-Con which you probably have heard of [laughs].

Kirill: Back then it was a rather small convention.

Kris: It was tiny. You had all these artists, and I had really good friends in Westwood who had a comic-book company, and I spend all my time reading vintage comics. Then Ron Turner, a publisher from Last Gasp Publishing who did the early underground comics, introduced me to Tim Boxell, and then we were married. I moved to San Francisco and dropped out of the PhD program at UCLA, and a year later, not even intentionally, found a back door into the film industry.

My husband was doing storyboards on “The Right Stuff”. Philip Kaufman the director likes to communicate via storyboards. They started with the effects sequences, and my very first job in the movie business was taping up storyboards. Then I got hired as an art assistant in visual effects. That was waaaay before computer graphics. We threw model airplanes out of the windows [laughs]. We lit things on fire in parking lots.

I look at behind-the-scenes and voiceovers on older movies with Ray Harryhausen and other animatronics artists talking about how they did it. They were asked to do something, and then they started figuring out how to do it and seeing what works.

We did a lot of motion control on “The Right Stuff”. We had a gigantic motion control machine, and it would repeat the action of the camera. It was really thrilling to be able to do those things, and a lot of processing was in-camera, with multiple passes and a lot of mattes, background plates and glass paintings. I had a real appreciation for matte painters, and they still have an organization, and there’s a lot of history there.

Read the rest of this entry »

December 10th, 2014

Cinematography of “Spring Breakers” – interview with Benoît Debie

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome the cinematographer Benoît Debie. In this interview Benoît talks about the evolving craft of cinematography as the technology is shifting the productions towards the purely digital end of the spectrum, what happens on a movie during pre-production, shooting and post-production phases, his work on the recently released “Spring Breakers” and how he approached the explosive neon colors that permeate the story, and the experience of shooting in 3D for his upcoming “Every Thing Will Be Fine”.

Benoît Debie.
Photography by Kris Dewitte.

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

Benoît: I started when I was quite young, around 23 years old. I went to a film school in Belgium, and after graduating I did two movies as AC (assistant camera), but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I wanted to be a DP (director of photography) for feature film, but it’s quite difficult to get there when you’re just starting. I went to the TV world for around eight years, learning a lot about TV shows, and then little by little I went back to the film industry. I did a few short movies and commercials, and my first feature was “Irreversible” from Gaspar Noé. From that moment I’ve been doing only feature films.

Kirill: How do you get approached to work on a production? Is it through the connections on your previous films, or a more formal auditioning process?

Benoît: It depends. Some directors would ask me to join them for my style or my approach. In that case they would come to me for something very specific. And sometimes I have auditions, but they are not as frequent these days. More often than not I would get called to discuss a project, or I’d get a script and then we’d discuss how to start approaching it.

Kirill: What happens during the pre-production?

Benoît: It depends on the movie and the director. I did two movies with Gaspar Noé, and with him I only join the production the day before we start shooting. That’s the way he likes it – for me to be a little bit unprepared. With other directors it may take 6-8 weeks to prep the movie, to see the locations, to do the storyboards and the shooting lists. It also depends on the complexity of the movie.

Top left – Passage, top right – The Runaways, bottom left – Enter The Void, bottom right – Lost River. Courtesy of Benoît Debie.

Kirill: As the shooting starts, do you also operate the camera? Is there a distinction between you as the director of photography and another person as the camera operator?

Benoît: You can certainly be a DP and not operate the camera. I always do both because I like to operate. It’s really important to me, especially when we shoot on film. I can see the exact frame through the eyepiece – the reflection, the darkness, the contrast. It’s important for me to see that, and I also like to operate the camera. It’s part of the look of the movie. I was the camera operator on all my movies, except for some union restrictions on movies that we shoot in the United States and some cases where we need a second camera.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the transition from shooting film to shooting digital? It used to be that only you would see the image through the camera, and it would take a few hours or maybe even a couple of days to process the dailies. And now if you connect a monitor to your digital camera, everybody who wants to see the take can see it immediately. Do you feel that you’re losing some of the magic of capturing the scene on film?

Benoît: This is a big change and a big difference between film and digital. As much as I can I keep on shooting film. It’s not only the quality that is much better. It’s also the difference between the way you shoot in film and the way you shoot in digital. For me, when we shoot in film, everybody’s focused on the action, on what have we to do – the actors, the director, the DP and everybody else. When we shoot in digital, it’s completely different. Everybody’s shooting for what seems like forever, with no cuts.

I think we’re losing things not only in terms of image, but also in terms of intensity on the set. And it’s a shame, because that’s a completely different approach to filming.

Read the rest of this entry »