September 27th, 2017

Art direction of “Miss Sloane” – interview with Mark Steel

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Mark Steel. In this interview he talks about his path into the art department, the ever-changing landscape of episodic television that balances the cinematic scale with shrinking timelines, the day-to-day responsibilities of an art director on set, the present and potential future of combining visual effects with physical world building, and the place of virtual reality tools in simulated set environments. The second half of the interview is about Mark’s work on recently released “Miss Sloane”, a story that follows a formidable D.C. power-broker played by Jessica Chastain and her fight against the powerful gun lobby.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, and your path into the art department.

Mark: I was born in Vancouver and grew up in Ottawa. I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. I was into animation and horror which lead to a fascination with make up and special effects. I began reading Fangora magazine and other such publications, which really introduced me to the whole behind-the-scenes world of film. In my last year of high school I was offered a co-op program at a local community cable TV station. There I got to direct all sorts of studio shows, local remote and mobile shoots.

I then went to post secondary school at Ryerson in Toronto for Radio and Television Arts. I actually wanted to be a TV director when I graduated. I found myself at the CBC as a stagehand, and began working in set decoration and props. The CBC at the time was in decline, but a lot of the old system of designers, art directors, builders, costumes, FX and all the other trades were still under one roof. It was really a wonderful and sadly broken creative place. I learned a tremendous amount about all the crafts and talents that went into production.

I worked on the last two seasons of a popular comedy series called “Kids in the Hall”. It was a highly creative show. We did hundreds of sets a season to be shot as 16mm short films, three camera studio bits, with live audience segments. It was really a master class in pushing the boundaries in television at the time.

When I left the CBC, I found that my experience as a set decorator was most in demand. Toronto production was growing, and we had three unions in the city. I did a lot of Canadian TV series and movies of the week for US networks. I found myself working with local and US production designers, and eventually I was asked by a local PD to step in as an art director on a TV series for a Disney cable channel sci-fi series. I have been working primarily as an Art Director for US projects in Toronto although I have been all over Canada and some of the Caribbean.

Kirill: What drew you into the film / TV industry, and how has that changed after a few productions?

Mark: It’s the best part-time job anyone ever has to start. While I was still in school, I had a friend who was working on film sets as a production assistant. I had an occasion to visit and found that environment to be very appealing. My early years at the CBC was a sort of institutionalized experience that was in the process of dying, as government funding was being stripped away and I really had no future there. I knew there was this “outside” industry in Toronto, and with a few connections I realized that I could make a living in the art department as a Set Decorator.

As a young person, I was very into the circus of it all. Rolling onto locations, completely taking over a space, transforming it and disappearing again without a trace. What I also began to realize very early was that I really didn’t have the patience to work on set with the shooting crew. I found the pace and the hierarchal nature of a film set to be tedious. I much preferred to take part in the research, sourcing, prep and installation of sets. I excelled as a Leadman and Set Decorator and began to build my brand off-set in the Art Department.

Kirill: As you have done a variety of both feature and episodic productions, how would you compare the pace of the two worlds?

Mark: They are really not that fundamentally different, especially these days. I developed my skills primarily in TV series where mastering scheduling was key. My training and the goals of my early mentors was to create “feature” quality look in spite of budget and schedule constraints. Progressively, the quality and demand of television series increased through the late 2000’s. At the same time many productions also demanded more for less.

I can’t say when it was exactly over that period of time that I honed the ability to deliver on shorter and shorter timelines. 8 weeks of prep became 6 weeks that became 4 and so on, but the principal tool constantly employed is communication. It is all about prioritizing the creative needs and getting to consensus as efficiently and respectfully as possible. In TV that is almost always the Producer’s call. In features it is the Director’s.

On a TV series most of the time the Director is a guest. Usually he or she has the experience with the format and understands how to efficiently get what is needed out of a shooting day. My contact with the Director is typically about problem solving around scheduling constraints and to guide them through the possibilities on standing sets. Although schedule remains a reality in the feature world as well, the priorities are driven by the Director’s vision. Depending on his / her status and the budget, greater degrees of deference must be payed. Expectations are infinitely scalable, but in the end every project has many of the same steps.

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August 15th, 2017

Production design of “Safelight” – interview with Tom Lisowski

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tom Lisowski. In this interview he talks about what production design is, when it needs to stay invisible and the misconceptions viewers have about the field, how the transition from film to digital affected what happens on set, balancing artistic and financial aspects of a production, shifts in the world of story telling between features, episodic TV and streaming services, as well as his work on music videos and commercials. The second half of the interview is about Tom’s work on the recently released “Safelight”, a journey of two troubled teenagers that takes them from a highway truck stop to a road trip down the California coast to photograph lighthouses.

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

Tom: I went to art school where I studied painting, and after that I started doing art for video games. My forte was environments – basically the same thing that I do for movies now. Because I was doing games I was hired to do a mural for a city cafe set on a TV show. The mural had some videogame-style characters in it. The production designer of the show asked me if I could also draw pictures of the sets. I ended up becoming her art director for a few different projects, TV and features. I discovered production design through her. I did go to art school, but at the time I wasn’t aware the field of production design existed. I love how through your interviews you’re bringing awareness to a field that most people are unaware of.

People know that there’s a director, a cinematographer, and actors, but they don’t know there’s a production designer. A lot of times that’s a good sign. They are in an environment and they don’t know that it was created by someone. If you do a good job, they believe it’s a real place.

Kirill: When people ask you what you do for a living, is it hard to make people understand, especially when we’re talking about productions set in the modern day? After all, we all are surrounded by these environments every single day.

Tom: There’s definitely a misconception about movies set in the modern day. Everything is recognizable, and you’re not in a cave or a castle. The misconception is that someone just showed up with the camera and shot everything. But it’s the same as when you’re writing a novel and choosing what part of an experience to describe. In a movie you’re very careful to choose what the audience sees.

Also, certain things generally look bad on camera, for example white walls. And there are certain elements and props that you use to tell your story. If a character is cold, you want your set dressing to communicate that. You tell the story through the environments, and everything in that whole movie is supporting that story. Everything you do is based on telling the story, whereas in real life everything is totally random [laughs].

Kirill: I like that you mentioned that if you do your job well, it is unseen in a certain sense. As a viewer, I want to follow the story and not look at that wall. You want to send that subliminal message, but not be explicit about it.

Tom: Exactly. We always talk about whether the production design should be invisible or visible. It depends. If you’re going to an alien planet, you’re showing an environment that nobody has ever seen before. A big part of the experience is seeing something amazing, and the audience is definitely noticing it. You’re looking at that environment, and it becomes a huge part of the experience. Some people say that the set becomes a character.

But at the same time, you don’t want the audience to be thinking about it. If somebody is designing the costumes for the characters, you want the viewer to believe that they just woke up that morning and put those clothes on. If you start thinking about what goes on behind the scenes, it takes you out of the story. But there are movies where our work is center stage.

Kirill: Does it help to have the digital pipeline on the set, where you together with the director and the cinematographer can see on the monitor how the sets are captured by the camera?

Tom: That’s especially important for the on-set dresser. They are making sure that everything that needs to be in the frame is in there. I try to be on the set as much as possible. I’m always there when we open the set and start shooting. As much as I can be I’m there to see the set through to completion.

However, a lot of the time I’m also hard at work on the next set. Often the next location isn’t available until the very last minute, so we have to be building and dressing while we’re shooting something else. So I’ll be there, looking at the monitors to make sure everything looks good, and then I have to be off to the next set. I’ll have my on-set team continue to check the monitor constantly.

Nowadays you can see the edits as you’re working on the movie. Not long after you shoot it you can see a rough cut of the scene you just did, and the director will know if something’s missing. Back in the day you had to wait forever for the film to be developed, and then for somebody to cut it together.

Kirill: Do you remember a sense of things going unnecessary slow back then?

Tom: You had to trust your gut and use your imagination a lot more when you couldn’t see it. And all the amazing film-makers didn’t see any of it back in the day when everything was done on film. They would go with their gut and hope that everything was great. Now you can see it sooner, and that makes you become a better production designer, faster.

Kirill: Bringing you back to the beginning of your career on set, what was the most surprising thing you saw around how movies are made?

Tom: I was always blown away to see the really big sets. The mechanics of it is amazing. You see a big cave, and you think that somebody brought in all these big rocks. But it’s all carved out of foam, and painted amazingly well. Or you’re looking at the walls of this mansion, and they are just a very thin piece of lauan plywood. It was eye-opening to see a lot of that stuff.

When I went from video games to the world of movies, I loved the physical aspect of everything. I loved that you can stand in front of it, look at it and walk around it. Before that I had textured polygons on a computer screen. But seeing everything in real life was a big part of the magic of it.

There are also sets where you use forced perspective, with smaller things in the back and bigger things in the front. That tripped me out early on, and I try to use that in my sets sometimes when we want to make the set seem bigger. We had this graveyard set, and we built it all on a stage. We wanted to make it feel like it went on forever, so the trees in the back are smaller so that they look like they’re further away.

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July 7th, 2017

Production design of Mr Robot – interview with Anastasia White

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Anastasia White. After doing art direction on the pilot episode of “Mr Robot”, she joined the second season as the show’s production designer. In this interview Anastasia talks about her first memories of working on movies, her journey through the various roles in the art department, the arc of a production from initial explorations to watching sets being torn down at the end, and evolving and extending the Mr Robot’s universe (including the delightful trip down the memory lane back to the ’90s for an especially wonderful twist).

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

Anastasia: Throughout college I was in the music business as a side job. While I was there, I realized that I wanted to do something a little bit more creative, and I left music industry when I graduated college and went to a graduate architecture school. I wanted to create more and be more artistic, but I eventually left that as well [laughs] as I didn’t like the structure of everything.

I worked for a couple of years for an architecture firm that did interior design. When the economy went bad, I was laid off along with more than half of my office. The day I was laid off I had a trip planned to New York. I always wanted to live in New York, and I thought it would be my chance to get a job there [laughs]. When I came back, I spent two-three months researching what types of careers I could move towards with the skills that I had from the architecture school.

I never went to a film school, but it sort of presented itself as something interesting that I thought I could do. I researched the production designers that were based in New York City, hoping to get an apprenticeship. Mark Friedberg was the one I wanted to work for, and luckily when I reached out to him, he got me a PA job within about a month. I did a few projects with him as a PA over the next two years, and I thought that art department coordinator was the next logical step. I wanted to learn about what everybody does, how to work with the budget, etc, and that’s what I did for about a year. While I was doing that, I started drafting and doing graphics as an assistant art director, and continued working my way up really.

Kirill: If I can bring you back to those few months in this field, do you remember what was the biggest surprise for you as you saw how productions work from the inside?

Anastasia: I think it was seeing how many people are involved in each department, and how much detail goes into everything. I thought that since it’s on camera, and the audience is so far removed from everything, that these tiny details wouldn’t be noticed. And then pretty quickly I realized that they do matter, even more than a lot of other things.

Kirill: Has working in the industry ruined, in some way, the enjoyment of going out and seeing a movie in the theaters, as you know that what we see on that screen is not real, in a sense?

Anastasia: Definitely. I try to keep myself removed from all that. But if I love a set, I will keep my attention on the way it is framed, or the color palette. I will also start thinking if it was built on stage, or shot on location. I do that all the time, no matter what. It’s hard for me not to think about it. If there’s a tense moment or a very fast moving sequence, I’ll be taken out of it. But I always go back to think about the sets, unfortunately [laughs].

Kirill: When you look back at your earlier productions that are a few years into the past, what stays with you? Are those the good parts that you remember, or the stressful ones?

Anastasia: I remember both. The stressful parts end up fading. I know that I was stressed on every job that I’ve done so far, during certain moments of it. If it’s a big stress, it stays with me, but if it’s the general stress, my memories are just that I worked a lot. I also remember the rewarding moments, and things that were fun to work on.

I learn from everything. If I was stressed about something in particular, I don’t think I’ll be stressed about that particular thing again in the future. I learned from it. I learned how to not create stress around it.

Kirill: Is there such a think as a production with no stress?

Anastasia: There are productions that have, perhaps, a couple of stressful days. I don’t think there’s a production that is stressful every single day from the very beginning. I think there are certain anxieties that go away with experience.

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May 4th, 2017

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Peter Eszenyi of Territory Studio

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Peter Eszenyi. Since joining Territory Studio in 2011, he has worked on movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ex Machina”. In the first part of the interview Peter talks about his earlier work on screen graphics for film, what makes for a compelling experience that supports the story and doesn’t distract the viewer’s eye, the unexpected facets of working in the movie industry and what people think when he talks about what he does for a living.

The second part of the interview focuses on Peter’s role as the creative lead for Territory’s work on the recently released “Ghost in the Shell”. We talk about abandoning the traditional rectangular flat screens, going into curved and holographic spaces, exploring a society that is embracing the potential of cybernetic implants and how that affects the interaction between humans and technology, the evolution of information presentation, and what the urban landscape depicted in the movie tells us about the technology of today.

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

Peter: My name is Peter Eszenyi. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, and that’s where I studied television and communication. I started to draw from a very early age, and after graduating, I started as an art director in advertising. I spent quite a few years in that field, working on various projects as creative lead.

As the advertising world was changing, and my real passion is design, I started doing freelance design and art direction work, and I was really keen to get into the 3D world. I was learning about various methods, workflows and software, and my take on that was always to use them as tools. The first package that I used in those early days was 3Ds Max, and from there I moved to LightWave and Cinema 4D. For me, it’s never been super important to stick with one tool – if there is something better or faster, I’d definitely want to use that.

I started to work with advertising agencies on 3D designs, concepts and motion graphics pieces, as the whole motion graphic world was really taking off then. And then around 10 years ago I started to work with agencies outside of Hungary – in places such as Germany and Scandinavia. As I started to travel more, I moved to London with my family. That’s where I got a phone call from David [Sheldon-Hicks], and in 2011 I joined the studio as Head of 3D. I’ve been at Territory since then – I’m basically the oldest employee here!

Screen graphics for Guardians of the Galaxy. Courtesy of Territory Studio

Kirill: Don’t say “the oldest”. Say “the most experienced”.

Peter: That’s true [laughs]. Territory has quite an extensive field of work, but my passion is mostly about films and telling the story to create something that supports the director’s vision. In the past couple of years it started to really happen here.

One of the things I’ve learned about my work is that content is always king. No matter how pretty it is, it needs to sell the thing. And it’s very similar in terms of film. No matter how pretty your UI design or hologram is, it needs to tell the story and support the vision that the director wants to see on the screen. I always try to keep that in mind, which is not easy.

Kirill: And you [motion graphics / vfx] usually don’t have a lot of screen time. Not only you’re “competing” against all the highly paid actors and actresses to get into the frame, but as a viewer I wouldn’t want to stare at some complicated screen while somebody explains exactly what each piece of that UI is for. There are the hero graphics that get a few seconds here and there, and then the rest of the screens are more or less part of the set decoration in the background such as on “The Martian”.

Peter: Marti Romances or David probably have told you this already, but we always try to design our screens to tell the story on its own. Even though most of the stuff that you see on “The Martian” is in the background and seems to be some random data, I’m absolutely sure that 99% of those screens are showing relevant stuff. If you look at the screens in HAB, that shows information on oxygen levels or timezones.

When we do screens at Territory, it’s very important for us to try and keep the “fluff effect” to a minimum – if it’s possible within the constraints. We do not have resources to do a thousand bespoke screens with a thousand pieces of bespoke data. But we try to avoid generating random numbers to put in the background, hoping that the camera is never going too close to that. We try to keep it real, as much as possible.

Screen graphics for The Martian. Courtesy of Territory Studio

That relates mostly to real-world stuff, and we can say that “The Martian” was real-world to a certain extent. However, on films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Ghost in the Shell” you have a fantasy world. There we try to establish the world and the UI language in which the technology exists, and as part of that we define both the potential and limitations of what the technology can do. This process helps us create something that is credible within the context of that film and that story.

The successful examples of screen graphics that I see in film and television are those that, for me, have some sense of reality to them. I think that the viewer immediately recognizes when something is just numbers, or scrolls randomly in the background. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen. It does, because of various factors. But let’s say you have a spaceship and a screen that shows speeds or distances. I want to try and keep those numbers within a fairly possible limit. That’s how I try to approach it. Maybe that’s not necessary, but I really like to think that most of the designers who work in film do the same.

Kirill: If I can bring you back to when you started at Territory on your first feature film production, is there any particular thing that you remember that was the most unexpected in what needs to be done for movie interfaces?

Peter: The first feature film that I worked on at Territory was “Zero Dark Thirty”. The designs that I did were intended to be utilitarian and reference military screens, and in that sense they were very pared back, minimal and constrained. It was challenging because we were trying to create an authentic version of something that most people, including us, knows nothing about. We researched what information was public, such as drone and satellite footage and military grade HUD and weapons references and designed drone screens and other military screens based on that information. I’m not saying that it was undesigned. We were just really strict with what we allowed ourselves to do on those screens.

“Fast & Furious 6” was my second film, and going back to your question, I was surprised by how most of the UI screen concepts were grid-based – heavily structured, sticking to certain predesigned grids and ideas. I always tried to bring a little bit more free-flowing stuff into my work, so this was an interesting contrast. David, Marti and others were doing strict grid-based designs, and I was fascinated by that.

I never worked with that rigid aesthetic before, and I realised that it was very important to learn. What I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that no matter what you think is a good style, you have to learn all the techniques and have all the tools. Most UI was grid-based for quite a while, and that was the biggest difference in approach for me as a designer. I come from a more traditional background, and I love the broad strokes of the paint brush. But when you design UI, especially for sci-fi and fantasy, you need to be very strict. Quite often, that’s what the story, the aesthetic and the production designer need.

Screen graphics for The Martian. Courtesy of Territory Studio

Kirill: Perhaps on both “The Martian” and “Avengers”, and to a lesser extent on “Guardians of the Galaxy”, you do have a military-style organization that imposes the formality of the structure on all those screens. And on your side, a modular structure would let you define templates and then populate dozens and dozens of screens in a more rapid fashion. So that’s a win-win where the production gets the right ambience of consistency and you don’t need to work on each screen as a separate entity.

Peter: It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg – which comes first? Is it creating a library of widgets that you can shuffle around, or does it come from the other side? I’m fascinated by the amount of care and sheer work that Marti, David, Nik and Ryan and the fabulous designers put into it.

When I work with them, I try to be the person that does the free-flowing stuff. If I design a widget, or a hero 3D asset that is going to be featured, I try to be the one that breaks the rules – which is a nice contrast. But as you said, it’s an absolute must that you establish a structure that you can use to your advantage to churn out an insane amount of screens with a consistent look and feel.

It’s a good observation that some of the grid-based designs are dictating a more widget-based approach. It’s a shortcut, if you will, to designing a huge amount of stuff.

Screen graphics for Guardians of the Galaxy. Courtesy of Territory Studio

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