March 20th, 2017

Invisible digital worlds – interview with Dan May

Last month I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Joel Collins about the production design of the extraordinary “Black Mirror”. And today I am thrilled to have an opportunity to talk with Joel’s colleague at Painting Practice, the VFX art director Dan May. Dan’s portfolio is as wide and deep as the variety of positions he has explored over the years in the art department – from concept artist to matte painter to pre-vis artist to art director to, most recently, the crossover roles that bridge the worlds of physical and digital. In this interview we talk about the role of a VFX art director and where it fits in the ever-evolving world of art and technology of feature films and episodic TV productions, diving deeper into the intricate universe of “Black Mirror”.

Kirill: Please tell us about how you started in the field.

Dan: I’ve been quite lucky. My dad was an actor, and when I was at school I already knew I wanted to do something in set design. I used to go to theaters and see him play in musicals and other productions, and when I went backstage, set design was always magical for me. You could be in a mundane space on the outside, and then you go inside on a stage and there’s something amazing – a forest or a New York street. You walk behind it and there’s nothing, just plywood and people smoking. There was magic in that for me.

I pushed in that direction when I was at college. Originally I was going to do theater design, and I did my internship at the Royal Opera House making models. I had a really good tutor called Moira Tait who had lots of connections in the industry and a lot of her students become senior people in the industry that are often looking for new juniors and apprentices. I spent the first year of my career working on a list of people I’d like to work. Every Monday morning my job was to go down that list, find them and ask if I could come over to see what they were doing. Lots of people replied that they didn’t have time, but eventually you’d get lucky and they invite you to come over and show your work.

Eventually I got a few breaks and I started at the bottom of the art department, drawing things like windows and doors, going on set and doing the things that you do at the bottom of the ladder. You’re making tea, driving to get prints, helping to dress sets – there’s lots of things to do. And I enjoyed that.

I was always into the CG (computer graphics) side of things, and when I started out twenty years ago, it didn’t really exist. Some people in the art department were starting to use computers, but mainly it was in VFX (visual effects). I started using 3D modeling software early on, and a lot of people were freaked out by it. I did very early pre-vis on some set designs, helping the art department to calculate where the back windows go.

At that point I was getting quite a few jobs, and I was able to go around and see different designers. At that time Joel Collins was doing commercial and music video work. I went to show him my work, and he was really into it. He didn’t understand all of it, but he knew that the computer side of things was going to be good. We did a few smaller jobs together, and I continued to work on bigger feature films, doing 3D set design, drawing in the computer. As I was getting better at it, I worked with Joel quite a lot. We were doing much bigger productions at that point, working with people like David Slade, Hammer and Tongs and Traktor.

We started traveling around the world to places like South Africa and Prague, doing a lot of high-profile work. I’ve gained a lot of experience in set design, and at the same time I was quite keen to do VFX and post-production design. We were building our sets, but also designing matte paintings for post houses. That evolved and grew to the point about ten years ago when I said that it was what I needed to do. And if we wanted to do it well, we needed more equipment and more people to help us.

Back then we started getting into pre-vis which was in its early infancy. They’ve been doing a lot of it in US, but there was only one company doing it here in the UK somewhere in Soho. There was that gap in the market, so we started pre-vis. We kind of got lucky because nobody was doing it at that stage. I did pre-vis on “Quantum of Solace”, “Angels and Demons” and a couple of other big films. It was a fast learning curve because a lot of people didn’t understand what it was for. It frustrated people.


Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: What kind of a frustration are we talking about?

Dan: It’s a tool that needs to be used right, and to be engaged with by all the department heads. Otherwise it costs a lot of money and doesn’t gain anything for anyone. Everyone needs to have time and energy to feed into it for it to be of any value. Otherwise you have people best-guessing what the director and the cinematographer and the production designer want to see.

But over time it has changed. People now understand what it’s for. It’s more productive and efficient, and that’s what I’m doing right now for my next production. Everyone is engaged, and it’s essential to the pipeline. We have people building sets and making shots, and it’s all working very fluidly.

That took us ten years of understanding what the company does, and understanding how the computer tools have evolved. The ethos of our company is about how the two worlds, that of the traditional art department and that of visual effects, are combined and how they work together in pre-production for the shoot to be better, as well as for post-production to be more efficient. If it works, the final product is more creative and better for it.

It’s still very much work in progress. People are changing the rules trying to figure out how it works. Who drives the pre-vis? When does the VFX start? There’s an enormous amount of VFX work on these big-budget productions these days. It might be something invisible that you don’t want the audience to be aware of – like set extensions for period films. You don’t want the audience to see that it’s CG. It’s part of the rollercoaster ride of going to see a film. You want to see beautiful shots and amazing things.


Matte painting for “Nosedive” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

“Black Mirror” fits in a different camp. VFX wants to be invisible and accepted as a part of that world. But at the same time, people are interested in us trying to predict what’s next. They want to see a less showy and a more realistic version of what the future might look like. I can’t talk for the creators or the producers of the show, but in general the opinion of VFX that Joel and I share is for the show to be pared down. It has to be believable and acceptable. I think that’s what people like about it. It feels like a very believable universe. It’s not too glitzy.

There have been moments in the third season which are more traditional VFX shots. They’ve been generated from scratch in CG, but they had to be completely photo-real. We didn’t want them to feel created in any shape or form.

That’s where we are at the moment. The company is a mixture of concept design, matte painting and motion graphics. We’re in this weird space between an art-based pre-production company and a VFX house. We do use fairly expensive bits of software and equipment to do what we do. It’s the same tools that a VFX house would use, but primarily for the design purposes. We have to create a place to house that, to have an office with the people that service that equipment. I suppose that by necessity we are a production company of art work and art creation that can service any point in the production process.

In the ideal world, like with “Black Mirror”, we service from the very beginning seed of the story all the way through to the very end. On most of the episodes of the third season it was myself, Justin Hutchinson-Chatburn or another freelancer Sean Mathiesen who VFX-supervised all the shots to the very end. I was also the VFX art director for Joel on most of the show, and Joel did the production design for all the episodes.

So we’ve started at the very beginning in terms of conceptualizing what the VFX would look like. And then it’s our responsibility, but not necessarily our job, to facilitate the look of those and get them signed off by Charlie, Annabel and the directors, so that everybody is happy with the final result. We wouldn’t necessarily do that through our company. It would be done with vendors like Framestore, Glassworks and Jellyfish.


Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

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March 3rd, 2017

Production design of Vinyl – interview with Bill Groom

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Bill Groom. His career in the art department spans four decades, and includes feature films such as “A League of Their Own”, “It Could Happen to You”, “Perfect Stranger”, “Milk” and “Eat Pray Love”. Most recently he worked as the production designer on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” that earned him four straight Emmy awards, as well as on the first (and unfortunately the only) season of “Vinyl”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the industry.

Bill: I went to graduate school at Tulane, New Orleans and then after that I taught for four years at the Stony Broke University in New York. When I was at school, I always imagined I would have a career in theater, and a friend of mine once told me that these careers are not linear. I think she was right about that. Some things present themselves along the way, you make choices and that leads to another choice. That is how it evolves.

When I was teaching, during the summers I worked with a friend of mine who had friends at Saturday Night Live. When there was a job opening there, she let me know, and I went there for an interview. That what started me on the path to television and movies. Eugene Lee was the designer on SNL at the time, and I assisted him. He also did a few made-for-TV movies for PBS, hiring me as his assistant. He ended up turning one of them over to me, and that’s how I got started.

I did several of those for PBS. The first one was “Life on the Mississippi”, and the last one was “Huckleberry Finn”. And I continued working on SNL as I was doing those, because those productions were mostly done during summertime, except for the last one which overlapped. I made a choice there and didn’t go back to SNL. I’ve worked on SNL for four years, and by the end of it I was 28 years old. I’ll be 66 next month, so that tells you how long SNL has been on [laughs]. I could’ve spent my entire career on that one show. But I’ve enjoyed the different things that I’ve done since then.

Kirill: And that’s when you moved into the world of feature film, doing art direction and production design.

Bill: First I designed several TV shows for PBS, and through a few director contacts that I’ve made I did a couple of network pilots. And at some point I’ve decided that to really quickly move into the feature world, I needed to get to know it a little bit. At the time, all those years ago, it was probably a bit more different from television than it is now.

I think that now some of the work in TV is more interesting than some of the work in features. It’s almost 40 years ago that I’ve started in TV. A friend of mine used to say that TV was broadcasting and not narrowcasting. That was 40 years ago, and now it’s pretty much narrowcasting. These shows have much smaller audiences than they did in the day when I was first doing TV.

It seems to me that TV is doing a lot more interesting work and taking more chances in some ways than features. There’s a lot of money riding on features, and that has an effect on choices that are made from the production standpoint.

Kirill: And some TV shows attract a lot of talent that used to work exclusively in the feature world.

Bill: Partly it’s because of the work that is being done in television and what the premium cable networks are choosing to produce. I think that’s what draws the people who expected to have a career in features and weren’t that interested in TV five years ago.

I saw that happening. I was offered the job at the “Boardwalk Empire” at the same time as I was being frustrated with the feature project that was on and off for over a year. We would be on for a few months, and we’d be off, and then it would come up again. It was all about trying to make sense of it financially. I was pretty frustrated with it at that point, and they offered me “Boardwalk Empire” that was fifteen minutes from my front door. It was an easy choice [laughs].

I really like the people making the show, and the show itself. I took the job and haven’t done a feature since. Last year I did “Vinyl” and we had hopes for it to go on for a few years. They’ve announced the second season and then cancelled it. I had already moved on from it because Terry Winter left, and a lot of people who I knew and that were working on it left as well. I wanted to take this summer off and take care of some personal things.

Unless a really interesting TV project comes along, I’ll probably think about going back into features for a while. I did a project in Canada that ended a month ago. It’s called “When We Rise” and all my old friends from “Milk” – Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black among the rest – are involved with it. It’s a mini-series that will be in ABC in February. It’s about the history of the LGBT movement in San Francisco from about 1971 to 2015. It’s just a great team of people to work with, and I really enjoyed that.

When I first started it, they were OK with the idea of me going back to “Vinyl”, but I didn’t have to as it turns out. So I was able to stay with it until it was done. I’m really excited about it and I think we did a great job. It was one of the broadcast networks doing premium cable material, really. It was quite challenging because budgets are a bit lower than they are for HBO, Netflix, Amazon etc. Everybody worked very hard and I think we’ve produced a nice series.

Kirill: It feels to me that stories that were once told in mid-budget feature dramas are being told as episodic television these days.

Bill: That’s been happening for a while for the mid-level dramatic productions that I always thought would be the projects that I’d be doing when I started out in film. I did one action movie years ago. It actually wasn’t an action movie when we started [laughs], but it kept getting rewritten, and each time it got more action in it. I was offered other action movies after that, and it wasn’t just hand-crafted enough for me. It was too big, and I enjoy being a little more hands on with every department and every part of the art department.

It was “Money Train” and it was one art department in Los Angeles and one in New York, and more than a dozen set designers, and set decorators on both coasts. For its day it was a big-budget project. And I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the more hand-crafted projects.

I think you’re right about TV being the place where mid-level interesting dramatic stories have settled. The production that I mentioned being frustrated about struggled because of that. It finally got off the ground – it was “Selma”. I was quite excited about doing it with Lee Daniels when he was directing it. By the time it was made, Lee had moved on to something else. It was the struggle to get it going, and it was about money, about not being able to make it for the number that they wanted to make it for then. I don’t know what the budget ended up being on that project.

That’s the struggle with the smaller indie projects. They are really hard to do. It’s a lot of work. You’re working for not quite enough money to pay your bills [laughs]. On some level you’re kind of subsidizing the project, and that works for some people.

I did a little movie called “Paper Man” with Jeff Daniels, and I loved the script. But at a certain point in your life when you have certain responsibilities, you can’t do those movies all the time. You can take a moment to do something you really like and not make your standard rate doing that, but you can’t always work for those projects at a certain point in your life.

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February 22nd, 2017

Production design of “Black Mirror” – interview with Joel Collins

“Black Mirror” is a show like no other. It’s an anthology set in a world just around the corner, a world that is at times soothingly tranquil, and at times achingly terrifying. It’s a world that shows the great promise of technology, and is not afraid to explore the dark corners of how that technology can undo the fabric of our daily social interactions at work, with friends and within family.

Last year I interviewed Gemma Kingsley about the screens that exposed that technology in the first two seasons of the show. Today I am quite honored to talk with the production designer of “Black Mirror”, Joel Collins. Along with his company Painting Practice, Joel has been with the show since its very beginning. We talk about the beginning of his career, his love of all things physical, how “Black Mirror” started and how it evolved when it transitioned to Netflix, building a universe that spans the different storylines, and working with multiple directors across the arc of each season.

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

Joel: Back in the 80’s I began to train as a fine artist. Before I started that degree, I made a little book of cartoon illustrations. Somebody took that book to an animator and they offered me a job on an unknown project called “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, incredibly I turned it down, saying that I wanted to be a fine artist! Of course, as we all know, it turned out to be a seminal live action animation movie and when I saw the finished thing I knew I wanted to work in film.

I started out at Henson’s, working on creatures for a variety of productions. Quite rapidly I grew frustrated with being an artist and not being in control. Five years later, as I was working on “Lost in Space”, I had an offer to leave and work as a designer on music videos. That’s when my collaboration with Garth Jennings and Hammer and Tongs started.

We eventually did “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Son of Rambow” together.  I’ve always had an interest in other areas too, be it puppets, creatures, animatronics or special effects.

It seemed that I was always getting involved with projects that didn’t feature just standard set design. That’s one of the reasons why “Black Mirror” was so attractive to me as it gave me the chance to do a huge array of stuff, a lot of it actually inventing things and making 3D objects. I’m currently on the fourth season. So far my company Painting Practice has done three seasons and worked on the title sequence, the motion graphics, visual effects design, VFX shots, conceptual production design, product design – it all adds up to a very holistic creative view.


Concept artwork for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.


Graphics for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: Going back to things that you’ve worked on – puppets, creatures, animatronics – those have been replaced almost entirely by digital effects.

Joel: It’s a lost art, and I trained in it just before it was lost! [laughs]. What I learned about live action, when I started out 25 years ago, is the same thing that helps me do VFX today. I often find myself working with 3D artists who pretty much live on the computer and don’t have a concept of the real world. They are happy to do it all in pixels, whereas I really enjoy actually making a prop, I love the physicality of it.

It’s the same as when you sculpt a puppet or a creature. If you do a drawing of a creature, it’s obviously two-dimensional. The next step is to make it in clay, very much as you would take it into ZBrush today. It was the same thing with set design. You sketched it, constructed a cardboard model and showed everybody.

Today it’s all in 3D, but the fundamentals are still the same. If you do a drawing, you can’t tell if it’s a 6-foot or a 10-foot door. It’s only when you make it that you understand the scale. But when 3D was starting, people would quite often do 3D sets or spaces without understanding the real world and its issues.

Kirill: For me as a viewer does it really matter if it’s done using a physical model or in pure digital environment, as long as the universe I’m seeing is seamless and believable?

Joel: We are telling stories. If it’s a really engaging story, the character can be as simple as a sock with a couple of buttons for eyes. Ultimately, whatever tool you have, simple or complex, if you use it properly you will get a great result. If it’s a great story, all you need is that sock, a couple of eyeballs and a great voiceover.

Humans are great at filling in the gaps. We listen to stories on the radio, and ultimately we are using our imagination no matter how much information we’re given. We piece together the bits that are missing.

On “Black Mirror” it’s all about a moment in a human’s life, or the emotion that characters go through. Essentially, human nature meets machine, meets technology. We don’t need to compete with big budget movies to achieve that. Get the story right, capture the look of the ‘world’ in which the characters live, which in this show is often a close match to the world we all know, and you are good to go.


Concept artwork and graphics for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.


Concept artwork for “Nosedive” episode of season 3, courtesy of Painting Practice.

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February 21st, 2017

Cinematography of “Legends of Tomorrow” – interview with Mahlon Todd Williams

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Mahlon Todd Williams. In the last thirty years Mahlon has worked on a wide variety of feature and episodic productions, most recently on CW’s “Legends of Tomorrow”. In this interview we talk about his background and how he started in the camera department, the industry transition to digital, his work on music videos, the compact schedule of episodic television, and what goes into creating the visual worlds of this show.

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

Mahlon: I go by my full name, Mahlon Todd Williams. I’m a cinematographer, and I’ve been working in the camera department since the late ’80s.

After finishing film school in Montreal, I came back to Vancouver and got into the union, into what was called the camera trainee program. During two years there they teach you how to be a 2nd assistant camera or the clapper loader. I did that for about 10 years, hoping to work with people who were already established cinematographers. I thought that was the best way, to work with them and see what they do, and what their process is. It’s nice to see the final product, but there’s always that mystery about you actually get to that final product. A lot of people start with the same elements, but they end up with a different movie and look. How do you get there? How are you able to control the elements that you are able to control?

A friend of my dad was a designer on set. I went to him a couple of times to get some advice about getting into the industry. He didn’t know anything about the camera department, but his main piece of advice was that whatever it is that I want to do, find the people that are at the top of their game in the industry, and figure out the way to train with them. That’s where you learn your art and craft. And that’s basically what I did.

I was able to get in. I worked on some feature films, TV shows, and commercials. I started to segway into doing commercials because my ambition from the very beginning was always to become a cinematographer. When I was working as an assistant, I kept on shooting stuff on the side, and using things that I’ve learned from other people on my own projects. Commercials take anywhere between a day and two weeks if it’s a big one. You can disappear for a week or two between working on them, shooting a short film or an indie feature or a music video. I kept on bouncing between them, and it was a great way for me to continue building my resume and reel.

Eventually it got to the point where I had enough credits, and I started getting phone calls for jobs. After about ten years as a camera assistant, I stepped away and fully started working as a cinematographer, in the union at least. That’s what I’ve been doing since around 2006. But I’ve been shooting stuff since the late ’80s.

Kirill: Would you say that these days there are more opportunities to get into the field? There are so many indie features and shorts, and there’s such a variety of episodic television compared to when you’ve started.

Mahlon: Yes and no. I think there’s a lot more content that’s being generated. And camera-wise, there’s definitely a lot more choices. You can shoot with your iPhone, with a DSLR, with a Red or an Alexa, or a combo. When I got into the field as a clapper loader, it was all film. I learned how to load film and how to thread cameras up; that was my training. If you wanted to work on a feature or on a TV show, there was a fair amount of work in Vancouver at that time. There was a bit of a boom in the ’90s when I rolled back into the town.

There wasn’t a tier system back then. These days some shows are shot on DSLRs. We’re shooting “Legends of Tomorrow” on Alexa. In the last four years I’ve shot a bunch of TV movies and music videos on the Reds.

Going back to your question, there is a fair amount more. When I got back into the town, one of the first jobs that I got was with a company that shot karaoke videos. At the time, in the mid-90s, they were not shooting on film. We were shooting on a Beta SP camera, and that’s where I really started to learn how to light and shoot and control the elements for video. I was training on film on bigger shows, and back at that time it was a bit funny.

People that I’ve worked with on those shows thought that I was crazy for working on stuff that was shot on video. That was the beginning of HD, and it was coming. A lot of people in the industry though that it was never going to take over, and that film was here to stay, and that there was no use to even attempt to figure out how to do that. For me, it was a great break to actually light and shoot something in general.

It was a format that was a lot harder to make look pretty, compared to Red or Alexa right now. It wasn’t very forgiving. There wasn’t 24p sort of gloss to those camera. You had to work really hard to control daylight. If you shot in the studio or at night, it was a lot easier to make it look good. But as soon as you had to go outside during the day, you really had to figure out the elements that you wanted to put in the shot, the lenses, the diffusion, the smoke – every trick in the book to try and make that format feel closer to film than it actually was.

Kirill: Where you surprised how quickly digital took over, and how quickly film folded, at least at the scale of the cinema history in general?

Mahlon: Yes and no. If you look at it from the financial perspective as a producer, it made total sense that it would go that way. Some of the elements of making a show are actually still easier to do on film, in my view. You don’t have a data management cart. You can run around with a film camera, and as long as you have some place to change mags, you don’t a lot of elements. You don’t need a lot of power apart from the battery on the film camera. There’s a little bit more machine for digital that you have to move around.

There are other things. You can play back the shots on digital, and if you’re not 100% sure that you got a shot, you play it back and check the focus. You check if there’s a boom in the shot – and those elements are fantastic. There’s definitely something fantastic to it. It’s easier to walk away at the end of the day knowing that we’ve got the shot and that it’s usable.

On film you may be pretty sure that you got it. The operator and the director are looking at the performance, and they are all happy with that. But until it comes processed from the lab, you don’t know if it has a scratch on one of the frames, or if something has happened during the processing of it. There’s a million things that could have happened, and you won’t find out for a day or two.

On “Legends of Tomorrow” we actually shot one of the episodes with a Super 8. It was a lot of fun, and it’s been a while since I’ve done that. We’re shooting in Vancouver, so we bought the film in LA, waited for it to be shipped, shot it, then shipped it back to LA, and then had it processed. It took us three days to see the dailies of what we had shot. Normally, if we shoot until midnight, by eight in the morning we’re getting a still frame from the lab already showing us the shot that we’ve got. And by around ten in the morning, you’re already looking at the dailies from the previous night.

When you’re working with film, you have to be 100% sure before you start shooting that everything is ready. There’s a whole process to get ready to do a shot. All the departments know that you have one or two takes on film, while on digital if you really need to, you can keep the cameras rolling a bit more. And that happens to be the case now. You can roll into a take that is ten minutes long, but if you did that on film, that’s a thousand feet of film. That’s a lot of money to buy it, and then process and transfer.

Kirill: What about the visual quality of digital? Has it caught up to film?

Mahlon: I’d say for the most part it has. There are certain lighting situations, like daytime exteriors that depend on the lens and how wide it is. I still find that film has a slightly different feel to it in those situations.

We had shot the Super 8, and it took three days to get it back. We bought it because we really wanted it to have this film look.  And when you see Alexa footage beside the film footage on small screens, the color and the contrast are very close. It was really hard to tell which was which. We shot some stuff at 200 ASA and we shot some stuff at 500 ASA. That’s where you really saw the difference in grain between Alexa and Super 8.

If it was on a bigger screen, and you were looking at an inter-cut, I think you would be able to tell the difference. But a quick look at it showed a pretty close match. It was closer than we thought it would be. We didn’t actually have the time to do a test. We shot it on the day, and when it came back, we looked at it. There are some tests on the website of the company that sold us the film, and we based our estimates of how much grain we would be getting on those tests. I was surprised that it was so close between the two, and we had to push the film even a bit more to give it more of a jump between that and the Alexa.

It was interesting to see how strong Alexa is, and how far digital has come that it does give you that feel.


Courtesy of CW’s “Legends of Tomorrow”.

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