March 30th, 2016

Production design of “Penny Dreadful” – interview with Jonathan McKinstry

Some are calling it the golden age of television. In the last decade or so we are seeing an incredible wave of episodic television productions of the highest quality, bringing to life a variety of stories and storytelling talent that explore wider story arcs enabled by the longer format. Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” is undoubtedly one of these shows, with two amazing seasons under its belt and third season returning to our screens on May 1 this year.

In late 2014 I’ve had the privilege to interview one of show’s cinematographers, Owen McPolin. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Jonathan McKinstry who is responsible for the production design of all three seasons of “Penny Dreadful”. In this interview he talks about his transition to the world of episodic television after having worked on multiple large screen movies, the differences in running an art department between feature and episodic productions, and a deep dive into bringing the wonderfully dark worlds of the Victorian era into our lives.

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

Jonathan: I’m Jonathan McKinstry, production designer of Penny Dreadful at the moment, just finished working on season 3.

I started around 1982-83 after having done a degree in interior design. I knocked on lots of doors and did a couple of summer jobs working for Granada Television in Manchester, and then knocked on lots of doors with my portfolio in London, managing to get my first job on a film which was “Return to Oz”. Since then I gradually worked my way through the art department as junior draughtsman, draughtsman, assistant art director, art director, supervising art director to, presently, production designer.

Kirill: Those were the days where you didn’t have a lot of digital tools at your disposal, so you’d either build the sets physically or do miniature sets to emulate larger-scale vistas.

Jonathan: Certainly CGI [computer generated imagery] didn’t exist when I started, and it was all foreground miniatures, false perspectives, matte paintings – the technology that the first Star Wars had, really.

Kirill: And that worked pretty well in the world that didn’t have high-resolution digital cameras, in the television world as well as in feature film.

Jonathan: Obviously making dragons fly was much more complicated, so that would become stop motion or some kind of animation or claymation that they used on my first film “Return to Oz”. But now with computers there are so many things that can be done in post-production, and sometimes it’s the easy option for the director or the producers that they don’t have to make a decision upfront and want to fix it later. It’s not always a cheaper option, it depends on how it’s used and when it’s used.

Kirill: As a production designer you don’t usually get to stay into the post-production phase. Does it worry you that you don’t have as much control or influence over the production design side of the final product?

Jonathan: A little bit. People at Showtime have been very good with me and usually involve me via email even if I’m not working on a project. I’ve had a degree of say over what things should look like, and where possible I’ve tried to give input of what things should look like during the shooting process. Obviously there are quite a few months of post-production when I’m not around.

I think that as long as people set off on the right direction, they’re very skilled at what they do. It’s when they are not set on the right direction, when there’s a mismatch between somebody sitting down at a computer on the other side of the world and thinking about what is being physically created.

Kirill: Especially, if I may jump a bit forward, if you’re talking about a world of Penny Dreadful that is rooted in a very physical world of the Victorian era.

Jonathan: There are still quite a lot of visual effects, a lot of cleanups and animated inserts. But in terms of the 3D world beyond the physical set we’ve built a backlot set and anything above 22 feet is digital extensions. I’ve had as much input as I can to try and guide them as to what I thought that should all look like. They’ve sent me reference images of what they were working on for me to approve.

Even if we are a relatively modest TV series with a relatively modest budget, certainly not an HBO budget, we still are trying to manage and achieve some pretty big looks, as big as we can.

Kirill: Especially when giant high-definition TV sets are quite affordable, and you can pause, rewind and rewind again to take a look at a particularly interesting scene.

Jonathan: The days of “made for television” are long gone now. With 65-inch LED high-definition 4K sitting two or three meters away on a sofa they are probably seeing more details than they would on a big screen in Leicester Square. You literally have to treat it as a movie or even better, certainly for the finishes and details of things.

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March 8th, 2016

The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Jayson Crothers

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my absolute delight to welcome Jayson Crothers. As there’s not nearly enough space in one interview to cover all the features and short films that he’s worked on in the last fifteen years, we’ve spent most of our time talking about the cinematography on the magnificently shot “Amnesiac” and his ongoing work on the TV show “Chicago Fire”.

As the conversation weaves between the details of these two specific projects and the overall world of cinematography, Jayson talks about the glamour and reality of Hollywood, the intersection of passion, hard work and luck that propels one’s career forward, the business aspects of making movies and how things are evolving in the world of increasingly competitive episodic TV productions, the overall job of a cinematographer through the major three phases of film production, the variety of visual tools that cinematographers use to tell a story, creating a safe emotional environment for the actors on set, spending 200 days in each of the last few years shooting 23-episode seasons of “Chicago Fire” and the variety of screens that surround us as the viewers. In addition, he takes a deeper dive in the ongoing transition from the medium of film to digital, how it affects the visual aesthetics and on-set discipline of various departments.


Jayson Crothers on set. Photography by Elizabeth Morris.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, what drew you into the industry, and how you got your start.

Jayson: Like most kids, I grew up loving movies.  Over time my love of watching movies inspired the idea to make movies. I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry and had no idea where to even start, so I took a Super 8 class at a community college. My instructor recommended I enroll in their cinematography course, and as soon as I picked up a light meter things just clicked and made sense.  I continued my education getting a Bachelor’s from Columbia College in Chicago. I was an intern with Panavision and I interned under Tom Priestly, ASC on a film for MGM. Then I moved to Los Angeles and earned my MFA from the American Film Institute (AFI).  After graduation, most people start shooting commercials or music videos, and work towards shooting feature films.  I did it the other way around – I fell right into shooting a lot of low budget features, which I did pretty non-stop up to 2013 when I came aboard the TV show that I’m on right now (Chicago Fire).

Kirill: Allow me to bring you back to when you where studying film in Chicago and LA. There’s a lot of glamour associated with movies and Hollywood, and I’d imagine that there must be quite a few people going to these schools because of that and not because they love making movies. Did you see people attracted to the glamour, only to abandon the field once they were exposed to the everyday grind of the industry?

Jayson: Certainly. I think about my very first class at Columbia. We had around 40 students in our class, and two years later when I graduated I only saw one other person from that first class.

I think a lot of people go to film school, or want to enter the business, because there’s a lot of apparent glamour to it. A lot of people are drawn to that and how exciting appears to be. There’s a promise of money, of fame and success, and it all looks really sexy and glamorous until you’re standing on set at hour 16 in the pouring rain, and you’re ankle deep in mud, and you have a cold, and you haven’t seen your family and your dog doesn’t remember who you are [laughs]. I think that’s when the reality starts to set in for people.

This is hard work and goes beyond just a job. We work freelance, so it’s not just a job, but rather a lifestyle. You’re self-employed and you are marketing yourself. It’s like starting a business but you only have one product, and if that product isn’t working, you’re not making a living. You’re the product.

I think that when people realize that it requires a lot of work and sacrifice, then very early on people learn quickly if it’s for them or not.

Kirill: My impression is that you have to have real passion for the field to stay in it for any significant number of productions.


Jayson Crothers on set.
Photography by Elizabeth Morris.

Jayson: Absolutely. It’s a lifestyle. Being freelance and self-employed is really nerve-wracking for some people. Very long hours is really hard for people. The sacrifice is not something that a lot of people want to do. And it’s not a judgement; for some people it’s just not for them, and for other people it is.

It’s a very specific path, and I think that if you want to have any kind of success in it, you have to be in it for the long haul. It requires an enormous commitment of time, tenacity, and patience.

Kirill: Would you say that in addition to the determination to get into the field you also need just a tiny bit of luck to get to the right production? Is pure passion enough to get into the field and to get ahead?

Jayson: It’s something that people don’t really acknowledge as much as I think they should, but there is an enormous amount of luck involved. Passion is crucial because it’s what initially gets you into pursuing this, and it’s what’s probably going to keep you going when things get hard or when you have a down time. In this business you have ups and downs all the time. So when things go down, you’re going to fall back on that passion to help keep you going forward.

Passion in and of itself doesn’t really mean anything unless you couple it with a lot of hard work. I know a lot of people who are really passionate, who work very hard, but then you need a certain amount of luck and good fortune. You need a lucky break. You need the right project, you need the right people, and you need the right time.

Every success story about people in our industry is a great story and is legitimate. But there’s a lot of hard work that most people never see – it’s that person who’s an “overnight success”, but actually has 10-15 years of toiling away before they “make it”. And these stories, I think, are a culmination of passion, a lot of hard work, mixed with the right project that was done at the right time. If anything, that might be one of the hardest things. People can be very passionate and work very hard for years and years and years before they get that lucky break.

I started shooting features right out of AFI in 2005, and my lucky break came about when I got called for the TV show that I’m on now. That’s eight years of hard work (plus all the work before AFI, which began in 1997) and a lot of close calls, of “I was almost lucky, but not quite.” And it’s hard to see year after year go by and you wonder when, or if, that lucky break is going to come.

People that are successful are the ones that work hard, but frankly are also the ones that have the patience to wait until the good luck comes along. Preparation, good fortune and hard work need to come together at the same time.

Kirill: It’s almost like you need to keep on honing your craft so that when the opportunity comes, you’re ready to pounce.

Jayson: Exactly – all the hard work and passion prepare you for when someone gives you that opportunity, and most of the time you don’t know that the project you’re working on is that opportunity. Something else that’s vital to taking advantage of these opportunities is the mindset that everything you do gets equal weight and equal respect. You treat everything as though it’s the most important project you’ve ever done; that’s, in my opinion, the definition of being professional.

It’s very rare that you work on a movie and you say to yourself that you know it’s going to be the special one. Usually you work on something and you enjoy it and do good work on it, and later on people respond to it. Or they don’t. You never really know.


Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

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February 17th, 2016

Surveillance

Gotta hand it to the FBI. Take their proposal of a completely custom system build that would circumvent various protections that are designed to keep people away from your information, and consider it on purely technical matters. It’s simple to explain to technical people, and it’s simple to explain to people that are not that well-versed in technology.

But consider this. There is no such thing as a safe-guarded backdoor. Do you really believe that once one government agency gets their hands on such a system build, it will only be used to help the “good guys”? If you are, I’d love to live in the fantasy world you’re inhabiting.

In the real world that the rest of us live in, this will be nothing short of a disaster. This custom build will get shared between various government agencies and branches, with an absolute guarantee of two things happening. First, it will get to an agency that is solely overseen by secret courts that rubberstamp pretty much every request. Second, it will get into the hands of general public, sooner rather than later – through social-engineered hacking or another Snowden-like act of political activism.

And then there’s another absolute guarantee. Let’s for a minute say that if you’re a law-abiding US citizen, then the US government is good guys. Then there are other governments who are our allies, which makes them good guys by proxy, and there are other governments which are our enemies which makes them bad guys.

What is going to stop other governments from demanding access to the same special system build? How many countries can a multi-national corporation withdraw their business from before it has no more places to do business in? How do you as a supporter of lawful information “extraction” decide on which laws you agree with and which step over “the line” that separates the good guys from the bad guys?

There’s not a single line in Tim Cook’s letter that is a gratuitous exaggeration of the dangers that lie ahead. I’ve spent the first twenty years of my life living in the communist USSR, where it was pretty safe to assume that the state had the capabilities and the means to do mass surveillance of anybody and everybody.

How does the self-aggrandizing beacon of democracy turn into the omnipresent surveillance state? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly (in the mighty words of Ernest Hemingway). Just don’t tell your kids that you didn’t see it coming.

January 21st, 2016

A window into another world – interview with Timothy Peel

In the last few years you’ve seen his work on futuristic user interfaces in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, “Pacific Rim” and “Total Recall”. Last summer you’ve seen his true-to-the-metal work on the low-level interfaces in the first season of “Mr Robot”. And his work is currently on display in the first season of SyFy’s “The Expanse”, ranging from the medical and transportation interfaces of Ceres, to the navigation interfaces of the various spaceships, to the transparent blocks of glass that pervade all inhabited worlds of the show. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Timothy Peel of the Junction Box design studio to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.

In this interview Timothy talks about the wide variety of feature and episodic productions that he’s been working on since the early 2000s, the increasing presence of screens in those productions in the last decade, the difference between impressing and convincing viewers, the overall evolution in the world of episodic television in general and the more specific changes in the quantity and the quality of screen interfaces in it, the world of narrative interface design that supports the story and the plot, and his views on design in general. In between he delves deeper into the almost-invisible screens of “Jessica Jones” and “Mr Robot” that stay true to the nature of the shows, the extravagantly complex interfaces of “Pacific Rim”, and the vast screen universe of “The Expanse” that spans multiple worlds, spaceships and types of interactions.


Screen graphics on “The Expanse”. Courtesy of Timothy Peel.

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

Timothy: I come from a whole family of designers. My father is an architect and my mother is a designer, a teacher and a painter. I lived in a designed environment my whole life. It was this very beautiful bubble that, of course, would burst many times.

I was always interested in visual arts, specifically graphic design; I’ve always loved graphics even from a very young age.

I went to an arts high school where I was exposed to painting, life drawing, sculpture, and pottery – very much traditional art forms. And then in the early 90s at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), I was introduced to web design, a sort of new revolution, a new economy, a new way of doing things. It was this whole idea of interactivity. After OCA, I started doing very preliminary web design as the internet bandwidth improved. Illustrator and, Photoshop were pretty new. They were radical new tools that changed the way we thought about design.

At the same time I did some temporary summer jobs working in the movie business. Primarily it was building sets, making props and working with SFX. I did things like rig explosives on Johnny Mnemonic and install squibs into the walls for Robocop the TV series. I started to notice some of the drawings and graphics coming from the art department and they seemed like something that I could do. I went back to university and majored in interactive design with a minor in film. I returned to the film industry where I eventually became a senior graphic designer. I have been working steadily ever since.

I was being asked to do a lot of playback and interface design. Back in the late 90s they didn’t really have someone specifically for that job so it usually fell to the graphic designer. It’s still kind of a new job, even though more and more there are times when a film’s major narrative points are being told through a screen or a phone or some kind of user interface.

Over time, I ended up doing more interface design than graphic design and I started to really prefer it. Graphic design is still a primary part of UI/UX but now there’s interactivity, animation, visual effects (VFX), 3D rendering. It’s become a huge task to evolve along with it.


Screen graphics on “Total Recall”. Courtesy of Timothy Peel.

Kirill: How would you describe the evolution of the tools that you’ve been using since you’ve started doing user interfaces? Are they becoming more powerful and easy to use, just as you have more demand for evermore elaborate interfaces?

Timothy: The tools are evolving very quickly, and not always at the same rate. Illustrator and Photoshop are well integrated with After Effects. Cinema4D has some nice plugins that work directly with After Effects now. I switch back and forth between all these design suites as it becomes more efficient, but all that efficiency leads to more complexity and more ambition.

Kirill: You mentioned scripts relying heavily on using phones, tablets, monitors or even whole tables as screens. Was there any specific point in time for you where this became very prevalent, or perhaps it was just a gradual progression over the years?

Timothy: It made a pretty serious jump around 2003-2004. I worked on the remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2003. You have these survivors locked up in a mall as the whole world goes to hell with zombies surrounding them. They watch the end of the world on this vast array of televisions in a fake Panasonic TV store.

Panasonic was actually considering having stores like Sony does, and they came to do a “concept store” with us. We developed all these different news stations as pre-recorded footage. This wasn’t VFX, it was played back live on-set. This is where most of my early experience happened with motion graphics, UI/UX. It was the first time my screen-based content was a very big part of a scene, much more so than before. This had been done on many movies before Dawn of the Dead, but for me personally, the jump was around then.

A few weeks later, I had to make a couple of screens appear to be real touchscreens even before we had real ones that could work on set. We had an operator affect the screen as the actor touched it. It’s funny because all we do is interactive screens now. That was a different time.


Screen graphics on “Total Recall”. Courtesy of Timothy Peel.

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