June 14th, 2016

But I never got around to actually doing it

Around 2005 I was really into the whole field of non-photorealistic rendering (NPR). I’ve pored over dozens of research papers and spent months on implementing some of the basic building blocks and combining them together to recreate the results from a couple of those papers. It even got as far as submitting a talk proposal to SIGGRAPH of that year. I thought I had an interesting approach. All of the reviewers strongly disagreed.

Edge detection was one of the building blocks that I kept on thinking about long after that rejection. A bit later I started working on a completely different project – exploring genetic algorithms. The idea there is that instead of coming up with an algorithm that correctly solves a problem, you randomly mutate parts of the algorithm generation that you currently have and evaluate the performance of each mutation. The hope is that eventually these random modifications “find” a path towards the optimal solution that works for your input space. You might not understand exactly what’s going on, but as long as it gives you the right answers, that part might not be that important.

My homegrown implementation was to come up a set of computation primitives – basic arithmetic operations, a conditional and a loop – and let it work on “solving” rather simple equations. It was rather slow as I was basically doing my custom completely unoptimized VM on top of Java’s own VM. As I started spending less time working on it and more time just lazily thinking about it, I kept on bouncing two things in my head. One was to switch my genetic engine to work at the level of JVM bytecode operations. Instead of having a double-decker of VMs, the genetic modifications and recombinations would be done at the bytecode level, and then fed directly to the JVM. The second idea was to switch to doing something a bit more interesting – putting that genetic engine to work on image edge detection.

I’ve spent months thinking about various aspects of what could be done with such an engine, and how novel the entire thing would be when it’s all done. But I never got around to actually doing it.

Around 2007 as I was in the middle of working on a bunch of libraries for Swing (a few extra components, an animation module and a look-and-feel library), I fell in love with the idea outlined by some of the presentations around Windows Vista. I wrote about that in more detail a few years ago, but the core of it is rather simple – instead of drawing each UI widget as its own thing, you create a 3D mesh model of the entire UI, throw in a few lights and then hand it over to the rendering engine to draw the whole window.

If you have two buttons side by side, with just enough mesh detail and reflection on texture you can have buttons reflecting each other. You can mirror and distort the mouse cursor as it moves over the widget plane. As the button is clicked, you distort the mesh at the exact spot of the click and then bounce it back. Lollipop ripples, anyone?

I’ve spent months thinking about various aspects of what could be done with such an engine, and how novel the entire thing would be when it’s all done. But I never got around to actually doing it.

Around 2010 as I wound up all my Swing projects, I decided that it would be a good experience for me to dip my toes into the world of Javascript. So I took the Trident animation library that was written in Java (with hooks into Swing and SWT) and ported it to Javascript. It was actually my most-starred project on Github after it hit a couple of minor blogs.

I don’t know how things in the JS land are looking now, but back in 2010 I wanted a bit more from the language, especially around partitioning functionality into classes. Prototype-based inheritance was there, but it was quite inadequate for what I wanted. It probably was my fault, as I kept on going against the grain of the language. As the initial excitement started wearing down, I considered where I wanted to take those efforts. In my head I kept on going back to the demos I did for Trident JS, and particularly the Canvas object that was at the center of all of them.

Back in the Swing days my two main projects were the look-and-feel library (Substance) and a suite of UI components that had the Office ribbon and all the supporting infrastructure around them (Flamingo). So as I started spending less time working on the code and more time just lazily thinking about it, I thought about writing a UI toolkit that would combine everything that I’ve worked on in Swing and bring it to Javascript. It would have all the basic UI widgets – buttons, checkboxes, sliders, etc. It would all be skinnable, porting over the code that I already had in place in Substance. Everything would have animations from the port of Trident. I was already familiar with the complexity of custom event handling (keyboard / mouse) for the ribbon component in Flamingo. And it would all be implemented at the level of the global Canvas object that would host the entire UI.

I’ve spent months thinking about various aspects of what could be done with such an engine, and how novel the entire thing would be when it’s all done. But I never got around to actually doing it. Flipboard did that five years later. The web community wasn’t very pleased about it.

Some say that ideas are cheap. I wouldn’t go as far as that, even though I might have said it a few times in the past. I’d say that there are certainly brilliant ideas, and the people behind them deserve the full credit. But only when those ideas are put into reality. Only when you put in the time and the effort into making those ideas actually happen. Don’t tell me what you’re thinking about. Show me what you did with it. For now I’m zero for three on my grand ones.

May 13th, 2016

Production design of “Hannibal” – interview with Matthew Davies

With its viscerally spellbinding world, immaculate visuals and an exquisite cast, NBC’s “Hannibal” gave us three unforgettable seasons. It gives me immense pleasure to welcome Matthew Davies who was responsible for the production design of this show. In this interview he talks about various aspects of building sets on stage and on location, working with VFX department on augmenting physical sets, the pace of production schedule in episodic television, physical safety of sets and people’s reaction to “Hannibal”. In addition, Matthew dives deeper into the particular set details of the FBI office, the Baltimore state hospital and Cappella Palatina from season 3.

On the set of Hannibal’s Palermo house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

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

Matthew: My name is Matthew Davies and I’m a production designer. I came into film through architecture. I studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Towards the end of my degree I recall one of my tutors critiquing my work as being very derivative. He said that if I was going to emulate the work of other architects, I might consider a career in film where everything is copied.

It was like a light bulb going on inside my head. I went to the National Film School for another three years, and graduated again into a very tough industry. I was art-directing medium sized features; then there were the occasional design gigs on low-budget indie films; and in the gaps, I was drafting on big studio movies. Nowhere was I finding anything that combined the satisfaction of having a budget to spend with the creative autonomy that accompanies indie projects. The opportunities were very few and far between in the UK; it is a field oversaturated with talent.

Fortuitously, I ended up by chance doing a film with a Canadian cinematographer, Paul Sarossy, who is probably best known for shooting the movies of Atom Egoyan. He invited me to Canada back in 2002, and I’ve continued working in Toronto ever since. I started with indigenous Canadian directors like Guy Maddin and as the source of the work shifted, I moved on to NBC and cable shows that were being made here in Toronto.

It was this path that brought me into the fold of “Hannibal” and attracted the attention of Patti Podesta who had been hired to design the original pilot. She asked me to share in the design of the standing sets and I subsequently stepped into her shoes on “Hannibal”.

On the set of Hannibal’s Palermo house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Still of the same set from the final cut.

Kirill: Taking you back to the beginning of your career in movies, was there anything particularly surprising as you got into the industry and saw how things worked on the inside?

Matthew: I was surprised how big it is. I don’t think anyone really appreciates when they watch a film that 95% of what they’re looking at is probably shot in a studio environment, including often street sets and exterior scenes. I didn’t really think about that up until I was in film school.

Once you get into a studio environment like Pinewood Studios in the UK, you appreciate how many crafts go into creating a feature, and all the hundreds of thousands of hours of labor and craftsmanship that go into building sets. The relationship between set design and visual effects has become more paramount, and it extends right from the very early stages of the pre-production up to the last stages of the post-production. I think that design has become a much larger and broader discipline than it used to be.

Kirill: Is it difficult in any way for you to convince the production that what you do is a necessary thing?

Matthew: It depends. Experienced producers generally know the profits of investing more into the infrastructure of the show. On “Hannibal” it cost production an estimated $40,000 premium every day when we were shooting outside of our studio. So, generally speaking, if a set cost less than say $40,000, it was an automatic green light to build. And that doesn’t even take into account whatever had been allocated to the art department. It was an economy for production to be based around the studio rather than on location.

Other shows are location-based, and it’s by necessity. They have a small shooting crew and small lighting packages; they are very footloose and can move quickly. But when you’re working with a large unit, everything is slower. The time it takes to set up and pre-light in a studio is a fraction of the time because it has already been done many times before, and everybody knows the ropes.

Whenever there was a budgetary pressure on “Hannibal”, the producers would generally try to force Bryan Fuller [show creator] and his writers back into a pre-existing set.

On the set of Hannibal’s office. Still from the final cut.

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April 25th, 2016

Production design of “The Hunger Games” – interview with Philip Messina

In the last 15 years his career has left an indelible mark on the silver screens. Through his collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan, Gary Ross and Francis Lawrence, production designer Philip Messina has worked, among the rest, on “Erin Brockovich”, “Traffic”, “Solaris”, all three “Ocean’s”, “8 Mile”, “The Last Airbender” and the upcoming “Free State of Jones”. And it has unquestionably been almost impossible to escape the juggernaut of “The Hunger Games” franchise, with Philip working on all four films in as many years.

In this interview he talks about the world of big-budget productions, returning to work with the same director on multiple projects, various aspects of physical sets and digital / CG environments, and designing movies that are watched on a variety of screens in our daily lives. In the second part of the interview Philip delves deeper into the intricately built worlds of “The Hunger Games”, talking about the schedule pressures of designing and shooting the two back-to-back parts of “Mockingjay”, approaching an existing universe from the book trilogy and translating it into on-screen visuals, defining the totalitarian spaces of the Capitol and finding parallels in the world of technology between the imaginary world of the franchise and the world that we all live in.

Stills from Avenue of Tributes sequence in “Catching Fire”.

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

Philip: My name is Philip Messina and I’m a production designer.  I got into the industry in 1990 as a set designer, which was really a draughtsman, working with Stuart Wurtzel who was the production designer on the film “Mermaids”. I had never worked in the film industry before or even knew that these jobs existed.

They came to Boston to make this movie, and I worked on it for a few months and instantly fell in love with the film business and specifically the art department. I drew little bungalows and designed a lot of signs from the ’50s and the ’60s. That was back in the day where people didn’t really know what Hollywood did. There were no DVD extras or that kind of stuff, and I had no idea that there was a film business that took what I loved about architecture and design, and transformed it into films, which I also loved. It was a very transformative experience for me.

I then was lucky enough to work on several films based in the Boston area after that. I was uncredited on “School Ties” which featured Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were local actors. I also worked on “House Sitter” where we ironically got to build a dream house for an architect. Then I saw very quickly that if I wanted to move up in the business, being in Boston was probably not the best place to be, that it would probably go faster if I moved to LA or NY. My wife and I got married and we both restarted our careers in Los Angeles, and I worked my way up from set designer to art director through the ’90s.

In 1999 I was fortunate enough to design “Erin Brockovich”, and then right after that “Traffic”. I had previously art-directed “Out of Sight” for Steven Soderbergh, and he gave me my break on “Erin”. It was crazy start to my career as a designer – both “Erin” and “Traffic” were Oscar nominated for best picture in 2000. That started an almost 10-year collaboration where Steven and I made all three “Ocean’s” movies, “Solaris” and “The Good German”. It was a very fun time. “The Good German” was in black-and-white set in post-war Berlin, “Solaris” was a ver heady science-fiction film, the “Ocean’s” movies were huge builds and we got to shoot all over Europe for “12”. It was quite an adventure, and my wife Kristen was the set decorator through all those films, and we got to travel and work together. Those were some of my favorite years in the film business.

Then I began to do films with other directors as well. I designed “8 Mile” for Curtis Hanson and “The Last Airbender” with M. Night Shyamalan with whom I worked as the art director on “Sixth Sense” years before. “8 Mile” was a gritty drama set in the rap world of Detroit and “Airbender” was a big fantasy movie where we got to do some great work on a very large scale. Then I ended up doing “The Hunger Games” with Gary Ross whom I had met through Steven Soderbergh. I’ve also just completed “Free State of Jones” with Gary – that’s coming out in the next couple of months. After the first “Hunger Games” I was asked by Francis Lawrence to complete the next three films in the series with him and ‘suddenly’ 4 years went by where I was almost exclusively designing that series

So that gets us up to the present day where I’m in Montreal working with Darren Aronofsky on his next film which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem – we start shooting in about 7 weeks.

Top: concept illustration for Katniss airlift sequence by Nathan Schroeder, courtesy of Philip Messina. Bottom – stills of the sequence from “Catching Fire”.

Kirill: As you collaborate with the same people, director or cinematographer, on multiple productions, does it become easier as you can anticipate what each side expects from the other?

Philip: Sure, it becomes easier. You know people’s strengths and weaknesses, and that goes both directions. He knows mine and I know his, and you are able to complement each other more easily. I worked with Francis Lawrence on three movies, with Gary Ross on two, with M. Night Shyamalan on two, with Steven Soderbergh on nine or ten. I tend to want to cultivate relationships with directors that I find interesting on projects that appeal to me. As I’ve worked through my career, I find that there are different things that appeal to me at different times in my life.

I’ve done period movies, I’ve done a couple of science-fiction movies, I’ve done fantasy, and this movie that I’m working on now is sort of undefinable. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, and if you know Darren Aronofsky, he has a very unique voice as a director. This is very exciting.

It’s really about working with creative people that I find exciting, whether it’s a cinematographer or a director – hopefully it’s all of the above. When it all comes together on one film it’s kind of magical. That’s what you’re always hoping for – a chemistry that all of us are able to put our best work forward and have it add up to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Kirill: It’s great when everything clicks together.

Philip: And at the beginning you don’t know but there’s always hope. It’s always a new start and you don’t know what it’s going to be – it’s just words on a page that are open to a myriad of interpretations. Sometimes it’s a great script that becomes better, and sometimes it’s a great script that doesn’t turn out as well, and sometimes it’s an OK script that turns out really well [laughs]. There’s no formula to it. It’s very interesting. We’re all making a piece of art together. We’re all artists creating, and if the creation sort of gels, it’s magical.

Top: concept illustration for Victory Village in District 12 by Joanna Bush, courtesy of Philip Messina. Bottom – still from “Catching Fire”.

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April 25th, 2016

Production design of “True Detective” – interview with Alex DiGerlando

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is a great honour to welcome Alex DiGerlando. In this interview Alex talks about his experiences in the art department in the last 15 years, the changes that digital has brought with it and how it affects the world of feature and episodic productions, the evolution of cinematic storytelling in the world of episodic television, physicality of sets and digital set extensions, and the importance of defining and creating history for each and every set. Midway through the interview we talk about his work as the production designer on the “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and then dig deep into the strikingly designed worlds of the first two seasons of “True Detective”.

Alex DiGerlando on the set of “True Detective”. Photography by Lacey Terrell.

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

Alex: I was always interested in the movies. My uncle is a film editor, and I grew up visiting him on sets and going to his office in New York and watching him cut together scenes. That always seemed exciting to me, especially since I liked movies so much.

I went to NYU to study film theory in the Cinema Studies department. I worked with a lot of my friends who were in the film production program, but my studies were purely theoretical so I didn’t have any technical training. At that time I was working as a development intern for Ted Demme’s production company, Spanky Pictures. I was learning about films from script and development side, and another intern who was working there was making a short film for class and asked me if I would help.

We went to her grandmother’s house to shoot this film, and I felt out of place because I didn’t have anything to offer in terms of using lights or loading the camera or anything like that. But what I did notice was that no one paid any attention to what the space would look like. They just thought that they’d just shoot at the house, but they didn’t think anything beyond that. I, not really knowing what to do with myself, started poking around.

I found these old cameras, thinking that they might be cool for the characters, so I put them out and dressed them onto a shelf. I kind of took it upon myself to make this room a little bit messy to go with the character, and the director really liked that. She empowered me to go for it, and that’s what I did. It sort of happened by accident. It was even before I ever thought about doing this for a living or before I was really all that conscious of production design as a job.

Kirill: So you discovered the field of production design by yourself.

Alex: I didn’t even know what it was. The room looked empty to me, so I thought I’d better make it look better. The bathroom was too clean, so I brushed my teeth and spit the toothpaste into the sink to make it look like a slob lived there. Doing these little things that I was not taught to do but were just instinctual.

From there I started becoming interested in the art department. At that time, at NYU there wasn’t much focus on the art department, so a lot of kids were just not thinking about it when they were making their films. Or, when they did think about it, they were spread too thin, leaving it by the wayside. So a lot of my friends started asking me to work on their films in that capacity.

And then, when I was in my senior year, Jon Kilik, a friend of the family who is a producer that works with Spike Lee a lot, told me that Spike’s art department was looking for a PA [production assistant] on “Bamboozled”. I was really excited about that idea, even considering taking a semester off. It would’ve been my last semester to go work on that, and Jon said that I should finish school, but maybe I could do an internship. That’s what I did. I ended up working a couple days a week in the art department of “Bamboozled”. And then, finally full-circle, I just designed Spike’s last movie “Chi-Raq”. So it began with Spike and it has come back to Spike.

Once I started PA’ing in the art department, I did that for a long time before I designed. I met up with Mark Friedberg, who really became a close friend and mentor. I worked for him for many years, and he started giving me more and more responsibility.

Isometric floor plan of “Black Rose” bar set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: What kinds of changes have you seen in the last 15 years since you’ve started working on features and TV shows? Is there anything that affected you in the transition from film to digital? Is there any difference for you between the two?

Alex: Not really. There are little things. Working my way up through the art department, I learned the time-tested way things were done – what kind of colors are good on film, for example. When I was a PA, there was always the talk of avoiding white, and printing every prop piece of paperwork on off-white or cream or grey paper, because that would read as white, but it wouldn’t blow out the camera. And I see less of a necessity for that.

I don’t know if it’s the quality of video that is more forgiving, or if it’s just working with younger DPs [directors of photography] who are less put off by the effects of white. On both seasons of “True Detective” we did a lot of sets with white walls. Years ago, when I was learning about the art department, that was always described as a no-no, unless the scene specifically called for white walls for dramatic reasons, and even then you had to find the perfect shade of grey that would read as white.

That’s a change. I think there’s a little bit more freedom to embrace things as they are. It’s similar to how for years in the film industry, going way back, if you found a lens flare in your dailies, you would have to reshoot. That was considered a mistake. And somewhere in the 70s people started embracing the lens flare and looking at it as a benefit or an aesthetic choice. Now there are certain things that come along with video that are similar in that respect.

Video cameras are also a lot more sensitive in some ways than film, and a lot of DPs that I work with now are much more interested in using practical lighting – physical lights and fixtures that you see on-screen as opposed to movie lights that are behind the camera. A lot of my job has become working with the DP and the gaffer to light the scenes, because all the lighting is coming from within the set. Back in the day you would place lamps, but ultimately there would be a soft box on ceiling or movie lights strategically placed that were going to do the heavy lifting of the lighting.

Adam Arkapaw [cinematographer] on True Detective season 1 used lights when they needed to, but so many of the sets had the bulk of their lighting from practicals. And then sometimes he would hide LED strips under ledges or behind furniture to give definition.

Isometric floor plan of mayor’s office set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

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