Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Matthew Ferguson. In this interview he talks about how much preparation and attention to detail goes into every single shot, the fast-moving pace of productions, the importance of research, and what keeps him going. Around these topics and more, Matthew dives deep into what went into creating the sumptuously luxuriant worlds of Netflix’s limited series “Hollywood”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and when did you know that you wanted to be part of this creative field.

Matthew: My love of film started when I was 8 years old. I saw a film on TV called “The Snake Pit” with Olivia de Havilland from 1948. It was a film about a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum. There was a particular scene when the main character is sent to the ward for the severe mental cases. She stands there surrounded by mentally ill patients walking aimlessly around her and the camera starts to pull up. As it does, we start to see the walls are made of dirt and suddenly we are no longer looking down on people but rather snakes withering around in a pit. That moment made a big impact on me. I was on the edge of my seat and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that moved me, but I knew I had to figure it out.

So, from then on, I was on a journey to learn as much about film as I could. There was no internet, and I would ask my parents take me to the library, and thankfully they indulged me. I would go to the film section and read about movies, and watch them whenever and wherever I could find them, and absorb as much as I could. It was then that I knew I wanted to work in film production.

When I was 10 years old, my parents gave me a Super 8 camera for Christmas. I started making movies with neighbors and friends, and then would screen them a week or two later because they had to be developed at the local Kodak Camera shop and it generally took a week to get the film back. At this early age, and thanks to support from my parents and friends there was no question that I wanted to work in the film business.

Kirill: Being in the industry now, and learning back then about how these stories are told, does it diminish your own experience as a viewer when you watch productions that others work on?

Matthew: When I’m watching a film that’s well done, all it does is enhance my passion for the viewing experience. When the craftsmanship is excellent, it just makes it that much better for me as the viewer, because I have an understanding of all the hard work that goes into it. It doesn’t take me out of it. I may be aware of what they’re doing, aware of the edit or the camera angle, but it just makes me enjoy it that much more and it will stay with me. Conversely, only when it’s poorly done is the experience diminished.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios make-up suite. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: How was your transition from reading about how these productions are made into being on set? Do you remember if there was anything particularly surprising or unexpected to be surrounded by all the moving parts of a real production?

Matthew: Yes. How technical the whole process can be. I started out as a PA in production getting as much experience as I could, and then slowly working my way up in the Art department. From time to time, there would be moments, whether lining up a shot or talking about a stunt and I’d find myself almost stepping out of the work and thinking “this is exciting, I’m actually part of it now.” Imagining, and then being a part of Hollywood, has always been a thrill for me and I love it.

From a more practical standpoint, I realized early how technical the process was. It might look seamless and spontaneous, but it’s all laid out and planned before shooting. This is when imagination and fascination meet practice, and I find that interesting and challenging as well.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do with people who are not in the industry, is it difficult to convey the different aspects of it?

Matthew: Not so much, and it helps that I live in San Francisco and Mendocino, both in Northern California, and of course I work in Hollywood. In other words, I am accustomed to being the simultaneous translator between these two distinct worlds of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Kirill: Moving a little bit closer to “Hollywood”, but also in general, what are your thoughts about where the visual storytelling is taking place these days? It feels to me as a viewer that a lot of mid-budget dramatic storytelling has migrated away from the feature films and into the world of these episodic productions.

Matthew: A lot of it is in episodic productions and there’s so much wonderful content that’s now streaming on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for example. I find many of these shows quite interesting. The films that I am attracted to are generally not big blockbuster movies and the films/shows that I want to be a part of are more character-driven and story-driven, and not big sci-fi or action movies. Not that those aren’t great movies. They’re fun and escapist, but that’s not something that appeals to me at the moment.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios starlet classroom. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: In case of “Hollywood”, does it help that as the production designer, you worked on all the episodes with the same cinematographer, the same art director, the same costume designer – to keep the visual continuity for me as a viewer?

Matthew: Absolutely, no doubt. When you work on these shows, at times you’re moving very fast and schedules can change. In the end, you hope to have a completed project that is visually cohesive. So, having the same crew with the relationships, communication and trust, helps to stay on top of it. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they are all very talented and nice people to work with.

Kirill: Taking a step back, how did you find the show, or perhaps how did the show find you?

Matthew: I worked as a set decorator for many years. One of the movies that I decorated early on was “Running with Scissors”, which Ryan Murphy directed. I met him on that project, and then I worked on a pilot with him that ended up not getting picked up. And years later I worked on “American Crime Story: Assassination of Gianni Versace”, and then from that we were did another Netflix show called “Ratched” which is scheduled to launch later this fall. I was working on that as the decorator with the designer Judy Becker whom I’ve worked with over the years. She had to leave the show to go into another project. At that point I took over and production designed the last three episodes of “Ratched” – and that’s when Ryan asked me to do “Hollywood”. Once we wrapped “Ratched”, I had a week off and then we started prep on “Hollywood”.

Kirill: One interesting aspect of this show is that half of it is based on real people and real events, and the other half is more of a what could have been or what should have been, almost projecting the social outlook of 2020 back in time to when the events are happening. As you were exploring the design language of the show, how did you approach reflecting the balance between these two worlds?

Matthew: I really wanted to bring historical context to the show, to help inspire the characters and the stories. For example, Ace Studios is a hybrid of RKO and Paramount. The studio system back in the golden age was a very real thing. There were five major studios that dominated the film industry, and everything was within the walls of those studios to make a film. You had contract players, the directors, the acting classroom, the commissaries, the stages, the editing rooms. As we were working on Ace Studios, we built all of that on stage.

We knew that the commissary was going to be a big permanent set with a lot of scenes in it. I started to research what the studio commissaries looked like back in the ’40s. I looked at Warner Bros, Paramount and RKO, and decided to model our commissary after the Paramount commissary. My set decorator Melissa Licht had the tall task of trying to find a hundred period chairs to go around the tables. One day she came up and showed me a picture of a chair that she’d found. I realized it was an exact chair from the Warner Bros commissary from the 1940s. In my office, I had pictures of Errol Flynn and Betty Davis sitting in the chairs. I also had a deal with Getty Images and had all the Kodachrome movie star portraits line the walls. When the set was dressed and ready to shoot, it felt like we were back in the Paramount commissary.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios commissary. Courtesy of Netflix.

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Production design of “Ozark” – interview with David Bomba

July 2nd, 2020  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome David Bomba. In this interview he talks about the first three decades of his career, the importance of research and realism in creating the worlds for his stories, the changes he’s seeing in the world of episodic storytelling, and the collaborative nature of this field.. Around these topics and more, David dives deep into taking over the third season of the hit Netflix show “Ozark”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

David: My name is David Bomba and I am a production designer on the third season of “Ozark”. I’ve been in this business since I graduated from college. I studied architecture at Texas A&M graduating with a bachelor’s degree in environmental design, and when I graduated, within months I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in production design in film.

My mentor was George Jenkins who was an Academy award-winning production designer. He did many films for Alan Pakula – “Sophie’s choice”, “Klute”, “Presumed Innocent”. He won the Academy award for “All the President’s Men”. He was one of my last phone calls on a long list of names that I wanted to contact upon arriving in California. I didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles. I didn’t know anybody in the industry, and I just knew that I wanted to pursue design. George allowed me to audit his production design class at UCLA. He and his wife Phyllis became good friends of mine, and his teaching and support was what kept me in Los Angeles in those early years where I was trying to get any door to open up.

What George emphasized was research and realism in design. Whether his films were period or contemporary, he did extensive research. Back then we were using Polaroids and film when gathering information and researching the old-fashioned way. When you scout, you go into a house and you look at something. For instance, my job on “Ozark” this season was to build the casino and to develop the Missouri Belle. I was familiar with offshore gambling facilities, as I grew up in New Orleans. I knew riverboat or barge style gambling where all of the gaming is on the water – that’s the restriction for gambling in certain states that the actual gaming has to be on the water. They use boats or barges, and the casinos are built on the water.

That’s what we were presenting on “Ozark” on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri – a floating casino. So I went and researched several different gambling facilities. One of them was in Indiana on the Ohio River, and then I drove with Wes Hagan, the location manager, down to Caruthersville, Missouri and saw another one. We ended up in Memphis where I dropped Wes off, and then went further down into Mississippi to Tunica to see a couple of casinos there. The casino was the key design challenge for me and was one of the reasons that I actually took the job.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Byrde Foundation gala. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: If you look at the changes that the art department has seen in the last 30 years from the technical perspective, what do you think has been the biggest change?

David: One of the things that is different is the amount of prep time. It seems with many projects that the amount of time that you have to gather information and to develop ideas is becoming shorter. I just remember having more time in the early part of my career.

Speaking of technical differences, back when I started, we were shooting on film. Different types of film stock reacted differently to color, surface, pattern and texture. You tended to have more of a dialogue with cinematographers in developing these aspects of design. For instance, they might choose a particular film stock for night because it holds on to the solid blues or the blacks.

For me there’s been a big difference between film and digital. Digital quality keeps changing and getting better and there are ways to tune things in a different manner. The lighting challenge on the interior of the casino on “Ozark” was different from any other job that I’ve ever experienced.

“Ozark” is the first episodic production that I’ve done where in ten episodes, there were multiple directors and cinematographers. You’re dealing with different personalities, how they work and what they like and dislike. As an artist, you are drawn to certain things and you gravitate towards certain things. What impressed me especially was working with Jason Bateman who is acting, directing and producing the show. He was going to direct the first block or first two episodes. As an executive producer, he had a lot of say on what the entire season was going to be.

Jason and I had an early conversation about tone and color and palette. Then Ben Kutchins and Armando Salas, the cinematographers, came in with their ideas of color and palette. Armando, in particular, was somewhat reticent to go into the reds and golds that I wanted to introduce into the Missouri Belle. It was not the blue-gray look that the show was known for. It wasn’t shadowy or watery. It was a different palette, but Jason specifically wanted to step outside of the lines of that palette and the look that had been established. That was another reason why I came into this third season. The show had established a certain look in the first two seasons, but in conversations with Jason and the showrunner, Chris Mundy, I was assured that I was going to have an opportunity to expand the look of the show- and that proved to be true.

We expanded the palette in this season, and we really opened up some the texture and the scope of the show. It was with the Missouri Belle casino and compound, as well as revealing a whole other world with Omar Navarro’s hacienda in Mexico. We introduced him and his environs, and that was another exciting challenge that I was given.

Another thing that is different on an episodic production is that you don’t have the opportunity for an extensive dialog with your director. I’m used to doing features where the collaboration lets you develop and expand a vocabulary, and it’s different in episodic. I got to do that somewhat with Ben during prep. Armando came in towards the end of the initial prep period to engage with the casino and the set that we were building for that. But overall, the prep dynamic was quite different for me.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, REO Speedwagon concert. Courtesy of Netflix.

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If you’re seeing this popup when you launch Eclipse itself, or the Eclipse installer on your macOS, this post is for you. First, there’s a bit more details on the Eclipse and JDK bug trackers. To fix this, you will need to uninstall the problematic JDK version and install the latest one on your macOS machine:

  1. Run the /usr/libexec/java_home -V command to list all installed JVM versions.
  2. Identify the problematic version of the JVM – in my case it was “14, x86_64: "Java SE 14" /Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines/jdk-14.jdk/Contents/Home“.
  3. Delete that version – with something like “sudo rm -rf /Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines/jdk-14.jdk/
  4. Install the latest matching JVM / JDK – at the time of this writing it is 14.0.1
  5. Verify that it appears in the list of installed JVMs with /usr/libexec/java_home -V
  6. If needed, point the to the location of the newly installed JVM (-vm parameter)

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Zachary Galler. In this interview he talks about his path through the various positions in the camera department in his career so far, the hidden complexity of what goes on behind the scenes to bring these stories to our screens, digital vs film, and working with multiple directors across the season arc of a show. Around these topics and more, Zachary dives deep into creating the worlds of the delightfully sumptuous “Briarpatch”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Zachary: My name is Zack Galler, and I started in this industry about 18 years ago. I grew up going on set, because my dad was a director of documentaries and small commercials when I was a kid.

I had the love for films since I was 14 when my dad took me to see “Pulp Fiction” in a theatre. It’s cracked my head open like an egg, and I realized that there was stuff that you could do and say at the movie that I hadn’t even conceived of as a kid. I fell in love with it, and I started gorging myself on all sorts of different things. It started with Tarantino who was, for me, the coolest director. When I got a little bit older, I started getting into European cinema, but basically I had this love for film when I was in high school. I used to go on set with my dad and he also knew some casting directors. So as a summer job growing up, I would go be an extra on a TV show and spend my time there.

Then I went to film school in New York for about 18 months, and ended up feeling like there are so many prerequisites. It felt like it was things I had already discovered on my own, and I ended up dropping out to play music – not knowing exactly how I was going to be getting involved in film in New York City. At some point I was talking to a gaffer on a job that I PA’ing on, and he got me a job working in a lighting rental warehouse. That was my introduction to the technical side of things. I worked there loading grip trucks to go out on jobs in the New York area for about a year. Then I started going out on sets and worked my way up from there.

I was an electrician and a grip, and then I was a gaffer. I had a really good DP taking me under his wings early on, probably before I was ready. That gave me the confidence to explore and he taught me so much. The first film I shot that had any cohesiveness to it was for this Columbia grad student, and I started building my portfolio from there doing music videos and shorts in New York – teaching myself camera language using the knowledge I had from lighting.

I shot a bunch of indie movies, and I was really lucky that the first feature I did got into Sundance competition, and the second feature I did got into Berlin. After about 6-8 indie movies, my agent reached out about a TV show and it’s been a lot of TV ever since and a couple movies in between. So that’s been my journey through the lighting department, starting as a truck driver and a warehouse guy, and working hard ever since.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living, how do you convey this complexity of how many people are involved in bringing these stories to the screen?

Zachary: The way that I look at my job is that I’m creating a world for the viewer to escape into or exist within, and cinematography has to be comprehensive like that.

Think about what it takes to make your everyday life going, and now imagine installing that temporarily in the warehouse somewhere or making that on a random street in New York. It takes a lot of people because there is a ton of detail, and the better shows are a complete world. You need to have a safe work environment that lets people to work within these space. It has to be well thought-out from an aesthetic angle. There are many layers of detail in the production design, the location and the lighting, and it takes a lot of people to put these things together in a way that lets you take them down again after you’re done shooting.

There’s an interesting interview with Harris Savides I read a long time ago where he compares this to merchant marines. You have this army of a sorts that comes in, does their thing and then takes it all down and disappears. Usually, it’s a hugely efficient, well-run machine.

Kirill: If I go along with this metaphor, do you want me as a viewer to think about this complexity, to think about all the layers that go into telling these stories when I’m watching it? I certainly don’t think about everything that was involved in making that loaf of bread when I buy one at my local grocery store.

Zachary: Ideally, the viewer is never thinking about anything technical like that, but rather ingesting it through the osmosis of what we’re serving. I’m there to serve the story and the actors, and usually they are holding up their end of the bargain. I don’t want the viewer to think about the camera or notice a cool looking light. I’d love for them to be able to immerse themselves in the world.

Hopefully, we’re creating worlds that look seamless and not contrived. My ideal goal is to always create a realistic world for you to exist in. But if a viewer is feeling self-aware, that becomes less effective, and the spell that we’re trying to cast is a little bit less strong.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

Kirill: Your portfolio has sections for different types of productions, from music videos to commercials to narrative storytelling. Is there any particular kind of production that is your favorite, or do they all exercise different parts of your creative brain?

Zachary: They all exercise different parts and they all have their own merits. I feel lucky that I’ve had the chance to work on a diverse variety of projects. Feature films definitely scratch a different itch than commercials, and TV is an in-between – and each requires a different skill set.

TV is such an interesting combination of crafts. You have to be so aware of your time and schedule. When I’m working on a TV production, it feels like you’re fighting schedule, while on movies you’re fighting the budget – and it’s all made better or worse by how much you can get everybody to care about the story you’re telling. Commercials are a whole another, sometimes frustrating, ball-game altogether. On music videos you usually fighting against your resources, but they provide such a fun platform to experiment visually.

Once you come up with the way that the world exists on your TV production, you have to go so fast – but not necessarily formulaic. By the time you’re on set, there are certain choices that you’ve already made, and there’s not a lot of time or room for discovery. Sometimes you get lucky and you get to work with people that support that, but that doesn’t happen frequently.

Cinematography of “Briarpatch” by Zachary Galler.

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