Yashida compound. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Production design of “The Wolverine” – interview with François Audouy

December 6th, 2013
Yashida compound. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Make a list of your top favorite tentpole productions in the past 15 years, and you can count on having François Audouy be part of at least one of them. He started his career as an illustrator and concept artist on movies such as Men In Black, Pearl Harbor, Spider-Man, Minority Report and Avatar, shifted to the art director position on Transformers, Watchmen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and then moved to be the production designer or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the recently released The Wolverine. In this interview François talks about his work on The Wolverine that brought him back to his days of reading comics books growing up, researching the history, art and architecture of Japan, designing and building the main sets for the movie, and collaborating with visual effects departments on big-budget sci-fi productions.

François Audouy

Kirill: Please tell us about what you’ve been doing lately.

François: I was the production designer on Wolverine, which was an incredibly exciting and rewarding project. It took seventeen months to complete from start to finish. And I just finished another movie, Dracula Untold, and I’m very excited about Wolverine coming out on DVD.

Kirill: How far did you get into the X-Men universe preparing for the movie? Did you treat this movie as a standalone production not necessarily connected to the rest of the franchise?

François: When I first heard about the project, the only thing I knew about it was that it was set in Japan. And to be honest, that was the thing I was the most excited about. It was a dream of mine to design a movie set in Japan. Every movie is an opportunity for a designer to become an expert in something. So I really thought it was exciting to learn more about Japanese culture and architecture. You’re always looking for an opportunity to learn something.

Having said that, I was also really aware of Wolverine because I was born in 1970s, and I’m pretty much the same age as Wolverine. I remember the comic books from the late 1980s, which, looking back, is probably the golden age of Wolverine. My feeling was that the movies featuring Wolverine hadn’t really tapped into a lot of what I loved about those comics, and a lot of detail with the Logan character who’s so interesting. And I read the script, I thought that it was a great story where we really get a chance to get to know Wolverine a little bit better, and we get to focus on him for an entire movie without the distractions of all the tertiary characters. That was very exciting.

Yashida cottage. Concept illustration over location photography. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: The Japanese culture is rather closed to the outsiders. How did you approach your research phase?

François: It was kind of terrifying in the beginning, honestly. It’s so different, and so deep. There’s so much to learn.

First thing I did was to hire a researcher in Los Angeles to pull images and references. And Jim [Mangold, director] early on decided that he wasn’t interested in making a movie with cliches, like little temples or bamboo forests. I went hunting for settings and places that felt unique and different. One thing that I’m really proud of in the film is that we have this intimate story, but it also takes them through places that are understated, grounded in real, and not so Hollywood-phony [laughs]. I was trying to do something that felt real.

What helped tremendously was that I had the art department in Tokyo, and a group of people who were helping me with the locations. I had a great location manager. I scouted many places in Japan, in the mountains, north of Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka. I went there six times, and over the course of the travels every time I learned more about the culture, as I was surrounded by my Japanese crew going to all these interesting places.

Left – Tokyo love hotel, set built on stage. Right – ice village, set built on location. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: The family compound is one of the central sets in the movie. How much time did you spend on it?

François: That was probably our biggest set, and it was my favorite. It was a very immersive set, a set that you walk into and it feels totally real, even though it was built on a soundstage. Jim was referencing and inspired by “Rear Window” with Jimmy Stewart. It had an apartment looking out into the courtyard, and you can see the world outside and all of the different stories happening. And he wanted the Yashida compound to have the same feel, where you could look and have these views across the central courtyard, and see Mariko’s world, and Yashida’s chambers, and the story dynamic of this complicated family.

I created a set that was pretty much in-camera. We had a big central courtyard with water element, and all of the interiors, and it was very much an in-camera place. And it was a very hyper-modern Japanese aesthetic that was ground and rooted in the ancient flow of Japanese architecture.

And to answer your question, it probably took five or six months to design that.

Yashida compound. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: And the other big set for the final sequence in the science lab was done with some digital extensions?

François: It was originally scripted as a cave [laughs]. But I wanted to bring it back to a more Japanese setting. The movie has a little bit of everything – an old cottage, a billionaire’s compound, an ancient Buddhist temple in Tokyo – and I thought it would be really cool to have a modern industrial lab.

This set was pretty big, 42 feet tall. We built two floors of the tower that was supposed to be 30-40 stories high. The idea was to create an action sequence that happened vertically. Normally these sequences are very horizontal, and we wanted to go down and up instead of just horizontal. We kept redressing our two floors as different floors going down, and extending those floors with the digital set extensions.

Yashida lab. Set built on stage. Courtesy of François Audouy.

Kirill: You’ve worked on quite a few other VFX-heavy productions. How is the balance of responsibilities between you as the production designer and the visual effects supervisor working for you? Are you losing some of the control over the final look of the digitally augmented scenes?

François: You’re right, as a lot of these films are becoming more synthetic, relying on digital set extensions and digital building out of environments. The studios and the directors realize that too, which is why we bring in the visual effects supervisors quite early in pre-production, so that they can be involved in what we’re doing. I try to keep a very close collaboration with VFX supervisors, and I also try to make sure that I design the digital sets – or sets with digital extensions – in the same way that I’m designing a set I’m building. I don’t really see a distinction whether it’s going to be digital or physical. It doesn’t matter to the audience. They don’t know and they don’t care what’s digital or what’s physical. I really treat that job in the same way.

I work hard to have everything designed and figured out before I leave the production. We hand over all the assets to visual effects for the assembly in the same way that I would hand over designs to a construction crew. They would get a full set of construction drawings, paint references and color ways, with everything figured out before you go and build the set.

Kirill: Although the difference is that for physical construction you’re still on the project, but for digital in post-production you are, for the most part, gone.

François: That’s true, and that’s why it’s important to have a close relationship with the visual effect supervisor which will be overseeing the final construction of the digital assets.

One thing that was great about Wolverine was that Jim had me come by the editing suite at Fox every two weeks over the course of six months. He showed me new things every two weeks, and it was a really great opportunity. He pulled me in, valued my opinion and kept me as a part of the team.

Kirill: And the last question is about 3D productions. How is it working out for you. Is it here to stay, perhaps confined to the tentpole sci-fi productions, or do you see it fading away?

François: I think stereo’s here to stay. I like it, but I don’t like it for all films [laughs]. It can be a great added experience to certain films, and kind of a distraction to others. It’s here to stay, but I don’t think we’ll be doing all films in stereo.

And here I’d like to thank François Audouy for taking the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions I had about his work on The Wolverine and about his craft in general. Special thanks to Mitzye Ramos at Think Jam for putting me in touch with François. The movie is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and in your favorite digital distribution channels.