The art and craft of set decoration – interview with Kris Boxell

February 10th, 2015

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome the set decorator Kris Boxell. You’ve seen her work in the two sequels of “The Matrix” trilogy, “Fruitvale Station” and, most recently, “Blue Jasmine.” In this interview she talks about her first production – “The Right Stuff”, drafting and creating the right look for the specific production, working with on-set green screen environments, the day-to-day activities on the set in her role as the set decorator, her collaboration with production designer Santo Loquasto on Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”, and a deep dive into the impact – or lack thereof – of digital revolution on her craft.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path in the movie business.

Kris: I came out of the television generation – from mid-fifties into the sixties. And at some point, probably in early sixties, they had a movie on every afternoon. I’d come from home to school, and there’d be a movie on. I was watching them and it was rather exciting.

Later I would go to movies, but I wouldn’t stop everything for it. Living in Los Angeles in the seventies, I couldn’t afford first-run films, so I would see revival presentations, usually two at a time, as well as foreign. My local theater would play two movies every night, and it was mostly film noir for months. When I was 18 to 21, it was this amazing exposure to such classic film noir movies, and it’s part of my soul now.

I was in college studying sociology, and then went to graduate school at UCLA, but not majoring in film. There wasn’t a very big film department; I would’ve done media studies, but it didn’t exist. I was a sociologist and a demographer doing research. Then I met my husband at San Diego Comic-Con which you probably have heard of [laughs].

Kirill: Back then it was a rather small convention.

Kris: It was tiny. You had all these artists, and I had really good friends in Westwood who had a comic-book company, and I spend all my time reading vintage comics. Then Ron Turner, a publisher from Last Gasp Publishing who did the early underground comics, introduced me to Tim Boxell, and then we were married. I moved to San Francisco and dropped out of the PhD program at UCLA, and a year later, not even intentionally, found a back door into the film industry.

My husband was doing storyboards on “The Right Stuff”. Philip Kaufman the director likes to communicate via storyboards. They started with the effects sequences, and my very first job in the movie business was taping up storyboards. Then I got hired as an art assistant in visual effects. That was waaaay before computer graphics. We threw model airplanes out of the windows [laughs]. We lit things on fire in parking lots.

I look at behind-the-scenes and voiceovers on older movies with Ray Harryhausen and other animatronics artists talking about how they did it. They were asked to do something, and then they started figuring out how to do it and seeing what works.

We did a lot of motion control on “The Right Stuff”. We had a gigantic motion control machine, and it would repeat the action of the camera. It was really thrilling to be able to do those things, and a lot of processing was in-camera, with multiple passes and a lot of mattes, background plates and glass paintings. I had a real appreciation for matte painters, and they still have an organization, and there’s a lot of history there.

Kirill: Was it a bit disappointing to peek behind the “magic” of the cinema and see how those things are actually done?

Kris: I see what you’re saying, but the answer is no. I think I always knew it wasn’t real [laughs] probably because I can immerse myself in a story, and if the situation is good, I’ll just go with the story. For example, of course I went to see “Star Wars” when it was out, but I knew it was made up. I had read “Dune”, and when I saw “Star Wars”, I was really disappointed by the story. I think that was the first movie that a lot of people saw again and again.

It was a whole new ballgame at that point. I was in Los Angeles, which is all about movies. There’s only about 5,000 books written about “Star Wars”, so I’m sure it’s all well-documented. But I was fascinated with the process of film-making.

For instance on “The Right Stuff”, I just adapted all my research skills that I developed at college to do research work for films. I always loved the space program, from Cape Canaveral to Cape Kennedy. You’d be watching the morning show with your breakfast, and they’d show a space launch, and then you go to school. Every few months they did another space launch, it was just part of American life. Cheerios and the Mercury program [laughs], and Gemini program. So it was really cool to research for “The Right Stuff”. We would look at old movies, and at the government documentary footage.

Then we had Chuck Yeager who was the first guy who broke the sound barrier as a film consultant, and the actor Sam Shepard who was going to be playing him in the film. Physically they were very different looking, but they had many things in common. I was there the day that the two of them met at the studio. Chuck was there talking about storyboarding because he said that in the book Tom Wolfe got some of the details wrong. He was describing this whole sequence, and Sam comes in as an empty vessel, and in conversation with Chuck suddenly you see this character emerge. It was an amazing example of movie-making culture, very organic and exciting.

It was not a documentary, but rather based on reality. We had three different production designers. The first one wanted to change the orange color of the X1. Ultimately Geoffrey Kirkland was the production designer, but by then principal photography had already started. And special effects had already started. The editors were putting things together, calling us at the SFX department to tell us how they wanted the jet to go across the screen, and for how much time. Then we’d put it on the wire and do it.

Kirill: And back then you didn’t need to worry about high-definition projection systems like IMAX or BluRay home format, so you could do some rough edges with those models.

Kris: And you also wanted them to look dirty. Originally we were making the models really clean, but it didn’t look true. One of the things Geoffrey Kirkland came up with was vibrating the camera (instead of doing it in post-production). Part of it was looking at convincing and not-so-convincing film from the entertainment world – movies with John Wayne and others about flying. We’d also look at the documentary footage and see how that worked.

NASA has photographs available for free – aside from reproduction – of views from space. They have images of Earth, extended sun rises, views of the Moon and from the Moon. Those worked as our backgrounds, and we had a background painter who helped with that. I was disappointed when Star Wars redid the original episode, because there was nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to make everything absolutely perfect. It’s an aesthetic debate.

Kirill: I’d say that every production is a product of its own time, and I don’t really want a movie such as “Blade Runner” to be “upgraded” to be in sync with the latest capabilities and visual trends seen in, say, the latest “Avengers”.

Kris: I teach production design in the Potion Picture and Television department at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I’m often showing clips and exploring behind-the-scenes of movies from every era – through the 20th century, before and since. We look at “Blade Runner” and it holds up pretty well. Look at Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” or “Twelve Monkeys”. We have a couple of good friends, David and Janet Peoples. He adapted the script for “Blade Runner”, and they wrote “Twelve Monkeys”. They’re really amazing writers, and “Twelve Monkeys” is lovely from the visual design standpoint.

Look at “Fifth Element” which is rooted in “Metropolis”. You’ll see these things from different times and different movies, and people do homage or just borrow the style. It can be really good. People who are born in the nineties – how do they catch up on all this? It’s really hard to fill in over a hundred years of movie history for a lot of them.

Kirill: And a newer generation of the viewers might find it hard to drop the expectations of high-resolution, high-precision effects that we’re used to these days.

Kris: To many of us it’s all about story, how we are presenting it, how are the visuals supporting the story. We’re creating settings that help the director to tell the story, that help the actors to have an environment where everything speaks to their character and their story. Then eventually it will get edited and presented to the audience; it has to make sense for the audience.

Kirill: How about the two Matrix sequels that you’ve worked on where at least some of the environments were green screens?

Kris: It was mostly for the action sequences.

They came to San Francisco Bay Area to shoot certain scenes, because they couldn’t import African crows into Australia. So for the Oracle scenes they built the exterior of the apartment complex around the bench where the Oracle sat. That was all real. Every single window had to have curtains or blinds, or be blocked off. As I recall, there was a lot of wire work was for the stunts on the freeway. They built an entire mile and a half of freeway. Then it all had to be torn down. It was structurally sound for the shooting, but you couldn’t keep it up afterwards.

Kirill: And this is what you want to give to your director and the cinematographer – physical environments to surround the action.

Kris: I only want to use green screens and computer graphics (CG) as support. For example, when they pull Keanu Reeves on a wire or on a harness through the wall, that wall would exist. It may be a breakaway wall, but it’s there.

I just worked with a couple of people on Sense8 – Hugh Bateup is the production designer on the show, and he was the art director on the Matrix movies, and Owen Paterson who was the production design on the Matrix movies as well as V for Vendetta. Geoffrey Darrow did the conceptual art, and there were storyboard artists and pre-visualization using all the different levels of artistry. You look at the scantily dressed people in the underground, their musical instruments, their giant machines – all of that was created to exist.

The Wachowski siblings have a vision, and they communicate it to the production designer who sifts it down through the hierarchy of the art department. On a tiny movie you have very few people in the art department. On a medium sized movie such as, say, “Blue Jasmine” you have more people but not as much to build. On a bigger production such as “The Matrix” you do a lot of building. And on something like “Star Wars” it gets interesting. You have a lot of green and blue screens.

Look at “Gravity”. If you watch any of the interviews with Sandra Bullock, she talks all the time about acting in a completely blue or green screen environment. It was all processed photography, and for an actor it can be extremely frustrating. Ewan McGregor was so frustrated in “Star Wars” that he almost quit.

Kirill: Although in the case of “Gravity”, when it does work, it works spectacularly.

Kris: It’s almost saying that if she can pull that off, maybe she should get the best actress award at the Oscars. I was really rooting for Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” though. She was on one of the Sunday shows the other weekend, saying that after the first day of shooting, Woody Allen didn’t say anything, but it was understood that it was terrible. I worked with the production designer Santo Loquasto for whom it was his 26th film with Woody, and right now they’re shooting their 27th in Rhode Island. Inevitably the first day, or at least the first setting and location are never used by Woody. In fact, we re-shot that scene elsewhere, and neither made it into the final cut of the film. Sometimes you just have to have the first shot to get the crew excited, and then move forward with the rest of the movie-making.

Kirill: Aren’t the sets and sequences mostly mapped out in the pre-production storyboards?

Kris: Some directors have storyboards, and some do not. In theory you storyboard the action sequences and VFX sequences. Most of the time it’s very rare that you would storyboard the entire film. Some directors might do their own little thumbnails if it helps them. You might see those thumbnail sketches in the particular behind-the-scenes. And then there are movies where there are no storyboards. On those the shot list would be created for the upcoming day’s work.

You need to storyboard an action or a VFX sequence because you’ll have people coming in – stunts, construction crew creating breakaway objects, a VFX company that is going to bid on it. They really need to know specifically how the scene is going to be broken down shot by shot, not just the description, but the visuals.

In the old days, like on “The Right Stuff”, they needed to know whether we’re going to see the plane in the middle of the shot or at the edge of the frame. Then they’d know if they can have an armature just beyond the edge, or that it will be on wires to be later taken out.

Kirill: And when you look at the script of, say, “Blue Jasmine”, does it go deeply into the details of individual sets?

Kris: If you’re talking about “Blue Jasmine”, Woody writes pretty loose. Then the production designer Santo Loquasto would work very close with the location department to look at locations as described in the script.

The locations people read the script and they’ll have an idea of what something should look like. They’re locals and they will have ideas of what to look for and show to the designer and director. There’s functionality at a location – how easy it is to get equipment in and out. And there’s also artistry and visual style – how much production value can you get out of this location? Then they will present multiple possibilities for the different sets.

I had a thing years ago where the locations people came up with three different locations for the different parts of the same scene. It was all supposed to be the same location, and architecturally it was all completely different. It was insane, but I digress.

If I’m doing my normal job as a set decorator, I come on after the production designer has started, already looking at locations with the locations department, getting them fine-tuned so that they can present two or three via photographs, and then ultimately in person to the director. I may be looking at the potential locations along with the production designer one step behind the first time the production designer has looked at them. Based on the economy of the film, it may be days, weeks, or months after they start.

People communicate with the photographs of locations via the Internet, which may or may not be good or comprehensive. Ideally they will show you a 360° of an environment so you know where the doors and the windows are, what is the architecture, what is the lighting, what is the access. Then the location people also look at the practicality of do we have room for hair and makeup, room to stage the actors. Grip and electric really hate when you give them a fifth-floor walkup without an elevator [laughs].

Kirill: Looking at back at the last 20-30 years of your work, has it changed much as special effects gave way to digital visual effects and film cameras are replaced by digital ones? Are the underlying basics the same?

Kris: The basics are the same in that we’re telling stories. I was a set decorator on “Bull Durham” in 1988. Sometimes I don’t necessarily like to look at the stuff I’ve worked on, but it’s been long enough so that I can sort of look at it again.

Sometimes you have just a really good script. I got the script for “Fruitvale Station” sent to me, and I was reading it a couple of years ago on Mother’s Day, and I wept. What can I do to work on this? Don’t even tell me how much it’s going to pay me, because I know it’s not enough, but I’m still going to work on it.

And for me the process is also exciting – being able to create the settings based on the story. I’m more about making it happen than making money. I really enjoy the process, not just the research and the shopping and the creation, but also working with people. You work with people 10-14 hours a day, day after day. You want to make sure that you can laugh. You have to maintain a sense of humor. And sometimes you cry [laughs]. Plus you want to be safe. You don’t want to put anybody at risk.

To your question, storytelling has stayed the same. Ideally people will keep writing great stories, although clearly there are movies with no story to tell [laughs]. There are movies that probably could be done as a play, just with a blank screen behind them, and the actors doing the story with no environments around them.

We were working on “Blue Jasmine” and we didn’t know whether it was going to have that magic to it. You don’t know, because there are so many levels that these things happen at. There are so many levels where things can go well or go wrong. You just don’t know. You’re creating sets, somebody’s lighting them, somebody’s shooting them, then it goes to editing and sound, and you’re waiting for months down the line, and somebody sees the screening and says “well, I don’t know”, and then you wait six months to see your screening. On “Blue Jasmine” when we got together for our screening, we were happy to see each other, and after the movie we went “wow, that was really good”. I’ve gone to screenings of movies I’ve worked on, and I’ve stood in the lobby to avoid watching the film.

Then you look at whether it endures. Does it have legs, does it contribute to the greater benefit of the film industry and of the planet? I also try to get good messages in my films with my sets. For example, when I do refrigerators or bulletin boards, I get really specific about it. It supports the character and the character’s family, but I also do more. My characters, for example, almost always recycle.

Kirill: Even though almost nobody is going to notice?

Kris: That was really neat with “Blue Jasmine” that we shot in San Francisco. I still have people from the neighborhood that tell me about things I’ve put in the dentist office, for example. I used an item from a local school, or a calendar from the local food bank, something for people to see. We always have local coffees featured, to get the local flavor into everything we’re doing.

Kirill: Now that you have monitors attached to the digital cameras, and that you don’t have to wait for the next morning to see the dailies, is it easier for you to monitor and tweak your sets?

Kris: In theory, that would be true. It used to be that you’d have the dailies the next day, and now you don’t always see them. They still need to download and process them. I tell my on-set dresser to look through the camera lens to make sure the composition is good before they shoot. But also be by the camera and look with your eye at everything, make sure it all looks good.

It used to be that the stuff deep in the background would just drop off into dark, but now everything appears. You have to really think about every detail in the distance. And in a way, it’s nice to have people seeing your sets. With digital, a lot of times things in the background go fuzzy, and it frustrates a lot of people. They ask why should they put anything back there if it’s not going to be seen? Well, yes, but you are going to see the shape. You just don’t know. The actor might start walking through that environment.

Kirill: You want the shape, the color, the texture to be all authentic to that environment.

Kris: Color is super important. I always tell my students to never go for the extremes. You can do a white set, you can do a black set, but you want to go for the mid-tones. Study Woody’s movies and see how many tans, browns, caramels and butterscotch colors there are. Think about what colors you don’t want to have. You don’t want to go too bright unless that’s the particular environment. And even then you have to look for the balance.

Don’t get so precious about something that, if it’s not seen, you feel bad about it. But you do want the compositions to look really good, and you want something to be there. I really do emphasize texture. For example, on a window you want to have two or three layers, because that allows the camera department to light in different ways. You have a sheer diffusion layer that lets you open up the panels, and then the drapery layer that also softens the transition from the window to the wall. Windows are important, furniture is important and lighting is important.

You want to have lights. You want to give the camera department at least three practical light sources that may be visible in every single room. You don’t have to turn them all on, but at least it’s there.

Kirill: And all of these things are not directly connected to any specific technology shifts.

Kris: Correct. Even if you look at CFLs, these compact fluorescent lights, you don’t want them on the film set. They are too harsh, and you can’t dim them. That’s a new concern of mine. Every time I talk to the lighting department at the beginning of the project, they usually prefer to use 40-60W incandescent bulbs that they can dim. CFLs are for people at home, we still need our incandescent lighting for films [laughs].

Kirill: I’m looking at the list of nominees for the Oscar awards for production design, and it’s always the team of the production designer and the set decorator. What makes this relationship so special?

Kris: It’s taken them a really long time to call it production design instead of art direction, and it’s indeed awarded to the production designer and the set decorator, with the prop master sitting in the corner getting thanks. I don’t know, it’s a good question. To me it makes sense [laughs].

If you look at somebody like Dante Ferretti, he’s an amazing award-winning production designer from Italy, he generally works with his wife Francesca Lo Schiavo as the set decorator. The visual styles are created by the production designer, who talks to the director. The next immediate contact for making those sets come to life would be the set decorator. The other people the production designer talks to are the construction people, the art director, and also costume and make-up which have their own awards.

The costume designer and hair and make-up are their own departments, and as I say to my students, they have their own Academy awards. They have to be on the same page visually. They have to be working together to create the same visual style. Look at some low-budget movies where ifthe wardrobe is not talking to the head of the art department, they’ll come up with something bizarre like a person wearing plaid sitting on a plaid sofa and that wasn’t intentional. It’s all about communication and collaboration.

The production designer is constantly in communication with costume designer. Suzy Benzinger who was the costume designer on “Blue Jasmine” didn’t get the Academy award, but she got other accolades and awards for what she did with Cate Blanchett’s character along with everybody else. She and Santo Loquasto (the production designer) talked all the time. You do your research, you share your color palette.

I’m about to start working as the production designer on a movie about a boat builder; it’s super-low budget with a lot of production people from “Fruitvale Station”. It might be a tiny movie, but you still talk about the main character, the colors, the textures, the directions to share with other people so that you’re all on the same page. It’s a process, and it’s all about communication and collaboration.

I did a horror movie called “All About Evil” a few years ago. The characters’ clothes might be the same color as the set, but it’s part of the thing where they’re coming out of the set. It was intentional and not bad communication. You just have to talk and make everybody happy and know what’s going on.

Kirill: What happens when the shooting starts? Are you on the current set, or going to the next ones?

Kris: There’s a process. Generally the production designer and the set decorator open up every new set, and they stay there until the first shot of that set is in the can. Then you go on to your other work, as there’s always another set that you have to dress, build, shop for or scout. Santo spent a lot of time on the sets and got to know everybody. His thing is that he loves the crew, not only the art department, but grip, and electric, and camera. He knew everybody’s name and to this day they all love Santo because he cares about them. I learned from that too. I know the shooting crew members because I’ve worked with them over the years, it’s great when they have an appreciation and maybe an additional subliminal respect for your sets.

You have a lot going on, and you always keep somebody on the set. Generally there’s an on-set dresser who moves stuff around when camera moves, and they keep continuity. The Props department usually has two people on the set at all times. There’s always an art department presence on the set. Sometimes when the project is big they might have an on-set painter to do any touch-ups, or an on-set carpenter. There’s a big process that goes on. In the pre-production phase, or as you visit the sets a couple of days in advance, you schedule all of that. You need to get labor approved by your production people.

Kirill: Going back a decade to “Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow” which attempted to do all the environments as green screens with purely digital sets, what are your thoughts on the intersection of physical and digital? Is physical always going to be an integral part of movie making?

Kris: I come from loving comic books and graphic novels. My son is 22, and he plays games, and I love watching those graphics.

Alfonso Cuarón the director of “Gravity” is an amazing director, and he was able to direct Sandra Bullock in an empty environment, and get a fantastic performance. I think it’s story and director. You could direct in a box and get a fantastic performance.

Some of the students I work with are from visual effects. They ask me how much they need to create. They come to our department because they want to be around a live environment. They are exploring what they need, and you have to know what you want. Directing is not easy. A lot of people want to direct because they don’t know what else there is in the film business. You have to know your story, and you have to know how to communicate to actors, and you have to know about your actors. There are so many different types of actors, and the director has to communicate what’s going on to them, way beyond motivation.

I was around at Lucas Film and ILM for so many years. Often you’re not just in a totally digital environment. You might have green screen in the background, but you have this other stuff in the foreground. It depends on the actors, on the director and on a lot of other things. I don’t think it’s impossible, and I don’t think it’s going away. But I also don’t think that live action in real environment is going away either.

I have students who are making their movies every week. They are out shooting in Golden Gate Park, on the streets of San Francisco, keeping the film industry vital – not economically, but emotionally. We have a big online student population from all over the world, and they’re making it happen. You can do stuff with your phone or laptop. It’s not about the resolution – it’s about the story. Nobody cares if it’s rough and dirty. If the story’s there, it’s going to carry you. The only time when you need that other stuff is when you want to razzle-dazzle everybody.

Kirill: Is it difficult for you to watch your own productions? Can you detach yourself from your own work?

Kris: I’m more concerned about the process when I’m making them, and then I’m really ecstatic and surprised when it works. It doesn’t work all the time. It takes so many people and so many things for it to happen. It clearly starts with the story, but then things happen. That’s why “Bull Durham” and “The Right Stuff” are still exciting, and more recently “Blue Jasmine” was a lovely, wonderful thing. There’s “La Mission” that was so heartfelt and we all loved it every day that we worked on it. We had a native American who would bless the set every day with an eagle feather and smoke in an abalone shell. But that script might not have been as amazing as “Fruitvale Station”. It’s all a combination of experiences. And I love doing it.

And here I’d like to thank Kris Boxell for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had about her art and craft.