The modern landscape of the art department – interview with Caity Birmingham

February 17th, 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 Caity Birmingham. Over the last few years she held the roles of production designer, art director and set decorator on multiple feature film and TV productions, mixing it with working on sketch comedy for web and television. In this interview she talks about what drew her away from directing into the world of the art department, the frantic world of web comedy productions, the ever-increasing diversity of platforms for creating and consuming content in the digital world that surrounds us, and her work as the art director on the recently released “White Bird in a Blizzard.”

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

Caity: I went to school for directing but discovered I much prefer directing inanimate objects to directing actors. I enjoy working in the art department because it still allows me to participate in character development, backstory, tone, mood and setting in a very hands-on way. I got to Los Angeles about five years ago, and worked on anything I could in any aspect of the art department just to meet people and learn things. During the first few years I learned that “internship” can be a dirty word, and you never know which jobs are going to lead to big breaks or long-lasting collaborative relationships; often it’s the ones you least expect. I’ve happily tried every art dept. job from set dresser to production designer. Around the time I was meeting great art people in Los Angeles and getting to work as set dresser on movies like “Like Crazy”, I production designed my first feature “The Wise Kids“, directed by Stephen Cone. I met him through some mutual Chicago friends and filmmakers, and have since designed three features for him. I really value those kinds of ongoing collaborations. I was also lucky enough to meet some great production designers who invited me onto their teams in various roles, including Todd Fjelsted, who production designed “White Bird in a Blizzard”, and hired me as his art director.

My experience so far has been in small independent films (“White Bird” is actually one of the largest films I’ve worked on) and sketch comedy. My friend Katie Byron, another production designer I was lucky enough to meet and work with, who production designed “Like Crazy” and a bunch of other wonderful films, connected me with “Funny or Die” soon after I got to Los Angeles, and I worked on probably 40-50 of their web comedy sketches in between working on movies and other projects. I also interned at Abso Lutely Productions back in 2010 (one of my better internship experiences) and in a very roundabout way ended up back at that company this past year, taking over for Katie as production designer on “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, which is a little sketch comedy/talk show on IFC.

On the sets. Courtesy of Caity Birmingham.

Kirill: What drew you into the business, and how has that changed during the years that you’ve been working on different sets?

Caity: As an undergraduate, I was studying art at a small liberal arts school and at the same time watching tons of movies (this was before Netflix, so I was basically going row by row at the video store), and slowly realizing I wanted to work in film, but not really knowing what that meant. So I assumed I wanted to be a director and went to graduate school to figure it out. I feel really lucky to have stumbled into the art department. Like, how is there this job that combines so many of the things that interest me and that I happen to be good at? Since trying to work professionally in Los Angeles, that feeling has definitely evolved into something a little less purely optimistic. I’ve been paid next to nothing to put my hard work and creativity into projects I found fairly worthless, but for every soulless project there is another great little project with an amazing script and a delightful crew.

Kirill: You’ve been taking diverse roles in the art department – set decorator, art director, production designer. Does that explore different creative parts of your brain? Do you want to avoid repetitiveness in what you do?

Caity: One great thing about the art department is that each job is entirely different, requires different skills and presents different challenges, so repetitiveness is never a problem. I have learned that the best skills you can have are adapting quickly, communicating clearly, and solving problems creatively, and those skills apply to all projects and all art department roles, just in different ways. When I started working in Los Angeles, I was just hungry for any art department job I could get, and the experience was equally valuable whether I was working for and learning from other production designers, or figuring out how to be the production designer myself. Working in a variety of roles has definitely given me a greater appreciation for what everyone else in my department is dealing with. For example, I will never underestimate the work of the on-set dresser. It is a difficult job, and when done well, it adds a tremendous amount to the success of the art dept. and the film/show as a whole.

Kirill: How and when did you join “White Bird in a Blizzard”, and what was your part in the movie?

Caity: Todd Fjelsted is a production designer I’ve been lucky enough to work with on a few projects. He had designed Gregg Araki’s previous film “Kaboom”, as well as a number of other interesting, successful indies. I was already a big fan of the director, Gregg Araki, and when Todd mentioned the project, I told him I’d love to work on it in any capacity. I just got lucky that he needed an art director and trusted me to do it.

Kirill: What can you tell us about creating the physical environment of the main set – Kat’s house?

Caity: We built the entire inside of the house on a sound stage, so that it would have a dream-like falseness to it, that difficult-to-pinpoint feeling of being on a set rather than in a real place. The architecture didn’t quite make sense, the proportions of the house were strange, and I think that all added to the world Gregg and Todd were creating, which was really a backdrop for Eve, who was so out-of-place in the world of the film. From my perspective, we weren’t trying to create a realistic time or place so much as this strange collage of surreal pop culture references and nostalgia. There was a review of the movie that said certain sets looked like a stale sitcom world, and I really think that’s what we were going for.

Kirill: How did that set change between the main time periods – when her parents just moved in, when she was a little girl, and then later as she is a teenager? What did you do to create visual continuity throughout the story arc?

Caity: Because of the surreal quality of the house, I feel like the rules were a little different than in other projects that span decades. Everything was a little dream-like, a little exaggerated. Kat’s room was probably the most grounded, subtle, realistic space, and even that had a strong feeling of 70s and 80s nostalgia built in. The living room, the parents’ bedroom, and the kitchen didn’t change very much. They were Eve’s domain, and they were cold and strangely empty and frozen in time with her.

Kirill: Was there anything done in particular for Mrs. Hillman’s house as she is a blind woman? Does that change the approach you’re taking to crafting a set?

Caity: We certainly saw it as an opportunity to create a stark contrast to the strange, cold perfection of the Connors’ living room. We wanted it to be cluttered, dated and ugly, in part because the woman living there was blind, and so that when Eve went there, she would be uncomfortable and out of place. We also shot the Hamilton living room in the same set as the Connors living room and just redressed it. We were playing with the idea that they lived in very similar pre-fab houses with the same layouts, as part of the suburban dream/nightmare.

Kirill: Every now and then Kat (Shailene Woodley) in her mind flashes to the snowed / blizzard environment. How was that created?

Caity: This was my first time ever working with snow effects, and it was so fun. We just started with a large freshly painted white room, laid down snow blankets, as well as some loose “snow,” brought in a tree and a car and had two small hand-cranked snow machines and two fans creating the “blizzard” effect. In one part, Eve breaks through the ice and snow, and for this part we had to build a large steeldeck platform five feet off the ground, recreate the blanket of snow, and Todd, the production designer, figured out how to layer foam and other materials for her to break through. I think these scenes were certainly augmented in post, but probably about 80% was practical, as well as fairly low-tech and low-budget.

On the snow sets. Courtesy of Caity Birmingham.

Final stills.

Kirill: The movie spends most of the time in 1988 (and a bit later in 1991) which is a very familiar environment for a lot of viewers. Did you need to be extra careful to be true to that period?

Caity: I don’t think we were particularly interested in being true to the 80s in a literal, historically accurate way. We were more interested in creating the nostalgic layers of what we remember when we look back on that time, your childhood room, the apartment of the cool guy you had a crush on, all mixed up with representations from TV show reruns and movie stereotypes.

Kirill: How would you compare the scope and pace of your work on feature film and TV productions?

Caity: I’ve worked primarily on small independent feature dramas and sketch comedy for web and TV, which is a funny combination. It has definitely given me diverse experience. I’m really enjoying my current gig on “Comedy Bang! Bang!“, but it’s funny how the goals are very different. In dramatic films, you get to think so much about character, setting and mood, and how to enrich all of these through the things you place in the background and environment of the characters. In comedy, you are in service of the joke, and your job is usually to create the simplest, clearest backdrop for which the joke to play out. If you need a bachelor pad, or a suburban house, you generally try to create the most obvious, recognizable version of that space. We joke that all of our reference images could be from cartoons, because we draw things in really broad strokes, so we don’t complicate things and take away from the punchline. “Comedy Bang! Bang!”‘s comedy feels very new and specific to me, and it is often about defying expectations and turning the expected joke on its head, which makes it even more important for the set-up to be clear and recognizable. We also do a lot of references and homages to 80s and 90s pop culture, which is very fun, but again, doesn’t leave much room for creative leaps. We are just now completing a redesign of the main set, and it’s exciting but it really threw me off because it was the first time I got to make purely aesthetic decisions, and inject a little bit of my personal style, while still remaining true to the look and feel of the show.

On the sets of “Comedy Bang! Bang!”. Courtesy of Caity Birmingham.

Kirill: You did work for comedy sketched produced by web sites. Is the structure there more informal compared to the “traditional” productions?

Caity: Yes, I’ve worked art department for “Funny or Die” on a bunch of their sketches. The structure is very informal, and everything happens very fast. I would sometimes get a call about a sketch going up in less than 24 hours, asking if I could shop and prep for it in time. Often their sketches are time sensitive, reactions to news items and things like that, or a celebrity who they had been hoping to work with just became available, and everything happens very quickly. Even though “Funny or Die” is a growing, successful company, their shoots often feel like a bunch of friends getting together to make something, which can be really great.

Kirill: On a related subject, we’re seeing a large diversity of ways people create and consume media content, from content produced by web sites to Amazon and Netflix moving into TV / feature productions to people funding their projects on Kickstarter. Would you characterize this as fracturing the landscape? Is this a good thing for creators that can explore different ways to express their creativity?

Caity: Netflix and Amazon seem much more willing to take risks on interesting filmmakers and storytellers and storylines that push boundaries, and that is exciting. If that is fracturing the landscape, then I have to think the landscape needed to be fractured. I just finished watching Transparent on Amazon, and it’s one of the best, most well-acted, well-told and good looking series I’ve seen on TV, and it’s not even on TV in the traditional sense. Shows like “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” are also creating more diverse characters and dealing with immediate and relevant social issues. I just heard that Laverne Cox has a new CBS pilot where she plays a transgender defense lawyer, and I don’t think that would have happened without Netflix and Amazon first paving the way. Hopefully this new cutting edge content is creating enough competition for our attention that it is forcing the old networks to step out of their traditional molds.

As for Kickstarter, I say more power to the filmmakers who make it work for them. Filmmaking is difficult and expensive. Sometimes it amazes me that films get made at all, and although the term can get old, I get why people call their films “labors of love.” If they can crowd source their funding and at the same time build interest and audience for their stories, I think that is a smart and efficient way of supporting, creating and consuming art. It also holds these filmmakers accountable to a group of people who are literally invested in their success, which hopefully makes for better content.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as too much content in the world where almost everybody can grab a digital camera and upload a video to YouTube?

Caity: I don’t think so. In an art form that is so dependent on both technology and popular culture, it makes sense that the medium would evolve and change so quickly. For the most part, I like to believe the good stuff still rises to the top, and when weird watered-down nonsense like “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the most popular movie in mainstream theaters, we need as many other options as we can get.

Kirill: And as the content becomes – perhaps – easier to create, it also becomes easier to consume on a variety of screens around us. Are we losing anything when we watch that content on smaller phone screens with a constant stream of interruption around us?

Caity: I love going to the movies, and I see it as a kind of sacred pastime. I hope we never lose that. But movies and TV and video content of all kinds are, at their best, a way of sharing our constantly evolving human experience, and sometimes that requires a means of transmission that is more messy and immediate and fast-paced. So I guess let’s communicate our perspectives through any means we may have, on screens big and small, and still go to the theater sometimes, when we have the time to sit back and take it in with a little more reverence.

Kirill: What do you do between your productions? Do you get to relax a bit?

Caity: It can be difficult to go from the intensity of 12-15 hour work days, giving all your focus and time to making something with this group of people and then suddenly it’s over. It takes a minute to remember what your life is outside of that project, and it can be jarring. I try to take advantage of my unconventional schedule and use my time off to travel, but it can be tough when you don’t know when the next job will come along. Since I’ve been working in TV for the past year or so, the schedule isn’t quite as all-consuming, and the time off is planned in advance, which feels like such a luxury.

Kirill: Would you like to recommend a few recent movies or TV shows that you’ve particularly enjoyed recently?

Caity: I’ve already mentioned “Transparent”, but I’ll say it again. It’s surprising, stylish, and feels very true. It feels like all the best things about independent filmmaking turned into an episodic series. Probably my favorite movies this past year were “Birdman” and “Boyhood”. Both of them felt like gutsy, beautiful experiments, and like nothing I had seen before.

And here I’d like to thank Caity Birmingham for finding the time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her craft, and for sharing supporting materials for the interview.