Category Archives: Art Direction

The Ten Commandments of Production Design

Ten Commandments Of Production Design

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1)    All the camera sees is the last coat of paint.

2)    Don’t cheat (unless you have to).

3)    Signs of protest are best done by amateurs.

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HUMP DAY QUOTE DAY: Alex McDowell on Technology

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Alex McDowell at 5D Berlinale Presentation

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“We’re in 100 percent digital film space now. I think the industry has to accept that this is like the transition to talkies — it’s massive and it’s game-changing and it’s happening.  Continue reading

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An In-Depth Look at the Design of the ‘Prometheus’ Rovers

Prometheus Poster Art Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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The production design for Prometheus surprised a lot of people when the first set stills leaked. Instead of the grungy, mechanical aesthetic of Alien, which it predates, Prometheus’ sets are clean, brightly lit, and very colourful. It’s texturing is much less heavy than Alien, and the reflective surfaces and bold, graphic palette seem a world away from the 1979 film’s muted golds, browns and creams. Ridley Scott’s influences for the look of Prometheus can be tracked back to the 1965 film Planet Of The Vampires - in fact the space suits for the Prometheus crew are taken almost verbatim from that film. Broadly speaking though, pulp sci-fi appears to be the major influence for the film’s look, mixing it’s tone and colour with updated version of the bulkheads and corridors of the original Nostromo setsPrometheus’ prop vehicles, the RT Rovers, continue this theme.

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Dante Ferretti’s Best Art Direction Oscar Speech

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Tom Hanks hands husband and wife team, Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo their Oscars for Best Art Direction.

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Dante Ferretti was the only winner to thank his crew, let alone any below-the-line crew. Films get made on the backs of their crew and I was so pleased to see that Dante respects his crew enough to thank them. It was lovely to see him win his 3rd Oscar for his staggering work on Hugowhich topped my list for best production design this past year. For once the Academy had it right.

For a list of all the nominees and winners of the 84th Academy Awards, click here.

Below is Dante Ferretti’s acceptance speech: Continue reading

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PRODUCTION DESIGN PORN: Art DepartMENTAL’s Top 10 Best Production Design of 2011

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Art DepartMENTAL'S 2011 Top 10 Best Production Design

After some long and hard deliberations I have pared down what are, in my opinion, the top 10 best production designed/art directed films of 2011. In the end, given the subjectivity of film in general,  all this means is these were my favourite designs. Going through the many films I had on my list I was awestruck at the diversity, styles and overall quality of so many of the films. 2011 was really a banner year for production design the way I see it. Last year, I found it easy to just do a top 5 but this year I found it impossible not to do a top 10 and I easily could have made it a top 20.

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PRODUCTION DESIGN PORN: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese at work on the set of The Departed


“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”

-Martin Scorsese

From the mean streets of New York City to the days of Christ in desolate landscapes to the vast beauty of Paris in the 1930′s, let there be no question that Martin Scorsese is a master of visual storytelling. Great filmmakers don’t stop telling the story on the page, in the camera or in the cut, they continue to use the tool of environment and space: production design. Often times in Scorsese’s films the environment is another character. New York City is his most prominent character no matter which decade he sets his story.

The quote above is an important one for me and one I use very often when designing a film. What you have in the frame is as important as what you leave out. Everything you have in the frame is part of telling the story. It’s the details of the graphics in Travis Bickle’s apartment which were written into the script to the branded poker chips which you may have not noticed in Casino to the tiny tools dressed on the desk in Hugo’s living space, that make Scorsese’s worlds all-encompassing and believable. In a Scorsese film the one thing you can always count on is that every detail is accounted for.

Now obviously Scorsese himself does not implement these details but he demands the very best from his crew. Luckily, success has awarded him the opportunities to work with the very best in Production Design. His work with Production Designer Dante Ferretti is particularly epic and their collaborations together always leave me breathless. Hiring the right people, as they say, is half the battle.

So here now are those worlds. I warn you there are spoilers and violence ahead. Enjoy!

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Mean Streets (1973)

Art Department Unknown

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Production Designer: Toby Carr Rafelson

Taxi Driver (1976)

Art Director: Charles Rosen | Set Decorator: Herbert F. Mulligan

New York, New York (1977)

Production Designer: Boris Leven | Art Director: Harry Kemm | Set Decorator: Robert De Vestel & Ruby R. Levitt

Raging Bull (1980)

Production Designer: Gene Rudolf | Art Director:  Alan Manser (L.A) & Kirk Axtell (L.A) | Set Decorator: Phil Abramson & Frederic C. Weiler

The King of Comedy (1983)

Production Designer: Boris Leven | Art Director: Lawrence Miller & Edward Pisoni | Set Decorator: George DeTitta Sr. & Daniel Robert

After Hours (1985)

Production Designer: Jeffrey Townsend | Art Director: Stephen J. Lineweaver | Set Decorator: Leslie A. Pope

The Color of Money (1986)

Production Designer: Boris Leven | Set Decorator: Karen O’Hara

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Production Designer: John Beard | Art Director: Andrew Sanders | Set Decorator: Giorgio Desideri

Goodfellas (1990)

Production Designer: Kristi Zea | Art Director: Maher Ahmad | Set Decorator: Leslie Bloom

Cape Fear (1991)

Production Designer: Henry Bumstead | Art Director: Jack G. Taylor Jr. | Set Decorator: Alan Hicks

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Art Director: Speed Hopkins | Set Decorator: Robert J. Franco & Amy Marshall

Casino (1995)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Art Director: Jack G. Taylor Jr. | Set Decorator: Rick Simpson

Kundun (1997)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Art Director: Alan Tomkins | Set Decorator: Francesca Lo Schiavo

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Art Director: Robert Guerra | Set Decorator: William F. Reynolds

Gangs of New York (2002)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Art Director: Stefano Maria Ortolani | Set Decorator: Francesca Lo Schiavo

The Aviator (2004)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Art Director: Robert Guerra & Claude Paré | Set Decorator: Francesca Lo Schiavo

The Departed (2006)

Production Designer: Kristi Zea | Art Director: Teresa Carriker-Thayer | Set Decorator: Leslie E. Rollins

Shutter Island (2010)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Art Director: Robert Guerra | Set Decorator: Francesca Lo Schiavo

Hugo (2011)

Production Designer: Dante Ferretti | Set Decorator: Francesca Lo Schiavo

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What is your favourite Scorsese film? Why does it resonate with you?

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Rose XO.

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NOTE: Our apologies to subscribers who may have received an email of this post last week while it was in progress. We value your time and are working to make sure that never happens again. Thanks for your patience.

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The Art of Reality Television Production Design

This year, Orange County’s Saddleback College invited guest speaker Production Designer, John Janavs, to speak about the art of reality television production design to a group of students. They were kind enough to post it online for all to see. John Janavs speaks eloquently about how he entered the field of production design, what he looks for when designing a set, how he chooses materials underlying budget limitations and more. This is the single most informative and insightful set of videos I’ve seen all year concerning production design so I suggest you watch carefully and take notes. Enjoy!

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PART ONE

PART TWO

PART THREE

PART FOUR

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Which tip helped you the most? Do you have a better understanding of television production design now?

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Rose XO.

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How to Feel Miserable as an Artist

Source: Canadian Illustrator, Keri Smith

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Don’t do this to yourself. This may have been written for fine artists but I believe it translates to anyone in a creative field. A list like this will help keep you in check.

Thoughts? Which one of these do you find yourself doing the most?

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Rose XO.

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TIFF 2011 EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with Take This Waltz Production Designer, Matthew Davies

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While enjoying the Toronto International Film Festival I had the incredible luck to speak with the very talented Production Designer Matthew Davies, of Take This Waltz which had its red carpet World premiere here in Toronto this past week. Sarah Polley herself spoke on high about her Production Designer at the screenings and as you can see below she had good reason to champion her designer. Below Matthew speaks about his move from architecture to production design, the UK to Canada, and his production design process from conception to completion.

How did you get into production design?

I originally studied architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University of London (UK). My profs would always accuse me of being too derivative, of being obsessed with cosmetics; finally one day my tutor told me I might as well go and design film sets if I had no personal statement to make. He intended it as a criticism, but for me, it was like a light going on inside my head…

How is the art department and film industry in the UK much different than here in Canada?

A few too many subtle differences to name.

Notably, however, Set Dec supplies everything to Props in the UK, rather than having two very separate departments. There is always a standby art director on set to represent the designer’s interests, as well as a ‘swing crew’ to shift dressing. By comparison in North America, there’s usually just an ‘on-set dresser’ which is way too much responsibility for a single person. Additionally, shooting crews in the UK usually include a standby painter and carpenter. Essentially, the Brits put a lot more care and attention into what the camera sees. On the plus side for Canada, Graphics is a much bigger component and I love the potential of graphics…

When did you make the move to Canada? What made you decide the Canadian film industry would be a better fit for you?

I was born in Canada and have 4 or 5 generations of Canadians in my family tree so it really felt like I was returning to my ancestral roots. London – after a decade of living there – was also getting a little much to deal with and when I came to compare the quality of life in both cities, Toronto won hands-down…

What do you love most about the nature of your job as a production designer? Adversely, what do you least like about the nature of production design?

I love the fact that only production designers get to work in almost any period and every genre of design. We also get to design for character which is so more interesting than conceptualizing an empty-box space. As for my greatest dislike, well, I wish there was more understanding of a designer’s job description; assumptions about the ‘glory’ of building in studio, of always prioritizing the technical over the creative agenda, and the general belief that imagination ‘costs’ – all these issues make my skin crawl.

Who or what inspires your design aesthetic most?

I have amassed a couple of thousand reference books over the years, so these always come in handy. Websites like flickr and google maps get pretty addictive too.

You have had the great opportunity of working with many celebrated directors such as Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World), Fernando Meirelles (Blindness), and now of course, Sarah Polley. What do you look for in a director when deciding to take on a project?

I’ve been very fortunate in the past (and unluckier than you might imagine with regard to all the jobs I didn’t get…) Sadly, I don’t think there will ever come a time when the designer ‘chooses’ the director. Certainly, the collaboration of the DOP is fundamental to me, so this is usually the first question from my lips when I’m interviewing…

You’re absolutely right, you don’t get to choose but I think what I’m wondering is, as a production designer, what you look for in a director that makes the collaboration between filmmaker and designer enjoyable and fruitful?

I’d say a good director is one who champions his or her creative team, and remains open to the unexpected influences of a great location, a happy accident or a random co-incidence. In other words, shooting a movie feels to me as much about ‘documenting the moment’ as insisting on a singular outcome. Some of the most intriguing directors I’ve worked with spend more time watching and listening than actually directing…

How did you get involved on Take This Waltz?

I had originally been attached to “Away from Her” but in the end, scheduling made it impossible for me to come on board. The Canadian industry is (lamentably) rather ‘compact’, so Sarah was obviously on my radar pretty much from the day I arrived in Canada.

From your perspective what is Take This Waltz about and how did you go about expressing this?

The film is really about so many things, though at its centre is the indecision of Margot, torn between two different types of love. Toronto was itself also a major character and strangely, I felt more apprehensive about expressing my home town than anything else.

Can you speak a bit more about the practical side of your design process. Once you and Sarah discussed the design concepts for the film how did you go about expressing and executing that plan?

Sarah was adamant that it should be a location-based shoot (though we did build a couple of interior sets in studio for purely practical reasons like access and lighting). The art department was sharing space with Sarah during Prep so every day she would have to dig her way through all our detritus to get to her desk. We pretty much made it impossible for her to ignore us. That and the fact she’s a human sponge.

When the key locations were secured, we prepared boards of every paint colour, wallpaper, finish and texture and brought them to each space for the DOP to photograph. Dressing ‘boards’ were prepared of every idea and object in consideration and again divided out according to location. Later, we allowed plenty of time on-site to create all the prescribed layers of human history (which also required stills-shoots with our actors for all the incidental graphics). Sarah had a specific interest in the work of Canadian artist Balint Zsako, so we made an approach and asked him to generously donate a good part of his time to the art department cause. Finally, we introduced the actors to their respective spaces during the rehearsal window, allowing them to make their own tweaks and refinements.

What was Sarah’s approach in regards to the design of the film? Did she give you much freedom to explore your own visual concepts or was she very specific with her vision of the film?

Sarah had prepared her own initial look-board for the film as well as a concise yet meaningful visual synopsis. Her own off-hand reference to a ‘bowl of fruit’ was perhaps most helpful in defining the project’s aesthetic parameters. Yes, she invited experimentation; and yet she always had a very strong sense as to what would either work or not work in context. Her contribution was ongoing, always respectful and ensured that all departments kept a close communication throughout.

What was your favourite thing about designing Take This Waltz?

I loved the chemistry of the crew, the unbelievable commitment of my art director, set decorator, in fact, the entire department! Right up the line to the producers, it felt like finally, this was as good as my working experience could ever be… Sounds corny, but it’s true.

Lastly, given your many experiences in both film and television, what advice would you give to young people embarking on a career in the art department?

In the wake of the ‘digital revolution’, the internet and our obsession with ‘docu-drama’, the film and television business is still very much alive and thriving. Budgets may be lower, but with the proliferation of new media, there are more and more films being made and more ways to apply our creative energies.

In short, now is as good a time as any to jump into it. You’re pretty much guaranteed to have some unique experiences to look back on…

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You can see more from Production Designer, Matthew Davies on his Vimeo account: http://vimeo.com/10711987 and on IMDB:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0203850/

Take This Waltz had its World Premiere  here in Toronto this past week and will continue its festival run at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Friday, September 30th.

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The Teaser Trailers for Take This Waltz

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Are you familiar with Matthew Davies or Sarah Polley’s work? Did anything Matthew said resonate with you? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts?

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Rose XO.
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Sources: Matthew Davies, Joe’s Daughter Inc. Used here with permission.

All photos, video, and content are copyrighted 2011.

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PRODUCTION DESIGN PORN: Terrence Malick, Jack Fisk and the Art of Minimalism

Filmmaker, Terrence Malick

Production Designer, Jack Fisk

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Definition of Minimalism: A design or style in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect. A technique that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity.

I’ve been a big fan of Terrence Malick and Jack Fisk since I saw The Thin Red Line. Imagine my shock and awe when I saw the rest of their work. I often think of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World when I think of Days of Heaven and that is a tribute to the way they painted their story with simple landscape and light during magic hour. Terrence clearly has a highly attuned eye for painterly composition and Fisk is not only able to realize Terry’s vision but catapult it to new heights in such a way that makes them the power team that they are. The Tree of Life this year has been a testament to the magic they share with their audience. The Tree of Life is a delightfully visual poem which enables the audience to ponder the nature of existence through the use of visual imagery and story minimalism. With this film I do believe Terrence and Jack have reached new heights in the search for beauty in cinema. Through their work I believe we can all learn that less really is more.

Jack Fisk Discusses his Work with Terrence and his Aesthetic:

“Terry and I have developed a relationship where we just go and look at locations together, for weeks, and that way we kind of get in sync on a picture. And then he says, “Whatever you do will be fine.” He’s so trusting, but I’ve worked so hard to fall in line with what he’s after. I think also over the years we’ve kind of developed similar tastes. Some of it came about because we never had any money, so we always had minimal set dressing and props, and we found out that we really like the way that looked. Even today, I spend most of my time taking stuff away rather than putting stuff onto a set. Just try to keep it simple, because if people aren’t confused by the background, they pay attention to what’s happening with the characters, I think. I try to create backgrounds that are easy to understand so they tell you in shorthand what you need to know about the place or the character and don’t distract you by giving you too much to look at. [The balance between simplicity and authenticity] is a hard one.

I’ve developed a real love of Edward Hopper. His paintings have a simplicity and an essence of location, so he’s probably who I reference the most – I think of him almost like an art director. You really feel the humans in those environments because there’s not a lot of distraction; he paints just what you need. The other artist I like is completely different and that’s Francis Bacon. The thing I really like about Francis Bacon is his passion. I look at his paintings and they’re like falling apart. He’ll put water-base paint on oils – whatever he does, he doesn’t worry about preserving it, but he worries about the moment. If he needs a dash of purple up there, he’ll put whatever purple he has. I appreciate that passion.”

~ Jack Fisk, from Filmmaker Magazine | Spring 2010

Terrence Malick and Jack Fisk’s Collaborations

Badlands (1973)

Badlands (1973)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (1978)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The New World (2005)

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)

Jack Fisk’s Other Collaborations

Here is more smouldering examples of Jack Fisk’s production designs, this time with other lauded filmmakers. You’ll see below that his love for minimalism follows him on each project but his designs remain classic, beautiful and appropriate to the characters, time period, story and genre. He has a knack for choosing projects that suit his unique visual aesthetic. He also seems to love anything with fire.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

The Straight Story (1999)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

The Invasion (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Water For Elephants (2011)

Water For Elephants (2011)

Water For Elephants (2011)

Water For Elephants (2011)

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Are you a fan of Terrence Malick or Jack Fisk? What is your favourite film designed by Jack Fisk and why?

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Rose XO.

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