Category Archives: EXCLUSIVE

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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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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Filed under ART DEPARTMENT, Art Direction, EXCLUSIVE, Film INDUSTRY, Production DESIGN, Toronto International Film Festival

TIFF 2011 EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with ‘Random’ Production Designer Lisa Marie Hall

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As you all may know The Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing right now and I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Production Designer, Lisa Marie Hall, of Random which is having its North American premiere here in Toronto. Lisa delves deep and discusses her role in the mechanism of filmmaking as not just a designer, but as key partner in the storytelling process, giving great insight into her own modus operandi. Enjoy.

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How did you get into production design?

My career began at school prop-making, sculpting & set designing for the stage at 17.  I was in love with the idea of recreating worlds & applying my imagination onto spaces.  This quickly turned to design for the screen with a degree in TV Production Design then straight onto a Masters degree in Film Production Design at the National Film & TV School.   I am grateful that I’ve always known production design is what I want to do.  It’s my life, not simply a job, and now at the age of 31, I look back & it’s all I’ve ever done.  Upon leaving film school I went straight onto drafting the Great Glass Elevator (amongst other things) for Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – it was an amazing experience working in a big art department but ultimately not a route I wanted to pursue.  So I took the rather brave/naive step of being a Production Designer in my own right from there on working on commercials, promos and lots of low-budget features.  Almost 8 years later, here I am.  I’ve never art directed or assisted.  I have learnt that being a designer is not simply a step up from the art director, it requires a whole new set of skills not seen anywhere else in the art department – being a visionary storyteller, a politician, a creative leader and another set of eyes for the director – so that is what I’ve worked hard to be good at and will continue to do….

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’ve always said being a Production Designer is being a storyteller, so what I love most about the job is finding the vision for a story right at the beginning of prep – the research for images, themes, making connections between objects, photographers, paintings & architecture, that translate into moods & feelings appropriate for the characters & plot.  It’s a wonderful journey of discovery & learning, looking in hidden & unusual places for inspiration, finding things that move you in different ways.  A love of art history is essential and I spend a lot of time at galleries & in spaces.  The down side of the job is asking your team to endure the pressures.  As the leader it’s your management of the job, your choices that demand time & effort from your team and when jobs are tight on budget & time (which most of mine are!), art departments often work long hours, doing physical labour – it’s hard to keep a team going & producing high quality work when they (and you) are exhausted.  I’m still learning the best way to deal with this when extra budget isn’t simply the answer – I’ve been reading an amazing book about Ernest Shackleton’s leadership skills which is inspiring me to manage ‘endurance’ in lots of new ways.

Who or what inspires your design aesthetic most?

There are two men who have changed my design world & therefore how I work: John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, prominent social thinker and philanthropist – reading his book “On Art & Life” changed everything for me;  and writer/art historian John Berger & his book “Ways of Seeing” – they’ve both taught me to really open my eyes and look at the world which I have to design.  Since I have become much more aware of an everyday world that isn’t ‘designed’, how rich & exciting it is in detail, and I’ve been prompted to look far beyond the Western world for ideas and culture.  Japanese aesthetics & Eastern thought have influenced me greatly.  The Victoria & Albert Museum in London remains my greatest place of inspiration – it allows me to find ideas in unlikely places, making connections between ancient, historic and modern things which lead to my own original designs.  I’m a firm believer in finding inspiration in whatever life puts in front if you at any one moment – be it a book, a word, a play, an advert or personal story – you just need to know to look for it!

ROSE: How did you get involved on Random?

After a run of a few ‘challenging’ jobs my agent suggested working with the lovely company Hillbiilly Films & they’re latest low-budget project – a theatre-film hybrid.  I had been looking into broadening my design work into other mediums so this was a perfect opportunity and it was the most exciting script I’d read for the last 5 years.  I prepared, as I always do for an interview, a ‘Look Book’ (a collage of images that set together creates my interpreted vision for the story) & it seemed to inspire a great connection with Debbie Tucker Green when we first met….I started work a few days later.

Had you seen the play before you started working on the project?

No.  In fact, I’m ashamed to say my theatre-going experience was pretty limited.  It’s only in the last year that I’ve decided to pursue working in theatre alongside film & TV and in doing so I’ve made a real effort to go & see as much as I can both in the West End, at the National Theatre and the smaller fringe venues around London – it’s been a great education.  I’m so excited about set design for the stage – I suppose it’s that chance to play with ALL the senses, to create immersive experiences for the audience, not rely on replicating reality, and find unusual creative solutions to financial restraints.  Even though there’s less money, there’s a greater freedom.  Theatre I see now is such an important form that designers need to explore – it teaches you a great deal about the importance of text & character.  Coincidentally, since Random, Debbie Tucker Green asked me to design her new play, ‘Truth & Reconciliation’ at the Royal Court Theatre, London.  It has been a huge learning curve, particularly doing costume for the first time, but it’s been a wonderful collaborative experience, has been well received, & I look forward to more work for the stage.

From your perspective what is Random about? How did you go about expressing this?

Debbie’s writing, for me, is about truth – how quirky, painful and mundane it can be in our lives.  The story didn’t, for me, have a ‘theme’.  It was a lyrical & poignant look at an intimate moment in life and therefore the design was not about an overall mood or plot.  Our work on Random, as it is with everything I do, was principally about honesty & detail.  I had to recreate an honest world, make you believe we were glimpsing into a real Jamaican family living in London.  That was it.  No frills.  Two things came out of my approach to the script that were important in the design: 1, the film has 468 scenes! – due to a constant cutting between a ‘black box’ performance space and real ‘lit’ locations, which therefore demanded a look on location that didn’t jar with a black studio so shadows & dark tones became important, and 2, a line in the script that stuck out for both myself & the set decorator: “MUM: Like a hurricane gone thru were tings should be” – the idea of a storm at sea gave us the look for the house, full of life and movement – it’s only when the clock strikes 4:09 does everything stop, dead.  Achieving a sense of movement is paramount for me, finding life in the middle of things – twisted duvets, clothes on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink, shoes in a messy pile by the door.

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

The first job was locating the principal house location – a completely empty property – no carpets, no curtains, no furniture.  Then further to conversations about character with Debbie, I created the final ‘Look Book’ as my tool of communicating my vision.  I am a bit of a renegade when it comes to the process – I don’t believe in just following the same old working patterns that exist in the industry because every job is different and demands a unique approach.  I study a lot of business ideas/thinking and so it inspired me to shake things up.  So, I employed a team of ‘Character Buyers’ – one for each member of the Random family (Mum, Dad, Sister, Brother).  They each had a space within the house (a bedroom for example) and they had to go away for 1 week to prep & buy everything required specifically for their character – furniture, carpets, curtains, dressing, & any scripted action props.  Then in the 2nd week all Buyers came together to dress the house set, working almost as a family.  It was my & the Set Decorator’s job to tie it all together.  I asked the buyers to buy Christmas & birthday presents for each other’s characters for the last 5 years, so that there would be a blend of character props in each other’s spaces.  It was a great process that dispensed with traditional art department hierarchies, gave creative freedom & responsibility to a whole team, and led to the main set rich & detailed in feel, despite the budget being (very) low.

What was Debbie’s approach 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?

This was Debbie’s first feature length film so she entrusted me & the DoP with its look a huge amount which was energising.  Her approach was that it must be real but neither gritty nor depressing.  The story has nothing to do with race or class so we had to avoid anything stereotypical, whilst retaining a character of a family with its own funny quirks.  It’s a regular family living in an unknown part of London being affected by a random act of violence that can, and sadly does, happen anywhere.  Debbie knows what she likes, what she doesn’t, enjoys being tested with new ideas and sometimes needs a little convincing, but was ultimately very collaborative.  The script features a lot of object detail, refreshing for a designer, so this was important for her to get right.  She gave me a lot of advice on the Jamaican detail we needed – the types of food in the kitchen, the type of cosmetic products in the bedroom – but also left me to trust my own instinct.

What was your favourite thing about designing Random?

Over-hearing the crew & cast (those who didn’t know) remark that it was amazing we had found a location, a house with a Jamaican family already living there!  We had everyone fooled and it was a proud moment for the team to know that we had created a truly believable & honestly dressed location.  And seeing that team of character buyers come together and bring 4 different identities anda whole host of ideas to a house that I would never have been able to achieve by myself – it was a great collaborative result.

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

1. The technical skills we use in set design (drafting, modelmaking, CAD, concept drawing, construction or prop making) are important to learn but they WILL NEVER make you a designer.  It is your ability to tell stories visually that is the thing you must strive to be good at if you want a career in production design and to do this you must immerse yourself in stories not only from literature, but from the real world out there.  Stories are in objects and places and spaces everywhere, you must train yourself to see them.  2.  The biggest thing I’ve learnt in the last 8 years is being a Production Designer is all about managing people & efficient communication – 2% of my time is being practically creative (drawing, making models), 98% of my time is spent making it all happen, problem-solving. You need to have a sharp business mind, be a good politician, and enjoy the creativity of management.  3. And be prepared to work long hours – most jobs are a real test of endurance and production design requires a high level of dedication and stamina!

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You can see more from Production Designer, Lisa Marie Hall on her website: http://www.lisamariehall.com/ or converse with her through Twitter: @Moving_Design

Random has its North American premiere here in Toronto, September 16th at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 10pm and plays again September 17th at AGO Jackman Hall at 1pm.

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The Trailer for Random

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Have you seen or are you going to see Random? Any thoughts on Lisa’s design style or unique process?

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Rose XO.

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Sources: Lisa Marie Hall and Channel 4. Used with Permission.

All photos, video, and content are copyrighted. 2011

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Art DepartMENTAL @ TIFF ’11

Tomorrow the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival officially starts its 36th year fully settled in its new home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox. This year it is 11 days from Sept 8-18 and will showcase 339 films- 258 features and 81 shorts. It is the largest public festival in the world and I would say second in popularity only to Cannes. Even the Guardian thinks Venice is scared of Toronto’s new found prowess.

I have been attending the festival for the past 8 years and every year I look forward to it more and more. This is the first year I will be going to TIFF as an Industry member and this has me more excited (and nervous) than ever before. I’m looking forward to networking and continuing my journey to learn this business inside and out. I know a lot of you out there have never been to TIFF or any film festival like it and do not understand all of the hype and hoopla associated with the festival. It’s hard to describe it but it’s sort of like an amusement park run in celebration of the beauty and transcendence of the moving image. To those who love cinema it’s Christmas in September. One film after another of the very best this World has to offer not to mention the electric vibe the city of Toronto has when it’s glowing in the TIFF spotlight.

Like last year I will be live tweeting again (@artdepartmental) from the festival and be sure to follow the TIFF hashtag #TIFF11 to get the inside scoop on what’s hot, what’s not and what’s being bought.

Programme, schedules & hooch during my 16 hour wait for TIFF tickets.

New this year, I will be posting a daily TIFF Diary for the 11 days of the festival letting you know what’s happening at the festival and my general experience as I attend approximately 40 movies in addition to panels, seminars, and parties. To stay updated you can bookmark Art DepartMENTAL, like us on Facebook, or you can subscibe via email or our RSS feed. As always I will try my best to cover the very best of the fest in production design glory. I hope you will come along for the ride!

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Are you attending TIFF ’11? If you are too far to attend, which films playing at TIFF’11 are you anxious to see or hear more about?

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Rose XO.
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Filed under Awards, Behind the SCENES, EXCLUSIVE, Film HAPPINESS, Film INDUSTRY, Toronto International Film Festival

EXCLUSIVE: An Inside Look at the Production Design of The Kennedys

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By now you’ve probably heard a little something about the Emmy nominated 8-Part Television Miniseries, The Kennedys, but today I want you to pay attention to the one aspect of the production that wasn’t blabbed about much in the media- the astoundingly skilled production design. Forget what you’ve heard about the show and judge for yourself. No matter what the media says with their half truths I hope you had the opportunity to watch The Kennedys during its original air dates and if not you’re in luck because it will be released on DVD September 20th in North America.

The Kennedys Production Designer Rocco Matteo, Art Director Mun Ying Kwun, and Set Decorator Enrico Campana did a superb job creating a period piece that was authentic and historically accurate but remained fresh in its design aesthetic. Challenged with over 125 sets, shooting in Toronto, with 3 months prep, a 70 day shoot, and an increasingly limited budget, Rocco, Mun Ying and Enrico had to work quickly and efficiently with all of their various teams to pull off miracles. Armed with 3 hard drives full of research, a team of 5 core art department professionals, several weekly players, and a top notch Construction, Set Dec, and Props Department they were able to make it work.

I have had the great fortune to see a lot of the photos, drawings, pre-production materials and research used on The Kennedys by the art department as well as speaking with many on its creative team and what I have seen has made my jaw drop so much I HAD to share it with you all. Below are never before-seen photos and stills given to me by Production Designer, Rocco Matteo, used here with permission, of course.

The Kennedys Production Design has been recognized with a Best Production Design nomination at the 2011 Gemini Awards, also receiving a 2011 Emmy Award nomination for Best Art Direction in a Mini-Series.

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The Trailer:

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A Look at the Sets:

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EXT. HYANNIS PORT- JOE SR’s HOME

For Rose and Joe Sr’s house the construction team built the bottom porch in this public park just outside downtown Toronto. The top of the home is actually CGI. Lots of landscaping was added to create a driveway, path and to more accurately portray Hyannis Port.

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INT. HYANNIS PORT- JOE SR’S HOME- SUN ROOM

Built porch, added greens to exterior area, painted and dressed the location in Cobourg, Ontario in an empty front storage area/sun room.

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INT. ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE

Full build in studio.

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EXT. WHITE HOUSE- WEST WING COLONNADE

Full build in studio.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- OVAL OFFICE- LATE 1962

An existing standing set in Kleinburg, Ontario was used for the Oval Office with extensive renovations to add the terrace, the backdrop and a fully built addition of the Presidential Secretary’s office as well as the outer office which came directly off of the Oval Office. This space also required a full dress by the Set Dec team. Many set decorations and dressings had to be made from scratch when they could not be found in order to maintain the authenticity of the period. For example the lamp on the desk, the globe lamp in front of the foremost left window, and the couches among other pieces were fabricated for the show. No stone was left unturned, even the book spines were created by the art department’s graphic designer.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- SECRETARY’S OFFICE (Unlit, House Lights on)

Pictured above is the Presidential Secretary’s office which hangs off the Oval Office which was previously non-existent in the standing set. The Kennedys team went to great lengths to shoe horn this set into the relatively small studio to ensure its relation to the Oval Office was authentic. This included making the Oval Office side doors practical which were previously not built to open.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- WEST SITTING HALL

Full build in studio.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- CABINET ROOM

Full build in studio. The board room table was designed and built specifically for the project to be historically accurate. It was so large it had to be constructed in 3 pieces and put together on site.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- GRAND HALL

An empty standing set that required a full dress including the artwork, draperies, chandeliers, furniture and even custom made torchieres.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- WEST SITTING HALL, KIDS PLAY ROOM

Full build in studio.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- JACKIE’S ROOM

Full build in studio. The picture above is from a scene in the Kennedys with the set fully lit and colour corrected in post. Below are Rocco’s personal set photos of the set fully dressed and ready for camera with only the houselights on.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- JACKIE’S ROOM (Unlit- House Lights on)

Like most of the sets, Rocco and his team analyzed all of the artwork in historical photos from the vast amount of research they collected and recreated similar themed and coloured artwork. Therefore every piece of artwork you see in The Kennedys was a recreation done by the graphic designer, changed just enough to make it through the clearance process since most of the artwork from that time period is not yet in the public domain.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- JACKIE’S ROOM (Unlit, House Lights on)

The opposite side of Jackie’s Bedroom. All draperies and linens were custom made for the project. If the correct furniture could not be sourced from around the globe it was also built from scratch. Authenticity was very important to the filmmakers, Rocco and his team.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- JACK’S ROOM (Unlit- House Lights on)

Full build in studio. This is Jack’s Bedroom which adjoins Jackie’s Bedroom. JFK and Jackie did not sleep in the same bedroom. John had turned what was supposed to be the living room in the West Sitting Area of the White House into his very own bedroom. Rocco made sure to keep the geography the same so every room would correctly relate to each other. You can see into Jackie’s Room through the door. Wild walls were also used to make sure the shoot crew always had enough space to shoot despite keeping the geography of the actual space accurate.

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INT. WHITE HOUSE- JACK’S ROOM (Unlit, House Lights on)

A view of Jack’s bedroom facing the opposite side. That door heads to the hallway in the West Sitting Room.

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Have you seen The Kennedys Miniseries? What do you think of the production design?

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Rose XO.

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Sources: Rocco Matteo, Muse Entertainment, and Reelz Channel. Used with permission.
Full Disclosure: I am currently employed with Rocco Matteo and Mun Ying Kwun on a different television series. I did not work on The Kennedys.
All photos, video, and content is copyrighted. 2011

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Filed under ART DEPARTMENT, Art Direction, Awards, EXCLUSIVE, Production DESIGN

HOT DOCS 2011 REVIEWS: The Shorts Edition

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My Hot Docs marathon continues this week and I just wanted to make sure that short films got their fair shake as well so I made sure to catch a bunch. Here are some of my thoughts on six of the short films playing at Hot Docs this year.

TWO’S A CROWD

Rating: *****

Directed By: Jim and Tom Isler | Country: USA

Runtime: 19min 41sec

Synopsis: The key to Allen and Collette’s midlife marriage has been keeping separate apartments, 20 blocks from each other, in New York City. But when financial pressures force Allen to move in with Collette, issues of privacy, independence and bathroom usage call into question the viability of relationships in the modern age. A docu-comedy about romance and rent control.

Review: Two’s a Crowd is the type of film so funny and lovable you wish it were a feature. We meet two people, Allen, 56 and a Libra, he let’s us know, and Collette, 55 with a strong sense of independence, who have seemingly walked out of a Woody Allen film onto the screen.  The film catches this couple who have been married for four years but have never lived together just as they are about to make the move. As the economy came crashing down they realised they would have to move in together for financial reasons and reluctantly brace to live together- in the same space- until death do them part. The most interesting thing for me was how much their individual spaces define them and they just can’t let go of that need for separate togetherness. I don’t want to spoil the film so I’ll just finish by saying that this is honestly one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen at the festival largely due to the unique, quirky and comic couple at the heart of the film. It’s a shame it’s only 20 minutes but worth the price of admission.

Playing with: MATCHMAKING MAYOR

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THREE WALLS

Rating: *****

Directed By: Zaheed Mawani | Country: Canada

Runtime: 26 min

Synopsis: Three Walls traces the development of the office cubicle since its inception in the late 1960s to its current status as the dominant form of office furniture in North America. More than a bit of social history, this documentary captures the melancholic absurdity of the modern day office and examines the larger issues surrounding the shifting nature of white-collar work.

Review: Three Walls allows us to understand the nature of the office cubicle and its entrapment of the every day office working individual. The film quotes the inventor of the office cubicle, Bob Propst, “One of the dumbest things you can do is sit in one space and let the world pass you by,” which plays as a thesis statement to the impending film. Every thing after this proves that exact point. The film goes on to interview many people who work in office cubicles as they discuss their spaces intertwined with footage of office cubicles being made and an interview with a representative of Herman Miller which first put cubicles or ‘systems furniture’ on the market and their intentions by doing so (120 degree angled separators- not cubes). While all of this sounds pretty boring the cinematography and the hints at visual humor along with some quirky office workers propel the film to a level you wouldn’t think a doc about office cubicles could go. A must-see for anyone who works in an office.

Playing with: MAIDS & BOSSES

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POSTER GIRL

Rating: ****

Directed By: Sara Nesson | Country: USA

Runtime: 38min

Synopsis: Sara Nesson’s Oscar-nominated debut follows Iraq War veteran Robynn Murray’s harrowing battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A one-time poster girl for young women in combat, Murray’s raw emotion devastates and inspires in this impassioned journey towards healing and self-discovery.

Review: Poster Girl follows Robynn Murray’s journey to reclaim her youth while dealing with the pounding after effects of war. She suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of the horrors she witnessed in Iraq as she vividly describes her time there spliced on screen with photos of the war. We see Robynn on her good days and on her bad. Some days she struggles to contain her rage and others she can barely contain her sadness. On a good day the best she can do is be hopeful that her future will not be as bad as her past. I am glad the film also shows the lack of social assistance she receives due to illness and the struggle to even receive a dime from the military two years after they were done using her as a weapon. I had slight problems with the end being a bit cliche but overall it was a very well told eye opening documentary.

Playing with: MELISSA- MOM AND ME

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P.S. YOUR MYSTERY SENDER

Rating: ****

Directed By: Benjamin Wigley | Country: UK

Runtime: 9 min

Synopsis: Sir Paul Smith Jr., the English fashion retailer known for creating classically tailored menswear with a characteristic twist, has an anonymous benefactor. For 20 years he’s received a series of highly imaginative gifts in the mail: unsigned, unwrapped, uncanny yet perfectly charming. Who is responsible?

Review: P.S. Your Mystery Sender focuses on creativity in a most unusual form. Paul Smith has been receiving random objects from a total stranger unknown to him since the early eighties. These gifts range from a volleyball to a wagon to a traffic cone, to an E.T doll. I agree with Paul Smith in that there is something very beautiful about this act of randomness. Each object is sent not in a box but with the stamps thoughtfully placed and the address written directly on the object. Even the colour and placement of the stamps are well thought out. What Paul has ended up with over the years is now a diverse, interesting and oddly beautiful museum of random objects. I have mixed feelings about the pace of the film due to some poetic narration that breaks into scenes and some reenactments of the story but overall some of that works in its favour. This part of the narrator’s hypothesis particularly intrigued me, “Objects live too… they travel like hard souls…” This mystery sender has brought new life to seemingly banal objects and changed the nature of which these objects were originally intended.

Playing with: RESURRECT DEAD: THE MYSTERY OF THE TOYNBEE TILES

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UPROOTED

Rating: ***

Directed By: Andrew Moir | Country: Canada

Runtime: 6 min

Synopsis: Tobacco farmer Joe Vanden Elzen was happily tending the land, just like the five generations of farmers who’d come before him. But in 2005, in an effort to curtail the tobacco industry, the Canadian government requested that hundreds of farmers relinquish their crops and say goodbye to their livelihoods forever. Joe was among those who signed the deal and lived to regret it.

Review: Uprooted delves into a family’s regret over taking a government buyout and relinquishing their farm and their livelihood. While I think this documentary is too short and doesn’t give quite enough detail or history on both Joe’s ancestry in farming and why the government was buying out tobacco farms in the first place I think the cinematography saves the day. Almost every shot could be screencapped and hung up on the wall as a beautiful piece of photography showcasing farming life in Canada. The shot inside the tobacco farm is particularly stunning. An astoundingly beautiful film but ultimately lacks depth in some areas.

Playing with: THE CHOCOLATE FARMER

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SURPRISEVILLE

Rating: ***1/2

Directed By: Tim Travers Hawkins | Country: UK

Runtime: 9 min

Synopsis: Welcome to Surprise, Arizona, a study in irony. Make yourself at home in a master-planned, gated community of strict standards and rigorously maintained bylaws. Finally, a community for people who think the grass is greener on their side of the fence and the rest of the world should keep out.

Review: Surpriseville is a quiet doc that lets you make your own opinions but also (in my opinion) visually mocks a gated community in Arizona. Surpriseville, Arizona is a cultivated community founded on the idea of community safety. The community is a mish mash of people from all over basically escaping the realities of the real world. Their goals are to keep the community protected, safe, garbage-free, regulated, ‘beautiful’, and ‘enjoyable’. “I’m very happy to sometimes never leave here. We just don’t think about it,” one woman says. These people believe themselves to be among the happiest in the world  but I see them as the saddest people in the world. It’s surprisingly (pun intended) comic actually when one father says that kids get snatched up in vans “quite often” in the real world and his wife ironically states, “Fear is what keeps people from being productive. I mean it’s stifling.” It begs the question who is the one living in fear? Me or her in her gated community. Also just wanted to mention- who created these houses in ‘Paradise’ because they are particularly drab and ugly if I do say so myself. Just sayin’.

Playing with: THE GOOD LIFE

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What will you be seeing at Hot Docs this year?
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Rose XO.
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HOT DOCS 2011 REVIEWS: Big Buzz Films

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival starts off shortly with Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold about the quantity and persistence of product placement in television and film all while selling branding rights in order to finance that very film. Also playing tonight is  Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein’s documentary, Fightville which gets to the heart of the MMA fighting world in which fighters condition not only their bodies but their minds and souls in order to be the very best.

I had a chance to see a lot of the films receiving early buzz including the two films mentioned above. Check out my thoughts below on what’s hot and what’s not.

BUCK

Rating: ****1/2

Directed By: Cindy Meehl | Country: USA

Runtime: 88 min

Synopsis: The Horse Whisperer may be the stuff of Hollywood legend but the charismatic horseman who inspired the novel and the film is very real. For Buck Brannaman – a true cowboy who is also part guru and part philosopher -horses are a mirror of the human soul.

Review: In this Sundance Audience Award Winner Buck Brannaman, a famed horse whisperer, proves that almost any horse can perform as an extension of oneself if given the proper training. The magnificent thing is that it is not the horses that need the training- it is the humans. Through intermittent discussion of Buck’s own abusive childhood we come to learn what Buck has been through with his own father which in some sense gave him the unique ability to understand a horse’s fears so he could become one of the best horse trainers working today.  Buck is the type of film easy to fall in love with as it gets to the heart of why horses are gentle and soulful creatures by nature; it is man who has the ability to turn a horse wild, like a father with his son. There is no need to be a ‘horse person’ going into this film- Buck’s modesty will charm you into leaving a grand admirer of both horses and Buck Brannaman himself.

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LIMELIGHT

Rating: *1/2

Directed By: Billy Corben | Country: USA

Runtime: 101 min

Synopsis: The Limelight was one of New York’s most famous nightclubs, but beneath its glamour and celebrity was an underworld of drugs, betrayal and murder. In Billy Corben’s latest documentary, we follow Limelight creator Peter Gatien through his career and the business of clubbing that nearly destroyed him.

Review: Limelight documents Peter Gatien’s humble beginnings in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada and his meteoric rise to the top with clubs in Atlanta and later ‘Limelight’ in New York City. It just so happens that his rise to the top coincided with the rise of the drug Ecstasy which became popular with the generation of club kids that Peter Gatien worked hard to create and populate throughout his clubs. Now while all of this sounds well and good in terms of entertaining subject matter, think again. This doc is a mess- from story-telling to tacky graphics I don’t know where to start. The first half doesn’t know where it’s going or frankly if there is a story arc to be had. Eventually they get to the point near the middle of the film which is the court case against Peter Gatien accusing him of knowingly turning a blind eye (no pun intended) to the drug culture he created which ultimately led to his deportation to Canada. The worst part is the film is so one-sided it feels like a Pro-Peter Gatien propaganda film. In the end it’s interesting subject matter told atrociously with no new details. I wish I could say it was better.

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FIGHTVILLE

Rating: *****

Directed By: Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein | Country:  USA

Runtime: 85 min

Synopsis: In a small gym in Louisiana where competitors mop up their own blood between battles, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback are two young fighters with potential and a dream. Through their trials, the nuanced tactics and extreme self-discipline of MMA become apparent. This is a brutal sport but there is a surprising grace and spirituality to it.

Review: Fightville follows two fighters who want to be the very best in the MMA fighting world in order to get signed by the UFC. While violence may dissuade some viewers I think that the film is very respectful in what we see on camera and never shows us brutality for entertainment’s sake. I just want to reiterate that this is not a sensationalist telling of a bloodsport. I really appreciated fighter Dustin Poirier’s passion as redemption from his past and the channeling of his energy into what is now a very well managed and regulated sport. We come to see that the most important thing is not just the physical conditioning these men receive in training but the  technical and mental conditioning. This is proven in one of my favourite scenes where Albert is unprepared and coming up short after he lets life get in the way of his goals. In the end you will leave understanding these men, what they do, why they do it and how they’ve come so far in a sport so often misunderstood.

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BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY

Rating: *****

Directed By: Constance Marks | Country: USA

Runtime: 76 min

Synopsis: This Sundance Special Jury Prize winner is heart-warming and fun for the whole family. Being Elmo is the inspiring story of how a shy nine-year-old Kevin Clash pursued his dream of becoming a puppeteer on Sesame Street. Raised in a low-income community, Clash’s talents were evident in his homemade prototypes and the puppet shows he staged for his mother’s daycare kids. But it was after his first gig on a local children’s TV show that he was truly on his path.

Review: Being Elmo is the story about the man behind the muppet. We meet Kevin Clash, a.k.a ‘Elmo’ who shows us his humble beginnings in a low income black community and how he stumbled upon puppeteering at a very young age. He saw his dreams come true so quickly he could barely believe his  luck. What becomes very apparent during the film is that this wasn’t just luck, it was single-minded determination and supportive parents not to mention the puppeteering pioneers such as Jim Henson who took him under their wing and nurtured his innate talent for bringing these characters to life. The film also reminds us that every success has its price and certainly Kevin has had to sacrifice his relationships and his time in order to allow Elmo to ‘love’ the masses. However if you’re looking for a feel good doc to make you feel all warm and fuzzy this is most definitely the documentary for you.

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THE BULLY PROJECT

Rating: *****

Directed By: Lee Hirsch | Country: USA

Runtime: 94 min

Synopsis: The Bully Project follows five kids and families over the course of a school year. Stories include two families who have lost children to suicide and a mother who awaits the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who has been incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus. With rare access to the Sioux City Community School District, the film gives an intimate glimpse into school buses, classrooms, cafeterias and principle’s offices- offering insight into the often cruel world of children.

Review: The Bully Project stands up for every kid whose ever been bullied and brings their story to the forefront in a heart-wrenching and beautifully weaved portrait of the bullying crisis in America… and YES- it is a crisis. The filmmakers go in from all sides including child suicides due to bullying. It continues to show us what is and isn’t going on between teachers, principals, students and most importantly their parents. Among the case studies, we meet Alex, age 12, who is picked on and abused almost daily but when his parents finally find out and talk to the principal they are treated with general ambivalence. What’s frustrating is that the teachers, counselors, principals and parents are trying but it takes the parents of the offending child to also appropriately take action. We are made witness to the fact that there are no easy answers,  but also understanding that the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse is not an acceptable response and open dialogue in communities will help to create solutions. From the end of the film: Text ‘BULLYPROJECT’ to ’30644′ to help make a difference.

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POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD

Rating: ****

Directed By: Morgan Spurlock | Country: USA

Runtime: 90 min

Synopsis: How can a documentary become a blockbuster? Observing that all big Hollywood movies rely on product placements to generate mass awareness, Morgan Spurlock and producing/writing partner Jeremy Chilnick set their sights on the advertising world for their new project, a doc-buster built on branding. Spurlock buys into marketing mania to tease out the myriad methods by which products are woven into the fabric of corporate entertainment.

Review: Morgan Spurlock does it again with a documentary as entertaining as it is informative. Morgan’s goal as he starts out on his journey is to make a film funded by product placement about product placement. Along the way we the audience learn about brand collateral and brand personality and how the film and TV industry sell out daily in order to market their films better and get their project to the masses. While all of this may sound dry and boring the film is largely a comedy about a man on a mission to get a film made come hell or high water while remaining completely transparent as he ‘sells out’. By the end of the film, as we become inundated with advertisements, even Morgan starts to wonder, “Have I sold out?” By trying to exploit big brands (in a matter of speaking) has he gone to the dark side? I will say that working in the art department, this film gave me unique insight into how I myself am affecting the viewer every time I pick up the phone to add product placement to a project. I will think twice.

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Will you be seeing anything at Hot Docs? Do any of these look or sound particularly enticing?

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Rose XO. .

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Art DepartMENTAL @ Hot Docs 2011

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As many of you may know, Art DepartMENTAL is based out of Toronto, Canada and as such we have access to easily two of the greatest festivals in the World. That being the Toronto International Film Festival and of course North America’s largest documentary festival, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. I have been granted special access to cover the festival and thus for the first time I bring you full coverage of Hot Docs 18th year with exclusive previews and insight into the best documentaries of the year.

This year Hot Docs brings us 199 documentaries from around the globe from 3D to animation to re-enactments. “Every year we start with the goal of showing everything documentary can do. Yet, more so than ever, what documentary is doing is re-inventing itself, expanding our notions of its capacity to communicate contemporary stories and ideas,” explains Sean Farnel, Hot Docs Director of Programming. He couldn’t have put it better. We are currently in the golden age of  documentary filmmaking. No longer need we snore through a documentary about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly as we did in elementary school. Documentary is now more than just mere education, it can be as entertaining, shocking, ground-breaking and visual as any non-fiction film around.

If you are not in the Toronto area do not fret. You can check out most of the trailers and some clips on the Hot Docs Youtube Channel. Hot Docs also has an amazing online library of docs that I can’t recommend highly enough. You will find incredible gems on this website that will change the way you look at the World around you: http://www.hotdocslibrary.ca/.

Hot Docs runs from April 28-May 8, 2011 and hopefully you’ll come along for the ride. Live-tweeting has already begun on our Twitter page, @artdepartmental. Stay tuned…

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Do you plan on attending Hot Docs? What is your favourite documentary of all-time? Why?

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Rose XO.

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OF NOTE: I can not talk about documentary filmmaking without mentioning the huge loss of Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, who died alongside his colleague, esteemed photojournalist Chris Hondros during a mortar attack in Libya yesterday. My sincerest sympathies go out to their family, friends, colleagues and all those whose lives they touched through their astounding acts of journalism and bravery.

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EXCLUSIVE: From the Sketchbook of Black Swan Production Designer, Thérèse DePrez

Exclusive to Art DepartMENTAL here is a very special post for all of you hardcore art department geeks like I am. As a huge fan of Thérèse DePrez I knew, and as some of you may have seen in the Black Swan production design featurette below, Thérèse DePrez keeps a sketchbook which basically documents the entire production design process. In fact she does this for all of the films she production designs which I found pretty great. Below are six photos of the inside of her Black Swan sketchbook which beautifully sum up the extraordinary behind-the scenes work of the art department in this case headed by the amazing Thérèse DePrez on Black Swan. Enjoy!

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Left: Mock up of Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) poster | Right: Production Meeting notes, notice the colour-coding of the notes for different departments

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Reference images for the pink visual palette of the film.

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Sun-prints Thérèse DePrez made to turn into wallpaper for Erica Sayers’ (Barbara Hershey’s) bedroom set.

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Stage and lighting plan for Swan Lake stage scenes. Notice the fantastic logo on the bottom right. The UK Black Swan posters are very reminiscent of this.

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Photoshop image of potential drops/graphics for ballet rehearsal room set.

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Initial rough models for Swan Lake set piece. Moving cliff set.

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Are you familiar with Ms.DePrez’s work? How did you feel about Black Swan? After viewing these photos, notes, drawings, models, reference images, don’t you just want to work in the art department (if you aren’t already)? As seen in these photos, it’s pretty fulfilling work if you can get it.
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Rose XO.

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