INTERVIEW: Production Designer Ethan Tobman discusses his work on the Oscar buzzworthy film, Room

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival I fell in love with a film that absolutely broke my heart. I found myself weeping during and after the screening which I haven’t done in a very long time.

That film was Room.

Room follows a mother and her five year old son, Jack, who was born into captivity after Ma was kidnapped and sexually assaulted for years by her captor, leaving the two of them to live their lives in one small room- a shed in his backyard. While all of this is very grim, the film takes the refreshing point of view of the curious and imaginative child who is still amazed by his small but wondrous world. Upon Jack’s fifth birthday he is told about the outside world and they make a plan to escape. Jack is Ma’s only hope. However, once free, will anything ever be the same again?

Recently I interviewed Room’s production designer, Ethan Tobman, who had the unique task of designing a room, with director Lenny Abrahamson, so important to the telling of the story yet so small it would be nearly impossible to shoot. Rarely is production design this integral to the plot and characters of a story that I am so enthralled by its process. Here’s what he had to say.


ethan tobman headshot

ROSE: Hi Ethan! It’s so nice to be speaking with you.

ETHAN TOBMAN: I’m such a fan of your site. I’m thrilled to be speaking with you. I’ve been following your site for 5 years so it’s a real pleasure.

ROSE: Wow, I had no idea you’d been following for that long! That’s great. I saw Room at TIFF and I cried my eyes out. It’s my favourite movie this year thus far.

ETHAN TOBMAN: We felt an enormous responsibility to get this right so when people tell me they were moved by it in the way that we hoped they would be, I feel an enormous sense of relief more than anything.

ROSE: How did you get on board the project? Have you worked with Lenny before?

ETHAN TOBMAN: I designed the movie What If for producers David Gross, Jesse Shapira  and Jeff Arkuss that shot in Toronto and was well received. The week Lenny and I met I had just designed the Ok Go video “The Writing’s On The Wall” where we pulled off some complex optical illusions and the video was going viral. Lenny loved it and I think we both appreciated what a brain-teaser Room would be. Our one hour meeting lasted 3 or 4, we talked about art, politics, religion, and a teeny bit about film.

ROSE: What was your design process like with Lenny? Were you allowed a lot of creative freedom to explore? Was Lenny right there with you?

ETHAN TOBMAN: Lenny is the greatest of rare directors that encourage- thrive on other people’s ideas while never sacrificing their own. Every frame of Room is Lenny’s film, it is precisely the film he set out to make, but he was so patient and encouraging of the creative voices within his war chest that myself, Danny Cohen, Nathan Nugent, Ed Guiney and the cast all felt like a tremendously close family by the time Room was over. Many of my initial sketches for ‘room’ and Nancy’s house are very similar to what made it on screen, but we would research and refine their details and backstory till we were certain they stayed true to Lenny’s vision and Emma’s story.

Director, Lenny Abrahamson on set during a rehearsal with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay

ROSE: Watching Room from an art department standpoint I remember thinking, wow, such a small but endlessly important room for a large amount of time and you have to fit the cameras and have space for actors and crew. It’s an interesting production design challenge.

ETHAN TOBMAN: As a designer I’ve always felt, and we were taught this in design school, that without a box, you can’t think outside of something so, for example, if you’re giving a design student no restrictions, the designs tend to be a little less inspired and have less ingenuity than if you provide them with some restrictions they have to overcome. So I think all of us as a team and particularly myself as the designer had to approach the obstacles here by embracing them and using them to our advantage as storytellers. So, what are the obstacles? You have a minor. A child who can not work more than 8 hours a day and between his meals, his bathroom breaks and his education, you really have him for 5 hours a day. You have an incredible amount of dense drama to cover on the page and you have 70 film technicians who each need access to the space to hit very precise targets. So from the very beginning I approached this as an inverted Rubik’s Cube and the idea was that we build it entirely modularly so every panel and every square could be removed from the outside to allow us to peer in. Similarly we approached each environment within room as a world unto itself. So for example, the wardrobe is like a planet in a solar system kind of how Jack would see it but also how we would film it. We built multiple wardrobes where each side of the wardrobe was removable to allow for different camera angles and different filmic intimacy. So that’s how we approached it from the outset.

ROSE: You guys filmed this at Pinewood in Toronto, yes?

ETHAN TOBMAN: We filmed it at Pinewood on a sound stage. The first half of the film was on a soundstage, and we were racing to finish ahead of schedule to allow more time for the actor’s to rehearse and familiarize themselves within ‘room’. Once we left ‘room’ our next challenge was being in different locations every few days, and erasing snow off the ground when we were attempting to capture fall.

I think one of the other greatest restrictions where I worked more in tandem with our phenomenal DOP Danny Cohen than any cinematographer I’ve ever worked with was the restriction of one source of sunlight and 2 practicals for 45 minutes of filming. So I did extensive rendering and animation research on 3D Studio Max where we prodded light facing north, east, south and west. We experimented with different GPS locations in Ohio where the house would have been and that taught us how the sun trajectory would look throughout the day at this time of year and it also taught us where the walls would be bleached, where they’d be overexposed to sun, which parts of the room never were exposed to sunlight and that became an incredibly rich template for how to manage the palette within the cork walls of room which tell so much history and give details to so much life.

ROSE: What was your most satisfying moment on the film? On the other side of that- what was your biggest challenge?

ETHAN TOBMAN: After 6 weeks of building ‘room’ and with 2 days left before shooting, I spent the weekend inside ‘room’. I actually slept there one night. I felt we had missed something, as we often do before Day 1. I decided Ma would have wanted to document Jack’s childhood. Without a camera, I felt she would have drawn pictures of him on any paper or grocery bag Old Nick might have discarded. I got photos of Jacob as a child and drew some and made a tree collage out of them and pinned them to a wall. On such a small set, this took up an enormous amount of real-estate, but Lenny and Danny and Brie loved it when they walked in and it ended up being that missing thing that you can’t put your finger on.

My biggest challenge with Room was designing it’s exterior. I wanted it to feel startlingly innocuous: The only extraordinary thing about Room’s exterior is how un-extraordinary it is. I dreamt a lot about that shed before presenting the least cinematic exterior research could muster. At first, the cast and crew were shocked by it. And it was precisely the reaction I had hoped for. At the time it seemed a bold choice not to age or personalize it in any way- no wear and tear, hardly any distressing. But then, how so much life could exist inside something so insignificant was precisely what drew me to the story.

Exterior shed Sketchup plan rendering

ROSE: I really loved the cork and sound panels as it solved the problem, how does no one hear them?

ETHAN TOBMAN: We had a really breakthrough idea a couple weeks into pre-production where my decorator and I, Mary Kirkland, we’ve worked together before and we really work terrifically as a team. We like to approach things abstractly before getting mired in the details of execution. So for example, before Mary even started I approached the idea of captivity as an abstract concept. That led me to, you can start with research of photojournalism from everything from the Fritzl case in Austria to the Castro house in Ohio but it led me eventually to websites like [site no longer exists] and photo studies of the smallest apartments on earth in Tokyo and Hong Kong and the mud huts of Kenya and the favelas of Rio and that led me to solitary confinement in the American penal system and the cells of the Auschwitz holocaust. As a result, every one of those photos provides you with little nuggets of truth as to how walls would be aged and trafficked. What objects people would keep versus what they would throw out. What they would use to help get them through the ordeal and what they wouldn’t. From there we thought, okay, who is old Nick? Who is this guy we learn almost nothing about. In the book he’s described as just another ordinary monster. We realised he’s in his mid-forties now, mid-thirties when the set was built, it’s probably 2006, he’s in Ohio and he makes around $25,000 a year. He has a flip phone, maybe he has an AOL account and he’s got about $2000 that he’s saved for maybe 4 years to build this, so what does he do? Well he probably goes to a stereo store and says I’m in a heavy metal band, I want to build a sound-proof music studio How do I do it and cork and acoustic tile are the cheapest things he might have been able to use and the easiest things he could have installed on his own so I think when you’re choosing materials, I always think about who the person is who’s buying the material and that dictates to you a lot of the details you employ after that.


Research for Room: aerial views of tiny apartments in Hong Kong

ROSE: I agree. That makes a lot of sense now given his income level. When we see his house… I can’t remember as it’s been 2 months since I’ve seen the film but we go into the house only a little bit or, no?

ETHAN TOBMAN: We do, and I think the reason you may not remember that interior… if I were to tell you that was the interior I found the most important to get right, believe it or not, you’re in there for 20 seconds but what I desperately wanted was for it to not be memorable. I wanted to give you no clues as to who this man was. This isn’t his story. He is absolutely irrelevant to both their captivity and their survival. We’ve seen that movie before. So as a result I wanted his home to be entirely inherited from someone else’s choices. Whatever wallpaper or paint is on the walls is something that exists prior to his occupancy and whatever furniture is there I desperately wanted to make it feel just as random and clueless as those provided to you in a prison.

ROSE: I just remember the door, I really just remember the door and then I don’t remember much more of the space.

ETHAN TOBMAN: There’s a treadmill with a stack of newspapers on it implying that the guy doesn’t work out. So why is there a treadmill there? And the answer is, I don’t know. (laughs) I don’t know anything about him. I can’t glean any information about this man. He has a brown leather couch that could be in a child’s dorm room or in a senior citizen’s home. He has wall to wall carpeting where there are a couple stains but it doesn’t imply that he’s dirty it just implies that he’s lazy.

ROSE: And you guys shot that on location in the Beaches [a neighbourhood in Toronto]?

ETHAN TOBMAN: The exterior was on location. We built the shed and we decorated and painted the interior. We built parts of the house and specifically built Ma’s bedroom on the stage next to ‘room’ and we built the hospital bathroom and parts of the hospital room.


Room being built on a sound stage at Pinewood in Toronto, Canada

ROSE: I was wondering if you could just speak to the colour palette of the film. I loved the affect of the soft pastels in ‘room’ which felt unexpectedly sweet and encouraging.

ETHAN TOBMAN: From the beginning, what attracted me to this project and what I proposed to Len was that we approach Room counter-intuitively and make Jack’s captivity a place that is warm, layered, deeply personal and safe, and to make the outside cold, monotonous, impersonal and frightening. In Room, all Jack has ever known, every object is his friend. Wall sockets and spoons are his family. We worked hard to create a tapestry of history with every color of cork tile, studying which ones were exposed to sunlight, humidity and heat and how his scratches advanced from wear and tear at floor at toddler height, to more sophisticated etchings higher up by age 5. Conversely, this is Ma’s prison cell, so it’s just rough enough around the edges with hints of her struggle to counter the freedom she’s created for him. Outside of ‘room’, we introduced new colors, new textures, materials Jack never would have encountered- shiny white floors, mottled glass, mirrors, thermostats. Every object was a source of discovery and initial discomfort. Playing off the novel, we played with the idea that being liberated was initially a form of imprisonment.

ROSE: The hospital room was a sterile white if I remember correctly?

ETHAN TOBMAN: Precisely. The hospital room is essentially just a white limbo box, not unlike the box in 2001. There’s nothing personal about it and to a child like Jack it would feel extraordinarily unsafe. And the house- we chose a Danish modern house because it’s really a series of boxes within boxes so that it feels like you’re still in some form of prison. We used the idea that Bill Macy’s character had moved out and that they’re divorced as an opportunity to explore it’s starkness. This is literally a house that has been fractured and broken in two. We built the bedroom with very subtle symmetry to ‘room’. For example there’s an armoir that has louvered doors much the way ‘wardrobe’ does. We have a collage on the wall that’s not unlike the collage mom makes in ‘room’. I remember this as a freshman in university where people made their dorm rooms look a little like their bedrooms back home. It’s just something we do and I think when you’re a designer when you can employ really subtle parallels it does both help the performance and filmmaking but it also elicits something very subtle in the audience to realise maybe what the underlying theme of the whole project is.

ROSE: I was just thinking that I remember the danish style railing on the stairwell in the family home that felt like a jail cell.

ETHAN TOBMAN: Right. It is probably the number one reason we chose that location, was the idea of foreground, vertical and horizontal lines. Very linear, very strong geometry will feel both inviting and imprisoning. In ‘room’ almost everything is rounded or amorphous. I mean the room may be a box but every piece of furniture in it has some form of curve in it. And the idea that everything in that house would be so linear and hard is very very frightening to a boy like Jack or even a woman, a young adult like Ma who’s trying to find her footing and keeps feeling boxed in one way or another.

ROSE: I was reading an interview with Brie Larson (Ma) where she mentioned that you guys left her and Jacob (Jack) with everything they needed to create the makeshift toys so they made all of them themselves during the process?

ETHAN TOBMAN: I think it’s a mix. I made an awful lot of the stuff that was in there but what’s more important in the mythology of how we made the film is that Lenny was very wisely interested in creating a quick bond between these two actors and you can’t impose that on an 8 year old and you can’t say- okay, rehearsal’s at 9am, see you then. So what’s one way to do it? Well, he watched me one day and we had been collecting an incredible amount of found objects to make the toys. What would they make toys out of? Everything from twisty ties to newspapers to cans and bottles to macaroni. In collecting and making them he thought, you know why don’t we have Jake and Brie do some art together. It’ll break the ice, they’ll have some fun and it’ll serve a double positive by then having toys in the room that they’ve actually created. So some of them were advanced things like the drawings of Jack on the wall, the mobiles that are hanging that need to be weight balanced- that’s some stuff that I did but a lot of the stuff that represents Jack’s experience in that room was something that he created and as a result it was a phenomenal conduit to making him feel natural and alive in that space.


Jack and Ma create makeshift toys in the film

ROSE: Lastly, a question I ask every designer I speak with, what advice do you have to give to those starting out in production design?

ETHAN TOBMAN: Don’t be afraid to find everything fascinating. Read. Travel. Ask questions. Work as a bartender, work in a third-world country. You never know what life experience will inspire you when recreating humanity. Production designers are curious creatures. We’re also in a migrant workforce- so it’s best not to get attached to things. The beauty of creating something exquisite is also in destroying it a few days later. Take risks- lots of them. They ALWAYS pay off. And listen. People tell you so much.

Room is now playing in select cities. Please see it if you can. Cinema as an art form and a storytelling platform is desperately in need of more films like this.

All photos and video shared with permission, courtesy of A24 and Ethan Tobman. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Featured, In Contention, Interview, Oscars

VIDEO: Remember that time DOP Robert Elswit gave Production Design 80% of his Oscar?

Today we celebrate the beauty and power of film through the live global telecast of The Academy Awards. The Oscars may not be perfect but they remain a celebration of storytelling and craft, so for that I am thankful. I want to take the time right now to congratulate all the nominees up for Best Production Design at The 87th Academy Awards tonight and wish them all the best. They are all talented beyond measure and an inspiration to so many.

To those not nominated- you know you still rock.

I will leave you with an Oscar speech I was reminded of recently that I found quite moving. In 2008, production designer Jack Fisk was nominated for There Will Be Blood but lost to Dante Ferretti for Sweeney Todd. Not a terrible person to lose to if you have to lose in a rather stacked category of amazing designers and decorators, though. When There Will Be Blood’s cinematographer Robert Elswit did win for the films stunningly stark and minimal visuals, he had this to say:

“John Toll who won this a number of years ago said that the production designer of his movie- that 50% of it belonged to him. Well… 80% goes to Jack Fisk and his production crew. And David Crank. And Dylan Tichenor. But we all know it really really belongs to Paul. That this is his imagination, and his energy, and his extraordinary vision and it sort of enabled us to create the world of There Will Be Blood. Thank you Paul. But we’re really all standing on the shoulders of Daniel Day Lewis who isn’t here right now but thank you all so much. And Helen. Thank you so much.”

Robert Elswit

I hope you all enjoy the Oscars this year. I’ll be live tweeting, nerd style, at @artdepartmental. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter or here in the comments after the show.

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by | February 22, 2015 · 7:25 PM

NEWS: The Art Directors Guild presents The 19th Annual Excellence in Production Design Awards

The Art Director’s Guild (ADG, IATSE Local 800) held their 19th Annual Excellence in Production Design Awards tonight in Beverly Hills at the Beverly Hilton Hotel with comedian Owen Benjamin serving as host. George Clooney presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to his friend and long time collaborator, production designer Jim Bissell. Also on hand was Anne Hathaway who was there to present director, Christopher Nolan with the Cinematic Imagery Award.

Here’s a list of all of the nominees and winners below.



Period Film


UNBROKEN JON HUTMAN, Production Designer

Fantasy Film



Contemporary Film





One-Hour Period or Fantasy Single-Camera Television Series


BOARDWALK EMPIRE: Golden Days for Boys and Girls BILL GROOM, Production Designer
The Laws of Gods and Men (WINNER)
DEBORAH RILEY, Production Designer
GOTHAM: Pilot – Selina Kyle, Arkham DOUG KRANER, Production Designer
THE KNICK: Method and Madness, Working Late a Lot HOWARD CUMMINGS, Production Designer
MAD MEN: Time Zones DAN BISHOP, Production Designer

One-Hour Contemporary Single-Camera

Television Series


HOMELAND: The Drone Queen JOHN D. KRETSCHMER, Production Designer
HOUSE OF CARDS: Chapter 18 STEVE ARNOLD, Production Designer
JUSTIFIED: Murder Of Crowes, Wrong Roads, The Tol DAVE BLASS, Production Designer
THE NEWSROOM: Boston, Main Justice, Contempt KAREN STEWARD, Production Designer
The Locked Room, Form and Void (WINNER)
ALEX DiGERLANDO, Production Designer

Television Movie or



FREAK SHOW: Massacres and Matinees (WINNER)
MARK WORTHINGTON, Production Designer
COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY: Unafraid of the Dark SETH REED, Production Designer
SHERLOCK: His Last Vow ARWEL W. JONES, Production Designer

Half Hour Single-Camera Television Series


CALIFORNICATION: Faith, Hope, Love, Like Father Like Son, Kickoff RAY YAMAGATA, Production Designer
HOUSE OF LIES: Wreckage, Middlegame, Zha- Moreng RAY YAMAGATA, Production Designer
MODERN FAMILY: Halloween 3: Awesomeland, Marco Polo Won’t You Be Our Neighbor CLAIRE BENNETT, Production Designer
Articles of Incorporation, Signaling Risk, Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency (WINNER)
RICHARD TOYON, Production Designer
VEEP: Clovis, Special Relationship, Debate JAMES GLOSTER, Production Designer


Television Series


HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER: How Your Mother Met Me STEPHAN OLSON, Production Designer
MIKE & MOLLY: Mike & Molly’s Excellent Adventure, The Dice Lady Cometh JOHN SHAFFNER, Production Designer
The Locomotive Manipulation, The Convention Conundrum, The Status Quo Combustion (WINNER)
JOHN SHAFFNER, Production Designer
THE MILLERS: You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings, Man, Con-Troversy, Papa Was a Rolling Bone GLENDA ROVELLO, Production Designer
UNDATEABLE: Pilot CABOT McMULLEN, Production Designer

Awards or Event Special


PETER PAN LIVE! DEREK McLANE, Production Designer
THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED AMERICA: A Grammy Salute To The Beatles MATTHEW RUSSELL, Production Designer

Short Format: WebSeries, Music Video or Commercial


APPLE: Perspective (WINNER) SEAN HARGREAVES, Production Designer
COLDPLAY: Magic EMMA FAIRLEY, Production Designer
IKEA: Carousel RICHARD LASSALLE, Production Designer
KATY PERRY: Dark Horse JEREMY REED, Production Designer

Variety, Competition, Reality, or Game Show Series


KEY & PEELE: Halloween Episode, Alien Imposters GARY KORDAN, Production Designer
PORTLANDIA: Celery (WINNER) TYLER B. ROBINSON, Production Designer
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: Louis C. K. with Sam Smith, Anna Kendrick with Pharrell Williams, Chris Rock with Prince KEITH IAN RAYWOOD, EUGENE LEE, AKIRA YOSHIMURA, N. JOSEPH DeTULLIO, Production Designers
THE VOICE: Blind Auditions Premiere ANTON GOSS, JAMES PEARSE CONNELLY, Production Designers.

For more information about the Art Directors Guild’s 19th Annual Excellence in Production Design Awards, you can check out their press release here.

What do you think of the winners? What were your favourite films in 2014? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Filed under Awards, News

QUOTE OF THE DAY: DOP, Robert Richardson on Production Design

“Good work that people think is the cinematographer’s is often that of the production designer. We light their work, and when their work is beautifully accomplished, by which I mean well matched to the story, the result is vastly superior.”

Robert Richardson

As we know, the collaboration between the cinematographer and production designer is paramount towards effective storytelling. Do you have any tips or tricks for gaining a fruitful collaboration during production with your cinematographer? For those not working in production design- have you ever noticed a film that really exemplified a perfect marriage between cinematography, production design and story?  As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Source: American Cinematographer, November 1999


Filed under #QOTD, Featured

LINKS & STUFF: Happy Designers, Interstellar & Intern Lawsuits

It’s time for another Links & Stuff post. I sincerely thank you for your patience as it’s been far too long. If you want to stay in the loop before these posts roll around, follow Art DepartMENTAL on Twitter (@artdepartmental) and on Facebook where I post all the latest and greatest film, art, architecture and production design news and views. Luckily for you I’ve actually been so busy most of these are brand new articles I haven’t shared before. Enjoy!

Photo of the Month

Links of the Month

Videos of the Month

#OnSet ‘Being A Cinematographer’ Parody Video

Original ‘Being A Cinematographer’ Video from EFTI School of Photography

I found the original video so arrogant I could barely get through it. I was very happy to see the parody released this week with the narrator saying what the original video was actually trying to say. What’s sad is I’ve worked with people with this mind set. It gives real cinematographers who didn’t have their mommy buy them a Red camera a bad name. These two videos are great for a laugh at the very least.

Which articles and links do you love this month? Let me know in the comments below.

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Filed under Featured, Links & Stuff

In Production Design The Details DO Matter

Last night, I was sorting through some old emails I had filed away when I stumbled upon this email my former boss and production designer, Rocco Matteo, had sent a while back. He sent it to all the creative departments involved with one of the biggest sets we had just finished in our studio parking lot of all places and I was quite moved. See email below, published with permission.

The Email

“So a funny thing happened on our last night of shooting, up at the military base set:

As people were shaking hands before wrap one of the U.S military advisors came over to me and started asking me about my role on the show and making the set… I was bracing myself for the worst– did they notice something wrong? Well instead he shook my hand and started reciting a solemn sounding speech.

He had served with a soldier named Leroy Petry in Iraq. This soldier was one of only three soldiers to have received the Congressional Medal of Honour for Valor [the highest military award] since the Vietnam war. Our military consultant, a major by rank, had been commissioned by Mr Petry to commend any persons who represent the Iraq veterans in a true and honourable fashion. So he presented a medallion to me on behalf of the efforts of my crew. He said he was moved to tears by details that he saw in our set that brought him back to the base in Iraq– signage, murals, details, materials. How often have we been told that those little details don’t matter– that nobody sees them?

He wanted me to know that all the vets will notice. I thought all of you should know. GOOD JOB GANG!”

Rocco Matteo

A photo during prep of one of the murals | Photo credit: Rocco Matteo

Have you ever noticed the details on a film or television set that moved you in some way or allowed you to tap into a memory? For those who work in film and television, have you ever had the details in one of your sets recognized in a similar way? As always, I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.


Filed under Exclusive

INTERVIEW: Production Designer K.K. Barrett Discusses Directing Kid Koala’s ‘Nufonia Must Fall’ at Luminato 2014

Directed by Oscar-nominated production designer, K.K. Barrett and created by Eric San aka DJ Kid KoalaNufonia Must Fall, looks like the most fun you can have in a cinema. This live adaptation of Kid Koala’s graphic novel will unfold via real-time filming of more than a dozen miniature sets and a cast of puppets- not to mention live accompaniment by Kid Koala himself and the Afiara String QuartetNufonia Must Fall will premiere at the Luminato Festival this weekend and then continue on to London among many other cities.

I was lucky enough to speak to K.K. Barrett earlier this week, during their rehearsals in Banff and our discussion left me really excited to see the project tomorrow at the World Premiere.


K.K. Barrett

K.K. Barrett | Photo by Tommy Lau

ROSE: How and when did you progress to making your own films? Was this an easy progression coming from painting, then music, then production design?

K.K. BARRETT: Painting was solitary fun but competitive in a peer support way.  We would critique each other and push forward.  Music was much more a collaboration and had an enthusiastic audience in real time. In film you have both the peer support of your team, a competitive spirit to elevate the ideas to the best for the film, but I miss the live highwire and response from an audience.  I don’t think of film as a progression because they are equally satisfying medias if you dive in deep enough.  Film is a bigger juggling act but it has it’s own highwire pleasure.  All the creative questions that come up making art or music are the same in film.  Is it true to itself?  Can it be better?  Is it a shallow imitation?  How can it be looked at from a fresh angle? Is it fun and funny like life’s best shading?

ROSE: How did your involvement in this project come about and what piqued your interest about Nufonia Must Fall when Eric (Kid Koala) presented the story to you?

K.K. BARRETT: I did a similar live project with Karen O, called “Stop the Virgens”.  The keyboard player on that was Money Mark.  We live near each other in LA and he invited me to see Kid Koala in Los Angeles, I was a fan of his and was blown away by his show.  He said we should do something together and 3 months later asked me to do Nufonia. I jumped at the chance.  He sent me his graphic novel and slowly we ping ponged ideas to narrow it to a stage show.   It was 300 some pages long with over 700 drawings!

A still from a rehearsal of Nufonia Must Fall

ROSE: How would you describe the story, Nufonia Must Fall?

K.K. BARRETT: It is a film noir love story, a funny collision of two worlds, a silent film with an audio immersion that needs release. The story in the book has many more shaded flavors than we could achieve in an hour on stage but we’ve kept the main story of a headphone secluded sad sack, a little tramp for our times and the girl he pines for in a grey landscape.

ROSE: How did you guys decide to come up with this format to tell the story rather than a more traditional style film?

K.K. BARRETT: My original idea was to do it with actors but I liked this idea as well and he [Eric] had the talent lined up so it was fun to have a number of givens to progress quickly with. A traditional style film will likely come along eventually but we love our live version. It’s an infant and may grow up to be an adult film. That sounds funny. A real film shall we say. I love constraints because they make you concentrate on what you must do creatively rather than the sky is the limit. We have 2 cameras on tracks, so all the sets and angles must be reached by these and 3 puppeteers and 12 sets. There is a lot of running from station to station to get to the next shot on time, meanwhile the screen overhead shows the seamless results. Every night could be different.  We may have multiple endings.

Behind-the-scenes at a rehearsal for Nufonia Must Fall

ROSE: How would you describe the experience of the live film to an audience yet to experience it? What should we expect?

K.K. BARRETT: It is a live film. It’s a silent film, The sets are acted in, filmed and projected in real time.  It is also a concert.  The score is performed to picture by Kid Koala and the Afiara Quartet. The music carries your emotions and those of the characters. Out of the corner of your eye you see the miniature sets and the puppeteers below them bringing their subtle movements to life. The musicians and the puppeteers contribute zings of character humour. After our first test showings there were multiple interpretations and that is the best compliment you could have. Kid Koala is known for keeping his audience entertained and surprised. I hope the audience comes in cold and  discovers it as it plays out.

ROSE: In particular, I’d love to hear more about the sets you guys have created for the film and if you could talk about the thought process or themes behind them.

K.K. BARRETT: It was fun to step outside being responsible purely for the design on this. All directors have an eye on the proceedings but hope the designer surprises and surpasses their own ideas. We had Londoner Ben Gerlis design the sets and he did an amazing job with tireless detail. He is also a good spirit to keep things light and moving forward. It was fun problem-solving with him, we always agreed and he always surprised. We tried to stay true to the book as much as possible. We didn’t replicate things exactly, as some of the backgrounds were shorthanded with beautiful expressionism, but for tone and skew and finish, if we were stuck we would open the book and go back for feel. Our feeling was if it works there, we must find a way to bring it forward to the actual sets. Each “full scale” set is approximately 40″ x 30″ and then there are scaled down “jewel box” sets that revolve and shape shift, with smaller puppets.

Nufonia Must Fall

Prepping the set pieces for the big build of the sets for Nufonia Must Fall

ROSE: What has it been like collaborating with Kid Koala? Has he surprised you in any way or helped you in telling the story or seeing it from his perspective aside from what you saw in his drawings on the page?

K.K. BARRETT: Eric is very trusting and supportive. He curated a very like-minded and congenial team. I would always check with him on story points but he gave us cart blanche to change what was necessary to adapt the story for this setting. It’s funny how we all jumped in trusting but not knowing if it would work. I put an imagined timing on my script breakdown, speaking the actions out loud with a stopwatch and eyes closed and it came out very close. I hadn’t heard all the music until we got together to workshop it in Banff and everyone was so aligned it seemed natural. The biggest part of any creative collaboration is getting the right mix of people with the same temperament. This has been so much fun I’m already thinking of what to do with him next.

ROSE: Lastly, what’s been the biggest challenge bringing Nufonia Must Fall to life?

K.K. BARRETT: Simplifying the book to fit our stage world was the most complicated. I was happy that Eric and AJ Korkidakis took a first pass at it, because it broke the ice that elements could stay behind and a  new version for stage/film could rise from it. There are always logistical challenges and this had many, with the 2 cameras, 3 puppeteers, live to screen, us working in different countries and cities, getting together every few months to check progress and re-focus, but it was doing something new for all of us that made it exciting so I wouldn’t call it a challenge.

The Making Of Nufonia Must Fall

The Trailer

Nufonia Must Fall Live premieres June 7th at 7:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and runs until June 9th. For more information, tickets, and scheduled times please check out the Luminato Festival website.

Keep an eye out for Nufonia Must Fall in a city near you. It will be travelling extensively after its premiere here in Toronto. I can’t wait to see it!

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: Harry Potter Production Designer, Stuart Craig on Holding Your Ground

“You have to be pretty stubborn in this job. You’re forced into compromising situations all the time. You have to be really tough and resilient, hold your position against the real world, against circumstantial things, locations you can’t get, things you can’t afford, conflicting ideas and the doubts of others, whatever it might be. You have to hold on to your idea and hold your ground.”

Stuart Craig

Do you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Source: Halligan, Fionnuala. FilmCraft: Production Design. United Kingdom: Focal Press, 2013. Print.


Filed under #QOTD, Featured

INTERVIEW: DJ Kid Koala on His Live Film Project ‘Nufonia Must Fall’ at Luminato 2014

Directed by Oscar-nominated production designer, K.K. Barrett and created by Eric San aka DJ Kid Koala, Nufonia Must Fall, a multi-disciplinary live cinema event, stands to give audiences something they’ve never seen before. This live adaptation of Kid Koala’s graphic novel will unfold via real-time filming of more than a dozen miniature sets and a cast of puppets- not to mention live accompaniment by Kid Koala himself and the Afiara String Quartet. Nufonia Must Fall will premiere at the Luminato Festival this weekend and then continue on to London among many other cities.

I had the great fortune of speaking to Eric (Kid Koala) during rehearsals and was blown away by what he had to tell me about the project.


Eric San, aka Kid Koala

ROSE: What inspired you to create Nufonia Must Fall, the graphic novel? How did this all start?

KID KOALA: Well, (laughs) I’d say it’s a thinly veiled autobiography. It’s the story of a robot that’s trying to write love songs but can’t sing, so he has to sort of live a little life before he realises how to access that part of him I guess.

I wrote the book originally because a publisher approached me to do a book but for the book they actually asked me to do 100 pages, 10,000 word minimum on any topic and what I ended up delivering was a 350 page graphic novel with no words but they still loved it and decided to put it out and you know, fast forward 10-11 years and here we are doing a live stage cinema version of it.

ROSE: How did this live film experience come about?

KID KOALA: Well about a year ago I’d met K.K. Barrett who’s sort of a hero of mine who was a production designer for films like Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich, Marie Antoinette, and Her, which he was recently nominated for an Oscar for, but we met last year. He came to a show in Los Angeles and enjoyed it and we started speaking after the show about a possible collaboration but I didn’t know what that would be.  I just sort of said wow, he’s actually interested in doing a project and what could this be? At the time he was still finishing up work on the film Her but he said right after that’s done he’d have some time and we should do something. So I was just kind of cycling through my head- how do I bring these two worlds together? He’s obviously from cinema and I’m from music but then I thought about this graphic novel that I had written and thought, okay, let me send it to him because I always thought of it as a paperback silent film in a way. It reads like a screenplay over the 350 pages of an old Charlie Chaplin movie or something so I sent him a copy of the book and I asked him, “Do you think we can do a live version of this?” because he was telling me about a project he had done with Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s which was kind of a multi-disciplinary psycho-opera but it was in the live realm and he was interested in doing more of that. So I said, what about doing a live version of this robot story and building miniature sets for every scene and having puppeteers act out all the scenes, meanwhile have it scored live and also filmed live by a cinematographer and projected in real time on a big movie screen?

Which if you see any of K.K.’s work, he’s just amazing at creating these beautiful dreamy visuals on a movie screen so I sent him a copy of the book and he actually really, really loved it and said, yeah we should totally do this so it was really the meeting of two people in their worlds of expertise and trying to figure out how we could collaborate on something without forcing it. It’s been a very fun, natural culmination of what everyone’s bringing. Even the crew that we brought together- the puppet builders and the set designers. It’s just been an amazing team to work with.

K.K. Barrett and Kid Koala with their creation during rehearsals at the Banff Centre for the Arts last week | Photo by Rita Taylor

ROSE: So when did you guys start working on this?

KID KOALA: Probably about eight months ago. The puppet builders and set designers have been building it in Montreal for the last several months. Now we’re here at the Banff Centre for the Arts where we’re doing our rehearsals and preview show and then we’ll have our World premiere at Luminato.

ROSE: How much involvement are you having over the creative aspects of the project?

KID KOALA: Well, I knew I didn’t want to direct it and in a way I needed to find someone who could handle doing something like that and would have a really clear vision of how this would work and K.K. is somebody I absolutely trusted to do it. Lucky for me I actually just get to come in and work on the music side of it. They’ll come and ask me to chime in on things like, “What do you think of the robot?”, but for the most part I just stay out of their way and focus more on composing music for the score. The original Nufonia book had a score with it but it was only about 16 minutes of music and now that we’re doing a full show I’ve had to write another 40 minutes of underscore for it. So I’ve been helping with that and collaborating with Vid Cousins whose arranging a lot of the string parts for the Afiara Quartet. So it’s really taking that initial story to a whole other level.

ROSE: So how did the Afiara Quartet become involved?

KID KOALA: It’s just been a serendipitous year in terms of meeting people and meeting people interested in working on something. When Nufonia as an idea was put on the table it just seemed like the most natural collaboration. I had met Adrian from the Afiara Quartet and we were talking about a possible collaboration, him being from a very classical scene with the string quartet obviously and me being from a more electronic and animation score scene- but figuring out how we would work together. With Nufonia, it’s just so cinematic on this show, I thought it’d be great to have strings.

ROSE: Do you write your music/soundtracks to the graphic novels automatically? Does this happen during or after your writing/drawing process?

KID KOALA: I did the music after on both of those books. The soundtrack for Space Cadet also came after. But when I’m drawing I’m usually listening to a certain kind of tempo or zone of music to just keep me in the proper head space to draw or write. When I’m drawing I always hear music in my head or I’m literally listening to music. Then on the flip side to that- when I’m making music (if that were the first thing I was in the studio doing) I always have a narrative or a character in my head that I’m trying to create or birth through the music and the sound design and through the way you play and the chords you pick or something like that. I always feel like I’m scoring some imaginary film anyway.

Most of my tracks to date, or at least on the first four albums, are more narrative than they are about creating radio songs; verses and pre-choruses, bridges and sing-along parts. It’s more about, or like, a Monty Python skit or something, or an episode of Flying Circus, or Muppet Show or something like that. I’m trying to find a way to just tell an adventurous story through sound and music. So the two worlds are kind of indistinguishable to me. If you told me I had to just quit drawing, or quit making music I’d be pretty sad. They’re kind of linked since before I can remember.

Nufonia Must Fall

“Sampler Shorthand” @realkidkoala | Photo by Eric San/ Kid Koala on Instagram

ROSE: What’s been the most surprising part of this process for you? Has it been new and different and frightening or…?

KID KOALA: Oh yeah, it’s absolutely scary and that’s what I love about it. I kind of like to keep it dangerous. There’s so many moving parts to this show. Normally if I were playing in a band I would have to react to the other members on the stage and synchronize with them. I’ve seen shows where people are scoring live music to a silent film that’s already made but there’s no way for that film to react to the music, it’s always one side. Whereas with this show I kind of wanted to make it sort of all organic, so it’s a giant Goldberg machine. So honestly if the music’s just feeling good and the puppeteers are having a technical problem the music can kind of extend another 8 bars or something just to cover for it and fluidly get to the next scene. So the show is highly choreographed but I wanted it to have enough space for it to breathe so that if one of the comedic scenes is really working and the audience is laughing and eating it up then maybe we need to extend and push it to see if we can make it even funnier. So I wanted that ability for the show to have that so it could live every night. That’s what I think is really exciting about this show for me… and scary obviously because not only do I have to synchronize with the string quartet, I have to keep my eyes glued to the monitors and the screen watching what the puppeteers are doing and trying to counterpoint what they’re doing meanwhile we have the cinematographer and the camera switcher and inserts coming in and out and we have to try to figure out how can we all come together to tell that story.

ROSE: What’s been the most surprising thing that came from your collaboration with K.K. Barrett? Maybe he saw the story differently or gave you a new idea or different appreciation of it?

KID KOALA: Yeah. We knew there were certain things that we couldn’t pull off with the crew that we had. There’s a scene in the book where he drops blueberries all over the place and we wanted to do a slow motion version of that but even if each puppeteer had ten blueberries (laughs) you know it just wouldn’t work. So K.K was able to kind of streamline the story into the pivotal beats that we would need to tell the same love story on stage within an hour. He’s great. He’s just got a really good grasp of story beats and timing and emotional arcs of each character and so there were things added to the stage version to raise the stakes faster because we needed to get to certain story points faster. Another thing was that we knew this was going to tour eventually so we had a finite restriction of how many sets that we could fit in our travelling cases so we have four huge cases filled with puppets and sets so it meant we couldn’t build absolutely every minute prop and detail that was in the book so it was more of what we needed to focus on to tell the story.

Nufonia Must Fall travelling cases

“The world’s silliest flight case #1” @realkidkoala | Photo by Eric San/ Kid Koala on Instagram

ROSE: So this is being filmed live while it’s being performed so will this be available to the public on dvd or digitally at some point?

KID KOALA: Maybe eventually but right now I think it needs to run and breathe as a live show as we kind of dial in and get comfortable with this process because everyone involved is adept at their own craft. It’s the ability of us all working together to see if we can synchronize fluidly. So we’re actually taking this to Toronto, London, Hamburg, Groningen in the Netherlands, Santiago, Chile and Adelaide, Australia. These are all the commissioning cities for this project and over that time, over the next few months when we’re playing these places we’re hoping to get more synchronized with the show and then after that we’re planning to tour it. For me, a film version would totally work it’s just the exciting thing about this though is that you get to see it happen right before your eyes so I think the legs on it right now are to be presented as a live show.

The Trailer

Nufonia Must Fall Live premieres June 7th at 7:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and runs until June 9th. For more information, tickets, and scheduled times please check out the Luminato Festival website.

Have you seen/read Kid Koala’s graphic novels before? I can’t wait to see the live film performance! He had me at K.K. Barrett.

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Filed under Festival, Interview, Luminato

LINKS & STUFF: French Vintage, Wes Anderson & Robocop Redux

It’s time to start up our Links & Stuff posts again. I sincerely thank you for your patience; it’s been far too long. If you want to stay in the loop before these posts roll around, follow Art DepartMENTAL on Twitter (@artdepartmental) and on Facebook where I post all the latest and greatest film, art, architecture and production design news and views.

Photo of the Month

Vintage French Photo

The Chairs | Paris, 1934 | By Emeric Feher

Chamade Vintage French Photos [EDIT: The site unfortunately no longer exists as of 03/19/17 but many of its photos are still online] is my favourite new discovery online featuring gorgeous vintage photos in arguably the most beautiful country in the world. [EDIT: The site unfortunately no longer exists as of 03/19/17 but many of its photos are still online]

Links of the Month

Video of the Month

Check out the trailer for Eleanor Ambos Interiors, a short film about a self-described ‘crazy’ interior designer in Long Island who creates spaces and rents out furniture from her spaces. You can see a 3 minute clip from the film on the website, Nowness. The film premiered at SxSW and has a runtime of 16 minutes. I hope I get to see the film in its entirety very soon! It looks great.

In Memoriam

In the last couple of weeks we’ve lost two major figures in film who were masters of technical achievement. They will be sorely missed.

Which articles and links did you love this week? Let me know in the comments.


Filed under Links & Stuff