The Art of Cinematic Design

Bowfinger

When moviemakers decide to create
a new motion picture, at what point do they ask the question: "So,
what will it look like?" How about these follow-up items: "What
is the best way to realize these scenes on film? Should we shoot
on location or build sets on a stage? f there are visual effects,
should they be done digitally, optically, or in miniature?" These
questions and many others are usually first answered by a movie’s
production designer, one of the key artist-craftspeople in the
moviemaking process. MovieMaker recently met with
several of the industry’s leading production designers. Read on,
and learn a few tricks of the trade from some of the best in the
business.

Jack DeGovia

PRODUCTION DESIGNER, Bowfinger

"I’m responsible for the settings, characters,
and look of all the physical properties that go into making a motion
picture," said DeGovia. "That is, finding locations,
constructing the sets, overseeing graphics and effects, designing
vehicles of all kinds, and coordinating costuming for the overall
look of the picture. I like the European term "film architect," but
it’s even broader than an architect’s role. Being the production
designer implies an overall design role in the context of the whole
picture."

Originally a freelance theater designer, DeGovia
quickly moved on to commercials and films, and by the early ’70s,
he was designing features. He continues to do so, and recent credits
include Red Daum, Die Hard, Speed, and
this summer’s Bowfinger. According to DeGovia, who is president
of the union local that governs Hollywood production designers,
his brethren typically oversee the duties of a film’s art director-who
is often also a designer, but functions more as an executive officer,
making sure everything gets done on time and on budget.

After breaking down the script and discussing the
film’s unavoidable limitations with the director, DeGovia explained
that sketches are generated concerning virtually every visual element
in the film. "Some production designers do not draw," he
said. "They like to work in a collage fashion-they do research
with photographs and art work. They usually bring in an illustrator
who specializes in making drawings that you would see through the
camera lens it’s a highly skilled position."

Bowfinger (1999)

Once a design aesthetic is approved by the director
and producers, a production designer next begins to search for
locations and oversee set designs. "Finding locations is as
important as set design," DeGovia stated. "Historically,
it’s our job; location scouts would round up possibilities, but
often the production designer will get in a car and drive around
for a couple of weeks, determining locations. There is a certain
amount of dramatic truth to finding a location, and there are also
the logistical considerations, like `How much money and time do
we have? Also, what real life throws you is usually more interesting
than what you can invent."

Set designers-architectural draftsmen governed by
yet another union from which many art directors come-then enter
the process to create sets, both on stage and on location, that
will work for the camera. The set design process itself can take
months, depending on the complexity of the film, and a production
designer is constantly revising drawings until things are exactly
in place. "A motion picture evolves," DeGovia noted. "It
is not thought up beforehand and carried out like a task. That
would be the most efficient way to do it, but the human mind cannot
think of everything in advance. You have to allow for evolution
during the moviemaking process."

As the design stage progresses, the construction
coordinator joins the team under the art director/production designer
to determine costs. "He knows how long it’s going to take
to build your sets,” said DeGovia, "and he has very skilled
people working with him: general foreman, carpenters, painters,
plasterers, welders, riggers, finishers of all kinds. The crew
can fluctuate from five to 10 to 50 people at full speed." As
sets go up, the production designer works with set decorators to
establish the furniture, drapery, lighting fixtures and decor to
be used on a set. They often bring a designer choices at the outset
of a movie and work in tandem throughout production.

If those responsibilities weren’t enough, production
designers must also work closely with the physical effects crew-including
the stunt coordinator, transportation captain, and visual effects
staff to establish the look and operation of all the elements which
involve the physical production. "You can often be on the
set all day," DeGovia remarked, "to make sure that the
sets are going to be lit correctly; you’re collaborating with the
cinematographer as soon as he or she comes onto the movie. You
make sure that they have places to light from."

As principal photography progresses, the production
designer must constantly stay ahead of the game. "You get
the first set ready for the first day," he said, "but
by the second day you’re going to need something else, so you’re
also preparing that. The shooting company is like this monster
that’s moving behind you, devouring these things you’re preparing
at great expense, one after the other.

"Of course, some time during the movie, they’re
going to change the schedule and move something up two weeks. It’s
a race and the starting gun is day one."

Nevertheless, with Bowfinger as the latest
in his rich history of projects, DeGovia doesn’t see himself slowing
down. "There’s lots of different kinds of pictures that I’d
like to design," he said. "There isn’t anything more
fun than this."

Pleasantville (1998)

Jeannine Oppewall

Production Designer, LA Confidential and Pleasantville

"There are only a few of us," said Jeannine
Oppewall of her position as a female production designer. "When
I first got into the union, it genuinely seemed to be a gentleman’s
club. It was a little uncomfortable, but I just ignored that and
marched on ahead. Women seem to make very good designers and I
think we are breaking ground. It’s got to have more time-it’s building."

Coming out of college with a liberal arts degree,
Oppewall got a job working for Charles Eames, who at the time was
the most famous living American designer. "He said, `I can
teach someone how to draw. What I cannot teach them is how to think,
or how to see,’ " Oppewall recalled. "He took a chance
on me and I tried to hold on." After deciding to turn her
career toward the movies, the first design job Oppewall got was
for Tender Mercies in 1983, followed by such career highlights
as the period drama Ironweed and Costa-Gavras’s Music
Box
. "I usually try to take scripts based on how they
resonate with me personally," she said, "because I feel
that I bring more to the party when I can participate emotionally
in the story."

One she couldn’t refuse, of course, was LA Confidential. "Those
kinds of stories and scripts don’t come along too often," Oppewall
said, "and when you find them, it’s a good plan to say yes." The
project, which garnered Oppewall an Academy Award nomination for
best production design, involved 93 separate sets scattered around
Los Angeles in an indeterminate late ’40s to early ’50s time period. "You
have to establish each one as a separate place where a separate
piece of action takes place really quickly," she stated. "I
had done many smaller period pictures, so this was kind of a culmination."

To undertake a project which involved so many individual
sites, Oppewall conducted methodical research. "I drove around
the city with the location manager for about two months," she
said. "When you fill yourself up with what you need, sometimes
it just pops out at you as you drive by We did modify all the places
we found on location, however. My habit was to find the location
that we all felt would work for us, then go there, walk around
it and make lists of what I felt we needed to do to make that location-no
matter how good it was-workable for the film.

"There’s nothing that comes ready to shoot,
especially in a period movie. A pencil has two ends-the lead and
the eraser. On a period movie, you spend more money on the eraser
to take away the present. You have to take away much of the present
before you can think about putting in the past." 

She barely had time to put one movie behind her  America
when another beckoned. "They kept calling me for Pleasantville when
I was finishing LA Confidential," Oppewall recalled
of her back-to-back projects. said, `No! I don’t want to do another
huge period movie! I just finished one!’ Then I got a phone call
saying `please, go talk to the director, Gary Ross.’ Lo and behold,
I got to his office and he had furniture by Charles Eames. I couldn’t
say no!"

Oppewall said that doing Pleasantville was
a similar process to doing LA Confidential, except the newer
project involved sets all constructed from scratch. "You’re
looking to find and create environments from the past and you proceed
the same way even though the outcome is different," she said. "Pleasantville
was meant to be a generic all-American town. I was frankly intimidated
by the size of the project when I read the script, but I took it
building by building."

Once a construction strategy and location were settled,
Oppewall needed to explore Gary Ross’s innovative integration of
black and white and color imagery. "Because I was designing
both, it seemed that the best thing to do was learn for myself," she
remembered," so I constantly shot stills that interested me
both in black and white and in color. Every single wallpaper, pattern,
brick color, and awning we used was shot in both black and white
and in color so that we could place them next to each other and
figure out how to create a good color rhythm."

Undoubtedly, Oppewall’s experience on Pleasantville
was enriched by her relationship with director Gary Ross. "We
had a lot of laughs together, which is important," she said. "At
the beginning of a project, I feel like I interview the director
as much as the director interviews me. I want to have the sense
that it is going to be a good two-way working relationship. It’s
not just a job; I have to be able to enjoy the company of the person
I am working with most closely."

This fall, Oppewall’s work will be featured in Snow
Falling on Cedars
, a Scott Hicks movie with Max Von Sydow,
followed by another collaboration with Curtis Hanson, the contemporary
film Wonderboys. "Though I haven’t got anything planned
yet, I will start looking for something challenging to do soon," she
said. "Being a production designer seems to be a good combination
of whatever skills I learned from the Eames office, whatever
genetic skills I inherited from my family, and my need to be
involved with telling stories. It comes easy for me."

Rusty Smith

PRODUCTION DESIGNER, Austin Powers II

"I’ve never done a sequel before," said
Smith of his assignment as production designer on Austin Powers
II: The Spy Who Shagged Me
. "We wanted to go further than
the first film-which was basically a ’90s all love  movie-in terms
of color. The director, Jay Roach, felt like the ’60s were a huge
explosion of color." Along with the increased expectation
of a sequel script, comes a bigger budget, but not necessarily
for the art department. "We had more money than they did on
the first film, but not a lot more," Smith explained. "As
movies grow, the above-the-line budget grows considerably, not
necessarily the money you have to make the movie. One of the things
that I’m proud of is that Austin Powers II is a small- to-medium-range
budget that looks like a lot more than that."

Austin Powers II (1999)

With 80 percent of the movie shot on stage and 20
percent shot on location-the ideal balance for production designers-Smith’s
design took into account the film’s secret weapon: Mike Myers. "Mike
has the ability to create on the spot," said Smith, "so
we wanted to have the design give the comedy more freedom. One
thing we did is reuse and recycle sets, and some locations are
actually parking lots across from the stage. Cut to one little
piece of wall and you’re in China. It’s about making use of the
smallest amount possible to tell the story and to get the joke."

Among Austin Powers II’s visual delights is
a recreation of Carnaby Street in London, cleverly shot on a modified
section of Universal Studios’ backlot. "We were meticulous
in our research about Carnaby," related Smith. "We had
to take all the elements of ’60s London and create the most interesting
mix of actual references and artifacts. The Universal backlot was
not as big as it seemed on screen, but the scene was done with
such energy, vigor, and color that it worked."

Following Austin Powers, one of Smith’s proudest
film moments reaches screens this fall in a film called Mystery
Alaska
, also directed by Jay Roach. "The art of that movie
is that you shouldn’t know that we built an entire town just north
of Calgary in Canada," said Smith. "Half of the town
we rented, half of the town we bought. If I’ve done my job well,
you shouldn’t know that when you see the film."

Eugenio Zanetti

PRODUCTION DESIGNER, The Haunting

"I took The Haunting because the sets
are a character," said Eugenio Zanetti. "In every movie,
production design should and must help storytelling. In this case,
because it’s a character, it is part of the storytelling."

For Zanetti, whose 30-year career as a production
designer began in South American theater, spectacular film projects
such as the period splendor of Restoration for which he won an
Academy Award-and the otherworldly realms of What Dreams May
Corne
, all culminated in his seemingly insurmountable tasks
on The Haunting. An updating of the 1963 Robert Wise movie, The
Haunting
required a complete panoply of interiors to be built
in a mere eight weeks. "You get a script and you have to completely
conceptualize it in two or three days," Zanetti recalled. "Then
you have to produce an enormous amount of sketches within the first
week and you have four weeks to build the first sets. It was extremely
elaborate-everything was sculpted on an enormous scale and molded.
We had more than 40 sculptors, 200 scenic painters, and 400 carpenters
working in three shifts. It was an enormous operation."

The Haunting (1999)

To establish his conception of Hill house, Zanetti
relied on his personal interpretation of the script. "My ability
to design a movie is in finding my own idea of what it is about," he
said. "For me, the story is about a woman who had no childhood
and an absent father. I thought that this "monster" that
inhabits the house is basically the absent father. That way the
house performs in the movie like an actor in many ways. This is
a personal take from where I draw my juice to do my work."

Through extensive discussions with director Jan De
Bont, Zanetti arrived at an overall potpourri style for the house. "It
contains all the elements of the man who made it," he explained. "The
house is like an encyclopedia of styles, as the Victorians used
to do. There is everything-Moorish, Turkish, neoclassical, Gothic.
The beauty of the Victorian thing is that they were mad-they mixed
everything in the way that a schizophrenic would."

Despite his successes in creating a visual language
on film, Zanetti feels restricted by the methodologies of moviemaking
in the U.S. "The problem in America is that you sell scripts," he
noted. "Filmmaking is issues/35/images; movies that we all love have
nothing to do with the script. In Kubrick’s movies, sequences are
created around an image or around a piece of music. A film that
is tied up to words goes against the nature of filmmaking."         

Next, Zanetti is going to write and direct his own
film with Henson Pictures, called The Road to Ganabad. "It
encompasses everything that I know how to do," he said." Visually,
it is a fantasy. We are in negotiations, and it will take at least
a year and a half to produce. It is not a movie you can prep in
eight weeks."          

The Haunting

Kirt Petrucelli

PRODUCTION DESIGNER, Mystery Men

"It was a world that I could create," Petrucelli
said of Mystery Men, the latest comic book-derived fantasy
romp. "I had to make the huge cast completely ridiculous but
exciting at the same time. Also, the film was a complete manipulation
of classic architectural ideas, melting them, twisting them, colorizing
them, making them bad, making them funny, all the different variations.
I used things from the ’30s through the ’70s; it was a highlight
of pop culture-the best and the worst of it"

Arriving in LA a decade ago as a Steadicam operator,
Petrucelli worked his way through the art departments of low-budget
movies by loading trucks, decorating, set designing, and art directing.
His resume includes a rich list of unique films, including Where
the Day Takes You
, Murder in the First, and Anaconda.  While Mystery
Men
is his first comedy, he seems to welcome most any challenge. "The
most difficult for me is contemporary," he said, "because
it’s very subjective. There are many opinions on what contemporary
should be."          

Mystery Men (1999)

On Mystery Men, Petrucelli’s chief design
task was creating the interiors of a huge mansion set piece, actually
eight individual sets built over four separate sound stages. "You
reinforce the charac­ters-break them into color schemes," he
explained. "We assign them each their own space in the world.
From that, you permutate your ideas. We threw things together-a
huge, mixed bag. Kinka Usher, the director, has lots of Cleo Awards,
working in over 300 commer­cials. He was a dream to work with."

Petrucelli’s next project is Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary
War film, The Patriot, being shot on location in South Carolina. "We
pick locations for the battle sequences and do concept work on
the landscape and architecture," he said, "and we’ll
use post-production to accentuate or elevate what we are doing
on location.

Mystery Men was a unique challenge-we made
up everything, but now The Patriot is going to be restrained
in that you have to be very realistic." Perhaps as a result
of the wildly eclectic elements he worked with in Mystery Men,
Petrucelli sees his future as one filled with variety.

Bo Welch

PRODUCTION DESIGNER, Wild Wild West

Wild Wild West (1999)

"What’s nice about a stylized movie like Wild
Wild West
is that there’s a lot to design props, objects,
scenery, matte paintings, etc.," said the film’s legendary
production designer, Bo Welch. "You do a contemporary talking
movie and you’ve got nothing to hang onto in terms of design.
It’s harder to find the spine of the movie around which you can
get any visual concept going. In Wild Wild West, you see
everything and get to enjoy it all."

Prior to Lost Boys, his first film as production
designer, Welch worked on many projects as an art director and
set designer. He designed the Tim Burton projects Beetlejuice, Edward
Scissorhands
, and Batman Returns before collaborating
with Barry Sonnenfeld on Men In Black. "There was no
real expectation level on Men In Black, and then it turned
into a monster success," Welch said. With the current Wild
Wild West
, both Sonnenfeld and Welch felt greater pressure
to deliver a spectacular movie. "I look at it and smile and
get exhausted," he said. "The chal­lenge was that Wild
Wild West
is not really a western, but it’s a period film.
It is also futuristic, but from an 1869 perspective. To balance
those elements and arrive at a tone that services a Barry Sonnenfeld
movie was really my job." Since he knew it was the most complex
element in the film, the first thing Welch designed was the gargantuan
mechanical spider that villain Arliss Loveless commandeers to terrorize
the western landscape. "First I did a little drawing, then
an illustrator did another drawing," explained Welch.” Then
we built a maquette, then ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) took
our maquette and built another maquette, then they started modeling
it in the computer and started doing motion studies. It goes on
and six months of nibbling away until we figured out we needed
to build two separate heads, the engine room, one real leg, and
otherwise, the spider is CG."

Other gadgets in Wild Wild West included a
nitrocycle, desert wasp, disk launcher, and flip­ping pool table,
which was designed by Welch’s team and executed in-camera. "Those
gags were built by physical effects supervisor Michael Lantieri," Welch
stated. "You draw those up and do blueprints. Even with all
that information, there are invariably nine million questions that
go with the pool table gag, for example. How fast does it turn?
Clockwise? Do the straps go left or right? I make sure that it
works right and aesthetically fits the frame­work of our 1869 movie."

With a measured amount of modesty, Welch is reflective
about his status and future at this time in his career. "I
have a pretty good variety of movies I’ve done," he said. "I
don’t look for types of movies, I look for a good script and good
people; beyond that, it’s insignificant. I’ve been fairly lucky
thus far."

William Sandell

PRODUCTION DESIGNER, Deep Blue Sea

The biggest tip of the hat to the art depart­ment
is when someone looks at a movie and thinks they shot it all on
location," said Sandell, a veteran of such "strategically" visual
films as Robocop, Newsies, and Air Force One. "That’s
pretty tough filmmaking," he continued, "to modify a
set on location so that it becomes what you think it ought to look
like and what the director is demanding that it look like."

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Following the massive Mexico City-based production
of Total Recall-in which Sandell’s team built immense sets
on eight sound stages, each of which completely changed no less
than three times, Sandell’s newest project took him back to Mexico,
this time as production designer on Deep Blue Sea.

He said that on productions like this Renny Harlin
action film, in which genetically-bred sharks attack a marine facility,
his job respon­sibilities move up a notch. "On these movies,
the interaction between an art department and physical effects,
visual effects, and specialized effects, like Walt Conti’s mechanical
sharks, are much more complicated than a little talking movie.
Production designers look for hard movies; they pay the same, but
they are so much more complicated and interesting."

In the Deep Blue Sea script, which went through
many rewrites, Sandell found a blueprint for his ideas.  "Then
the discussions start and you begin dreaming with the director," he
said. "There’s a wide artistic interpretation of what that
could be. That starts a whole other sequence of story­boarding
and illustrations. It’s an ongoing process-a big movie could have
seven or eight months prep for the art department."

In concert with Harlin and visual effects supervisor
Jeff Okun, Sandell next had to determine the most efficient and
economical way to make the movie. "In some cases, good tradi­tional
filmmaking in-camera can get the best look," he said. "Other
scenes are so fantastic or layered with incredible effects and
stunts, you don’t even go there-it will be CGI. It’s a constant
give and take." Deep Blue Sea was primarily made in
Mexico because of the huge outdoor tanks that Fox had constructed
for James Cameron’s Titanic in Rosarita Beach. "We
had to bring a lot of people down there-the foreman, construction
people, painters-two or three key people in each craft," Sandell
explained. "A whole other challenge and dynamic was building
huge sets that held up to the strain of being underwater. You’re
also handcuffed by the practical matters of what the set must do-shaking
apart and being flooded. It’s quite an ordeal."

Sandell is not out of the water yet, as he moved
from Deep Blue Sea directly to Warner Bros.’ A Perfect
Storm
. "I am working with four or five very talented art
directors right now, so my job is to keep some cohesive viewpoint," he
said. "Everybody has great ideas, but everybody is doing a
different movie. You have to make it seamless." MM

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