SDCC 2012 Panels - Film & TV Production Designers of the Art Directors Guild

This is a panel I've been interested in for several years, but it just never worked out for my Con scheduling... until now! This a panel of Film and TV Art Directors and Production Designers hosted by the Art Directors Guild to discuss their craft - and it's pretty cool.

Our Moderdator is John Muto (T2) and on the panel we have, left to right:
-Bill Creber (original Planet of the Apes)
-Rick Heinricks (many Burton and Coen Bro's films, has an Oscar for Sleepy Hollow)
-Suzuki Ingerslev (True Blood)
-Dominic Watkins (Snow White and the Huntsman)

First is a DVD reel highlighting work of each person. The projection started of wildly green so they had to pause to color correct the image.

Production Designer is the boss of the Art Director

Production Design is taught almost nowhere, though every school now has a Film program, a great example of how unknown this role is.

Filmmaking is intentional, and what the Production Designer's job is is to create the intention. Classic example is Chinatown - since it's a drought, everything should be the color of grass.

How did Suzuki create the True Blood Vampire HQ? Only directive was "there is ancient walls and a few specific rooms." She pulled in elements from a Turkish cistern, the Sunken Palace, she once visited. Incorporated water since New Orleans has a high water table and theorized all the walls, etc., were imported since there are no ancient ruins in New Orleans. She tries to make the sets as flexible as possible so that the production doesn't get bored filming them since they'll be shooting on them for a long time. The Vampire HQ's walls are all moveable as is the domed ceiling.

Dominic approaches the sets as integral characters for the film. The castle in Snow White & The Huntsman is a metaphor for what's happening in that world - as Ravena's power takes hold of the kingdom the vines grow over the castle choking out the life. Grounded the film in the time period of about 1350 A.D. roughly in Northern Europe, but incorporated various bits of international elements/technology at that time period. The interior courtyard was a full set but the exterior was a beach location, a beach set on the backlot with a green screen and then they built a castle turret that was 56 feet tall.

Both Rick and Dominic really laud the talent of the craftspeople in England. Dominic points out that here in Hollywood few of the great craftsmen had proteges they taught their skills to and who could carry on the traditions and expertise.

Rick works a lot with Tim Burton but he's asked to talk about Captain America first. It was fun because the world of the '40s was so unique. He was nervous about the "goody two-shoes" nature of Cap but director Joe Johnston and Marvel really pulled it off. Also got to explore the sort of tech Germany was experimenting with at the time, so it was an interesting dichotomy of Hope and Optimism at the World's Fair versus Totalitarian and Domination from Germany. Pulled a lot of inspiration from tech Germany was developing but wasn't able to build at the time (for example, the Flying Wing). The Art Department came up with the idea of placing the Flying Wing in the transition period between propeller and jet engines and that's how they came up with the on-board Bomber Planes. They were originally conceived as propeller engines that could peel off as bombs. The Wing's interior was tricky because it needs to be cavernous for the "present" time but still be believably functional for the "past". That Set was about 80 feet by 90, and on a gimble 20 feet off the ground (the gimble was a center mount with four supports). The biggest gimble Rick has seen was for the end of Pirates 3 which had full-sized decks of the Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman each on gimbles. He usually has really good relationships with Cinematographers, but if his sets don't make them angry at least once a film then he feels he hasn't done his job - and Suzuki agrees for television too.

Moderator asks Bill to talk about the end of Planet of the Apes. When he got the job he read the book, but then got the script and it had little to do with the book. They put the Statue of Liberty on the beach because they had some beach scenes to shoot though it was originally scripted as being in the desert. Bill was asked for something to build up the suspense of the final reveal by the director while at a bar, so he drew out the last several shots on a napkin and Frank said "lets do that." They had no budget for it, so Bill redrew the shots to pitch the Producer who also liked it and added the build to the budget. He figured out it needed to be 75 feet up to get the right angle but only did 70 because anything above that required a foundation to be poured. The crown level had 20 feet of dolly track. Bill ended up being the only department head willing to go up to the top of the tower so he effectively directed those shots. For the wide shot they had to hide a buoy with some rocks in the matte painting.

Q&A
How much of your job is the engineering versus creating the ideas? Dominic said a craftsmen once told him "you can draw an @$$hole on a piece of paper but you can't make it $&!#." Dom and Suzuki both say it's crucial to know how the design will be built, but Rick adds that the fine engineering will be done by someone else.

Question for the Guild about doing work on a production that he wasn't paid for - this is not the group of people who would know.

How does Suzuki get all of the set texture? She works closely with the lighting department and build as much in the sets as possible. As well as colors and so on. Bill adds that it's very important to understand what the camera will see, depth of field and so on - it will help the camera department prepare. Build to anticipate all of those things.

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