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April 21st, 2018

How do you integrate locations in your design concepts?

Production Design is intricately connected to space and place. Although film traditionally started in studios and on backlots, today most films embrace the world as their stage. We asked colleagues about their relationship to locations and how those influence their design work.  
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Jack Fisk

Production designer Jack Fisk trained in fine arts and began designing films in the early 70’s. Among the directors he has worked with are Terrance Malick, David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu making him one of the luckiest designers working today!

Since I first started designing films most of my work has been on locations that are away from studios and film centers. I love the challenge of creating a world where film is not a normal part of people’s lives. Building sets on locations keeps me off the sound stage and takes me to interesting places I would probably not spend extended time in, on my own. 

My enthusiasm for location sets is many fold.  I have fun creating a convincing world for the director, actors and the story outside the comforts of a studio. The unpredictability of the weather and environment adds exciting challenges, mental and physical, that can transfer to substance in the settings. Also, it keeps my crew in one place with few distractions outside of making the film.

A designer I admired, who was also working on low budget films when I started out, was Leon Erickson. He took carpenters to Canada to build a town for ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ - they built the town and lived in it as they built it using materials they could find in the area. The film was shot entirely on that ‘living’ set.  Leon inspired me by this approach and his enthusiasm for naturalistic design. What he was doing made sense to me.

I did have a scary moment in the wilds of Canada where we built a large 19th century fort in the mountains - in winter. When the company showed up to rehearse, the director and others said it was too cold to shoot there and that I needed to rebuild it on a stage where we could control the temperature - but fires were built, warm furs were put on and rehearsal began. The director and the cinematographer soon realized that we would not be able to simulate the cold behavior of the characters and animals and the total misery and beauty of the place in a comfortable building. The reality of the location had a very positive effect on film and we ended up shooting in that constructed set, on location in the extreme cold, over several weeks with few complaints.

Several times I have found a superb location for a film only to hear a producer say; “that’s nice now find it in Georgia.” Or Canada, or whatever the hot rebate state is at the moment. If the director and I cannot convince the producer of the power and importance of a location vs budget, then new challenging and creative work begins. I will start my design process over around an acceptable secondary location and see what remains of my first ideas and how I can incorporate the new location into an environment as vital, if not better than the original.

My approach is to design within the qualities of a location, whether it’s Los Angeles or Guadalcanal to create a believable world for the narrative that I have not seen before. I find so many gifts and enhancements from nature, locations and the movie god that I try to stay open to see them all.  I find myself avoiding finalizing design commitments to the last possible moment to take advantage of everything the location has to offer. 

To view Jack Fisk's location work:

LA Times article about "The Revenant" locations

Variety article about creating the world of "The Master" 

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Arad Sawat

Arad Sawat is one of Israel's leading production designers, and winner of 3 Israeli Academy Awards for Best Production Design. His most notable works include "A Tale of Love and Darkness", "Norman", "Foxtrot", and "Beirut". Sawat currently works as an international production designer, operating in the USA, Germany, Croatia, Bulgaria, Morocco, Japan, Singapore, India, and China.

There’s something charming about the idea of traveling to different countries, searching for a world in which a specific story can exist.

There are no set rules or methods to finding a location; each decision depends on the circumstances, as well as the story and where it takes place, and those change in every film. During the past two years I lived and worked in Berlin, Tangier, Sofia, and Tokyo. In every country I designed a different film, and therefore the reasons for choosing each location were different.

 

When working on locations I keep an architectural attitude, considering first the shape, light, climate, and color, and only then thinking about decoration.

When I design for a specific narrative, I always take into account the relationship between the characters and the world or place that we’re creating. I try to imagine the action and how it can take place in this specific place, as well as how the characters would experience this visual world. This is not just a visual aspect, but actually much more; I learned over the years how the space affects mood and tone, and how the audience experiences the film.

 

After reading the script I start a visual research, which can change according to the plot. Later, after going on many location scouts, I document every detail concerning the locations where we plan on shooting the film. This usually includes measurements and photos, among other things. I then start creating sketches showing the composition I had in mind, based on the location’s parameters. I show those to the director and producers, and after a group discussion I break the sketches down along with my art director. This includes plans, mood boards, styling, and color. It’s a dynamic process that changes throughout pre-production and even shooting, as all the visual concepts and ideas have to fit the production limits, and working within a budget and schedule that might occasionally change.

This of course includes an ongoing dialogue between the creative crew, including the director, cinematographer, producers, and of course art directors and their crew. This is crucial in order to create the visual integrity that I try to achieve whenever I design a film.

 

The work process is dependent on many different factors. This is especially true when there’s almost no option to shoot a location as it is, and it has to be heavily modified.

 

This was the case on several of my latest projects, but for very different reasons:

 

In "Foxtrot", we wanted the location to feel detached, like a minimalist world with its own rules. The Dead Sea seemed like the perfect location. The drying sea has a special typography that makes for a very minimalistic landscape, which suited the way I imagined the film’s look. It was essential to make sure the constructed structures on set would seem as if they were unchanged for decades, almost becoming part of the land.

 

On "Beirut", the most important aspect of the look and atmosphere was realism. The story takes place in Beirut during the 70’s and 80’s, and during research I quickly learned that the city was considered Paris of the Middle East, but became a crumbling wreck in 10 years, as a result of a devastating civil war. That is the transformation I wanted to convey visually, even though we never actually see the war, so some locations had to be designed twice – first as a thriving, cultural city, and then as a decaying shell which only hints at its past.

 

On the show "Absentia", we shot in Bulgaria, though the story took place in Boston. The difference between the two cities is quite large, so it was decided to shoot a large portion of the show inside a studio. This meant meticulously studying the architecture of Boston, so ideally even a natural born Bostonian couldn’t tell the difference. I had to take a completely different approach to location design, as I was unbound by normal location restrictions, but had to understand the essence of a city I’ve never actually been to.

To view Arad Sawat's location work:

Concept sketches for the film "Beirut"

Concept sketches for the film "Foxtrot"

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Felicity Abbott

Felicity Abbott is an LA-based, New Zealand born production designer. She won the Australian Production Design Guild Award in 2014 for the film "The Outlaw Michael Howe". Her recent projects include "Upgrade", a Blumhouse Productions sci-fi thriller, and "Ladies in Black", directed by Bruce Beresford and set in Sydney in the summer if 1959.

The process of integrating locations into the visual narrative is crucial to conveying an authentic sense of 'place' in a film. Working with locations can bring both magical opportunities and challenging constraints to the design process. Locations are selected based on an initial reaction to the script 

and they in turn can influence the design through the inevitable layering and saturation that occurs as ideas are exposed to the collaborative process. In my experience, one informs the other in equal measures. 

 

There are certain poetics at play while scouting locations, during which palette and tone seem to arise quite naturally: I often discover key colour and texture reference in architecture, old houses and abandoned buildings. An inspiring location can influence the direction of the design concept and also the scripted action.

In the Sony Pictures film "Ladies In Black" directed by Bruce Beresford and set in Sydney during the summer of 1959, a large part of the story takes place in a department store. The production design involved a mix of a department store set built on stage and interconnecting store frontage and other key environments filmed on location. Logistics dictate that it is impossible to film in an existing department store that is period correct and script specific, so it was necessary to achieve the design through a combination of built set and location. Palette is always a key approach to integrating locations into the overall design concept and creating a synthesis between stage and location. Colour choice is an effective tool in creating a character arc through each environment and scenic treatments are often an efficient economy of scale when working on location.

The key character locations in "Ladies In Black" help to establish the tone of the film. I wanted an overall balance of architectural style to inform post-war 1950’s Australia and authentic, period- correct locations were integral to the realization of design on the budget level. I spent considerable time with a location scout while the director was on a project in Vancouver and this informed our eventual selection of city and suburban locations. There is no substitute for observing the way people live, it is key to the meditative process of visualizing each space, how it looks, smells and feels. The authentic detail within locations can add dimension to the creation of character sets. This in turn informs the set decoration and ensures a continuity of tone and style between stage and location.

Working on location can necessitate the creation of certain mise-en-scène or staging mandates, particularly on a period film. On "Ladies In Black", we selected locations and framed strategically in order to preserve the integrity of the design and achieve specific points of view. Certain locations and key establishers required the use of digital set extension or VFX enhancement to achieve what was historically accurate for the period, (or remove what was not). I worked closely with the VFX team throughout principal photography and post-production to ensure a continuity of ‘look’. They used many of the references from archival photographs that I had sourced to re-create streetscapes of Sydney circa 1959.

To view Felicity Abbott's work: felicityabbott.com

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Paul Austerberry

Paul Austerberry is a Toronto based production designer who has been designing films for almost 20 years. He recently won an Academy Award as well as a BAFTA for designing Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”. He is currently at work prepping Andy Muschietti’s “It: Chapter Two”.

On all but a few projects, locations play a crucial role in the design conceptualization of a film. Some are entirely shot on stage with everything designed and built in their entirety or enhanced or contained completely in the VSFX world. Certainly there are films that are entirely shot on location as well, regardless, the locations still become an important part of the design concept.

Let’s use the example of “The Shape of Water”. It was a film that was two thirds on stage and one third on location. I wasn’t able to fully realize the designs without first finding the appropriate locations to tie design details and materials to make them match or feel like they are all a part of the same place. The script is the departure point for the design concept in all films and this was a pretty descriptive one. We however still needed to decide on the exterior locations before we could finalize the ideas for the rest of the design concept. 

 

We knew we wanted to contrast the old 19th century theatre and apartments above with something institutional from the 50’s or 60’s for the research facility. Preferable to us was something slightly oppressive with cold materials to contrast the warmth of old wood and worn plaster. It wasn’t until we settled on our location in a Brutalist style concrete building for the lab and an historic red brick music hall for the theatre and apartments, that we could really finish the designs for the remainder of the studio sets.

The rest of the film’s concept was to contrast the world of protagonists dwelling in the past, against the evil antagonist leaning into the world of the future. It was a fairly straight forward concept but it relied on locations to fulfill it. 

 

Simple things like staging the villain visiting a Cadillac dealership which sold cars with rocket-like fins, in a streamlined, inspired Deco space and a dismissive advertising executive working in a beautiful International style modern building. The rest of the empathic characters are found in old simple homes or apartments, which contrast the villain’s home which was set in a 60’s split level filled with of-the-moment décor. Choosing the perfect location to create this set (in this case two separate 60’s house locations) helped enforce the design concept we set out to do with the director from the outset.

Location scouting is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the process for me.  With careful scouting you can certainly reinforce a design concept you already have established or better yet it can influence the direction of your concept and help cement those new ideas with your director.

To view Paul Austerberry work on "Shape of Water":

Vanity Fair - The Delightful Design Details in Guillermo del Toro’s "The Shape of Water"

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Lori Agostino

Lori Agostino is a Production Designer living and working in Hollywood. She started her Film career in VFX working at Digital Domain building models, but soon realized she was destined to move into the Art Dept. She is currently a Member of The Art Directors Guild, I.A.T.S.E. Local 800, as well as a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She is also a Gallery represented Painter and exhibits throughout the world.

The irony of course in asking this question of me is that most everyone who I’ve worked with knows I prefer to build a set rather than go to a location! I usually end up selling this idea to producers because I can get a set designed, built faster and easier than them moving a company… okay and much cheaper too… but I didn’t want to bring that up so quickly into this creative conversation! And yes, I currently work in TV where budgetary and time concerns rule the day. So locations tend to always have a caveat attached to them, whether it has to do with distance from the studio to location fee limits, I look at locations as a constant reminder of what I need to compromise to create a set, which let’s face it, sounds incredibly depressing but it is true, locations for TV tend to have this sort of reasoning to them when we start our design discussions.

 

Okay, I needed to disclose all of that so that I could really get into the meat of the question. So…How do I integrate locations into my design concepts?  Usually I first seek out a location that has an energy about it, I believe that this is very important when going to a location as it actually helps to sell the space.  An energy being the atmosphere of a space, which isn’t always about what a location is currently being used for, but rather an energy of the design of the location that permeates everything about the location. 

Depending on what you’re looking for this will telegraph what you really will be able to do with the space. It’s important to me to feel this so that I can ADD to it, which is almost a collaboration of my design energy and that of a location’s, an alchemy of sorts and really a jumping off point. Without this, I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle, and in other words a location that just isn’t right.

 

Recently, I had this happen when searching for a location to create a collapsed building. The script called for both an EXT and INT of a collapsed building with SFX rigs built in for the actors to move through falling pieces.  The interior I was putting on a sound stage and was looking for an EXT façade, as the actors arrive on the street and then run into the collapsed building.  We searched for days (condensed TV time) and kept bumping our heads because most of the locations just weren’t right for the scene for various reasons. On our last stop I decided to walk a couple blocks to see if there was anything that could work in the area and sometimes in a van, you can miss the subtlety. It wasn’t until I walked around a corner that I came upon the perfect street for the drive up with an opportunity to boom up to a great shot of the city behind it. The only problem was that there wasn’t a building there, but rather a dirt lot!  When the director and I discussed the shots further we confirmed it was the perfect location, the energy was great! Because of this, I ended up designing and building a façade of the collapsed building on the dirt lot and was better able to tie into my interior.  I was also able to also create a VFX set extension onto my façade and we ended up getting the best of both worlds, the perfect street and a location that tied in seamlessly into the interior set, all because the energy was right on the street.  This is a perfect example of how I integrate my design concepts and locations.

To view Lori Agostino's work: www.loriagostino.com

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