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SKETCH GALLERY: Carl Sprague

The first thing I do when I sit down to sketch is research. I need to discover everything I can about the image we're trying to create, and that means finding photo and illustration references online or in print, measuring and photographing locations, consulting with wardrobe, lighting, props and set decoration for any information they might have, and most importantly talking with the director and DP about what ideas they might have. If there are storyboards or lookbook images, those have to be incorporated, And then there are practical considerations to keep in mind - budget, time, resources, etc.

 

Sometimes all of this information is available, sometimes not. I try to adjust to what's already been decided - whether it's just some lines in the script or a set that's fully worked out. 

 

Once I know everything I need to know, or everything I can know, it's time to get to work and start inventing. Where do I dray my inspiration from? That's easy. Our heads are full of visions and fairy tales. It's paying close attention to the real world that is the hardest.

 

I like to start loose - often very small scale. It depends on what the presentation needs to be. Sometimes I might need four or five steps before getting to a finished rendering. Sometimes the first broad strokes are all that's required. I'm leery of constant revision and indecision. I don't indulge in that. Many directors and designers use a kind of creative confusion as part of their process. I like to know where I'm going and stay the course.

"Grand Hotel Budapest" was my third project with Wes Anderson ("Royal Tenenbaums", "Moonrise Kingdom"), and also my third

project with Adam Stockhausen ("12 Years a Slave"). It was a bit of a dream, since it meant being transported back to the place and time of my Eastern European family. My grandmother grew up in northern Bohemia, not forty-five minutes drive from where we were shooting in Görlitz. So I already had that whole world in my head.

 

Wes was sweet enough to cast me in the will-reading scene for which I did the sketch. I’m credited as a “distant relation”. Milena Canonera put me in a suit and a moustache, and when she was done I showed her a picture of my great-grandfather to show her the resemblance. She said, “a cutaway, but we must put you in a cutaway!”, then sent me back to the slightly annoyed and overworked fitters to more exactly resemble my great-grandfather’s portrait. We spent three days in the freezing 1920s German community hall where Goebbels gave his last speech. Then the scene I was in required 45 takes. I’ve stayed behind camera since.

"Isle of Dogs" was a funny experience, because we thought we were going to set up a New York art department, but that never happened. I worked nine months from an empty office in the meat-packing district – daily sending sketches and plans to Wes and Adam. This was all during prep. Then they shot the film for two years. Ages after I’d wrapped, I was receiving queries about details from the art department in London, plus invitations to their fun monthly pub crawls.

Unsupervised as I was on "Isle of Dogs", I did a bit of moonlighting after-hours in that same office for my friends David Wasco and Damien Chazelle on "LaLaLand". They were looking for the loosest sort of concepts, which was a welcome change from the incredibly detailed, ultra-precise work I was doing for Wes. I spent mere minutes on some of these quick sketches, but they seem to have influenced the look of the film. I also did more detailed backdrop renderings, which when the production ran out of time to have painted properly, were simply blown up and printed digitally. It was pretty wonderful to see the film and have my drawings right there on the screen.

I’m including a couple of sketches I’ve done lately for my own project, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”, which came out last year. It was a low budget period extravaganza, and I did a bit of everything. Even though there was barely time, the wonderful director, Angela Robinson, and I agreed that we'd like to focus on composing a few key images for maximum impact. These are a few steps along the way. There were certainly some initial squiggles, but those are buried in my notebooks. Even these final pictures took minutes, not hours, because that's what we had. 

I find that when I’m designing myself, there’s barely any time to do a sketch, but it’s all the more important, even if it’s only to outline one or two key moments. Some of the best work happens when you’re in a hurry.

 

My advice to someone who is just starting out is: Do what you can. Work hard. Hold yourself to high standards. Don't beat yourself up. Learn on the job.