May 3rd, 2020

How do you design a project heavily reliant on computer-generated sets?

Since our last forum on VFX 4 years ago, the field has grown considerably. We asked production 
designers working on heavy CGI projects to share their process of integrating real and virtual sets. 
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Grant Major

Highlights of Grant Major's 30 year film career were being nominated for four Academy Awards and four BAFTAs for his work as a production designer on "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Kong", finally claiming his Oscar and a Los Angeles Film Critics Society Award on the third installment of the trilogy "The Return of the King." More recently he designed such films as "Whale Rider", "X Men Apocalypse", "The Meg" and Disney’s 2020 production "Mulan".

 

By definition the Production Designer’s responsibility is to conceptualise, design and then realise the environments and built structures for the production we are working on. To me there is no difference between designing for wood and plaster studio sets, designing CGI sets, choosing and augmenting locations, designing VFX environments and set extensions, they all are parts of the same cohesive vision for the world we are creating.

 

The most important thing to me is the design concept and how this works in the service of the story and characters, the rest follows on (it’s interesting how, often a year or so later, you are re-visiting these initial concepts in the cinema having come full circle through the making of the film). How these concepts are realised is a process, and CGI is one of several avenues to make this happen.

 

Understanding when the best choice is to use CGI usually comes down to how expansive or complex the ‘world’ you are creating is, how much budget you have to build vs committing to VFX or how much time you’re saving, practicalities like logistics, etc, all are considerations.

 

Once the choice of using CGI sets has been made I usually go about designing this in the same way I would for any other set, producing art  and digital models to ‘sell’ the ideas to the Director (as often as not these concepts show mood and lighting states as part of the design), having Set Designers draw it up architecturally, have painters create samples of colours and texture as well as collect reference images and background information. All these ultimately get handed over to the VFX Supervisor as a sort of ‘turn-key’ package. If the design includes kinetic pieces or SPFX details then these can be pre-viz’d , or sometimes post-viz’d, within the art department as part of that package.

 

Sometimes sophisticated digital models of the set are used in the studio in real time for Actors and the Director to overlay action onto, it’s incredible what this technology can achieve. Being able to pre-viz camera fly-throughs of virtual environments during prep is also a valuable tool, especially when virtual characters or creatures are included or motion capture is involved.

 

I realize that from the time of conceptualisation, through the edit, to delivering the film that things can change and design ideas initially pitched can evolve but with a well rounded package of material given to the VFX Supervisor any tweaking done in Post Production should still be based on the information given in the interests of the overall Production Design.

 

Knowing where and how transitions from a ‘built’ environment segue into a CGI extension needs to be defined and understood too. Directors and VFX people usually want some ‘real’ areas where actors interact with their environment so this is usually part of the staging. Entirely green screen stage work can be tedious and this is another reason to include partial sets if you can.

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Scott Chambliss

Scott Chambliss collaborated with J.J Abrahams on the “Star Trek“ franchise films, and also designed "Mission Impossible III", "Salt", "Tomorrowland", "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters", among others. He won an Emmy and ADG award for his design for the TV show "Alias".

If the movie you are designing relies on digital effects for its visual storytelling in a meaningful way, chances are that you as the production designer will not be allowed to complete the job you were hired to perform, as your contract will most likely end when principle photography wraps.

 

Yet the design process will continue until the last production design-related visual effects decision is made in post production. These decisions will be made by your de facto surrogate, the visual effects supervisor, someone who most likely was not involved in every significant design development meeting you had with the director and is therefore unaware of much information that can prove vital to the post process. This means the responsibility for carrying the film’s visual storytelling concept through to completion rests firmly and only on the director’s shoulders. The accepted assumption is that any director will be fully capable of solving any visual storytelling problem that may be revealed in post, with the sole assistance of the vfx supervisor. As most designers who have worked with a not-so-visually-oriented director know, this is a faulty assumption which is unfair to all parties involved as well as to the project itself. 

 

Given the choice, most production designers would prefer to complete their jobs as cinematographers, costume designers, editors, and other collaborative team leaders are allowed to and expected to do. However for us to achieve this we must become consistent members of the post production team, and we shouldn’t expect our agents or union to make that happen for us. They don’t have the power. We ourselves have the power, and we need to become the salesforce for change in this circumstance.   

It is up to us to recognize in preproduction when it’s useful to point out to our directors and to our line producers the significant amount of visual effects oversight our design work will require in the editing/post process. We need to clarify that we are the most qualified collaborator to support the director with that oversight, and that the visual effects supervisor is not the creative equivalent of the production designer in post. Though he or she is a valuable creative team leader of the digital output of a production design concept, the vfx supervisor does not have the procedural knowledge nor designers skillset to supervise the overall visual concept itself. We must also point how unsupported a director is when left to solely complete the visual storytelling of a film in post without her or his primary conceptual design collaborator. In the world of VFX-heavy studio tentpole filmmaking that is a complex burden for a director to fluently negotiate alone.

 

The too-often neglected remedy to this problem is simple and available, and we all understand what it is:  production designers must be contracted to participate in the post process regularly as non-consecutive consultants for an agreed upon period. This is not a significant expense for a production, but it is an insurance policy that can save the studio valuable time and considerable money. This production design consultation process can consist of contributions as basic as the designer choosing between options A, B, and C of a given subject, or can be as complex as guiding the post team through what a director views as visual roadblock so catastrophic that an entire sequence of vfx work must be thrown out and begun again.  

Having been involved in both types of consultation as well as the wide spectrum of post-consulting experience between them, I have yet to encounter a “disaster” that can't be remedied by simple, economical adjustments. But in these dramatic occasions the solutions haven’t been apparent to anyone else on the team- the director included- as I was the only collaborator present with intimate knowledge of all the components of the overall design concept- from the director-led decision making processes that led to the current crisis to the existing digital output itself. And this overall knowledge is what allows a designer to address visual problems in post with surgical acuity at a fundamental structural level. And the results are usually effective, timely, and economical solutions that benefit everyone. This is in fact the very soul of what the production designer is contracted to provide a project throughout the entire filmmaking process: a coherent, multi-layered structural visual concept for filmic storytelling that can be modulated as necessary at any given moment in production by the responsible party: the production designer. 

 

This crucial unifying contribution we provide should be as supported through the post production process as it is in pre-production and filming. Because we are fully equipped perform the task better than any of the director’s other primary collaborators, it is our job as production designers to shepherd the visual concept of the film for the director from the beginning to the very end of the filmmaking process. That we production designers regularly remain uninvolved in the final completion of our increasingly vfx-intensive films is an unfortunate artifact of pre-vfx filmmaking alongside uninformed present-day producing economies. Our industry needs to abandon outdated, counterproductive habits and adjust directly to the needs of current filmmaking methods and technologies. Production designers have a proactive role to play in making this evolution occur.  

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Beth Mickle

Beth Mickle began her production design career with independent films such as "Half Nelson" and "Cold Souls", and went on to receive an Art Directors Guild nomination for her work in "Drive" and a Golden Satellite Award for her work in "Motherless Brooklyn".  Most recently she has partnered with director James Gunn on the upcoming films  "The Suicide Squad" and "Guardians of the Galaxy 3".  She lives in Hudson, NY with her husband, production designer and fellow PDC member Russell Barnes.  

With a background firmly rooted in modestly budgeted independent film, I was incredibly surprised when director James Gunn hired me to design "Guardians of the Galaxy 3".  I was not an obvious production designer candidate for a high-concept franchise film, and I wouldn’t classify myself as a big fan of superhero films. Preferring grounded story-telling and tangible sets, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to find enjoyment in designing intangible worlds that may largely be created in a VFX house long after I was off payroll. Nevertheless, I was highly aware of the crash course in VFX collaboration that lay ahead of me, and I reached out to trusted VFX supervisors and bigger budget art department members for advice. 

 

I received some expected advice -- i.e. be prepared to manage at least a dozen concept artists during prep, rather than the one or two I was used to managing on any given show. Surely enough, months later I found myself spending the vast majority of my prep time with countless concept artists, rather than with a set dec and art director. I found this concepting phase to be absolutely thrilling. Armed with reference imagery, inspiring videos and hand-sketches, I laid out ideas for the concept artists to dig into. It’s important to be both specific and clear on the elements that you feel are very vital to a set, but it’s equally important to give space to these great artists at times and allow them to have some creative freedom in the process. Some of the best ideas emerge from that given space.  

 

Other good advice I received was to try to design in a way that would warrant at least some of the set to be physically built. Time and time again we hear how disorienting it is for actors and the crew to work in an entirely green or blue-screen environment, and I genuinely believe that disorientation comes across on film. Give the actors, director, and cinematographer anything they can possibly interact with - i.e. foreground elements with finishes that can actually be achieved with available materials - and immediately the set, lighting, and performances feel more grounded. It’s also important to be aware of other departments’ timelines (Pre-Viz, Stunts, etc), and make sure you stay well ahead of each of them. If you fall behind on the designs of the sets those departments need for their prep work, the pipeline will jam up.  

 

Of the advice I received, one piece was very unexpected: “At the very least, just try to be involved in the design process of any VFX sets.” At first glance this piece of advice appeared to be needless and unnecessary. But after discussing it in greater detail, I started to understand why it was iterated to me.  Tackling a large number of stage builds can require a lot of our time and creative energy. It’s natural to prioritize the physical sets because they are literally right in front of us, thus neglecting or even dismissing the sets that will later be created digitally. This often leaves the VFX team without any material to work from, and they will need to forge ahead without direction from the production designer. So it’s important to invest in these CG sets just as much as we invest in the built sets. Be involved in their development from start to finish, ensuring consistency in the design of the entire film.  

 

Several months into prep James Gunn was removed from "Guardians of the Galaxy 3" (a quick google search will enlighten you on the saga!), but we were beyond excited when Warner Brothers DC reunited us all just a few months later on "The Suicide Squad". I was thrilled when James told me that he wanted to shoot on built stage sets as much as possible, and be extremely efficient and methodical about our use of VFX throughout the film. He works in a wonderfully collaborative manner, and this lead to a very holistic approach where the art department and VFX department almost operated as a singular unit. With the unlimited potential that VFX can offer on a franchise film like "The Suicide Squad", I was ecstatic to find the design possibilities to be virtually endless. The whole journey began with uncertainty about whether or not I would even find real joy in designing a franchise superhero film. And I’m astonished to report that this became the most exhilarating and rewarding experience of my entire career.  

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Bob Shaw

Bob Shaw has been working in film, television and in theater for nearly 30 years. He designed five seasons of "The Sopranos" and is the winner of two Emmys for his production design on "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire". His collaboration with Martin Scorsese continued on "The Wolf of Wall Street", "Vinyl", and "The Irishman", for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. 

An important distinction is that I have mostly worked on projects where the main part of the set was built and not generated by computer. The actors work and interact within a real environment, but the view needs to be extended into the background. When this process was new and a bit mysterious for a while it slipped out of the domain of the art department. On some projects there was a certain “that’s what they did?” factor when seeing the final product. Fortunately, time, technology and a better understanding of the process have returned control to us.

 

"Boardwalk Empire" in 2009 was the first project I designed that had a significant digital component. The main boardwalk set was 300’ long and comprised of mostly one and two-story buildings. The background needed to be extended to the north and in the direction of the ocean. At that time everyone in the art department was drawing with pencil and paper. We provided the VFX team with sketches and photo research of the missing buildings and amusement piers but there was a limit to the amount of detail. It was almost like the traditional approach to opera where the designer did a sketch and it was up to the scene shop to figure out the specifics. This approach involves a significant amount of interpretation. 

 

Eleven years later, working on "The Gilded Age", we are building a large back lot set of East 61st Street in 1882. The art department is now completely digital. I am consistently amazed by the incredible pool of talent that has developed to address current needs in a relatively short period of time. We are able give the VFX department fully developed digital elevations and in some cases 3D models that can be imported directly into the final product. This gets us many steps closer to saying “this is exactly what we want”. 

 

There is more work involved for the designer and the art director because it is means having an additional crew to supervise. In building traditional scenery, we have to make regular trips to the shop to monitor progress and to make changes and adjustments as needed. The same is true of staying on top of the VFX elements. You need to recalibrate your vision to evaluate digital work. The computer can make everything look so perfect. It is similar to the way quarter inch models for theater make almost anything look adorable. You need to avoid being seduced by glossy surfaces and focus on the important details. The biggest piece of advice I have is to look out for cut and paste elements that look fine at a glance but make no architectural sense. Don’t assume that the VFX artist has an understanding of architecture. 

 

Whether practical or digital strive to keep the design process the province of the art department. The trade-off for more work is the ability to design on a scale that we couldn’t have contemplated twenty or more years ago. 

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Jade Healy

Jade Healy is the acclaimed designer of films such as  "Marriage Story", "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood", "I, Tonya" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer”" She has designed an indelible range of award winning independent films to studio features. Her most recent studio feature is the A24 feature "The Green Knight" directed by David Lowery. She was most recently in pre-production on "Peter Pan and Wendy" for Disney Studios.

The first film I designed that relied heavily on VFX was "Pete’s Dragon". When I was hired, I had little experience with VFX, and to be honest, I was terrified. What I came to quickly learn was that there are a number of approaches rather than a single "right way" to do anything. VFX, as a field, is constantly evolving from one project to the next and so it is important to stay open creatively and to ask a lot of questions. 

 

The better your collaboration with your VFX supervisor, the better the end product will be. What my experience on "Pete’s Dragon", "The Green Knight" and most recently "Peter Pan and Wendy" taught me is that it all starts with your ability to clearly communicate your vision. Concept art and reference material open up the conversation and help everyone understand what we are ultimately trying to create. A single concept image for a scene will give the VFX supervisor the details needed to understand which elements will be created by practical methods or what elements will be digitally created. 

 

Often, it is my experience that I want to build too much and I am still learning the balance. For me, it’s still a relatively new way to think about design. When you are thinking about a set that will have so much extension, you have to really think about how to build it so that you give VFX  enough but also not too much, so that they don’t end up having more work to do in post. Which is why, the more creative conversations you have with your VFX supervisor and director, the better everyone will understand the vision. I like to share concept art with VFX as early as possible, so that the information is flowing and nobody feels surprised. 

 

Generally, when it comes to concept art I start with what I deem to be the most complex build that I know will require the most extension. Once the director has approved the concept art, I like to get moving on models. While concept art will communicate the look and feel, a physical model will help answer a lot of logistical questions and make sure everyone is on the same page. Standing around a model, we can often get the most clarity as a team about what should be built and what can be extended in post, creating the maximum efficiency for our team and hopefully a better final product. Also who doesn’t love a model!

 

It’s funny to think about now, because I used to be so afraid of VFX and set extension. It seemed so big and impossible to me. I am not a concept artist and I don’t draw by hand, but I am pretty decent at using Procreate on my Ipad to create mock ups. Earlier in my career, I sometimes felt embarrassed when I sent one of my "mock ups" to my concept artists, but I quickly learned that the more information I would give them, the better their illustrations would be. The more I draw and go back and forth with my concept artist the more they understand what I want and the faster the process is. Now there is nothing I love more than thinking about big set builds and VFX worlds. Just thinking about it really has me missing the job. 

 

I look forward to getting back to work and finishing “Peter Pan and Wendy”. Neverland is calling! 

 

 

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Philip Messina

Philip Messina has designed over 20 feature films including the "Oceans 11" and "The Hunger Games" franchises. Television credits include the pilot episode of "Tales from the Loop" and "Freaks and Geeks". He also recently designed the environment for Alejandro Iñárritu’s VR experience "Carne Y Arena", which displayed at Cannes, The Prada Museum in Milan, Tlatalolco Center in Mexico City and LA County Museum of Art.

My process always starts at the same place whether it’s a location driven set, stage/location build or majority CG environment. I begin by imagining the character(s) occupying the space and how it would feel to actually be there and interact with the environment and other characters and how this furthers the emotionality of the scene as written. I then construct how the progression of these visuals will carry through to the longer thematic strands of the story. The question then quickly becomes how to capture this all cinematically and how the visual language we choose best relates to how we want to tell story. CG imagery is now in the DNA of this process - as essential a tool as a wood, plaster, paint and furnishings and props have traditionally been.

 

One thing I’m pretty adamant about is that all of the visuals start with the Art Department – no matter how they are ultimately achieved. The relationship between the Director and Designer is a very special one – especially early in pre-production before the ‘distraction’ of shooting starts. This is where we essentially decide what language we are going to speak at a very core level. We all know there are a million ways that a strong visual idea can get unintentionally diluted during a long production process. To me the most powerful & unique designs come from a strong and often singularity of vision. I’m not saying that the process isn’t incredibly fluid, but it’s often helpful to keep in mind the initial underlying ideas and what made them evocative in the first place.

 

Execution of the design often comes down to a question of scale - typically resources and physical space - to achieve the vision. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with directors who understood the benefit in physically building as much as is reasonably possible – even for enormous sets. These decisions again often stem from wanting interactivity for the actors but it also helps to establish scale, detail, texture and very importantly, lighting. And let’s face it - none of us gets very excited to step onto a green screen set. 

 

The last important aspect for me is to be involved in the post-production process as much as possible – this can mean consulting without compensation (at least that’s been my experience) but it’s important that the Director and VFX Supervisor see the value of the Designer’s input in post. It’s also helpful – often necessary – for the Art Dept. to provide a reference package for post-production as we will often refer to specific images, textures and details in WIP frames when questions arise. With a good VFX team, this input is often very welcome as it can help to quickly solve design issues and keep the process on track (and stay true to the designer’s vision). I personally would love to see the Production Designer’s post input more formally recognized by the industry. We have become so intertwined these days it can be hard to tell where one’s responsibility ends and the other's starts.

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