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When designing a contemporary project, inspiration is all around us. We asked our colleagues to narrow down the infinite possibilities in researching every-day life.

Grace Yun

"If I have the rare opportunity to be shooting in a place where the characters actually live, then I try to visit a neighborhood and spaces in person, walk around, eat, shop, and people watch."


Clara Notari

"Our world is diverse and contains at the same time many different worlds, as well as many readings of those worlds."


Miguel Lopez Castillo

"As a guiding design principle I mainly use my personal experience."


Marco Bittner Rosser

"For me a dialogue with experts is essential to be able to create authentic props and details in the set design of a film."

August 6th, 2023

How do you conduct research for a contemporary project?


Grace Yun

Grace Yun started out in the art department working on independent features, commercials, and music videos. She moved on to serve as production designer on several feature-length films, including Eliza Hittman’s "Beach Rats", Ari Aster’s "Hereditary", Paul Schrader’s "First Reformed", and Celine Song’s "Past Lives". Television projects include Ramy Youssef’s "Ramy" and Lee Sung Jin’s limited series "BEEF". She is currently designing Marvel Studio’s "Thunderbolts". Grace lives in New York with her partner and senior pup, Huck.

I love how contemporary projects can have this exciting sense that anything happening now can build the story’s world. Nowadays it’s so much easier to access the wide scope of how people live. There are amazing resources, from social media to archives, enough that I find the greater challenge is in editing down all the possibilities of what the story’s world could be, so it can start to become what it is.

It’s a gift to be living in the same time as the characters, and I often find myself using an experiential approach to help create a backstory. I think about what a character’s daily activities would be and what kind of media they would absorb, and try to participate in those activities. It could be as simple as reading an article or watching a show the character would watch, a small insight into a character’s preference and sphere of influence. If a character is following a specific trend and is a person who is active on social media, utilizing a social media algorithm is a great method. For a recent project we built a search history to create a feed for a character. We wanted to show the character’s social media bubble influencing their aesthetic preferences, and that showed up in their home with items purchased from ads that came from their feed.

Visiting places significant to the story and character is another approach. If I have the rare opportunity to be shooting in a place where the characters actually live, then I try to visit a neighborhood and spaces in person, walk around, eat, shop, and people watch. It’s a playful and immersive way to bring about inspiration and mine for the details of a character’s life beyond what’s scripted. The next best thing is to visit a place that can be an access point to a specific culture.

For one project it was insightful to attend church services within two distinct denominational, historical, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I understand that one visit cannot possibly give a comprehensive experience, but it did provide valuable information. I got to observe differences in architecture and the upkeep of its use, the style of media used for the services, and further - I remember experiencing a temperature and acoustical difference. We wanted to bring these qualities to the sets and costumes. These observations also helped create a psychological perspective for the characters who inhabited these spaces. For example, the main character experienced the lack of heat in his church and living quarters, and this indicated not only the state of disrepair but also his belief in a bodily discipline to bear the conditions of his reality. This was important to convey as a starting point for the character’s narrative arc.

For recent projects, I had the opportunity to work on stories close to my own background. Initially I tried to find existing archives, doing internet searches in Korean and using Korean websites, which lead to collecting images from photojournalist essays and vacation photos from social media accounts. In the end, I relied mostly on the personal photos and anecdotes from my own Korean American and AAPI communities because it proved difficult to source the details of daily life using traditional methods. I pulled from my family photos growing up in a Korean American household, church culture, and summers visiting Seoul throughout the 80s, 90s, to now. It was enormously valuable to be working with AAPI creators who had personal experiences similar to the characters. It was a wonderful source for inspiration and many of our conversations inspired details in the sets.


Miguel Lopez Castillo

"Miguel Lopez-Castillo is a production designer born in Mexico City and based in New York. Miguel has a long background as an art director and set designer in theatre, opera, film and TV, and Interior Design collaborations with New York firm Roman and Williams. Awards include ADG Excellence in Production Design for "Catch Me if You Can", designed by Jeannine Oppewall, and "Mr Robot S2", designed by Anastasia White. Opera projects include Wagner's "Ring Cycle" in Amsterdam, "War and Peace" at La Scala, Mariinsky Theater and The Met, "Orfeo" at Opernhaus Zürich and many others with George Tsypin. Miguel's most recent production design is for "And Just Like That" Seasons 1 and 2, collaborating with Michael Patrick King, Cynthia Nixon, Ry Russo-Young and other directors.

Growing up in Mexico, I watched an odd mélange of Japanese animation, the BBC's "Thunderbirds" ( the marionette version), "Doctor Who", and double features of Hollywood sword and sandal, westerns and B-movie monster and space adventures.

As a set designer I started out in the rarified world of opera, and as art director in film and TV I always gravitated towards period and fantasy subjects. TV projects like ABC's "Pan Am", "The Deuce", "Godfather of Harlem", "Boardwalk Empire", and films such as Woody Allen's "Wonder Wheel" had me thinking that would always be my niche, so it's a bit of a cosmic joke that I have recently been designing a show like MAX's "And Just Like That", which is both aspirational but also firmly based in today's New York City.

My approach to this show has been somewhat complicated because some of the characters have legacy looks and sets going back 20 years and more, but the new scripts are fast-paced and purely dialogue-based. In other words, little or no description of the actual scenes, but definite spatial requirements. As with all design, the job is to create a world which gives our characters a backstory that the entire creative team and our lead actors will feel is real and helps ground them.

The brand of the show is aspirational, elevated and polished. Our locations are almost always modified, or even have new builds within. The show requires many stage sets that recur throughout the season, and I am often asked to build other one-offs to avoid scheduling problems on location. I present mood boards using a color scheme, set dec samples, swatches, furniture photos and a ground plan for every one of these. This is fast-paced work but is incredibly helpful so I can get the show runner and directors on board, and they know what they will get from my team when they walk on set.

As a guiding design principle I mainly use my personal experience: thinking of apartments, offices, restaurants, bars and corporate spaces I have lived in, visited or scouted. Really, wherever I go in real life I look at layouts, use of furniture, moulding details, door hardware, colors and sheen, the misalignment of art on the walls. Anything that tells me something about the real people who inhabit these spaces.

To research very specific contemporary places I use online sources like Pinterest and Instagram. Real estate firms also have ground plans and 3-D models that help illustrate what is current, and specific to New York. There are also humorous accounts such as Tumblr's 'Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table' , which I really enjoy when I deliberately want to find and evoke overused cliches. Other than the late-lamented 'Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors', I have never used contemporary design books or magazines as they often feel already outdated or chasing trends. I do occasionally use as inspiration 'The World of Interiors' for its atmospheric photos and general quirkiness.

The photos I have included for this post are for a permanent set where one of our new characters lives: Nya Wallace, a Columbia University law professor played by Karen Pittman, and her husband Andre Rashad. The scripts only called for "Nya's Apartment in Brooklyn". We knew Nya and Andre's social life was based in Brooklyn, and that Andre would need a private space for his musical work. One specific stage direction from the director had to accommodate the placement of the bathroom for a future scene, but that was all I had.

I pushed to have the characters live in an alternative space such as a carriage house or loft, something that would justify having open spaces and support an interesting alternative lifestyle. I encountered some pushback on this because loft living is associated with wealthy Manhattanites in Soho or Tribeca, so I researched real loft buildings in Bed Stuy, Greenpoint or Bushwick. I also had to justify how their socio-economic status would allow them to afford rent, so I avoided the Dumbo area prices and presented the salary of a tenured Columbia law professor to back me up (it's pretty good) .

For actors with dark skin tones I never use white paint or colors with very pale value in the main areas - another divergence from the Soho look I was happy not to replicate. The finishes are exposed / re-pointed brick, polished concrete and large timber framework. Details like industrial skylights, chicken wire glass on casement windows and steel strap for the beam and column joinery were all from actual lofts. The bathroom and kitchen have the feel of a newly renovated area, to imply the building's conversion from industrial use. Artwork and decorative details are by our scenic department and from Black-owned businesses, to imply our characters shop locally and have bought or bartered art from friends or acquaintances.

The set has been successfully shot for various episodes, and interestingly, many crew members have said that's the one place they wish they could move into.


Clara Notari

Clara Notari is an Argentinian production designer and art director based in Madrid, Spain. Graduated in architecture, she has an extensive career in films, commercials and theatre. Clara’s art direction credits included Pedro Almodóvar's “Broken Embraces”, “Pain and Glory”, “The Human Voice” and “A Strange Way of Life", as well as “Che” by Steven Soderbergh. Clara As a production design credits include “Everybody Knows” by Asghar Farhadi, “Wild Tales” by Damian Szifrón and more recently “On the Fringe” by Juan Diego Botto.

I have been fortunate to design movies that take place in today’s world but are very different from one another.

All of us, the ones who make movies and the ones who watch them, live in this world. Our world is diverse and contains at the same time many different worlds, as well as many readings of those worlds. Therefore, the ways and places to search for information will be very different, depending on what the script inspires. This is always so, no matter if it is a period, contemporary or futuristic movie. The script and the director's approach are what sets the parameters for me as to which sources to turn to.

This search depends on many things such as the genre, what happens and how it happens. From the environments and locations where the action takes place , with their particular social and political realities, to the world of the characters with their affections, problems and expectations. The connection with the writing shows me the way. With those reflections and the conversations with the director I start to design the sets.

I can find inspiration and information in a contemporary artist exhibition or in a music concert I’ve attended yesterday. In novels, short stories and poetry by contemporary authors, in magazines, in photographers, in films. Many hours surfing online too.

Even if my movie is contemporary, a painting by Vermeer or one by Goya, or Andrea Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta can help me. I can also propose to shoot in places that are not contemporary. For example, perhaps the protagonist lives in a flat from the 40s or has his workplace in an office from the 60s. As long as it contributes to the sense of the wholeness. Maybe a sentimental breakup can happen in the space of some ruins of a Roman theatre. This amuses me. It may have occurred to me because here in Spain we are surrounded by Roman ruins, Hispania!

Some directors want to stay very close to realism and others need a high degree of stylization. That requires searching for extremely opposite sources. For example, Asghar Farhadi does not like to shoot on stage, he loves to recreate reality in messy spaces usually. That is something that the art department must design and materialize. I always remember him asking me not to be “too cinematic”. In the other pole is Pedro Almodóvar, who loves to shoot on stage and asks you to dive in his stylized world of design. In "Wild Tales", Damian Szifrón wanted to navigate different genres, one for each tale. We spent a big part of preproduction talking about and watching movies of suspense, comedies, dramatic comedies, thrillers.

As designers the script drives us into worlds that we want to materialize so that the director can tell his or her story. And in those environments fits the most figurative reality but perhaps also the most abstract minimalism. The present covers everything, everything. All the past is contained in it, where we come from.


Marco Bittner Rosser

As an art director and supervising art director Marco Bittner Rosser worked with directors including Quentin Tarantino ("Inglorious Basterds"), the Wachowskis ("V for Vendetta" and "Speedracer, Ninja Assassin") , Guillermo del Toro ("Hellboy") and Steven Spielberg ("Bridge of Spies"). As a Production Designer he designed the TV series "Berlin Station", worked with Jim Jarmusch on "Only Lovers Left alive", and designed the space craft for the movie "Stowaway", directed by Joe Penna. His most recent work includes the Production Design for Todd Field‘s "TÁR".

The initial research for a project is always an exciting process as it sets the grounds for the set design of the movie.

After a first internet image search of image banks, photo blogs, photographers work and websites, I browse through art and architecture book shops. I always start a project with the search for the main location, or the design of the most important set of the film.

In the case of the film "TÁR", this was the concert hall. The search for the location was challenging as the venue did not only visually have to work but was needed for a full 9 days of shooting. I was researching all concert hall options in Germany through architectural research or concert booking sites. The focus was on contemporary buildings or architecture from the 50s and 60s as those visually fitted the texture of the movie.

We ultimately received the support from the Dresden Philharmonic which had the perfect layout and scale. We were enormously lucky that the concert calendar was not yet fully booked due to Covid rules on cultural events during the time of the shooting. Their orchestra also fully supported the shoot and became the orchestra for the movie.

The backstage area of the concert hall was set in several different locations and studio sets. I drew inspiration for the interiors of the concert hall and the backstage areas from films and documentaries, such as Wim Wenders' 'Cathedrals of Culture', that offered insights into an authentic behind-the- scenes look at an orchestra's operations.

There was a layer of detail in Todd Field’s original screenplay that required in-depth research in music, arts, culture and architecture. There were many detailed challenges: an enormous amount of very specific props that had to be produced or cleared to be able to use in our film. These include music sheets of Mahler V that we see her working on. The array of vinyl covers, partially created and partially original covers that are spread out on the floor, a whole world of graphic design for the magazines and newspaper articles and posters that needed to be authentic and be produced for the movie. We reached out to archives, record labels, photographers.

For me a dialogue with experts is essential to be able to create authentic props and details in the set design of a film. Natalie Murray Beale, conductor and music consultant, not only coached Cate Blanchett for the role as a music conductor in "TÁR" but also advised us on all the film's musical details and props.

A project I still love to remember is "Only Lovers left Alive" by Jim Jarmusch. The main characters are Adam and Eve, vampires that have been living for several centuries. Adam and Eve's home interiors were filled with details hinting at their long lives, mixing medieval relicts with turn-of-the-century architecture and 60s 70s Rock ‘n’ Roll culture. Adam is enchanted by decay, therefore loves to watch the ruins of Detroit’s golden industrial age. For his interior build I studied decaying architecture – and found fantastic books and photo blogs about architectural ruins. Ultimately, I used architectural details of a decaying house in Detroit that I visited as inspiration for the set construction.

Covid certainly taught us alternative ways to scout when travel was difficult or impossible. Video scouting, Google Earth and local real estate sites helped me tremendously through that time and are tools I use regularly for all my projects.

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