Our industry is known for being fickle and hard to predict, which often reflects in production design careers. We asked four established colleagues about their path and thoughts on career-building.
"The key word here is craft. After all this is a business that requires some very specific skills."
"I am essentially driven by gut instinct. If something isn’t sitting well with me I won’t pursue it."
"Art is as much about the artist as it is about the art.”
"As an artist I’m driven by curiosity and a desire to create different environments, characters and stories."
September 22nd, 2019
How do you craft a career?
Wynn Thomas has been designing movies for three decades. A few of those films are "Do The Right Thing", "A Beautiful Mind", "Mars Attacks" and "Hidden Figures".
The key word here is craft. After all this is a business that requires some very specific skills. Drawing, painting, drafting.........
Starting out... I think a love of movies and storytelling is essential. I think it's important to love reading... all kinds of books... fiction, biographies, non-fiction, short stories. Reading fills the soul and forces you to imagine worlds that you are unfamiliar with. When you read... you develop the ability to see things in your mind's eye. This is a crucial skill for a production designer... because we are the person who takes the writer's words and turns them into concrete images. It's important to be able to draw and paint. To have an appreciation for all artful things... architecture, sculpture, graffiti, theatre, music, photography.
Then... it's time to discover movies... the silents, Oscar Micheaux, Victor Fleming, Fellini, Polanski, Cukor and Kazan. Having an overall sense of film history will give you a vocabulary that will allow you to communicate to everyone worldwide.
All of the above provides one with a foundation.... then you add the crafts. Drafting and all the necessary computer skills.... 3D model making and sketch up. There is an endless number of programs. Each designer will look for different skills for the people that she/he hires. But in the end... all those skills are there to serve the needs of the story. To give shape to The Beginning, The Middle, and The End.
After finishing art school, Ra trained under his father as a sculptor and scenic artist on small New Zealand film and television projects. It wasn’t until his role as sculptor on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy that he discovered the process of big budget filmmaking with an international film community and an opportunity to broaden his skill base. Ra worked as set decorator on ‘The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey’ which earned him an Oscar nomination in 2012. With his various skills Ra involves himself in many aspects of the design process, from production design and creating concept art to project management, set design and set decoration.
For years during and for a long time after finishing art school I wanted to explore what it was to be an artist, how do I build a notable aesthetic and what was it apart from some pretty images or fashionable political art that makes my contribution desirable or engaging to an audience. For my style at the time I was reckless and undisciplined, I held no regard for formal art making techniques and rebelled against the taught functions of composition and art theory. My world was both influenced by and fought against the influencers and pioneers of art. The same could not be said about my move into the Art Department.
The son of a scenic artist I grew up helping in studio workshops. My idea of the Art Department was hard work and at the time not the healthiest work available. Years of being involved in set construction and sculpting had made me a good technician and a way to get back to something close to being an artist was to become a Production Designer. If exhibiting and talking about art had taught me anything in my student years it was that art is as much about the artist as it is about the art. If I was to say how I crafted my career it would be to say, don’t just do the Production Design, be the person that filmmakers want to design their film.
I trained as a set and costume designer for theatre and after a decade designing plays in Australia I made my way into film.
The first film that I was in serious contention for as a costume designer had a scene with directions along the lines of “she bends over the bath in her thong”… It was utterly gratuitous. She was about to be attacked by a zombie. She didn’t need to be in a thong. I remember thinking about what that fitting would be like. I would carefully lay out the selection of thongs and the actress and I would choose the one most suitable for her character… I chose not to take that film any further. I didn’t get close to a feature offer for another 6 years. I still stand by that initial impulse of “I don’t want to be there for that conversation, I don’t want to hear those words be spoken in that scene, I don’t want to be there when they shoot that scene”. If it makes me uncomfortable I wont be a part of it. Having said that, it’s all about context… my first film, "Snowtown", was about a serial killer.
I spent 10 years designing for theatre and it was through that period that I learned the importance of curating a body of work. I learned lessons abut choosing work for the wrong reasons. Whenever I did a job just for money I paid twice over. The jobs were always that much harder than when I did them purely because I connected to the material. Making a living as a theatre designer in Australia was not easy. It was badly paid. I made poor choices at times and I muddied my body of work with projects that I wasn’t proud of. When I finally landed a film I decided I would do my very best to craft my career so that I could stand by each project and know why I chose to do it.
My reasons for choosing projects do vary but the essentials stay the same. Do I connect with the material? Do I have something to offer the director? Does the director’s vision interest me? Do I like the words on the page? What is the impact on my personal life? Will I be challenged? Is this something new?
On my first day in Budapest on "The King" I met my driver Viktor and he said “I see you only design period films”. I was quite flattered that he had taken the time to do some research on me but then I thought “oh no! That’s not all I do”. The reality is that "The King" was my third period film in a row. I have always wanted to have a career that shifts shape, that can’t be pinned down, where I am not repeating myself. And while Jerusalem in AD33 is not the same as 11th century Scotland, which is not the same as 15th century England or the same as eighteenth century England… they are all heavy period films. To me, they were all new and I learned from each of them. But Viktor made me very aware that I need to shake it up pretty soon. I don’t just have one bag of tricks.
"Snowtown" was made for one million Australian dollars. I had an Art Department budget of $27,000 and a costume budget of $6000. It was gritty and naturalistic. We found dressing on the side of roads and in charity shops. We built one tiny set. I was the greens person, the scenic artist and the co-costume designer. The film was hugely successful and launched my film career. My next job was also gritty and naturalistic. And so was my next. I started getting international offers… for films that were gritty and naturalistic. Each project was bigger than the previous and so the scale and scope were growing but the tone remained the same. When "Macbeth" came around in 2013 I leapt at the chance to step away and do something entirely different. "Macbeth" was filmed in England and Scotland. It is a film that could never have been made in Australia for the budget that it had. I realised that I wanted access to a wider variety of projects and so I moved my family from Australia to the UK. I became part of a bigger pool. There is more volume and variation in projects being made in the UK/Europe and so I can choose my projects without worrying that it might be my only offer for the year. The difficult aspect to the move is that I have always loved having longstanding working relationships. I prized that in theatre. But I now live on the other side of the world, juggling a family and career and I have had to say no to some of my most beloved collaborators. I can’t have my cake and eat it too… sadly.
I once met a producer who told me that one of the reasons he admired my body of work was because he admired what I had chosen not to do. I think he saw me as picky and particular. I have agonised over projects and decisions. I am essentially driven by gut instinct. If something isn’t sitting well with me I won’t pursue it. I’ve had to make some difficult choices and I know I have disappointed close collaborators who are part of my creative family. It’s a very tricky situation where business and close creative relationships meet. I have had some people react very badly to my choices and others with absolute grace and understanding.
There is no doubt that at times my choices have been driven by a desire to break barriers. I have a problem with being prescribed limitation. Perhaps it’s because it took me so long to break into film. In the years before landing my first feature I met on numerous projects and was invariably told the same thing: we can see you are a talented designer with a decade of theatre credits but can you design for film? It was the classic situation of being told that I needed a film credit in order to get a film, yet no one was prepared to take the risk and give me a chance. The first director prepared to take that chance was Justin Kurzel with "Snowtown". I have known Justin since we were 14. We had made short films, music promos and TVC’s together so if anyone was going to give me a go it was him. We made 2 great films together and so I was devastated when I was told that I wasn’t green-lit for Justin’s next film after "Macbeth". It felt very unjust that Justin and the DP could have career acceleration and the studio were not prepared to back me. But I made my way, determined that each project I chose had a degree of growth and expansion whether in scale, scope or creative possibility. I have tried to choose strategically but I have never chosen for strategy alone. The right factors have to be in place - the director, the material, and the location. I have a family and I can’t be away for too long. That alone has significantly impacted my career choices.
I have only once made films back to back and I average roughly one film a year. I tend to have prolonged gaps in between projects. It’s partly to recover and to recalibrate my personal life but it’s also to give myself the space to consider the next step. I struggle to see the wood for the trees when I’m busy and tired. During those gaps between films I design short form - mainly TVC’s. It’s the best way for me to keep the home fires burning, meet new collaborators, travel to interesting places, and learn new skills. For every 10 generic Swedish inspired kitchens I have created, I have made one precious gem like "Cellophane" for FKA Twigs and Andrew Thomas Huang, or Steve McQueen’s "Chanel Bleu". Both of those short forms breathed creative life into my veins during long stretches between films. And they paid the bills. Short form allows me to wait for the right project and to be in a place physically and mentally where I am excited to make a film again.
When I think about my body of work I don’t see any career missteps and that’s not because I have only made brilliant films! I have made films that weren’t particularly good or well received. I know why I made each film and I stand by those reasons, so none have been missteps. They were deliberate choices. I tend to view the film through the experience of making it. I relish the process, the collaborations, the challenges, the discoveries, the camaraderie. A shitty review or a small audience doesn’t change or invalidate any of that. For that reason my perception of success is more about what I took away from the film. Did I extend myself? Success to me is a director who feels that I served their film. Success is knowing that I have made new friends and collaborators. Success is knowing that I did my very, very best. That is what satisfies me.
Kalina Ivanov is currently designing the multiverse HBO series "Lovecraft Country" based on the acclaimed book. Previous credits include the films "Wonder", "Little Miss Sunshine", "Long Shot", "The Vow", "The Conspirator", "Rabbit Hole", "Smoke" and many others. She won an Emmy for HBO's "Grey Gardens".
I’d like to quote my wonderful colleague, Stuart Wurtzel, who told me recently: “… not sure if I actually crafted my career or it crafted me. I just kept plugging away and took what was ever offered.” It seems the two of us had a similar approach to our body of work. My path started at the age of twenty by studying theatre design at the NYU/TSOA Design Department. I was an undergraduate in a graduate program, and had recently escaped from communist Bulgaria. Good thing I had no idea how hard it was to handle a graduate curriculum; ignorance was a total bliss. Also, film wasn’t of any interest to me then. I was in love with stage design, and that was that. Looking back at that period of my life, I realize how valuable it was to learn to interpret text, and search for new ways to design a classic play. Finding original and different solutions to breathe life into well-known material was both challenging and exhilarating. While working as the eighth assistant to Broadway designer David Mitchell, a colleague encouraged me to look into storyboarding, since I drew so fast. I promptly went to the store Forbidden Planet and bought a book on the art of the film “Raiders Of the Lost Ark”, which included many pages with storyboards. That was how I learned the art of storyboarding and fell in love with film. The infinite possibilities to design 360-degree shots fascinated me. I went back to NYU, this time to the graduate film program, to learn more about filmmaking. In school I did sound, camera, editing, designing, writing and directing. Then I met Jonathan Demme, who came to NYU as a guest lecturer. I pitched myself for the storyboard position on his next film, “Silence Of The Lambs”, and earned that spot. Jonathan saw my design potential and recommended me to Nancy Savoca. Her film “Household Saints” became my first production design job, and I loved every minute of it. I had found my yellow brick road. At first I would take every film that was offered to me, which meant many low-budget independent movies. Then my agent encouraged me to try a studio film with a bigger budget, and I landed “The Best Man” for Universal. I learned that it was easier to make films with bigger budgets, so I gave myself a new goal – to design different genres. The driving factor was the quality of the script, and the director. I purposefully mixed studio and independent films, romantic comedies with dramas, period projects with high-end contemporary ones. I avoided being pigeonholed into one genre by passing on projects that were too similar to a film I had just designed. I can’t tell you how many road comedy scripts I received after the success of “Little Miss Sunshine”, and declined all of them. It’s always risky to turn down a job, but I was determined to stay the course I envisioned. I’m also very clear with my agents about what kind of material I’m looking for in my next project. As an artist I’m driven by curiosity and a desire to create different environments, characters and stories. I like to challenge myself to find original solutions to every project I accept. It keeps me engaged and enthusiastic about working with different directors and bringing their visions to the screen. The day I get bored is the day I hang up my hat.