Production Designers are often on the road, be it in a scout van or in some exotic country. We ask our colleagues to share their most cherished items, essential to their on-the-go design process.
"The biggest tool (if I can call him that) and the one that keeps me grounded is my son."
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen
"Everything can contain the key to a design."
"With time my toolkit has shifted from physical tools to more digital ones."
"In the end, it is not about the toolkit, but about your own skill."
November 30th, 2019
What items are in your design tool kit?
Amy Williams has collaborated with director Ira Sacks on award-winning films "Keep the Lights On" and "Love is Strange", as well as designing "Hungry Hearts" and "Sleeping with Other People" among others. She won an Emmy for the TV show "A Crime to Remember" and recently designed the Netflix TV series "Master of None" and HBO's "Crashing".
Kia Ora from New Zealand PDC. It's Thanksgiving back in the States today and I'm feeling terribly homesick, but Inbal has asked for a contribution, so here it goes....
What's my number one tool for an away job? There is the obvious iPhone, iPad, laptop....holding our info, photos, references, translation apps, we can draw on them and share ideas with a click. The other "duh" necessity is a positive attitude.
It seems like I pack less and less in terms of a "kit" each time I go away on a job. Shipping a kit and office supplies is pointless, especially if you're anywhere near civilization. You can always find a staple and borrow a mechanical pencil from your local art director.
My first away job was a tiny indie in Guyana 11 years ago. I packed up suitcases of dressing and props, most of which got held up in customs. There was nothing in terms of film-making resources there however I was still able to find sheers, fairy lights and picture cars.
Good weather gear never goes unused and as I've said before, everything else you can buy! Chargers, sunglasses, note pads, drafting tools......So, travel light but do your homework (organize and know the material ahead of time).
An open mind and "when in Rome" attitude helps with the local crew/team. The last thing anyone wants, is a know-it-all, American, super-ego marching in and flipping the script. Eat lunch with your crew, joke with them, appreciate their motherland, absorb the culture, get into it. You're a guest and you need their help more than they need yours. Oh and keep your directives clear and be accessible, especially if you don't speak the same language.
Actually, the biggest tool (if I can call him that) and the one that keeps me grounded is my son Roman. I can't do without my child, and therefore I take him with me everywhere. When he come's along for the ride it helps me more than anything. I do have to negotiate more travel, find an au pair or nanny, drag along my partner or a helpful relative and find a daycare. It's hard and it's expensive, but its beautifully immersive for Roman. He's traveled with me to Austin, LA, Italy, Taiwan, New Zealand and Detroit.....he's only 4. I'm one of those working humans that wants both the family and the creatively fulfilling project. It's F'ing exhausting for sure. Our business is near impossible for healthy relationships due to the distant locations and hours. I've learnt that you can separate them and make time for both. You can also multitask and combine the two... WIN WIN. With my Son in tow, I actually do and see more of the places I work in. I meet more people and experience more creative influences. Plus, I have someone to come home to at the end of a long day of reeces, scouts, surveys or whatever they call it wherever you happen to be in the world. I hope these "away-job" experience's punctuate both the professional and personal timeline of our lives. The growth seems worth it and the perspective is invaluable. But the most IMPORTANT tool for me has been a tape measure with both imperial and metric units. It's been key on my last two away jobs because I really truly hate math.
Javiera Varas has an MFA in Production Design from AFI. Some of her Art Directing credits include "Dallas Buyers Club", "Wild", "Demolition" and some Production Design credits include "Marjorie Prime", "Roxanne, Roxanne", "Viper Club" and "First Wives Club S1".
With time my toolkit has shifted from physical tools to more digital ones, and I’ve actually downsized my kit boxes from 5 big plastic bins to 2 very strategically packed ones, yet I incorporate both on my work process.
Having been an Art Director for a while, I have a special affection for drafting tools and materials samples. I initially figure out the sets I’m designing on tracing paper on (generally) ¼” scale - there’s something pretty freeing to me about drawing on a paper that’s not precious, which allows and encourages constant re-dos. When I have an idea that I feel strongly about, I’ll shift to Sketchup (if I have the time) and see how the space would feel with a 50mm camera lens. Here I can adjust further and then pass over to my team.
I love to start a job looking at photography books and finding references that resonate with the tone and mood of the film or series. It’s through flipping pages that I initially get drawn to certain photographers, then I’ll go online and research their work further. For set decoration references I very often lean on Pinterest and have expanded my English and learned many synonymous words to get to nuances search differences.
I use a Wacom tablet, and the pen allows for a nice mix of the hand/digital connection. It’s helpful to me to be able to draw directly on my computer, even if it’s a quick note on a photograph, I specially like that it reads the pressure of the pen and that I can use so many brushes – yet I don’t end up using more than a couple!. I have a big monitor at the office which is great to have a lot of simultaneous information and carry my laptop with me on scouts in the van, where I’ll be working connected through my phone’s internet. Everything moves so fast I have to be using those van moments fully, and can’t really wait to get to the office to download all the information if I’m being practical with my time.
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen
A graduate of the Norwegian Film School, Jørgen Stangebye Larsen has collaborated with Norway´s most exciting directors, including Joachim Trier on "Oslo, August 31st" and Sara Johnsen on "All The Matter Is Past". His other films include "Out Stealing Horses" and "In Cold Pursuit".
The most important part of my design toolkit is my need to make connections that create ideas and lift the maximum potential out of a script. The main goal is to create depth and layers in the smallest details to the most spectacular set on a big scale.
In the first stages of a project everything around me is interesting and alluring. It's about being open to seek inspiration, and then able to make the connections that make it all useful. I always enjoy looking in photography books and discover new ways to see through other artists. It's a very intuitive process. What gives me an idea for a set, a prop, a solution to set dressing or color choices; can be a detail, a shape or texture in an art installation or in the nature, or in architecture. Everything can contain the key to a design.
To help myself develop ideas I use Procreate on my iPad a lot. For me it's a great tool to have on the go. It makes me able to draw out ideas and solutions directly on location photographs, trying out an adaptation of a location; drawing ideas for set extensions etc. The app Kubity, which makes it easy to share updated Sketchup models with the Dop and director, is another thing that effectively communicates ideas. In this way the director can use the model for storyboarding etc.
I started out scouting locations for movies years ago. In that period I developed a habit to look up and down and always go around the next corner or a bit further, knowing something interesting might turn up. I take a lot of pictures all the time, not only while on a scout. Both with my phone and with my camera. This is a way to make a personal archive of everything that speaks to me when I walk around. It might be an interesting light situation, an object out of place, a weird-looking hotel room or a strange and unexpected combination of patterns or colours. And I am always looking for things that can be used to create believable and realistic sets later – weird things that humans do that affect their environment in ways that can be used visually as a storytelling element at some point.
In my experience, communicating my ideas often happens orally. It's a lot of talking, explaining, and trying to make the listener understand the connections I have made, so they can follow my thought process and in that way be part of my ideas and hopefully support them.
So my design toolkit consists of a combination of my intuition, my curious eyes and a mouth that talks a lot; always with the focus of enjoying every project.
Harry Ammerlaan is one of the most experienced production designers in the Netherlands. His work includes such films as "Stricken" by Reinout Oerlemans, "Abel" by Alex van Warmerdam, the Oscar-winning "Antonia’s Line" by Marleen Gorris and the Oscar-nominated "Zus en Zo" by Paula van der Oest. His most recent projects are the films "Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle, "Tonio" and "The Bay of Silence" by Paula van Oest and the Netflix series "Tokyo Trial".
The phone rings. It’s a producer and they want you for the job. You’ve worked with the director before and the script is actually quite good. So let’s start.
I keep a lot of items in my design toolkit - half of which I tend to forget. So when reading the script and after getting the budget and confirming that no, they did not forget a zero, the project starts. I read into the characters, walk around places other than my hometown and visit a museum to get inspiration. Somehow, this always works better than whatever I could fit in a toolkit.
Working in Dutch film requires what my millenial children describe as ‘Hustle’, but I’ve always known it as the creativity to make the script and vision work.
When filming "Tulipani: Love, honour and a bicycle", we needed a location for the Italian village mobster living in exile. In the Italian countryside where the motto “Piano piano” (slow down) reigns supreme there was nothing suitable and the local production was of little help. It is in situations like these that no toolkit will suffice, but collaboration and creativity will get you to a beautiful outcome. In Tulipani this outcome was a cave.
So in the end, it is not about the toolkit, but about your own skill. The only tangible item that will help you out is a list of good restaurants in the area.