Production designers are often inspired by colleagues' work, both on screen and in the workplace. In an industry where formal training is scarce, having an artistic role model can make a world of difference. We asked colleagues to share stories of production designers who influenced their career and design process.
"Jack Fisk carries about an unbridled focus on whatever he is doing. It demonstrated the need of always pushing forward and expecting more".
"Bo Welch's biggest asset was the way he could come up with an artistic vision for each film after reading the script no matter how strange the subject matter".
"Polly Platt had an unsparing eye when it came to composition and detail. Still, with all of her attention to detail, she never lost sight of the big picture in her field".
"Mel Bourne's muted color palette on Woody Allen's "Interiors" was an ‘Ah ha!’ moment - the colors and palette set the tone and supported the storytelling".
February 28th, 2021
What production designer has had a profound influence on your artistic journey?
David Crank has been fortunate to have a long career doing just what he wanted to do - drawing and making things. His recent work includes "Knives Out", "Greyhound" and "News of the World". He lives in Virginia.
Everyone in our field, I suspect, can name many artists whose work they admire. Designers have a habit of collecting memories of this work, which then embed themselves in their minds, and slowly become, as memories do, a part of their visual vocabulary.
When you have the chance to work with one of those people you admire, the influence takes on a different form. It becomes not only part of your vernacular, but also a substantial shaper of how you approach your work and execute your ideas. I was fortunate to have that experience with Jack Fisk from the moment I met him on "The New World". The initial interview was relaxed and covered many topics, none of which were my portfolio. Afterwards when someone asked if I had gotten the job, I said, “Well, he never really offered it. He just said he’d see me on Monday.”
It was like that for the next 7 years as I worked with him on 6 projects with directors such as Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson. There was obviously much to learn from Jack about design, but I have become more aware and thankful over time to see how much he taught me about how to carry myself as a designer. Jack’s personality is infectious, and it is impossible not to feel energized from being with him. He truly possesses all the good qualities of being a child. We tended to laugh all the time, and still do when we talk, which is often. Jack carries about an unbridled focus on whatever he is doing. I could say that this tenacity might be exhausting, but it wasn’t for me. It demonstrated the need of always pushing forward and expecting more. In short, to understand that you only have one chance to get it right, so you cannot quit.
One always likes to think that in the end you have arrived at a good point through your hard work. While partially true, it equally is because of people like Jack in your life, who have pointed you in the right direction and pushed you out of the nest.
Anne has an extensive resume in both film and television. She has been fortunate to work on Fox’s “Fringe,” the first 3 seasons of CBS' “Blue Bloods", ABC’s “Forever,” BET’s “Being Mary Jane” and “Deception” for ABC. Anne’s film credits include Ben Younger’s “Boiler Room”, Jon Favreau’s “Made,” Alan Taylor’s “Palookaville,” and “Walking and Talking,” written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. Anne is currently working on “Sweet Magnolias,” a Netflix show about a small Southern town.
When I was studying design in the early nineties, I read a collection of 20 interviews with production designers. The standout interview for me was with Polly Platt. She discussed her career as a designer and, later producer. In both roles it was clear she devoted herself completely to the look of the film.
Polly Platt designed and/or produced many of my favorite movies: “The Last Picture Show”, “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News” among them. As I’ve read about her work over the years, I learned that many of her films were inspired by events from her own life. Raised in post war Europe, Polly set one of her earliest films, "The Last Picture Show", in a desolate and dying town as backdrop for the characters. She insisted that it be shot in black and white. When a film’s subject was unfamiliar, she would research the project obsessively. For her, it was essential to have a strong emotional connection to the story.
Even as production designer, she was passionately involved in every aspect of filmmaking. She often picked the scripts, scouted locations, (occasionally insisted on changing cities, i.e. switching coasts in
"Witches of Eastwick") never mind the sets and costumes. If a scene was written for a location she didn’t agree with, she would push to change it. This didn’t always sit well with her collaborators, but they usually came to her side.
I’ve always been struck by Platt’s use of color and composition, and how that determines the emotional terrain of a scene. I noticed that Platt used a limited or monochromatic palette, only introducing a new color when it would have maximum emotional impact. In "Targets" she kept red out of the scenery so that the murder scene would have the desired effect. She often associated each character with a color, one that would sometimes change as the story progressed. Shirley MacLaine’s middle-aged character in “Terms of Endearment,” dressed in ingenue-pink costumes, was apparently a southern version of Platt’s troubled, but formal Boston mother. Debra Winger’s character wears earthy browns (the 70’s counterculture,) which of course drove MacLaine’s character crazy in the film as it probably had Platt’s mother in real life. The first time MacLaine’s character contemplates getting involved with her next door neighbor, (Nicholson) she is surrounded by an expanse of intensely vivid flowers. In this beautiful wide shot of her garden, she is imagining an escape from her limited southern life. Of course as the film progresses and she ages, her colors turn to grey.
Platt had an unsparing eye when it came to composition and detail. She used symmetry in her sets to isolate characters or to create an emotional divide between them. And she wasn’t afraid to leave things out. There’s a scene in “The Last Picture Show” where Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman’s characters sit across from each other in her sad kitchen, in a symmetrical tableau. She is trying to seduce him against a wall that is empty with the exception of a small plaque above their heads. His youthful vulnerability seems more striking in this stark setting, but they both seem exposed against this naked wall. Platt was a master at creating a sense of heightened reality.
With all of Platt’s attention to detail, she never lost sight of the big picture in her field. She was the first woman accepted into the Art Directors Guild, nominated for an academy award, but she was so much more. Platt was a mentor to many young, now famous, directors; Cameron Crowe, with “Say Anything,” Wes Anderson with “Bottle Rocket,” to name a few. She and James Brooks had a long-standing collaboration at Gracie Films. When she passed away, her closest friends and family described her as a generous mentor, ferocious, and brutally honest. They all said she fought passionately for the people and projects she believed in. She certainly inspired me all those years ago, and it has been wonderful watching her movies again the last few weeks, and even reading more about her amazing life.
After graduating college with a degree in Architecture, Tom began in the Art Dept. at Universal in 1976. After many projects there, his first freelance job was Lead Set Designer on “Blade Runner.” He teamed up with Bo Welch as Art Director in 1986 and together they completed 16 films, 3 of which, “A Little Princess,” “Men in Black,” and “The Birdcage’” were Oscar nominated. Tom has gone on to design many more features, including “Ed Wood,” “The Ring,” “The Rundown,” “The Kingdom,” “Broken City,” “Lone Survivor,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Patriots Day.” Tom has been a member of AMPAS since 1991 and was elected Governor of the Production Design Branch in 2017.
Last week when I was asked: What Production Designer's body of work has had a profound influence on your artistic journey? For me the answer was almost instantaneous, and hands down it could only be one. Production Designer Bo Welch of course. It is a pretty unique story.
Bo and I worked together on 16 movies, 3 of which were nominated for an Oscar. On 15 of the 16 shows I was the only Art Director, unlike films today which might have 4 or 5. Bo was the only Production Designer I ever worked with as an Art Director. It does probably sound a bit strange these days working with one Designer for so long, but we were on a roll, the great projects kept coming our way and Bo and I got along so well.
We both got into the Art Department in the late ’70. We were on staff at Universal back near the end of the Studio System so to speak. Bo left Universal to get his Art Director’s card and some years later we were both on Jonathan Demme’s ‘Swingshift’ at Warners, he was an Asst. Art Director and I was the Lead Set Designer. We both admired each other’s work an we caught up on our friendship. Towards the end of that film I got a call to Art Direct a show, but I didn’t have an Art Director’s card as it was very difficult back then to get one as the Union requirements were pretty draconian compared to the present day. Well, I couldn’t take that job so I recommended Bo. He got that show and as he was leaving said when he got a Design job he’d hire me as his Art Director. True to his word, about a year and a half later he got ‘The Lost Boys’ with Joel Schumacher at Warners and called me right away for the Art Director job as by then I’d gotten my card as an Assistant Art Director for Michael Landon Productions.
Right from the start Bo and I complimented each other so well in the Art Dept. His strengths and mine made for an almost perfect fit. We both got educated in our first time jobs together, mine as Art Director and his as Production Designer.
I’ve been influenced so much by Bo, more than I can list here, but first off, having fun was a primary goal. Laughter was really big in our Art Dept. He always reminded us that we were lucky to have a great job and if we didn’t have fun then we should do something else. His biggest asset, in my humble opinion, was the way he could come up with an artistic vision for each film after reading the script no matter how strange the subject matter. He wasn’t afraid to push the envelope and he was almost always right. He could ‘read’ the Director as well as the script and his vision for the look of the show was uncanny. I will alway be envious of that ability. He also was really big designing sets with models, usually foam core and with every new show our models got more detailed. That is something that has stayed with me in my Design career up to this day as I still prefer physical to virtual models. Bo also has a great ‘hand’ for rough design sketches. He can capture the essence the design of a set in a pen line drawing not unlike sketches I’ve received in the past from Tim Burton and Ridley Scott. I try to do that as well, but I don’t feel I’m nearly at his level.
Even when things might have gone south on the set Bo could maintain an even temper. I really saw him mad only once in our years together. The way he handled Directors, Producers & Studio Execs is also something I’ve tried to replicate in my own dealings. Probably the biggest effect he had on me was allowing me to go for ideas of my own, giving me authority to make a lot of decisions as the sets were going up, and standing behind me if there was some issue that arose.
We had one of, if not the best Art Departments from the mid 80’s until 2000, so much so many people we hired would try to stay available for our next project. Because of that we never had much trouble hiring staff. We seemed to always get the best, most qualified people from the Art Dept., Set Dec., Paint & Construction, which made our jobs that much easier.
As the years went by Bo started talking about his desire to try directing, and was going to pursue it. He said if he got a directing job, of course he would ask me to design it. In 2000 Bo was asked by Mike Myers and Universal to direct the film ‘Dieter’ based on Mike’s character sketches from Saturday Night Live. It was an very funny, bizarre script and I was hired to design it. It was going to be hysterical...we’d build 1950’s Berlin on the back lot at Universal and recreate part of Mt. Rushmore on stage. I was really looking forward to it, but then Mike got ‘cold feet’ on the project and decided not to do it. So the show went down and although I got my first ‘pay or play’ experience, it was a total downer. Bo then decided he was going to keep trying to get another directing job and didn’t know how long that might take. So after a few months of nothing happening I got a call from Gore Verbinski and Amblin to design ‘The Ring.’ I really liked the thought of doing a horror movie as I’d never done one before so I jumped at the chance to do it and had a great time with it. Of course about 2/3 of the way into production Bo got a another chance to direct for Mike Myers and Universal with ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ Bo called me to see if I was available, but we were coming up to all the big stage sets for ‘The Ring,’ and I couldn’t leave that show. So from that point on we went down different artistic paths and I found I really enjoyed designing and I never really looked back, but we had 15 great years together, and I could not have had a better time.
Of course there are other Production Designers that have influence me...Henry Bumstead for his way with film crews and Production, Michael Seymour’s ‘Alien’ from which I ‘borrowed’ a lot of design ideas, John Box for the ‘scope’ he was able to create in just about any David Lean movie, John Barry’s ‘Star Wars, Dean Tavoularis’ ‘Little Italy’ from ‘The Godfather,’ Van Nest Polglase for ‘Citizen Kane’ and other MGM & RKO musicals with the large ‘cartouche’ style sets which have always awed me, and Dante Ferretti for just about anything he did, but all in all no Designer had a bigger influence on me than Bo.
Gae buckley trained as an architect and moved into art direction on films such as “Indecent Proposal”, “What Women Want” and “Tin Cup”. She became a production designer on Kevin Costner’s 2002 western darma “Open Range”, and has since designed many films such as “The Book Of Eli”, “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”, “A Walk in the Woods”, “He’s Just Not That Into You” and the recent “I’m Your Woman”.
I hadn’t been aware of Production Design as a possible profession when I was young. My head was buried in my architecture studies and all nighters. But one night I went to see the Woody Allen movie "Interiors" which was production designed by Mel Bourne. The muted color palette rendered in what seemed like 32 perfect shades of beige reflected the interiors of the characters in a way that affected me in a visceral way. I could feel their reserve and melancholy. When Maureen Stapleton shows up in her red dress loud and expressive like an explosion, it rocked my world in that way when one has an awareness burst open to a previously blind perspective. An ‘Ah ha!’ moment. The colors and palette set the tone and supported the storytelling.
Once that awareness had been ignited I started noticing production design in other movies like Fassbender’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, where primary colors of Hannah Schygulla’s hat or lipstick or coat set against the dreary colors of post war Berlin riveted one’s attention to her in any scene.
The year I graduated from University and moved to Manhattan I saw Woody Allen’s movie "Manhattan" and watched it with a developing appreciation for its production design. Over the next few years I appreciated other movies that Mel Bourne designed like "Stardust Memories", "Thief", "Zelig", "Broadway Danny Rose", "The Natural", "Manhunter" and "Fatal Attraction" to name a few.
In the early-mid 1980s with the start of MTV I segued from architecture into the world of Music Video production and then into Commercials. I was thrilled to be able to make a living working in the industry but had my heart set on working in feature films. Feature work had slowed down in New York City during that time (the rumor was that producers and teamsters were fighting so producers were taking movies up to Canada). The two filmmakers who continued to work there were Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, but I had no idea as to how to gain entrance to those camps, so decided to move to Los Angeles to gain experience in feature films. Ironically it was there that I met and interviewed with Mel Bourne in 1991 to Art Direct for him on "Indecent Proposal".
We were on that movie for a long extended prep and shoot which filled a full year and afterwards moved on to another movie, "Angie". During these two movies, Mel Bourne became a non-official mentor and friend to me and remained so until his death in 2003.