Sketching is a skill closely associated with production design from the early days of film. It was an essential tool in the golden days of the Hollywood studio, but with the advent of independent film and digital tools, the art form has become broader and more diverse. PDC member Ethan Tobman asked fellow designers and incredible sketchers to discuss the role of drawing in their design process.
“Maybe because English is my second language, I find words slippery and I rely on my drawings to best express my ideas.“
“I find it’s just faster for me to model the set otherwise we have to go through many revisions.“
“For me drawing, modeling and illustrating are all an integral part of how I conceive, visualize and detail a set.“
“I am great believer in drawing as a way to realize my designs which helps me communicate my ideas for sets.“
February 15, 2016
Why draw your own sketches for film?
Kalina Ivanov designed the Oscar nominated “Little Miss Sunshine,” as well as “Max,“ “Poltergeist,“ “Rabbit Hole,” “Made Of Honor,” “Brown Sugar,” “Smoke,” “The Conspirator,“ and many others. Kalina earned an Emmy and Art Director’s Guild awards for her designs on Michael Suscy’s film “Grey Gardens,” produced by HBO.
When I was eight years old and growing up in communist Sofia, my teacher told my mother that I had no artistic talent, but she was going to give me an ‘A’ because I tried so hard in painting class. Out of sheer stubbornness I kept drawing every day and fell in love with the sound of a 2B pencil on a school textbook page. Soon that pencil became an extension of my dreams, and in college those dreams transformed into set designs.
Every movie has its own particular challenges and artistic needs, so my role as a production designer is to communicate to the audience the director’s vision. Maybe because English is my second language, I find words slippery and I rely on my drawings to best express my ideas. To do that I start drawing on a piece of vellum, and I play with light, space and proportions. I draw fast to avoid over-thinking, and as the pencil moves rhythmically, the design ideas crystallize. I lose myself in the process, which is now controlled by intuition and passion. My research plays an important part of the overall design; yet sometimes the end result surprises me because it’s different from what I intended to do at the start of my drawing. I also try to change my drawing style depending on the subject matter or genre, in order to capture the mood of the story.
One of the great pleasures of designing for Robert Redford is that he really loves paintings and sketches. He started as an art student at Pratt University, and can draw rather well. For THE CONSPIRATOR sketch, I wanted to capture the moment when Lincoln’s wounded body is carried out of the theatre and into the street. Some people are rushing to the scene as the news of the shooting spreads, while others are out on a stroll oblivious to the events. Lincoln was shot on Victory Day, and I wanted to show it through the celebratory flags.
The second sample is a color sketch from the HBO movie GREY GARDENS. I wanted to capture the bohemian, carefree style of Big and Little Eddie, as well as the 1930s period décor. During the creative process, the director, Michael Sucsy, and I decided to eliminate the flower wallpaper, and let the fabrics’ patterns be the accent. I love that my drawings are not set in stone, and that they are just one piece of the puzzle we call production design. This is an example of how my drawings are not set in stone; they are only the beginning of the design journey.
The sketches I create are not precious; they are a tool of communication with the director and the art team. I enjoy making them and I think of them as the first gate into the subliminal and emotional understanding of the script and its characters.
Ben Procter started his career as a visual effects artist and illustrator. He has worked on “Avatar,“ “Prometheus,“ “The Matrix“ series and “Transformers“ among others. His production design work includes “Enders Game“ and the upcoming “Avatar“ films.
I worked as a 2d/3d concept illustrator in Hollywood for many years before becoming a production designer, so for me drawing, modeling and illustrating are all an integral part of how I conceive, visualize and detail a set.
I might sketch plans and elevations for myself or with a concept or set designer, even using a whiteboard sometimes to keep things rough and ready. Then straight into Photoshop illustration or else a period of 3d modelling quickly followed with rendering and sketchover, sometimes in an interactive ping-pong between thinking/sketching in 2d and 3d. I believe these two modes exercise different mental muscles and can in combination lead to the most effective designs; 3d is there to provide spatial and lensing accuracy, some sense of materiality, etc, but 2d is a cudgel that is needed to bash away needless 3d detail, streamline the read of the design, and add in real-world accidental richness from photos.
Personally I like to get illustrations as close as possible to what I want to see built so that the images give a truthful preview to the director and producers, and so that the images can provide a concrete target for art directors, set builders and other fabricators. In the Ender’s Game examples included is an interesting case of how crafts can be combined to generate an illustrated design. Our sculptor Jamie Miller did some beautiful small maquettes of how human machinery might punch hexagonal hallways through the swiss cheese of alien tunnels. I photo-scanned these into textured 3d geometry, re-layed them out in 3d, and provided a rendered underlay to illustrator Robert Simons who finished the illustration. When Jamie went to sculpt the actual set, he already knew the ideas and shapes because he had touched them with his own hands.
Randall Peacock has designed a wide range of commercials, music videos, fashion, art and film projects. His work in film includes a long-standing collaboration with artist Philippe Parreno, while his fashion projects include Tommy Hilfiger‘s 2012–2016 runway shows, winning a Cleo for Best Runway Show Set Design.
I received a BA in Fine Arts from School of Visual Arts in New York City 1993, and an MFA in Sculpture from Yale University 1996. During this time I worked as an assistant to set designer Marla Weinhoff for about 4 years. After grad school I discovered I much preferred a collaborative
process than being a shut in, working in an art studio alone. I was fortunate enough to be asked to work on a cherry coke commercial as an art director, and from that point never turned back.
While at Yale, I used every elective I had to take CAD classes. I learned stratvision studio pro and Form-z. Being able to pre-visualize a shoot shot in the late 90’s in New York was a great asset, not many others were doing it at the time, so while I knew very little about set design at that point, I did know how to build, and could check scales and make sure everything would work despite my inexperience.
I do most of my drawings myself, however I do work with some real rendering pros. But often I find it’s just faster for me to model the set otherwise we have to go through many revisions. I still find it a tremendous asset, and very good for making sure I am on the same page with the director/
Caroline Hanania was born in Beirut, Lebanon and studied Art in London and Rome. Caroline he has been designing features and television for over 25 years in Europe and the States. Some of her credits include “Moll Flanders,“ “Evening,“ “The Better Angels,“ and “The Keeping Room,“ “Serendipity,“ “Shall We Dance.“ She is currently designing the third season of “Turn - Washington‘s Spies“ for AMC.
I am great believer in drawing as a way to realize my designs which helps me communicate my ideas for sets. In developing the drawings, I start to think through what I am trying to get across, so much of our work is in the research and imagery and how we help to tell the narrative with the environments that we create, that the characters inhabit.
I realize that many of the art dept team come from many different backgrounds, which adds great strength to the make up of the group, but I am a great believer even with all our wonderful technological knowledge and ways to communicate that nothing communicates better than an hand drawing and gives far more character and creativity to the process and is a delight to do, I would like to think that it is still an essential element in the art dept rather than a dying form.