A PDC Interview: Chris Jones

Chris Jones has been designing commercials and narrative films since the 1990s, when he started out at as an animator at a small production studio in Denver. In recent years, he designed critically-acclaimed films “20th Century Women” with director Mike Mills, and Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird", both gorgeously layered universes. He received an Art Directors Guild nomination for the latter. With a background in fine art and art history, Jones has designed visually iconic commercials with directors Cary Fukanaga ("Beasts of No Nation", "True Detective"), Malcolm Venville ("Henry’s Crime"), Antoine Fuqua ("The Magnificent Seven"), Joseph Kosinski ("Tron"), and Garth Davis ("Top of the Lake") among others.

Your background is in animation. I’d be interested in how, at the outset, you moved from that world to production design?

I started out in animation at a company in Denver that did commercials that were animation/live action combo jobs. Sort of like Roger Rabbit in the early 1990s. The Raid Bugs, Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger—those were all commercials that were using animation in conjunction with live action. We were a small company that did pretty much everything from start to finish. We would shoot the live action, draw the characters, put the characters into those environments, and then cel-paint them and shoot them on a flat-bed camera. I was on the animation side doing inbetweening, art directing and storyboards. But then I also began art-directing, building and designing the sets for live action. It taught me how to break things down, to take anything in a story and break it down into parts. These were national commercials, national work quality, but I got to do everything because the market was small enough that there weren’t a lot of people doing what we did. It was a good starting base for me.

Do you have a commercial that you remember enjoying working on? Or that you’re particularly proud of?

My favorite commercial was also one that I wasn’t super excited about. I’m a vegetarian, and I’m a big animal rights person. This was a Raid commercial for pesticide. So it didn’t really fit my moral standing. We all sometimes do what we don’t want to do! But the best part of it was that I got to build all these live action sets that were small, like inside of a wall, or under the floor, or in the pipes where people never go. I was able to build these sets in a world that was unseen. We shot all that and then I was able to animate the Raid bugs that lived in those sets. They are some of the most fun characters to draw.

That’s a very different path than film school where you might have more freedom to think conceptually or abstractly about how a particular project will look, what the visual arc of the story will be. How did your early commercial work shape your approach to design?

I went to undergraduate school for fine art and art history. I came out wanting to illustrate. Animation was just something that fell in my lap. But because I was an artist, because I could draw and paint, because I was more of a 2D person, I wasn’t really thinking about story. But all of those elements [from the commercial work] helped me break down story and helped me understand how to tell a story. Commercials were the way in.

Later, when I started doing films and bigger commercials, the ability to quickly sketch out my ideas was also a big factor. Animation taught me that as well. I was also able to really understand color, the breakdown of color, which is a big part of my work. For instance, Mike [Mills]’s films have had a lot of color contrasts; I collaborated with him, using color contrasts to play a role in story-telling.

I went to graduate school for art history because I thought I wanted to teach for a while. All that time spent studying the visual timeline of history has been really helpful in understanding story. Understanding the timeline of story but also understanding the different period and visual elements that go into production design.

So I didn’t learn how to production design for film, but I learned art and then art informed how I design.

"20th Century Woman" - kitchen set

Do you still sketch by hand or has it fallen by the wayside?

I wish I could say that it hasn’t. I still do sketch, but I do it less and less, unfortunately. I still do drawings that are quick versions of what I’m thinking and then hand them off. The films I’ve worked on have not had large budgets, so my ability to utilize 3D graphics and software is limited… but I do have people who do that for me, and I’ve done some Sketch-up myself. Drawing usually ends up being something that helps me shape what I’m thinking and then I move on from there. I think that hand-drawn construction drawings are very helpful for construction teams. I just did a commercial that required a Jurassic Park-type dinosaur that we created and my old animation days came in handy. I had a lot of fun doing drawings of the dinosaur and then handing them off to somebody else who did an even better rendering than I did. At least I was able to speak the language. And show the director what I was hoping to achieve.

"20th Century Woman" - sketch and set of Scaffold for Julie’s Climb into house

Speaking of your commercial work, you obviously find creative fulfillment in it. It’s probably different for every designer; some may be more fortunate than others to work with good directors. But especially for those starting out, it can be difficult to imagine how low-budget branded content or promos can be creatively sustaining over the long run.

I’ve been very fortunate. I did what you’re talking about for a long time. That work isn’t on my website! I did a lot of promo work, a lot of PSAs, a lot of commercials that are not the most exciting things in the world because they’re basically just selling something. I moved from Denver to Los Angeles in 1999. After that, I struggled a bit because I was trying to make myself known in LA. I was doing a lot of the kind of commercial work we’re talking about. But I never really was the guy who did the Doritos commercials, or the Cheetos commercials, the commercials that were really just trying to sell you something. The work I was doing was much more designed. It was fun even if they were projects that didn’t have as much money.

I hooked up with one director at Anonymous Content (which used to be Propaganda Films), Malcolm Venville. I later worked with him on his feature "Henry’s Crime". Malcolm’s signature style, because he’s a still photographer, is iconic imagery. We hit it off and worked together for seven or eight years. I was lucky to get into a world of directors that really do have good visual style. I felt like I wasn’t responsible for selling products, even though I was. I felt like the commercials were things that were works of art, up to a point, even though we were selling a product. I’ve worked hard to say yes to those types of projects, and no to the others.

When you're working on commercials you’re still working with some of the best directors out there. I’ve worked with Cary Fukanaga, Joe Kosinski, and Garth Davis who did "Top of the Lake" with Jane Campion. Really amazing directors that I wouldn’t have worked with if I had just tried to be a film person. That’s a luxury to be able to work with those people and get to know them.

The other thing about commercials is you usually have a really big budget to do something special. It’s kind of cathartic because you work fast. It gets done in a couple weeks and then you take it all apart and it’s gone.

The only thing that I don’t like about commercials is that they are so fleeting in how long they’re on. So the work that you do is only seen for a limited time, whereas for a film or a more permanent piece like the Kamasi Washington music video I did recently for the Whitney, that’s going to be something that will last for a long time. Those are the things that you really do appreciate about long form; it sticks around for a while.