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.
Lincoln Car Commercial
What was the Kamasi Washington piece?
It was for the Whitney Biennial. Kamasi Washington is an amazing saxophone player, in the style of the great 1960s, 1970s jazz musicians. He was chosen by the Whitney for the most recent biennial but he didn’t have any visual representation of his work. He just had the music. A local director in Los Angeles, A.G. Rojas, who works at Park Pictures, Lance Accord’s company, presented an idea to Washington’s label for a music video. We did a music video with next to nothing money-wise. We put together this piece that ran as a video installation for the 2017 biennial. It was a very gratifying piece to work on it.
Congratulations on your ADG nomination for "Lady Bird".
Has the film’s success changed how you think about your next projects?
It doesn’t really change anything because my methodology hasn’t changed. My idea of what I do has always been about the work and not about the fame or the fortune. I feel that "Lady Bird" was successful for a lot of reasons: a really well-written script, really good acting. I’m grateful that the production design got nominated because my peers are the ones who voted for it. There were three films that were under $7 million that were up against films that were $50 to $100 million. I think that shows that it can still work even if you don’t have a lot of money. So for me that’s been great, but I’ve been doing this for quite a while. I do like working on commercials because it allows me a life outside of work. I don’t feel like I’m working constantly like a lot of feature people do. I know they love it, but that’s not my style. I like to paint and do other things outside of this work as well.
Both Lady Bird and 20th Century Women have such beautiful palettes, clearly thought out, but also very layered visual stories that are happening. You’re able to communicate the dreamy coming-of-age quality of those stories, but they still feel like real environments. Can you talk about your process?
On 20th Century Women, I will give some of that credit to Mike Mills, because he’s a graphic designer and he has a very specific way of seeing things. I can’t take all that color credit myself. He had a very nice idea of what he wanted to do from a palette standpoint. We then both worked hard to integrate that palette into each environment so that it would work throughout the film. Meaning that even when we did a doctor’s office, for example, we made it pink because we thought that that could be interesting, versus just stark white, boring or bland. Also, I worked closely with the costume designer, Jennifer Johnson, on 20th Century Women. I really feel part of what made the film so great was the color of the costumes within the environments that we created. There was such great contrast and striking color choices there. Elle Fanning is constantly wearing this bright yellow shirt and it shows up so well in all these different environments. It was really fun. The color palette is very constant, very 70s, but it’s not your typical 70s — oranges, olive greens and browns. It’s really still alive; it carries over Annette Benning’s character’s colors — oranges and reds, Le Corbusier colors from the 1960s, which are really important to her world and the world the film inhabits.
For Lady Bird, it was interesting because Greta had given me as a reference the work of Wayne Thiebaud, a painter from Sacramento. His work has a lot of pastel colors. She and Sam Levy, the DP, had been working carefully to make the film feel nostalgic, but we also took this pastel color chart. I put together a few emails to Greta and Sam, showing the locations we’d found and the Wayne Thiebaud painting that we thought each location looked like. Of course, his paintings are pictures of landscapes and pieces of pie or ice cream. But still, those pastel colors really informed what we were looking for. All of a sudden the colors started coming together. The last email I sent out before we started shooting was really comprehensive and cohesive; it felt really wonderful. We did a lot of pre-thought in that world. We made sure that it was going to work. When you’re on a low budget film, you never really know where you’re going to be shooting, even towards the end of principal photography sometimes, because you haven’t even found that last location, but we worked really hard to make sure that those locations even at the last minute had what we were looking for, and we rejected a lot because we didn’t think they fit.
The goal for all of these films was for them to be art directed but not be overly art directed. To feel the color, to feel that we are looking at something beautiful, but it’s still naturalistic. That’s really important. It needs to feel real. That’s something that all of us were trying to achieve.
Are there particular skills you’ve acquired along the way that are central to your work or that you recommend newer designers develop?
I think there are a couple: First, the most important thing is to listen. No matter who you’re working with, as a production designer, you are a collaborator with somebody who has a vision. You have a vision too, but you are working with somebody who wants to tell a story, to make a visual fantasy world come into being. You should bring what you can, what you will, and you should be forceful, but you should listen. Because the most important thing is to be on the same page with everybody else. If you’re not, then things don’t go well.
Second, it’s all about the work. It’s not about you. It’s about what you’re going to, as an artist, put out into the world. Because if it’s your best work, it’s going to come back to you and help you manyfold.
You have to be a very good politician. You have to be a very good manager and delegator. You can’t take on all the work yourself. You can be a micromanager, and you can certainly achieve something, but if you have help, if you can delegate well, if you can manage people well, it can be so great. Those people bring you ideas you never even thought of. You think you know everything sometimes, but you don’t. Your crew can really surprise you. There’s nothing better than having a great set decorator. There’s nothing better than having a prop master who goes above and beyond, and brings you something you hadn’t even thought of before.
Those are all really important skills to have.
Those are big ones.
Any interesting projects coming up?
I just finished a Florence and the Machine video with the same director, who did the Kamasi Washington video, A.G. Rojas. That’s coming out in May.
Rad! We’ll look out for that.
For more info, check out the following:
Kamasi Washington for Whitney Biennial piece
20th Century Women Film Stills
Interview with Lady Bird set decorator Traci Spadorcia for Apartment Therapy