Ramsey Avery is an ADG Award nominated Production Designer and Supervising Art Director, whose Production Design credits include "Peppermint", "Hotel Artemis", and "10 Cloverfield Lane". His Supervising Art Director credits include "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2", "Pixels", and "Tomorrowland".
Please describe a challenging political situation you found yourself in on the job, and why it was challenging.
I was the Supervising Art Director on a feature with a powerful producer and rising-star directors, where communication between the two camps wasn’t always clear. For example, the directors hired a production designer without clearing their choice with the producer. This did not go over well.
What was the result?
The producer made the directors also hire a creative consultant, giving them a choice of his own candidates: between one of two A-list production designers, or a famous designer from a non-film related field. We all thought that the famous non-filmmaker, who would end up staying on the East Coast while we worked in LA, would be the least disruptive force. So the directors chose him.
How did that work out?
Not according to our hopes. The East Coast consultant and the producer had one movie in mind, while the directors and their production designer had a very different one already in progress. So we were ending up with two different design approaches, and, as Supervising Art Director, I had to guide our team to figure out how to combine them.
What a strange outcome. How did you wind up in that position?
The consultant had some wonderful and fun ideas. The Production Designer in LA was willing to work with this awkward set-up. But the directors didn’t always like the East Coast ideas. There was also the problem that the East Coast team didn’t understand at all how design worked in film, and they were also spread thin on their many projects so they had a tough time with our deadlines. So after a few misfires and late deliveries we decided to send the PD back east for a two week summit. The two designers worked out a broad design intent - and process - that everyone could agree on.
And did it play out according to plan?
Unfortunately, no. The East Coast designs still often came late to LA, so we had to keep moving on our own regardless so we could be sure that we could get sets built. Their designs also often remained impractical or even impossible to build or film (For example, we were shooting in anamorphic, and the consultant’s team kept insisting that one particular set had to be tall and narrow). And sometimes the directors just didn’t like the consultant’s ideas. There was also a lot of morphing with the script, so even when the East Coast team tried to stay on schedule, the ground would shift under them.
It was a constant struggle of trying to figure out what to show whom to get approvals so we could move forward. I realized that there were 5 levers to toggle to get a design approved by most, if not all, of the Powers That Be: story, character, budget, schedule, and filmability. By pulling the correct levers with the correct people, I could get enough buy-in to get something designed and built. By the end we had six units shooting simultaneously, and sometimes we just pulled stuff together to put it in front of the camera without really showing it to anyone as that was the only way to get it done.
In the end about 25% of the production design work remained mostly the consultant's ideas, and about 25% were the LA team's. The other 50% were blends: a design from LA would get a dressing make-over from the East Coast; an idea from back there would be compressed/torqued/massaged to fit the needs and desires of the LA team. A few sets, though, were true collaborations, and honestly, those were among the best in the movie.
In the end, were both camps satisfied with the results?
Well, the consultant won an award in his field for the work. Funny thing: the set photo printed in an article celebrating the win was one of the sets the consultant had literally almost nothing to do with. And there was also no mention of anyone on the LA crew in that listing of the film’s design team. The Production Designer spoke very fondly of the wonderful team we had in LA and what a wild, once in a lifetime opportunity the project was. He did more or less retire afterwards.
And how did you come out in the end? The Hero? The Invisible Man who made the others appear to be geniuses? Somewhere in the middle?
The folks back east probably couldn’t have picked me out of a line-up. We tried, in order to simplify the process, to keep the Studio Execs out of the day-to-day struggles as much as possible; as is often the case, they only engaged me when money issues arose. But, the film looked really good, and we brought it in on time and on the approved budget. It is now a cult classic.
With both the LA production team and our art department, I gained a reputation as a steady-handed problem-solver with a good eye. I learned how important it was to fight for shootable design while balancing story, character, budget, and schedule, and people acknowledged and honored that skill set. Most importantly, it taught me about shielding, as much as possible, the Art Dept crew from the vagaries of Production. This was very appreciated, and is something that I carry now into every project.