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Art Stars: Legends of Production Design

'Art Stars: Legends of Production Design' by Tom Lisowski is a series of detailed conversations with all-star production designers. This series of interviews is Tom’s mission to create a resource where designers and enthusiasts alike can reference answers and advice from some of his most admired production designers.

"Before working on 'Art Stars', I had extensive experience observing the varied techniques of directors and cinematographers but limited knowledge of how other people around the world did my job. This project opened those doors, just like the PDC events open doors for designers."

Here is a glimpse of some of Tom's great questions, and the insightful answers given by experienced colleagues.


What do you do after you receive a script?

Rick Carter ('Lincoln', 'Forrest Gump', 'Avatar')

The first thing I do is let it wash over me so I can just experience the first reading, which will be the freshest I’ll ever have. Just experience what the movie means to me and what comes out of me. Now let’s just say, as it’s been numerous times for me, and as it was on the 'Star Wars' movies, there’s no script when I’m starting. Concepts are just being developed. 'Polar Express' was that way, there was just the children’s book. And 'Avatar' was only partially developed. I’m looking for the feeling and what flickers and the little glimpses and associations I make.

I try to note what they are without interrupting the flow because I’m not only looking at it moment to moment as though it’s a series of stills, I’m looking at it cinematically, in motion. Then I see what aspects of characters or scenes I associate with something else in a script. They are either connected literally or not connected but should be.


Can a set be a character?

Jack Fisk ('Badlands', 'There Will Be Blood;, 'Killers of the Flower Moon')

Sets are characters. The house in 'Days of Heaven' was a character. One of the producers and I disagreed because he thought it should have been a ranch house. You know, a Texas ranch house. But Terry (Malick, director) wanted a belvedere. He had shown me a picture of a Victorian house and then I looked at the Edward Hopper picture of 'The House by the Tracks' - it’s just so pleasantly bizarre to put a belvedere out in that environment. It was so big you could see it for miles away. I think that house became a character.


What advice do you have for beginners?

Sarah Greenwood ('Atonement', 'Cyrano', 'Barbie')

You just have to be really persistent... And just be open-minded and interested. If you want to be an art director and you're starting as an art director assistant then be interested in what set decs are doing, be interested in construction, be interested in the whole process.

Get out onto the floor. See how films are made. It's such an amazing business. Again, why do it if you're not interested?


How do you see your role changing?

Guy Hendrix Dyas ('Inception', 'Spencer', 'Passengers')

Our industry is changing rapidly and it's normal for production designers to wonder what the future holds. I tend to be optimistic and not only because I have a background in VFX but because films will always need the contribution of artists.

To me a green screen is a tool, it's not a craft, and tools can never replace crafts, someone still has to envision the environments for these stories to take place in.


About the author

Tom Lisowski

Tom Lisowski designed the Liam Neeson thriller 'Honest Thief', the dark satire 'The Oath' with Tiffany Haddish, and the Rob Reiner dramedy 'The Magic of Belle Isle'. A New York native, he studied painting in Chicago and Berlin, and now resides in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. Progressing from video game art direction to the world of feature films, his work has taken him around the globe, production designing features in China, the Caribbean, the Himalayas in the Kingdom of Bhutan, and coast to coast within the U.S. He won an Emmy for the Entertainment Tonight promo 'Treat Yourself', was nominated for Best Art Director VMA on Tyler the Creator's 'Tamale', has received press coverage in Variety magazine and The New York Times, and has designed the Emmy nominated series 'Youth and Consequences' (produced by Mark Gordon). He hosts the 'Art Stars' production design blog.


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