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Breaking the Mould: Cindy Chao and Michele Yu

Cindy Chao and Michele Yu are an LA-based production design team. Their creative partnership began while undergrads at UC San Diego, and has continued over 15 years of film and TV work. They enjoy telling visual stories that explore identity, history, family, and fantasy.

Most recently they were nominated for an Emmy for their work on "A Black Lady Sketch Show" and two ADG Awards for best production design for a “Variety, Reality or Competition Series” for “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and “Waffles + Mochi.” They just completed work on “American Born Chinese”, a Disney+ series coming out in early 2023.

A Black Lady Sketch Show | Dir: Dime Davis l Network: HBO l Production Co: JAX Media, Issa Rae Productions

PDC coordinator Jenny Melendez: Thank you so much for speaking with me and congratulations on your ADG Award nominations. I think it's extra special because you were competing against yourselves in the same category!

Michele: Thank you very much! Yeah, both projects are so different that for us it was interesting to see that they both even made it in for the same category.

PDC: “Waffles + Mochi" is a puppet show for kids narrated by Michelle Obama. What was it like to work on that show and with her?

Cindy: Honestly, it was a dream come true to actually be able to step into the same room as Michelle Obama, and design a kids' series about food and life lessons – life lessons that I even learned from. Michelle Obama was wonderful in so many ways.

Michele: It was a dream gig from the moment we got the script. After reading it we immediately knew we needed to do it. It felt like such a passion project, made by dedicated people.

In regard to Michelle Obama, she walks into the room and the air instantly changes. She changes the energy just by being there. She just radiates goodness. She’s also so calm, focused, and kind.

Waffles + Mochi | Creators: Erika Thormahlen & Jeremy Konner

PDC: So this isn’t the first puppet show you have worked on. For starters you worked on "The Fuzees", and there were even some puppet moments in "A Black Lady Sketch Show". I would consider you master puppet production designers. How did you start that part of your career?

Michele: I wouldn't call us masters! But we have been lucky on "Waffles + Mochi", for example, to work with talented puppeteers like Michelle Zamora from Viva La Puppet. Puppeteers are both visual creators and craftspeople who you connect with on that level, and on another level they are performers, which Cindy and I are not. The conversations get interesting because you have to open your mind to new considerations in how a puppeteer needs to interact with your set. I don't feel like we're experts, because there's always something new to learn. What we've learned about puppeteering changes from project to project, and you are constantly adapting to the needs of the specific puppeteers you're working with.

That said, there are definitely designers who like to specialize in puppet shows. We got lucky because we fell into it, we didn’t go searching for it. Things aligned for us because it was a show and a story we really connected with, and the collaboration with Viva La Puppet helped us to figure things out. Communication and collaboration in any new project is so important because you're starting something you haven't necessarily done before. You have to be able to talk to people and understand what they need from you and what you need from them.

PDC: In addition to working with puppets you’ve worked in a lot of different media, such as stop motion animation. Seems like you have a unique trajectory.

Michele: Cindy and I are unique in the industry because we are a team of two production designers, and you don't often come across that. In fact – I am just putting it out there to the PDC world – we would love to meet and open the conversation with other production design teams, because we haven't come across that very much.

Cindy and I came up this way because we got our start working on very indie projects. In the very beginning we worked on friends' projects and films. Neither Cindy nor I went to film school. But we are both from LA and had several friends who were in film school. Both of us ended up on their sets as they were shooting their thesis films and independent shorts.

We worked as a design team for the first time on a feature called "One Too Many Mornings". It was a film that we worked on for two years. I think in general everybody on that film had a day job, so we shot on nights and weekends. After work we would all run over to the Palisades to a church that one of us was living in. It was a free location, and we would just shoot stuff there. To be honest, I don't even know if the church had any idea what we were doing.

One Too Many Mornings | Dir: Michael Mohan

At that point in our careers, it was literally just me and Cindy. Between the two of us, we were doing the jobs of a dozen people, working every aspect of the art department including all of the set dec, props, any kind of small construction, painting and papering entire home interiors, graphics, accounting, all of the shopping, driving the truck, and being on set for the shoot. So that's how we got started, and where we learned to work together.

Long story short, being a team works for us, even now. We have worked together for something like 15 years, and we have found so much benefit creatively and also personally. Working this way allows us to divide things up and gives each of us a direct counterpart to have creative conversations with.

I believe that working this way also helps us collaborate with other key department members, and other department heads. When the production designer gets overwhelmed, that turns into your set decorator and other team members also being overwhelmed, because they have to pick up the pieces. When we're feeling the pressure, Cindy and I turn to each other.

Cindy: Exactly, to be able to just bounce off ideas collectively, I think it’s essential and what design should be. With a partner you're able to pick up those communal ideas and continue that conversation with the director and the DP, as well as be clear on what the full vision is.

Michele: We can also be in two places at once, while so many others are stretched too thin. One of us can be on site at the construction or with the set decorator, while the other is with the director or DP. It takes a lot of communication, but we are more or less always on the same page. That means if somebody can't reach one of us, they can always reach the other (I mean within reason, we do try to have some kind of work-life balance).

Light as a Feather S1 | Hulu

PDC: Would you say that either of you gravitate towards certain tasks, or are things always shifting from project to project?

Cindy: It really depends on the project. Things work very organically with us. For example, one of us responds to an email because she saw it first, or the other wants to be at the scout location etc. Sometimes we talk out a strategy, so that one of us can be working on a sketch for one set while the other is working on developing something else. So I would say it's more organic in terms of work flow.

In a Relationship | Dir: Sam Boyd | World Premiere: Tribeca Film Festival 2018

PDC: One of my favorite projects that you have worked on is “In A Relationship.” I loved it for many reasons, but I was particularly obsessed with your different color palettes. Down to Emma Roberts' hair, you can tell that a lot of work went into the color story. Has color always been a priority of yours? What does your process look like when you are working on your color vision?

Michele: We love bringing in color and we love working with what is available to create something better than what's already there. That developed for us after many, many years of working on indie films together.

When we first started out our resources were always so tight that it forced us to get creative, and we knew that a lot could be done with color and textures. A lot of our early movies were all location based, and when you’re working on location with no budget or extra help it’s hard to make the ideal space. But most of the time you at least have control of the color palette, and that is sometimes the only thing you have control over. So you can be smart about seeing what colors are already there, what you can play off of and highlight.

We've also worked with the same set decorator for many, many years, Lizzie Boyle, who's also nominated with us for an Emmy for "A Black Lady Sketch Show" this year. The benefit of that long collaboration is that the three of us have a shorthand, and she knows what we like and we know what her aesthetic is. We can walk into a location and say, "Okay, Lizzie, we're thinking of doing this and this and this". And she's like, “Yes, I already have these options that I pulled after being on my phone for the past 10 minutes and what do you think of this?” And we build on each other. So the color palette is something that the three of us as a team bring to the project together.

Cindy: Cindy: “In A Relationship” was shot primarily in Venice, which is located in the Westside beach area of LA. We wanted to capture the essence of that part of Los Angeles, and introduce a cooler and softer color palette. As Michele said, dealing with locations and knowing what region the story takes place in often inspires us as to what the color palette and themes will be.

PDC: I would also say that you both do a great job of mixing old and new in your furniture and décor. Looking through some of your projects, you have great vintage pieces. How do you shop together? Are there any places you like to go to first?

Michele: Shout out again to our set decorator Lizzie Boyle! The three of us have very similar aesthetics and have worked with each other enough that she picks things that we would pick if we were the ones sourcing. But also looking back at some of our indie films, sometimes I really miss being the one who gets to go out and find things. I think a lot of our early work really showed our personal taste and things that we love.

We think it’s very important to capture the full character in a space. Everyone in some way is a collector, and their home contains things that feel special and that they have kept through the years. The best way to portray that is to mix old and new. Putting together a room that has a sense of history but doesn't feel too much of one period or style makes for a better visual story.

Cindy: You also want it to feel real. Not everybody’s home is an ad from Target or West Elm or a design magazine.

Michele: One of my secrets that is not so secret is that I am a hoarder, and one of the ways that I deal with that is that I will finally get rid of furniture if I have gotten it into a film.

Cindy: Michele had a bus bench that she bought many, many years ago at a prop sale for $5. For so many years every single show that we worked on we would try to get that bus bench into it. Finally in the latest season of “A Black Lady Sketch Show” we found a scene that we could use it in. It involved mismatched objects inside a weird, alien home interior and we brought it in… and it’s now no longer sitting in her garage.

A Black Lady Sketch Show | Dir: Dime Davis l Network: HBO l Production Co: JAX Media, Issa Rae Productions

PDC: Because we are running out of time, I want to ask what is one piece of advice that you would give someone like me who is starting out?

Michele: Cindy and I started out working mainly as production designers, but I always tell people that if you can, try every position you can in the art department before committing to production design. It allows you to work under other production designers, and see what their styles are and how they do things. You may also discover that you like something else.

The other thing I would say is to not let work be your entire life. The other parts of your life should be what feeds your design – you have to see places, meet people, and have new experiences, and that will make your work richer.

Cindy: I would say that if you have the opportunity, try to be picky about what projects you work on rather than just taking anything that comes your way because of money or because you feel that you have to. I think it’s important to find projects that really speak to you, are interesting, and connect with your personality and design aesthetic. In the long run it will make you a happier designer and push you in ways that you want to be pushed, while also leading you to the people you want to work with.

Deidra & Laney Rob a Train | Dir: Sydney Freeland l Premiere: Sundance 2017

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. This has been an incredibly enlightening conversation for me and will be for our readers as well!


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