Production Design Research with Celia Barnett

Celia Barnett is an art department researcher who has worked on upwards of 60 films, including all 8 films in the "Harry Potter" series. After art and film school, she worked through most art department grades before falling into research, working with some inspired production designers. Celia is based in London and continues to work as a researcher, always with an inseparable canine companion.

How did you begin working as a researcher?

I didn’t intend to become a researcher, it wasn’t a plan at all. I studied theatre design at the Central School of Art and Design in London (now Central St. Martin’s) in from 1971-74, but when I left I didn’t feel I could go straight into the theatre. It had taken me as long as the course to figure out what it was about, what the criticism meant, and fall into place. I looked for more courses did a postgrad in film. I built some sets for students and got into the National Film School. It wasn’t a plan, they just said to me “why don’t you apply?” So I got taken on as the first student who specialized in Art Direction.

There was no course for me so I just made it up as I went along, made terrible mistakes, and learnt on the job. I worked with my colleagues and did sets for student films. One of those films was to do with a band called the Sex Pistols, and it became quite an iconic film called “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle” and we did it like a student film, with nothing formalized, until right at the end when producers got involved and tried to tie it all together. Then I actually met some official unionized crew, and thanks to a construction manager who came on to help us out I got my first job on a proper industry film. So, that’s how I started.

My first job was on Warren Beatty’s film “Reds” as the art department assistant. The designer was Richard Sylbert, and he knew film researcher Lillian Michelson, so he asked her to send him some reference for the film, about John Reed and his involvement with the Russian Revolution in 1917. So, I saw what research was about a little bit from that, and also because the film incorporated interviews with actual people who had been part of that history, they were called witnesses in the film, in between sections like chapter breaks, you get a little bit of somebody reminiscing, recreated in the film, talking straight to camera. So that was quite progressive, and I was fascinated by it.

In the 1980s I got asked to do some research by a production manager on the Bertolucci film “The Last Emperor”, designed by the wonderful Ferdinando Scarfiotti. He needed some research done about the Englishman who had gone out to China to be the emperor’s tutor when he was a little boy, and I was asked to find it in London, and send it to the production in China. I was able to go to the archives of the shipping line P&O and Thomas Cooke’s, find records of his name on the passenger list, and reconstruct his ticket and travel details.

It’s great that that all still existed.

Oh god, in England we’ve got archives that go back forever, you know. There’s an awful lot of shipping information in the National Archives online - you can look up your ancestors, when they emigrated, all that kind of stuff is very accessible actually.

But my research was particular to that shipping line and I was able to acquire things on the way, like the very nice labels you put on the suitcases. The graphic stuff is always interesting, and it tells the story so well. Anyhow, I sent it to China, and I got a nice thank you, and that, I suppose, is what encouraged me. Then I started working for set decorators mostly, who didn’t have time or didn’t know how to go to the libraries.

Speaking about the digitization of things, how has technology changed the way research happens?

Well, the accessibility aspects are wonderful. However, sometimes digital information is very inaccurate and difficult to check, and you’ve got all these images that you can’t trace.

Generally my problem is that because information is so accessible online, everybody thinks they can do the same job I do, because, you know, it’s easy for everyone to go and look on Google. I do think online information is misleading in terms of accuracy and its generality, and people believe it because it’s on the screen or because it’s on Wikipedia. People aren’t applying the same criteria as you would if you read a book, or you went to the library, or you asked someone, or you talked to an expert. So a level of scrutiny is removed, and I’m uncomfortable with that, obviously.

I imagine a level of natural interaction is removed as well. You go to the library and the book you’re looking for is next to the book you actually end up needing...

Absolutely! And you can turn the page. I get quite excited when I’m working and I want other people to be as well, so I stand over people in the art department and say “Look, look, look! Look at this!” and put books in front of them.

And, particularly with young people like concept artists, they are so used to looking at screens, it can be quite hard to get them to look at a printed image, but then they turn the page and they see something else. And you can see the difference, and you can see how turning the page actually does teach people straight away. And I think that’s important, and I find it very disheartening when I work for designers who don’t want to do that, and are only interested in what’s on the screen. And I don’t have much sympathy with them.

How do you collaborate with the production designer? And what would you want production designers to know that you can bring to the table?

What you would hope to have with anyone you work with is a level of communication. Hopefully they will throw questions at me and share their thoughts. Sometimes it’s difficult because some designers are just so bad at expressing what they want, and I have to feel all the way around to find a way, or find what they like so as I can get an “in.”

Some can draw, but they can’t read. That’s my biggest problem in the art department - they don’t want to read. They just want to see images. However, I’ve worked with some brilliant designers who push me beyond my comfort zone, and get me to find really good stuff by demanding and going on and on and on and I really have respect for those people because they want to know what is beyond the caption and where it comes from and why it’s there. And so I would just like to have a sympathetic and collaborative relationship with the designer.

It’s interesting this year, so many people are being forced to work remotely. But, in a normal time, how often are you physically working in the art department, vs working remotely or out running around?

Most of the films I’ve done, except for films shot abroad, I was almost entirely in the art department. I was never working from home until the last couple of years. I found I could do it, but you don’t get the same connectivity, you don’t get the same buzz, and you don’t feed off each other in the same way. I miss keeping up with the momentum of what’s going on in the art department, which I really enjoy.

How do you share your findings with the team, whether you are in person or remote?

On these big films I’m expected to make a database of images, which everybody in the art department has access to. The database is categorized by subject, or by the script, or whatever. Certainly for the “Star Wars” films there was research in place that I then incorporated and developed.

On the “Harry Potter” films we were somewhat isolated at Leavesden, which was an airfield chosen for its security and remoteness. Very good to keep focus, but it also was very restrictive, so people tended to be a bit introverted. We were there for 10 years. I worked on all the films, but was able to do other work in between. I was the one that went out to the library and brought books back and forth, and I had lots of my own books which I brought in. I would do lots and lots of copying and make up folders of visual reference for topics that came up on every film. We had 150 folders of images for design reference, I think, by the end. I’d hand them out, people would borrow them, people used them as a resource.

There were some very weird things that needed researching, like a set that was the underground toilets - public conveniences they are called - which is the way people went in and got access to the Ministry of Magic. They were a London feature, but quite rare still in their original capacity. I found a few left, some with nice decorative ironwork and tiling, and some with special features like goldfish in glass cisterns. One mainline station had a giant ginger cat that people used to come to the toilet just to admire, and it lived there. I don’t think it ever left, it was enormous. Anyhow, there wasn’t an obvious survey or book of them, only the fancy ones that were not typical. So I just had to drive around and find them and take sneaky pictures. I found several good examples, and the art department were able to go and take photos and measurements. In this case I didn’t know any other way except go and find them.

From one extreme to another – I went to the Houses of Parliament to look up their old photos documenting the bomb damage they had suffered during the Blitz. As a monumental stone building, it was very informative for the deconstruction sequences of the Battle of Hogwarts in the Deathly Hallows.

What is the first thing you do when you come onto the project? Do you see what materials the designer has been compiling?

Well, where I start out is the script, like everyone else. I interpret the script in the way that I have always treated it from my theatre background - that is the language that we have, that’s how we discuss the context of what we are dealing with. I treat the script like the designer treats it, I’m marking it up in the same kind of way. It’s a shorthand, I suppose, so they don’t have to explain to me how things fit together, I can grasp that.

How much of the big picture do you see of the design from the beginning?

It entirely depends. I would be aware of the design by seeing models and artwork if I’m in the art department. Then I’m more integrated in the discussions and seeing what’s being manufactured. If I can see where I can offer things, like some examples to help with prop making or with set decorating, I just do it. I don’t need to be asked.

I’ve done several films where I’ve actually made graphic props. When I did “Seven Years in Tibet” I worked with a Tibetan and a Chinese scribe to reproduce the agreement Tibet had to sign in 1