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 1951 with the Chinese. We also made the seals that were used to stamp people’s names, which were featured in the film, and Heinrich Harrer’s own documents. I found the map that he made of Lhasa which is incredibly exciting, and I was able to give a copy to the Royal Geographical Society in London, because they didn’t have it. It’s a very big, hand drawn map of the city. So sometimes there are exciting spin-offs.

You have such a varied career, what is it like working on so many Fantasy and Sci Fi films in terms of how you approach the research?

It’s like constructing a historical narrative, even though it’s not there in the script, and the scripts are often incomplete. You know when you’re reading them that they haven’t got an ending, or that they are going to change, or that they’re in development really and truly. We can’t wait, we have to get on with something. Particularly in set decoration, where we try to find a context for an awful lot of stuff, you have to draw on historical or source material. The set decorators aren’t just going to a rental company and saying “I want to put this on my set.” They are developing a narrative as well.

When it’s strict history, when it’s actual people or actual events, that’s an obvious starting point. But, you need to read all around that. It’s not just the first thing you go to. You want to know, again, context. You want to bring a time, a place, an understanding of the period. It exists everywhere, even if you are talking about fantasy universes - you’re taking your elements from preexisting stuff and figure out how to make a context for it.

Writers are my problem really (laughs), because I see that they claim a lot of the time to do research, but when I read scripts that are so obviously not researched, have got glaring historical inaccuracies, and most designers treat the script as a sacrosanct thing, they don’t like to contradict. Directors a lot of times just impose... whatever. They just want a streetlight in a country town in 1800, because they had imagined a scene under it.

You think, no, there was no gas there, there weren’t any streetlights in out of the way places, or people barely lit their interiors... Lighting is a huge contentious area, because it’s treated as an indication of history. When you see an oil lamp or a candlelit interior that projects you immediately into that time and place. But inconvenient facts get disregarded: you would have to have an awful lot of candles if you were, for example, doing an outside performance, and it would actually be dictated by the length of time it took for all the candles to burn down. And the cost of them, and the fact that if you couldn’t afford the nice beeswax candles then you had the tallow and everything was covered in black smoke. They all burnt so horribly, and must have smelled horrible too. Every kitchen in the 19th century must have been black with smoke, but you rarely see that. I feel that they should have the correct information anyway, so as to make an informed choice as to their take on authenticity.

How often do you conduct interviews with experts?

I used to come across a lot of experts that had been insulted by being phoned up, usually by inexperienced young people working for television who just get the first name they can and ring them up and say... whatever their question is.

Experts are offended because they’re not asked about the breadth of their knowledge, but the postage stamp-sized detail of their expertise. So you have to know the question you need to ask, and really find out if it’s otherwise available. It’s also quite embarrassing if an expert turns around and says, “Well, it’s in my book. You don’t need to be bothering me... read my book.”

I have so much respect for people in the academic world who spend their whole life on one subject. My dad was an archeologist, he was an academic, he worked in the British Museum, and I understand that world where you’re completely immersed in your work. I mean, we are, in film, in our own way too. But our world is very transitory and very self-grasping - we are only interested for the point of the film. And even though you might get an accurate explanation from an expert, when it comes to it the director’s gonna say “Well, I want curb stones on my Roman pavement, that’s what I imagined. Even if you’re telling me they never had them.” So, I think you have to be very selective about asking an expert. And I am.

But several times I was able to, for example, take a group of art department people to see the anatomy museum at the Royal Veterinary College, where they looked at animal bodies and skeletons, and had a brilliant lecturer there who was so generous and helpful. On films like “The Golden Compass” his input was invaluable. To be able to feel the weight and see how the bones were shaped to take the muscles and allow that amount of articulation, you know. Very, very valuable information.

On another project an expert came and gave the art department a lecture on nuclear fusion. The art department was really attentive and interested, and he was so pleased that he decided to submit his own version of the script. So yea, that was a bit embarrassing...

How do you personally accumulate the information you gather over different projects?

Oh, I keep imagery. I have loads of hard drives and books. I learn something from every job I do, and every time I look at something I’m putting it in a context which has grown, has evolved, has emerged, through knowing more.

More stuff is becoming available. For example, on a subject like Weapons, The Royal Amoury is online now, so even though they have moved out of London I can make contact with them. I used to have to go there, sit in their library, go to the Tower of London... It was great, but in those days there were always hassles like “does your photocopier work?” . It’s a lot easier now, especially at the British library and at the London Library, which is absolutely wonderful and has endless stacks that you walk through. Online I can go into JStor and the journals and the newspaper archives through my library membership. So, that’s pretty good.

What is your favorite discovery that wound up onscreen?

I do have thrills sometimes when I see something. A lot of the films I’ve done, I get a little frisson when I see something and think “That originated with me!” Um, something on every film, really.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I discovered the remains of the old Reference Library at EMI Studios when I was working on the ill-fated first “Michael Collins” film directed by Michael Cimino shortly before 1990. What remained of the Library had been thrown into the old nitrate stock film vaults on the perimeter of the Studio site. They were literally just about to be demolished, along with any contents. The vaults looked as though they were full of rubbish, but under the rotting papers were overflowing tea chests and locked filing cabinets. We forced them open and found they were completely stuffed with photos, paper clippings and 10 x 8" negatives. The books had all gone.

No interest had been shown by any of the people approached to take the material on. I just happened to come along and ask about the Reference Library's existence at that precise time. I felt that as much as was salvageable should be kept together. It was unsaleable for copyright reasons. Its value was as a historic research resource. All the productions that had been made or considered during the complicated history of these Studios had used and added to this collection from about 1948-1970s and it had been renowned for its content. Many photos were high quality 10'x8" and the negatives numbered up to 64,000.

It had to be rescued in a matter of weeks. My kind propman friends helped move it to a generous construction manager's store in Shepperton and I promised to do my best to find a safe home for it.

I urgently appealed to the Pinewood Studios Board suggesting it was combined with their Reference Library, also in a bad state of neglect, and offering to sort it. I was rejected with outright suspicion of my motives.I wrote to everyone I could find - pre email it was a slower process - but no one was able or interested in giving it a home to keep it intact. There was a slump in the industry. Very few films were in production and most people, me included, were unemployed.

The next year the storage space had to be vacated. I chanced on a surprise meeting with an old friend and theatre design colleague who ended up with 22 filing cabinets completely taking over her ground floor! Other friends allowed me to house the tea chests that held the bound volumes of magazines. I shuffled between these locations, and every weekend tried to sort and catalogue the loose material.

It had to be resolved. It wasn’t till 1992 that I made contact with Lucasfilm. I knew George Lucas had acquired the Paramount Research Library and realised its immense value. So I really hoped he would have sympathy for the EMI Library’s predicament. I also felt that his significant history of shooting “Star Wars” and Raiders of the Lost Ark” at EMI Studios gave him a specially relevant connection.

So I contacted his librarian Deborah Fine. At first she was quite incredulous as to how I was involved. Somehow I persuaded her to take me seriously and to give the images a place of safety as a reference facility for the future. In 1993 we shipped 90 odd boxes of the photographic material to Lucasfilm. There were customs delays, lost documents and disappointingly no grateful acknowledgement. At the start of 1994 I heard the crates had finally been received. They had to wait to be unloaded until new cabinets were purchased etc. and nothing further.

Surprisingly, my rescue story was turned into a TV drama! British writer-director Stephen Poliakoff had heard about my original efforts and wrote a film about the fate of a Picture Library, “Shooting the Past”, which had won the Prix Italia and was on PBS in the USA in 1999. A subsequent New York Times interview led to me receiving an unexpected phone call from Jo Donaldson, who had succeeded as the librarian at Lucasfilm. Jo hadn’t been aware that the 90 boxes from EMI were still in storage somewhere at Lucasfilm! She swiftly got them sorted out and made them at home.

Now they have a wonderful environment and a specialist dedicated staff. It’s been regretted that they aren't in England, but we have the benefits of a smaller world these days. Now The Elstree Collection can be readily accessed within the Lucasfilm Research Library.

So, that was a good ending, and I was pretty proud of that, really.

What advice would you give a production designer who is just starting out and maybe doesn’t have access to a researcher?

They should be excited by the prospect because it will help what they are creating. You have to think of research as a huge resource to draw from, and how you go about it maybe requires you pushing yourself a bit farther than going for the obvious.

As I said, reading around the subject. Looking at the literature of the period. Looking at the art of the period. Looking at not precisely what’s there, but how it exists within the context, so that you know things like the pace of people's lives, the things that were important to them, the issues, the news, what was actually happening at the time.

I would just want to encourage production designers to open themselves and not just cherry pick. Because if they can find exactly the same as anybody else it’s not serving their creative potential. They need to absorb more than what is just written in the script.

It’s so worthwhile because that will show in the details, and the design won’t be believable unless you’re grounding it, unless it’s coming from somewhere. You, the designer, have to be sure about where it’s coming from. Otherwise you’re just doing pretty pictures, illustration, superficial, and that’s not serving the project.

Thank you for your time, and sharing so much with us!

Thank you so much!

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