Awards Watch: Crafts Roundtable
Their work is often unnoticed, but the below-the-line artists are no less important to the emotional impact of an awards-worthy film. The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni and Carolyn Giardina gathered six craftsmen at the top of their respective fields -- costume designer Colleen Atwood ("Nine," "Public Enemies"); sound mixer Anna Behlmer ("Star Trek"); production designer Rick Carter ("Avatar"); visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar ("Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"); makeup artist Toni G. ("The Road"); and editor Kevin Nolting ("Up") -- to talk shop.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's the biggest gripe you have with directors?
Anna Behlmer: I find that in the cutting process, they get very attached to their production (sound) track and they don't want to veer too far from it. That can be very frustrating because we want to embellish, we want to improve, we want to make it sound better and bigger, and sometimes when they get so attached to something, it's just about being accustomed to it. (Directors) fall in love with what they get used to.
Colleen Atwood: My big relationship is usually with the director and I try to get in with him early on with ideas. It's just being able for them to have the time to address costume issues, which sometimes they deflect. That's always tricky when that happens.
Behlmer: How was Michael Mann (on "Public Enemies")?
Atwood: Michael Mann was Michael Mann. He's totally who he is, and a perfectionist. He's very involved with costumes but in the case of "Public Enemies," I was lucky that it's clothes (that) he thought were cool. He liked them because it's the '30s and it's cool menswear. He was more about the guns. (Laughs.)
Scott Farrar: The big thing with all directors is ... somebody that's not able to decide or not able to give you a point of view, that is really difficult. Anyone that is a decision-maker and tells you right away--that's what we thrive on. Michael Bay, for instance, decides, and that makes my job easier. When you waffle, that's tough.
Kevin Nolting: But it's balance. You want a decisive director but you also want to have input, and when they don't quite know what they want, they're open to suggestion.
Rick Carter: Isn't that sort of the core? How do you get in sync with the director, in their head, to find out what it is you think that they want? I've never been in a situation where there's what the director wants and I can't relate to that. I don't really have gripes about a director. That's a good way not to have a career.
THR: Rick, how much of your initial conversations with James Cameron about the look of "Avatar" ended up being in the final production design?
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Carter: It's an evolution. Jim's the guy who, in his mind, went to Pandora. He spent time at the bottom of the ocean on "Titanic" in a bubble looking out into the world and seeing bio-luminescent life, and that formed the basis for his vision of alien life. So for me and Rob Stromberg, the co-designer, we had to extract in our minds what (Cameron) meant and see things that he hadn't noticed. I'm being metaphoric, of course, but if I don't approach it that way, it's all just one big concoction. If I can't identify it, I don't know where to go.
Farrar: In creative collaboration, it's not just one point of view. It's also understanding in your own mind: What is your point of view? What are you going to bring to the project? You start cultivating in your head what the project is going to be.
Atwood: Toni and I work with actors as closely as we do with directors, so their inner thoughts about their characters is another element that comes into it. It's usually not an abrasive process, it's a frontward-moving river, you jump in and swim along and get as much done as you can.
Toni G.: The better the synergy with your talent, the director and yourself, the (more) you can bring ideas together and create something wonderful. If everybody's on a different page, that's when there's going to be problems. Fortunately we've all been in the business a while so we've been able to cultivate relationships with people that are like-minded. You can talk to your actor, actress and the director, and each brings something to the table and makes it even better. That's not always what happens but when you find that, it's the biggest pleasure, and it always seems like the work comes out the very best.
Carter: You just said something that's been mulling in the back of my mind for awhile. Somewhere in the last decade or two -- and I think it's our generation, frankly -- there's been this concept of having one vision for the movie and how that's achieved. I've come to the opinion that you're after one vision but that's not necessarily a singular vision. And somewhere between those two, in that gap, there is something that allows these movies to grow into the things they are starting to become. They are so complex and so big, to think that you're going to have this immaculate conception in the mind -- I kind of doubt it. The primary movers -- whether it's the director, the writer, the producer or the actors, of course -- they rely on some alchemy that gets set up, and they move through that to make it coherent, but its not necessarily about being singular. It's (not) like, "OK, everybody get on this bus and we all know what the bus is."
Nolting: Oh, it evolves.
Carter: That's the joy of it, for me. Production designer Richard Sylbert said to me something I've never forgotten: "Just remember, kid, that the greatest production value is a really good close-up of somebody you believe in." I think that's true.
Nolting: That's what I found so fascinating moving from live-action to animation, especially at Pixar. We're starting the sketches -- just concepts -- and I'm on it through this whole process of building the story from scratch. It takes four years and you see all the art come together. Finally you get actors and finally it gets animated and finally it gets lit at the end.
Carter: There's been a breakdown, I think, in what was previously conceived of as preproduction, production and postproduction. Now, starting with the Pixar model, and I know what we're going through on "Avatar," a lot of things are very malleable.
Farrar: The path of discovery is not clear on any project. On "Transformers," as we were figuring out how the robot actors should move, we started attaching voices. But that triggers a response on the part of the writers, new ideas get written into the script, and that changes a little bit of what our characters will do. And then we come back to it. Hopefully we will have time to do this back-and-forth; there's nothing better in terms of creativity if everybody's open to it. You respond (to it). "Wait a minute, that's good idea, lets put that in."
Nolting: Time is the real thing, and I think live-action movies would benefit from that model. If you see "Up," it's just amazing the difference between reading a script and then going and shooting it. We write our scripts and then we go through this process where it's rewritten, but we're basically making the movie before it goes into production. That's the biggest difference in our movies, I think.
Behlmer: We don't get four years. (Laughs.)
Atwood: We're lucky if we get a week's rehearsal.
THR: Generally, do you feel you have enough time in the schedules to do your job?
Farrar: We absolutely have to deliver on time, and finish the movie so it's in the theaters. Literally, we're down to the last month or two weeks before the movie is released. What we always want dearly in visual effects is lots of time after the cut sequence is turned over (by the director). And that's not just one (sequence), so it's rolling boulders coming at you all the time.
Behlmer: And every time he makes a visual effects change at the last minute, we have to be in sync.
Farrar: I feel really bad for all the sound editors these days because they get hammered.
Behlmer: Talk about the end of the line. My favorite: "It's not a length change, it's not an action change, it's exactly the same!" Sure it is. If it's "Star Trek": "I never saw those three phaser shots, are those new?" "Uh, yeah, I think those are new."
Farrar: "We only put two bomb bursts in and a couple of car flips!" (Laughs.)
Carter: There's a commonality we've gotten to, which is time being such an important part of what you're up against. The thing about a movie is that every situation can be solved by a better idea. Someone just comes and says (something) that can actually alleviate the problem of time. But that does not mean we're not under that pressure all the time. If you're a director, sometimes it's having some very elaborate idea in your mind that you reduce to something very simple. There are many stories about one shot that was like 10 pages of dialogue and everyone says how wonderful it is -- and it was done from necessity. I'm not trying to minimize (time's) impact but I also think that part of what we all share is what we do with time and how we are a little bit creative with time.
Nolting: I love deadlines. If I didn't have deadlines, I'd procrastinate to the very end. It really forces my hand to have to commit to something. At Pixar, we'd just keep working if we didn't have to release it. When I was in live-action I saw directors who actually had too much time. We'd reached the point where our cut was right and they just kept noodling and noodling.
Farrar: Stay with that first great idea.
Colleen, you have two very different movies this year, a '30s drama and a lush musical. Was there a particular character that stands out as the most challenging to dress?
Atwood: Each character is so apparent in both of those films, the challenge is really just mounting the whole movie -- getting the extras dressed, principals dressed, everything made and done in a short period of time. It was quite a challenge on both those movies, which sort of backs into your last question about time. What I do is different than animation and postproduction because I actually have to make stuff. I have to make drawings and I have to design a whole film as a unit. (Costumes) all live in a world a production designer and a director have designed -- a whole environment these people exist in. I see, as technology enters into the picture, the preproduction time for costumes and, I'm sure, production design, shrinking. As the techno people take over, you find yourself on some days wishing that you had a couple more weeks to find some more things to feed your creative ideas.
Farrar: Some of our best(computer-generated) hair people used to be wig makers. Some of our best fabric creators did sew fabrics. A lot of people that actually did physical trades now are in the computer world. You say it takes a certain amount of time to build something -- we have actually gotten so complex that we're really building those things, only it's in the computer. If it's supposed to look like real glass or sheet metal or copper, it's going to take 13 weeks to build those parts with the paint and surfaces. It's just like going into your garage to build it.
THR: Toni, how has the ability to create digital makeup impacted what you do?
Toni G.: A lot people feel they can fix everything in visual (effects) at the end, so we're getting less and less time in the beginning to sculpt, develop or test (makeup). Many films now, I'm testing on a stand-in the day before we're going to shoot it; that is very tricky. I had two weeks to prep "The Road." Viggo (Mortensen's) character alone, we needed to figure out if his beard was going to shoot out of context, then I needed to figure out beard extensions so we could go in and out to make him scruffier or not scruffier. Robert Duvall's character has prosthetic pieces and contact lenses that needed to be hand-painted. But the synergy with the director and the (actor) were there and that's most important.