Production Design: Storytelling, Technology and Misconceptions About the Craft

Oscar nominees from "12 Years a Slave," "American Hustle," "Gravity," "The Great Gatsby" and "Her" discuss their recognized work.
Festival de Cannes/PA

Production design is about “ideas—the right ones for a singular film,” emphasized K.K. Barrett, Oscar nominated production designer on Her, when asked about the biggest misconception about his craft.

Here, Oscar nominated production designers talk about some of these misconceptions, as well as how technology continues to give them a wider set of tools with which to tell stories--and of course, their nominated work.

Said Barrett: “We all must do technical things but we would rather the result is viewed as a magical feel or look that marries to the other parts of the film. It’s is not about an amount of decoration, or building, or technical achievement. It’s about ideas played out as visuals, to frame a particular film experience to focus a particular story and hopefully move the viewer.

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“It's inseparable from the photography and the acting,” Barrett added. “If one is false the others are weakened. Like costumes or hair and makeup assisting an actor in creating a character, the design, decor and photography, need to be sympathetic to the characters as well.”

Gravity's story of Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone required putting astronauts in space in a completely believable way. Oscar nominated production designer Andy Nicholson said research (including meetings with actual astronauts, NASA photos and video), close collaboration with other departments, and the latest previs and VFX technology all helped to put viewers in this drama.

“The whole movie was about everyone working together,” said the first time Oscar nominee of the production team, including the director of photography and VFX supervisor and VFX house Framestore. “The match between physical sets and virtual sets was so successful because everyone was working from the same tools, right from the start."

But on the bigger picture, Nicholson said, “The ability to work with and use visual effects and set extensions means that your toolbox as a designer is hugely expanded. You are no longer limited by some of the constraints we used to have. You don't have to use the tools all the time, but you know they are there.”

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Those choices are a key point for Catherine Martin, production designer on Baz Luhrmann’s roaring '20s set The Great Gatsby. “We not only still have the skills to make incredibly detailed and very realistic models but we also have the skills to work in a digital space and make equally detailed and complicated 3D models that allow us to understand how lens choices affect a space,” said Marin, who previously won Oscars in production and costume design for Moulin Rouge. "In addition to building physical maquettes and virtual sets, nothing can replace actually physically going to a warehouse, as we did on Gatsby, and taping out the space and understanding the volume that you are going to be building and working with an actual viewfinder."

The Great Gatsby was lensed in stereoscopic 3D, which was a element that influenced the design. "We're always conscious that the audience needed market within any given space to understand the dimension of the space," she said. "The architecture of Nick’s bungalow really lent itself to this and we played upon it. These arts and crafts bungalows usually had a series of screens and divides that created separate spaces within them and we used these screens and divides to increase the feeling of stereoscopic space.”

American Hustle production designer Judy Becker, a first time Oscar nominee, said that while it's becoming more common to rely on visual effects for elements, she doesn’t rely heavily on digital options, except where needed.

Still, collaboration with various departments is evident. Using an example from '70s set American Hustle, Becker cited the scene where a key meeting takes place in New York’s Plaza Hotel. “Every single craft is shown off in the scene—the lighting, the costumes, the sets and the visual effects,” she said, adding that the film was shot in Boston but none of the hotels in the city were “big, grand or period enough.”

They decided early on that this would require a set, and careful attention was placed on the story and the choreography in the scene. “We paced out the length of hallway, and mapped out the geography and choreography of the scene. I love working with blocking and using the set to tell the story," Becker said.

Everything in the hotel room from the set elements to the lighting supported the story, while the views of Manhattan from the windows of were created digitally.

For first time nominated production designer Adam Stockhausen, 12 Years a Slave also involved limited and very subtle use of CG. That included creation of a period steamer that Solomon Northup traveled on when he arrives in New Orleans after his kicknapping, before the Civil War. The steamer was reconstructed in CG and a portion was a built set.

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He added that among his favorite settings in 12 Years was the Epps plantation. “Part of it was the location choice,” he said, noting that they also added “rougher” parts to the setting such as the pigpen. Where the slaves worked as carpenters, they removed color as “we trying to go with rich honey in the wood to an absence of color as we moved through the story.”

Speaking of the work to create near-future Los Angeles for Her, Barrett said, “The story provided a leap forward in a computing entity who in trying to learn what it is to be human and teaches humans how to be more alive.

“Because of this I didn't need to be forecasting what would come from possible other technical developments, we already had a central significant advancement," he explained. "I tried to focus on a set of possible differences in cultural change, not necessarily forward or backward, just revolving like culture does. So I removed things that are prevalent today, especially in Los Angeles, stripping away cars, advertising with glaring type and graphics, older buildings, denim."


Twitter: @CGinLA