Special effects may have come to dominate the look of much of today’s cinema, but production designer Dante Ferretti, Oscar-nominated for “The Aviator,” is unashamedly old-school in his approach. “Traditional,” he prefers to call it.
Those traditional values and skills will be under scrutiny when Ferretti and other leading production designers take the stage at the Talent Campus, the Berlin Film Fest’s increasingly popular school that gathers young filmmakers from around the world.
Among guests leading discussions and workshops under the banner “Designing Your Future” are “Harry Potter” production designer Stuart Craig, who picked up Oscars for “The English Patient,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Gandhi,” and Ken Adam, who won Oscars for his art direction on “The Madness of King George” and “Barry Lyndon.”
Ferretti dismisses the notion that the sumptuous sets of his last two collaborations with Martin Scorsese will soon be replaced by computer effects. “I like to build a set, dress a set, revamp the set in the traditional way. In ‘Gangs of New York’ we only used six visual effects, but it doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I was using them a long time ago, on films like ‘Baron Munchausen.’ I’m used to it. Every time they say it is the last time there will be one of these big movies, but they will always be there.”
For Ferretti, the visual effects team could never usurp the role of the production designer and the art department. “Every time I use visual effects, I always make my own sketch. We have to design the look. Even if there are two departments for art and visual effects, there is only one look on a movie. You have to believe what you see on the screen, so the challenge is to get the right mix and balance between what is real and what is fake.”
For “Aviator,” the challenge was to re-create the world of 1930’s Hollywood. “We had to make the movie in a modern way, with a lot of technical effects, but still have it look like an old movie,” the vet told Variety. “We built a lot of the sets from scratch — Mann’s Chinese Theater, the Coconut Grove, Howard Hughes’ house, the Spruce Goose. This was all built in the traditional way. Everything was full-size. But we also needed visual effects, for example when the plane is flying, because otherwise it would have been impossible to do.”
Craig will be using excerpts from his work on the “Harry Potter” pics to look at the advantages and drawbacks of CGI and the impact of f/x on production design, he says. “I’m going to talk not just on the techniques, which are changing, but also the politics, the things you have to fight for,” says Craig. “I have to convince a whole range of people that we’re doing the right thing, including the director, cameraman, costume designer, producer and production accountant.”
The seeming ubiquity of CGI in movies such as the “Harry Potter” series poses possibly the biggest threat of all to production designers. “The thing that must happen is the art department try to keep control over what happens in visual effects,” Craig says. “There needs to be a greater integration of the art department and visual effects department. At the moment they’re still separate. They need to be amalgamated.”
While his own experiences had left him confident the two departments could co-exist “because the visual effects chief is entirely complementary to the designer and vice versa,” one way in which the two departments could become more closely aligned is with merging the talent beneath the department chiefs. “The architectural draftsmen in the design department and the computer people in the visual effects department should eventually be the same,” Craig says.
He’s also confident that, despite today’s ever-increasing reliance on CGI f/x , the role of the production designer will remain safe.
“What’s happening now is we’re technically able to composite images much more,” he says. “There’s much less done in-camera. A lot of it is done in post-production. It’s given us infinitely more control.”
Someone who has witnessed first-hand the growing schism between traditional craftsmanship and new technology is production designer Adam, back for the third time at the Talent Campus.
Adam has just finished work on designing, of all things, his first computer game, “Goldeneye: Rogue Agent,” for Electronic Arts. “It is unbelievable. It is a new art form that has only been in existence for the past 20 years. I don’t even know how to play a videogame,” he quipped.
He’ll be telling the Talent Campus students about the ways the new technology has affected not only the role of the production designer but also the actors. “There are different ways of acting now,” Adam says. “I was brought up to provide the setting for the characters which would help the actor with his performance. Now, however, they’re up against green screens so much that has changed.”
Talent Campus director Christine Dorn explains why the Berlinale has zeroed in on production design this year. “We are trying to concentrate on areas of filmmaking that are not normally the center of interest. Last year our theme was ‘The Sound and Music’ and this year, with ‘Designing Your Future,’ we have dedicated eight events to film architecture and production design. Even a low-budget film can have a special look and atmosphere due to its production design.”
Alongside Ferretti, the production design masterclass will be led by helmer Ridley Scott and his daughter Jordan Scott, presenting their co-directed short “Thunder Perfect Mind.”
Other events at the Talent Campus include d.p. Christopher Doyle (“2046,” “Hero”), costume designer Emi Wada (“Hero”) and Oscar-winning production designer Anna Asp (“Fanny and Alexander”) discussing the ways in which cinematography, production design and costume design work together.