Where sets end & digital begins

With so much done in post, production designers crave a piece of the action

Digital effects last year enabled audiences to see King Kong again, bid farewell to “Star Wars,” journey through the fantastical land of Narnia, speed through the streets of Gotham and cringe as massive tripod-shaped aliens tried to wipe out the human race.

But the evolution of digital effects also has created a conundrum for production designers in charge of the look of these films. Their final day on the job is the last day of principal photography, so they are essentially out of the loop when the digital effects are created in post.

“I think it’s a real issue,” says Nathan Crowley, an Art Directors Guild nominee for his production design on “Batman Begins.” “If I ever do another large film, I would insist on extra prep time alone with the director.”

He had that time with helmer Chris Nolan, deciding early on to make their version of “Batman” look as realistic as possible. “We didn’t want digital effects to take us out of this reality,” Crowley says.

To achieve their objective, Crowley took on the monumental task of running two art departments at the same time. One worked on the full-size sets and the other on miniatures. In a number of shots there is a seamless blend of both, combined with digital effects by Weta Digital. Crowley conceded it was a costly adventure, but well worth the end result.

“It was really important to me and my way of solving the fact that production designers aren’t hired for post-production,” he says. “The key is to design more up front.”

Extending prep time is just one solution.

Grant Major, nominated by the Academy and the Art Directors Guild for his production design on “King Kong,” maintained the look of the film by having his team draw very detailed illustrations of every scene. He would then consult with director Peter Jackson and effects supervisor Joe Letteri to decide what needed to be done as sets, miniatures or digital.

“After a shot,” says Major, “we would hold up the illustration and ask, ‘Is it the same?’ ”

Every shot of “King Kong” contained digital elements, and Major didn’t want to abandon the film when it went to post. “I was in there like a rat in a drain pipe.” Although Major continued work on “King Kong,” he wasn’t paid for it.

Gavin Bocquet, production designer on “Revenge of the Sith,” says it’s frustrating, but the reality is designers don’t need to be there every day once the cameras stop rolling.

“To be fair, there wouldn’t be enough we could do,” he says. “We’re not digital experts.”

Even if production designers worked out agreements where they stayed on as consultants one or two days a week, Bocquet says the other problem is they wouldn’t be able to take on another full-time gig.

Art Directors Guild president Thomas Walsh says a designer should at least be given the choice to work on a film as a consultant when principal photography is completed.

“They need to be there to follow through,” he says. “It just makes sense financially. It’s not about carving out turf.”

One way the guild is working toward involving its members more in post is by educating them through the Technologies Committee, formed to “develop a series of standards and practices that we could share with our members and to pool our experiences and knowledge,” Walsh says.

Eric Roth, who heads up the Visual Effects Society, also says it’s not a competition between designers and effects wizards.

“I know that very smart, open-minded visual effects supervisors like to have the production designer’s opinion throughout a project,” he says. “At the end of the day these are all tools to help tell the story.”

Rick Carter, production designer on “War of the Worlds,” has enjoyed the good fortune of working with the same effects house, Industrial Light and Magic, on a number of Spielberg films. He sees it all as a collaborative effort. “There’s a lot of creative room to work with,” he says. “There’s no friction.”

The team at ILM and Carter brainstormed beforehand on what attributes the alien tripods should have in “War of the Worlds.” “We talked about how the creatures should come across and how we should take this character all the way to the end,” he says. “Then we’re all on the same page on what movie we’re making and how it’s going to resonate throughout.”

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