Production designers and art directors talk about the ADG-nommed work of their peers.
Thomas A. Walsh on “The King’s Speech”
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Designing for a filmed narrative is, at its essence, visual anthropology. In “The King’s Speech” production designer Eve Stewart and set decorator Judy Farr have done a masterful job of recreating the worlds of both the privileged class and the commoner during a pivotal period in British history. Whether it’s in their design solutions for the depiction of “the family firm,” as the royals referred to their situation, or for the more intimate surroundings of a speech therapist of modest means with theatrical aspirations.
Particularly bold was Ms. Stewart’s resolution of the office of therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), a once elegant Victorian apartment now stripped of its decorative wall-coverings and finer details. The shabby furnishings along with a singular fragile model airplane hanging from the ceiling work well to reinforce the emotional state of the characters. It’s a pivotal place that could be regarded as a poetic metaphor for the stripping away of the veneer of class pretense, exposing the emotional traumas that dwell within the future King George VI (played by Colin Firth).
The overall designs and the visual team’s collaboration on the selection of locations, integration of historic newsreel footage, color control and lighting, are seamlessly in concert, supporting and elevating the story.
“The King’s Speech” is no small accomplishment given our industry’s current commercial preoccupation with CGI and 3D products and caped crusaders. This character-driven narrative is visually rich in all its emotional and physical details, reminding us that even under the most significant constraints of limited time and money a great story can still be told, looking brilliant to the eye.
Thomas A. Walsh is the president of the Art Directors Guild.
Mimi Gramatky on “Inception”
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
In order to fully appreciate the artistry and scope of Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design for “Inception,” I had to divorce myself from the wow factor provided by stunts and fx. Shot in at least five countries on four continents, Guy adeptly created a meticulous “look” for the movie, that helped audiences navigate through its perplexing plot.
Guy’s color palette alone provided elucidation. Like a faded photograph, the crumbling muted neutrality of Cobb and Mal’s (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard) subconscious world, which they created together, indicates to us Cobb’s desire to get back to reality and the love of his children. Thus any environment in Cobb’s subconscious that brings him closer to his children is a rich, warm and embracing palette, differentiating from Fischer’s (played by Cillian Murphy) subconscious, which got colder, icier and more threatening the deeper we penetrated into it.
Even the white hotel room where Mal leaps to her death though whiteness is still tonally warm, contrasting strikingly against her blood-red dress. Color, too, defines the world of Fischer’s craggy, snow-covered mountains with the concrete hospital where he finally makes his way through the steel vault doors only to find himself in a reflective black box/hospital room housing his subconscious memory of his dying father. Saito’s (played by Ken Watanabe) palette bridges these contrasts. Evil as he seems at the movie’s start, sitting at his huge shiny black table, Saito is the one who makes the deal with Cobb that gets him home, an aspect of his character clued to us by the warm gold reflections of detail from the surrounding the walls elegantly spread across the table’s surface.
Mimi Gramatky’s credits include “Emily’s Reasons Why Not” and “The Dust Factory.”
Corey Kaplan on “The Social Network”
Production designer: Donald Graham Burt
Donald Graham Burt, production designer of “The Social Network,” had the challenge of holding back his designer sense of innovation and creativity while allowing himself to be a messenger of the material. He flawlessly enhanced the natural elements of antiquated “old world” Harvard with modern technology. Textures and dark wood blend into the computer world without intrusive color or stylish decor-interruptus.
The actors and dialogue were given a safe haven to flow and be absorbed by the viewer. I could smell the unwashed clothes and perspiration of our little Facebook masterminds at work. The visuals left to interpretation, such as the corporate site, the hearing room, the lawyers office, were often cold lifeless dissociated environments, not the slick glass and steel of money and sophistication.
“The Social Network,” is a design paradigm of visual implications that shows us exactly what the new generation is about: a social void. I applaud Mr. Burt’s choice not to glamorize and stylize this material. His honesty in relation to the material is refreshing in this day of design on steroids. Hats off to the creative team, and to the collaboration between David Fincher and his designer of note.
Corey Kaplan’s credits include “The X-Files” and “Cold Case.”
John Shaffner on “Glee”
Production designer: Mark Hutman
Production Designer Mark Hutman and his team hit just the right visual note between the real life of high school, home and America and the quasi fantasy realm we enter with the cast when they burst into song. In the tradition of all musicals, the embellished visual reality may be more than what we think of as truth, but I suspect that anyone thinking back to their high school productions enhances his or her recollections of scenery, lighting and costumes!
At the same time the visual production of the musical segments supports the emotional import of the material as it is embedded in the narrative story of the characters’ lives. I note a sensitivity to the amount of fantasy layered onto these acts that “keep the main thing the main thing,” to quote our colleague, production designer Jeannine Oppewall.
John Shaffner’s credits include “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
John Iacovelli on “Modern Family”
Production designer: Richard Berg
Richard Berg makes storytelling easier through the use of color and texture to define the three different households of the main characters. Berg has an insider’s knowledge of the architectural and decorating nuances that give Los Angeles its diversity. He boldly contrasts the three families. The specific residences, based on real houses in Brentwood, Cheviot Hills and a duplex near Hancock Park, shape the lives of the characters on the show.
Berg is helping to redefine the culture of our lives by introducing television audiences to these environments the way “The Cosby Show” and “Friends” redefined the look of interior living for previous generations. The wall colors of each home are distinctly different and help tell the story of each family. The color scheme helps set the personality and the mood for the unfolding action.
The thing I like about this way of designing is that it helps to make the editing process simpler. When the story cuts back and forth between storylines, we, as viewers, make the adjustment without the need of establishing shots or subtitles, thus speeding up the action and allowing a more fluid flow of the show.
The actors addressing the camera directly also helps to place us within the action, making us an active viewer rather than a passive watcher. This technique, which owes to Woody Allen and now “The Office,” creates an immediacy that Berg’s decorator, Amber Haley, employs by mixing items from national chain stores and quirky L.A.-area second-hand stores, giving us a sense of the real mix of our characters’ different worlds.
John Iacovelli’s credits include “Babylon 5” and “Ruby In Paradise.”
D Martyn Bookwalter on “Conan”
Production designers: John Shaffner, Joe Stewart
When entering the physical world of the television show “Conan” we’re met with an environment made up of architectural elements such as oval soffits, railings, a show drape and a proscenium. These are all components that also exist in the world of legitimate theater.
The approach to designing for a TV multi-camera live entertainment, comedy or variety show is very similar to that of designing for a live theatrical stage production. As on “Conan,” a theatrical stage performance occurs — most often before a live audience. Production designers John Shaffner and Joe Stewart have masterfully provided the show with a flexible yet signature space that embraces Conan O’Brien’s particular brand of entertainment while providing a backdrop for a wide variety of scenarios at play on any particular show.
John and Joe have created a very classical, theatrical fourth-wall environment. A live audience has multiple points of view. On the show a series of five to seven cameras duplicates this experience, offering multiple vantage points. When working with a single camera it is only possible to get one point of view at a time, thus stopping the action. One of the great advantages of shooting with multi-cameras is that all of the action within a scene can be picked up from a variety of angles without stopping, allowing the storyline to be completed.
As production designers, when working in multi-camera situations, we create environments that reflect, as John says, “showrooms” or “playrooms” that, while including the live audience, give artists like Conan a broad performance arena that allows them to experiment with and perform their unique comic magic.
D Martyn Bookwalter’s credits include “MADtv” and “Just Shoot Me!”
John Janavs on “2010 MTV Music Video Awards”
Production designer: Florian Wieder
The MTV awards boldly expanded the boundaries of scenery for this type of show. There is often a defined line between audience and stage, set and house, viewer and talent. Here Florian Wieder stretched and wrapped the set around and through much of the audience, immersing the viewer in a tour de force of digital and lighting effects — not to mention the performances.
My first thought was, how in the world did he get the lighting designer and director on board with this, because of the technical challenges that result from stretching a ceiling over much of the stage and shooting in the round. The effort was worth it. The result is tremendous. This shows how phenomenal an impact set design can have when the creative talent is given some free reign and production is willing to trust and explore new possibilities.
John Janavs’ credits include “The Biggest Loser” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Tom Wilkins on Ford Fiesta commercial
Production designer: Floyd Albee
Floyd Albee uses an array of innovative graphics to help launch the Ford Fiesta in a spot for its 2010 ad campaign. The starting of the Fiesta in the ad causes a full-scale perpetual motion machine to begin on a street in Anytown, USA. It all occurs in a single shot except for a final return to the actors in the car for the button.
The actual “copy” for the ad is seen as signs in windows, arrows that spring from behind vehicles, graphics on the side of a truck, letters on umbrellas held by people on unicycles, graphics on parachutes that land on the street, laundry overhead and giant sheets let down in front of buildings. These all had to be timed to occur at just the right time for a cohesive “reading” of the copy. At the same time the use of playful graphics and background color and tone led to a very tight composition. Overall the art direction for this spot supports the Fiesta as a playful, youthful car that just seems to make good things happen.
Tom Wilkins’ credits include “Fargo” and “Spider-Man 2.”
More on the ADG Awards:
• Pro’s setting vetting