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How Production Designers Are Adapting to World of VFX

Many of today’s movies are shaped as much by visual effects as by physical design. It’s a development that has driven some production designers to stay involved in a production well beyond the shooting stage — even without pay — so that they can provide input on the effects that form a film’s final look. 

On big movies especially, VFX helps create entire worlds — bringing extinct dinosaurs to life in “Jurassic Park” and building the nation of Wakanda in “Black Panther.” Improvements in effects technology have allowed writers and directors to reproduce whatever they visualize, which might impact the aesthetics production designers work so hard to create.

The growing imprint of visual effects on the DNA of movies has resulted in a period of adjustment for production designers surprised by final cuts of films that don’t have the look they originally conceived.  

This can lead to difficult decisions — and delicate situations. A production designer’s job officially wraps with principal photography, but artistic passion compels some to check in periodically during post-production, on their own dime. “We want [the film] to be as good as we can make it,” says Ed Verreaux, production designer on “Jurassic World,” of the time spent in post.  

Emmy-winning production designer and Oscar nominee Jim Bissell (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), whose career began in the ’70s, knows how much the world has changed. “The major role of good production design is to provide context for performance and narrative,” he says. “You’re not just designing a building or street, you’re designing a place that’s going to give you the visuals you need,” which can be achieved with physical sets, locations, digital enhancement, miniatures or a combination of the above.

With new technology generating more options, Bissell and others have seen that design context increasingly determined by a film culture in which artistic dreams are as good as physical creations, and visual effects — once an element of post — can change what makes it onto the screen. 

When it comes to assessing various skill sets — and picking crew on the basis of those abilities — the director reigns supreme. Visual effects and animation producer Brooke Breton (“Avatar,” several “Star Trek” iterations) points out that the helmer chooses which visual effects artists to hire on a film. “A director who wants to use miniatures will look for a visual effects supervisor skilled at shooting miniatures versus one who relies more heavily on computer graphics for image creation,” says Breton, who adds that if the look of a film shifts in post, it’s at the director’s behest.

Two-time Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter (“Avatar,” “Lincoln”) has seen the job evolve tremendously over the past 40 years. “The tools of the trade have expanded so much that now a whole generation relies on things that weren’t even in existence before,” he explains, adding that a movie’s look comes down to “the dynamics of each film and how they’re conceived. It’s who can best do the job and how that job is accomplished.”  

Verreaux believes visual effects work best when they seamlessly enhance the reality of a story. He cites the “Jurassic World” visitor’s center as an example. The art department created Photoshop renderings and built all of the sets digitally, so they knew what the final look of the film would be, he says. The entire top floor of the structure was a digital creation, with everything approved in advance by director Colin Trevorrow and executive producer Steven Spielberg.

Bissell, who teaches a production design class at the American Film Institute, notes that students are graduating with skills that allow them “to transition from a [traditional] art department to a digital post-production art department.” This means grads will have the ability to do some of the computer work that visual effects necessitates, keeping them on projects longer than in the past. One of the brightest spots in this changing scenario is that visual effects crews are increasingly being included in pre-production, making the process much more collaborative, which helps everyone.

Mutual respect across departments and a balancing of skills is the key to making a visually interesting film, says Carter, often cited by peers for the deep involvement he has in the post-production process. “There’s a huge army of people on the digital side of things,” he explains. “You have to be able to adapt to the bigger picture.” 

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