×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.” 

More Artisans

  • Luciano Pavarotti

    Ron Howard Turned to Editor Paul Crowder to Make His 'Pavarotti' Documentary Sing

    Ron Howard is fast becoming a noted music documentarian: His 2016 film, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — the Touring Years,” released by Abramorama in theaters and Hulu on television, was a Grammy winner. His follow-up is “Pavarotti,” a doc about the man who became one of the most successful and beloved opera singers in [...]

  • Lesley Barber Film Composer

    How 'Late Night' Composer Lesley Barber Channeled Paul Shaffer for Talk-Show Theme

    When director Nisha Ganatra started planning “Late Night,” the new Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling film about a failing late-night network talk show, she knew she’d need a house band and a theme for the program. Her first call was to composer Lesley Barber (“Manchester by the Sea”), with whom she had worked a few years ago on [...]

  • Ma Movie Set Design

    How 'Ma' Filmmakers Turned a Garage Into Octavia Spencer's Party Basement

    In the new psychological thriller “Ma,” a middle-aged woman played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer befriends a group of teenagers and invites them to use the basement of her house as a place to party. Of course they accept, and much of the film happens there, though the subterranean space we see in the film [...]

  • Jim Frohna Big Little Lies Cinematographer

    'Big Little Lies' Gets a More Naturalistic Look for Season 2

    Jim Frohna has a knack for framing female-centric stories that are lyrical and dramatic. As Jill Soloway’s shooter since her debut feature, “Afternoon Delight,” as well as several seasons of “Transparent,” Frohna has become a preferred DP for capturing the female gaze. So when conflicts in scheduling kept director Jean-Marc Vallée and DP Yves Bélanger from [...]

  • Fosse Verdon BTS

    How 'Fosse/Verdon' Recreated 'Big Spender'

    The making of one of filmmaker Bob Fosse’s early triumphs, the sizzling “Big Spender” sequence from the 1969 musical “Sweet Charity,” kicks off the opening moments of the first episode of FX’s bio-limited series “Fosse/Verdon” in the same sultry style for which the legendary director-choreographer was known. It juxtaposes the film’s dancers in a sinuous, [...]

  • Andy Vajna Remembered

    Hungary's Film Business Copes With Life After Late Producer Andy Vajna

    When the producers of Lionsgate’s “The Spy Who Dumped Me” were struggling to get a permit for a key location on the streets of Budapest several years ago, they knew exactly where to turn. “I called Andy,” says Adam Goodman, whose Mid Atlantic Films serviced the shoot. “I said, ‘Look, we need your help.’” Goodman [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content