Sometimes we assume that the way we do things in film art departments here in the United States must be completely different than in other countries, but often when we talk with our compatriots in other countries we find out that there are more similarities than differences.
I spoke recently with Swedish Production Designer Pernilla Olsson and Construction Manager Johan Sjölin who work in the film and TV industry in Stockholm about their work process. I quickly learned that they deal with many of the same problems that we encounter here in the U.S.
Pernilla related to me that as we often encounter here, budgets in Sweden are often stretched beyond what the production demands and the brunt of those money shortages seem to often fall hard on the Art Department. Tighter budgets not only affect the construction and set decoration budgets but limit the size of the art departments as well.
“We have a much more flexible structure compared to yours and I think this is because a larger art department in Sweden would be; the production designer, one art director, not in all productions but maybe an art director, and then two or three prop buyers who are also set decorators, store managers, and set strikers. We don’t have a standby art director so the standby props person(s) has to have the confidence to arrange things on the set as they see fit. Then we may have an intern or two, and that’s it.” Olsson said.
“The production designer or art director has to do all the drawings, all the budgeting, direct the prop buyers, do mood boards, and coordinate with the construction coordinator and the foremen. So therefore there is usually no time to do detail drawings. We usually only have time to do conceptual drawings. I will give them a drawing with overall dimensions and we will discuss any area that requires more specific dimensions but we couldn’t go into more detail in the drawings. So it’s a continuous dialogue to do the set practically but economically. The graphics are sometimes taken care of within this group or by a consultant.”
Olsson said she was usually frustrated to not be able to do more detailed drawings but was happy to be able to deliver what drawings she could since the art department is often trying to just keep up with the construction department, a scenario we are all too familiar with here in Los Angeles.
Johan nodded in agreement, echoing the frustration of having to start a show so soon after the designer had begun their design process. “We normally don’t get very detailed drawings from the set designers or art directors but we have a dialogue going all the time and they know what we can do and what we need and we try to find existing windows or elements that will work. No one is going to miss 10 centimeters of width if the look is the same”, he said.
“I appreciate the moments when we get the materials at the location and we can see it on the spot and we just create detail drawings on paper there in the set and it is often the most creative kind of working situation”, Sjölin continued. “The way we work is, I or my guys can always go and ask Pernilla questions. The questions don’t have to go through me or through a layer of other people. The person who needs the information can get it from her and she can talk directly to them, as long as I have a clue as to what is going on.”
Sjölin said that in some situations he may have to draw the elevations of the set if the designer doesn’t have time to do them. He said, “sometimes a production designer will hand me a rough sketch on a napkin. Build this, they’ll say, it’s 300 square meters.”
Both of them commented on the advantages and disadvantages of digital media aids, noting that the system is far from streamlined. Many art departments rely on Dropbox as an all-purpose file transfer system and people quickly become inundated with material, often making it hard to find the information that they need at that moment. This is often combined with the problem that there is often a need to look at a drawing or reference on a tiny phone screen. Sometimes, they said, the general access to the data server is often used as an excuse to not distribute print drawings at all.
“There is a sometimes a disconnect between the people sitting in front of computers and the people on the stage or on location”, Olsson said. “People often think that as soon as a document is released that the other person will have read it not realizing that the person may not have computer access or they are in a place there they don’t have wifi.”
Olsson, who studied scenography at university in Milan, said that the film industry had recently lost work to other countries because of a lack of tax incentives, notably, The Game Of Thrones. “There are not as many stage shoots as in past years or as much stage construction. Now new people don’t have a way of getting the experience to learn about stage work because there is so much less sound stage work in Sweden.”
Sjölin agreed with her. “There are not that many new people coming into the business these days as craftsmen, who are willing to stay and spend the time to learn the trade. That goes through the whole construction department, from welders, set and standby carpenters, set and standby painters who can do the aging and all the things a shooting company needs during a shoot. All the old knowledge is soon gone with them. That is the same with all the old carpentry tricks. We are losing that”.
15 years ago, the Swedish film industry used stock flat sizes similar to a system we had here in Los Angeles. Sets were constructed of these stock units and when the set was struck, they were cleaned and returned to a stock shed for storage. The framing was done with the highest quality 21mm x 69mm fir and framed with Finnish birch plywood. Angle irons and T- plates were used at the corners and toggle joints for strength.
The Finnish birch ply are delivered with a yellow film applied to it, normally used for interiors in vehicles or for concrete casting. The surface is very smooth and slightly waxed. Afterwards, water was applied to soften the wallpaper or paint for removal. Sjölin said that sometimes a second skin 6.5mm MDF was stapled to the ply for painting or papering and then it was easily removed for a quick strike.
Johan said that the most noticeable differences between the traditional flats and current types are that they no longer use Lauan because of the cost and because it is made of rainforest-harvested mahogany. Currently they use 28mm x 70mm timber for the frames and chipboard or MDF for the skin. They tend to not glue the skin to the frames as they have trouble getting the flats to be straight and often omit using toggles to safe time and cost.
He prefers to use 25mm Finnish birch ply ripped to 70mm wide instead of the cheaper fir timber for the framing and prefers to use to use 6.5mm Finnish birch ply for the skins as it holds up better for TV programs that may have to last a number of seasons.
Toggles are spaced at 600mm on center and the frames are constructed with screws rather than staples. “I love to use nails like the old way, but no one else does”, he said with a grin.