The Multiscale – Metric Version

Last week I posted the Imperial version of a new tool I’ve updated recently. I promised I’d post the Metric version of the tool this week so here it is. You’ll find the Imperial version here if you missed the post.

If you stack them one over the other, you get a quick scale conversion calculator across 12 Imperial and metric scales. No batteries required.

Download the tool with the buttons below.

Here is the tool layout for A4 format paper.

Ends In 24 Hours – 50% Off

One-Time Pre-Sale Offer + 2 Free Design Books

There are 24 Hours left in our 50% Off sale of the 10-Week Set Design Fundamentals Course.

In addition to half-price off on the course, if you sign up before the October 31 deadline, you’ll get two free design Ebooks:

By Hand & Eye

This is one of the design books on my Top Ten list. Authors Jim Tolpin and George R. Walker examine the role of proportion in design from ancient times to the present. While the emphasis is on furniture design, they show how much of the world is governed by simple proportions, noting how ratios such as 1:2; 3:5 and 4:5 were ubiquitous in the designs of pre-industrial artisans.

This is not a recipe book but a guide to a new way of looking at design through the eyes of centuries of artists.

Published by Lost Arts Press, this is just one of a whole line of fantastic books on design and hand woodworking that they offer.

You’ll receive a link after you purchase the course to download the PDF.

Wrand Glossary of Film & Video Terms

This new first edition is the only one of it’s kind; a film glossary created for film designers. Whether you are a novice or an industry professional, you’ll find useful information in this book that doesn’t exist in any other film glossary,. As well as nearly 1500 up-to-date terms on production, cameras, crew positions, post-production, legal aspects, stage equipment, and industry slang, there are hundreds of entries on architecture, hardware, set construction, and more.

The 2023 Ebook is due to be available in mid-December. Series purchasers will be the first to get the book when in becomes available and will receive a download link.

The 10-Week Course Description

This is the only time the series will be offered at this price and it will return to the normal price when the series begins on October 31.

This self-paced online series covers the fundamental skills that a Set Designer in the feature film and television industry here in Los Angeles are expected to have.

This is similar in difficulty to a one-semester graduate-level program at a university, but much of the material presented here is not covered at most colleges and is normally only available at the professional level. I’ve been developing this series for several years, basing it on classes I teach at the Art Directors Guild in Los Angeles.

Here is an outline of the material that will be covered in the series:

Week 1 – The Basics

Standard drafting conventions and symbols for set construction drawings. Set construction: typical flat construction techniques and variations.

Week 2 – Cameras & Optics

Understanding basic camera and lens terms: aspect ratios, focal length, depth of field, sensor sizes, exposure, stage lighting, using camera angle templates.

Scaling from photographs and artwork: calculating dimensions, understanding picture perspective and allowing for lens distortion.

Week 3 – Analyzing the Script / Reference Materials

How to break down a script for set design; using storyboards; techniques for estimating drawing time schedules.

References: using online, printed, and survey photo references; building a reference library on a budget.

Week 4 – Working Drawings

Step-by-step directions on creating proper construction drawings: plans and elevations; details, full-size details, and digital cut files; reflected ceilings and furniture plans; stage spotting plans, and director’s plans.

Week 5 – Door & Window Details

Diagrams and explanations of door and window construction and various adaptations for stage sets; creating accurate-looking period reconstructions; understanding, using, and sourcing hardware.

Week 6 – Stairways

The fundamentals of stair design: types of stairs, stair construction, how the choice of stair type affects design, and designing elliptical stairs.

Week 7 – Mouldings & Staff Elements

Understanding and using the Classical Orders of architecture; the proportions of mouldings based on style type; using a moulding catalog and creating built-up moulds.

Using plaster staff and compo elements in a set; designing with brick skins and textured surfaces.

Week 8 – Backings, Special Effects, & Visual Effects

Using painted and photo backings: The advantages and drawbacks of various types; creating custom backings; how to calculate correct placement distance from the set.

Special effects considerations: replicating fire, water, and wind effects; understanding legal requirements for special effects work on a sound stage; dealing with practical fireplaces.

Visual effects work: shooting with green or blue screens; using LED walls or volumes.

Week 9 – Backlots & Location Surveys

Shooting on studio backlots; shooting on location; proper surveying techniques; assembling a personal survey tool kit.

Week 10 – Physical Models

The advantages of physical study models; determining model scales; various model types and construction techniques.

Class Materials & Videos

Each week there will be tools, charts, and reference material to download as well as video instruction to help you do the exercises and create your portfolio drawings.

Along with the classes, you’ll have access to a private chat area that is only available to students of the series and alumnae who have taken courses previously. Here you’ll be able to meet other designers, discuss class material, get advice on your career, and exchange ideas and experiences from both the classes and real-world entertainment jobs.

Prerequisites:

– You must know how to draft. Drafting ability is essential to effectively completing the course and ending up with a set of professional quality working drawings. I’ll be offering a course on drafting later in 2022 to fulfill this prerequisite.

– Be familiar with CAD software  –  You are free to use any CAD software you are familiar with. Using software that you are still learning may make the lessons more challenging than you can handle. There is no standard drawing software in the entertainment industry as far as the Art Department is concerned. There are preferences among certain designers but one aspect of the job is a need to create files that can be used by many different other programs. 3D modeling won’t be required for any of the class projects but feel free to work that way if that is part of your usual design process.

There is a 14-day money-back guarantee from the time you begin the series if you change your mind. If you’re unsure about whether the series is right for you, you can schedule a free 15-minute discovery call to talk with me and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Sign up for the course and learn more here.

The Multiscale – Seven Tools That Fit In A Book

This tool is one of several which were designed for the 10-Week Set Design Fundamentals Course which is now 50% off until October 31.

A full-size triangular architects scale isn’t the handiest thing to carry around with you.

I have those miniature versions, the cute ones that are about 6″ long and require a magnifying glass to be sure you’re reading them correctly.

It hurts my eyes to try to read the numbers on these things

After I nearly poked a hole in my chest from having one of these in my pocket, I looked for an alternative that might lessen the chances of a trip to the emergency room after falling on one of these.

I found an 18th century drafting tool that was a combination scale and liked the concept. So, I updated and revised it to what you see here. It’s a combination of the six standard scales we use for set design and throws in a protractor as well.

A good thing about it is that it’s not engraved on brass or ivory and it fits in a binder or a book, or you can fold it up and put it in your pocket. But, it doesn’t work very well with a lot of folds in it. Best to leave it as flat as possible. Just be sure you print it out at 100%. Check it with the inch scale at the bottom against a known accurate ruler.

It’s better if you mound it to some thin card stock or manila folder material. Then cut out the little windows between the scales and you’re good to go. Heck, you can even have it printed on a transparency if you want.

Cut out the slots between the scales for use on drawings

Lay a ruler or straight edge vertically on the scales and you have a direct-reading scale conversion calculator. Next week I’ll be posting the Metric version of this tool.

A straight edge aligned vertically will allow you to do quick scale conversions.

Download the tool with the button below.

And, for those of you printing on European A4 size paper, here’s the file you need:

New 10-Week Set Design Fundamentals Course – 50% Off

One-Time Pre-Sale Offer

Wrand Productions announces it’s 10-Week Set Design Fundamentals Course at a Pre-Sale price of 50% off the regular price. This is the only time the series will be offered at this price and it will return to the normal price when the series begins on October 31.

This self-paced online series covers the fundamental skills that a Set Designer in the feature film and television industry here in Los Angeles are expected to have.

This is similar in difficulty to a one-semester graduate-level program at a university, but much of the material presented here is not covered at most colleges and is normally only available at the professional level. I’ve been developing this series for several years, basing it on classes I teach at the Art Directors Guild in Los Angeles.

Here is an outline of the material that will be covered in the series:

Week 1 – The Basics

Standard drafting conventions and symbols for set construction drawings. Set construction: typical flat construction techniques and variations.

Week 2 – Cameras & Optics

Understanding basic camera and lens terms: aspect ratios, focal length, depth of field, sensor sizes, exposure, stage lighting, using camera angle templates.

Scaling from photographs and artwork: calculating dimensions, understanding picture perspective and allowing for lens distortion.

Week 3 – Analyzing the Script / Reference Materials

How to break down a script for set design; using storyboards; techniques for estimating drawing time schedules.

References: using online, printed, and survey photo references; building a reference library on a budget.

Week 4 – Working Drawings

Step-by-step directions on creating proper construction drawings: plans and elevations; details, full-size details, and digital cut files; reflected ceilings and furniture plans; stage spotting plans, and director’s plans.

Week 5 – Door & Window Details

Diagrams and explanations of door and window construction and various adaptations for stage sets; creating accurate-looking period reconstructions; understanding, using, and sourcing hardware.

Week 6 – Stairways

The fundamentals of stair design: types of stairs, stair construction, how the choice of stair type affects design, and designing elliptical stairs.

Week 7 – Mouldings & Staff Elements

Understanding and using the Classical Orders of architecture; the proportions of mouldings based on style type; using a moulding catalog and creating built-up moulds.

Using plaster staff and compo elements in a set; designing with brick skins and textured surfaces.

Week 8 – Backings, Special Effects, & Visual Effects

Using painted and photo backings: The advantages and drawbacks of various types; creating custom backings; how to calculate correct placement distance from the set.

Special effects considerations: replicating fire, water, and wind effects; understanding legal requirements for special effects work on a sound stage; dealing with practical fireplaces.

Visual effects work: shooting with green or blue screens; using LED walls or volumes.

Week 9 – Backlots & Location Surveys

Shooting on studio backlots; shooting on location; proper surveying techniques; assembling a personal survey tool kit.

Week 10 – Physical Models

The advantages of physical study models; determining model scales; various model types and construction techniques.

Class Materials & Videos

Each week there will be tools, charts, and reference material to download as well as video instruction to help you do the exercises and create your portfolio drawings.

Along with the classes, you’ll have access to a private chat area that is only available to students of the series and alumnae who have taken courses previously. Here you’ll be able to meet other designers, discuss class material, get advice on your career, and exchange ideas and experiences from both the classes and real-world entertainment jobs.

Prerequisites:

– You must know how to draft. Drafting ability is essential to effectively completing the course and ending up with a set of professional quality working drawings. I’ll be offering a course on drafting later in 2022 to fulfill this prerequisite.

– Be familiar with CAD software  –  You are free to use any CAD software you are familiar with. Using software that you are still learning may make the lessons more challenging than you can handle. There is no standard drawing software in the entertainment industry as far as the Art Department is concerned. There are preferences among certain designers but one aspect of the job is a need to create files that can be used by many different other programs. 3D modeling won’t be required for any of the class projects but feel free to work that way if that is part of your usual design process.

There is a 14-day money-back guarantee from the time you begin the series if you change your mind. If you’re unsure about whether the series is right for you, you can schedule a free 15-minute discovery call to talk with me and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Sign up for the course and learn more here.

The Swedish Art Department

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 Olsson and Johan Sjölin on the location build for the feature film Halvdan Viking (2017)

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.”

A set for Halvdan Viking (2017) under construction.
Photos – P. Olsson

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.”

Photo – P. Olsson

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.

Photos- P. Olsson

“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”.

Flat Construction

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.

Stock Swedish flat sizes – drawing by Pernilla Olsson & Johan Sjölin

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.

Illustration- R.D. Wilkins

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.

Illustration- R.D. Wilkins

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.

R.D. Wilkins

Beginnings – A Conversation With Production Designer Nigel Phelps

(Ed. note – This is the first in a series of interviews with Production Designers, discussing their first job experiences and earlier films in the entertainment industry.)

NigelPhelpsNigel Phelp’s career began in London where he was studying to be a fine artist. When his school grant ran out, he took a job as a storyboard artist.  Not long after, he was introduced to Production Designer Anton Furst who hired him as a set illustrator for the film, Company Of Wolves. That film led to Furst hiring him to work on Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam epic, Full Metal Jacket.

Commenting on the production years ago, Anton Furst related that Kubrick was happiest when he was shooting with a very small crew. Phelps revealed the reality of that preference.

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Stanley Kubrick with Matthew Modine on the set of Full Metal Jacket outside London. (Warner Bros.)

“Stanley was very fiscally responsible about the expenditures. He knew where every dollar was spent, so that meant that the Art Department was a very tiny group. There were only four people in the entire department which included a single draftsperson. We didn’t even have any PA’s.  There were only a half dozen people in Production as well. We went three months without a construction manager because Stanley had heard that TV shows were able to build scenery much cheaper, so he wanted us to go around to scene shops in London that built sets for TV programs and commercials.”

“For the first three months our Art Department were two Land Rovers, each one towing a little Porta Cabin behind it that was about big enough to get two drawing boards in it. Since it was my first big feature I just figured that was what was typical for an Art Department.”

Hired initially as the Assistant Art Director, Phelps said Kubrick was very good to him and later gave him a bump to Art Director.

__________________________________________________________

Question – Where was the production located in London?

Nigel Phelps – “The center of production was Stanley’s house in north London, so our shooting radius was within 40 miles from that point. Most of the film was shot at the Beckton gasworks, except for the ending. For the ending scene, they built a set back at the studio, at Pinewood.”

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The main set, the shelled city of Hue, was recreated at the defunct Beckton Gas Works outside London, England where the company was free to dress and add to the existing ruins. (Warner Bros.)

Beckton Gas Works

Q. – Who was the Set Decorator on the film?

N.P. – “Stanley wouldn’t let us have a Set Decorator. We had to do the buying ourselves over the weekends in our free time. When it became obvious that we weren’t going to be able to shop the entire movie from London markets, he let us send a buyer, Barbara Drake, out to Thailand for a few weeks, and she filled two shipping containers and sent them back to England. So that’s how low-tech the decorating process was.”

Q. –So there was never a Set Decorator on the picture?

fullmetaljacket-1024x576

The gas works “Hue” set displaying the palm trees imported from Morocco. (Warner Bros.)

“No, just set dressers and a prop master.  Stanley made a deal with the Belgian Army to get the tanks we used. And Stanley did this personally, as he was the producer on the film. We got a load of palm trees from Morocco and they drove them up through Spain and France.”

Q. – Did you have a researcher on the film?

N.P. – “For research, we only had about three or four books and they were on old China. That’s all we could find in England. But Stanley had a couple hundred black and white 8 x 10’s from the U.S. State Department and that was the bulk of our research. I was the only person in the art department who had actually been to Southeast Asia. We did have some good technical advisors because there were quite a few Vietnamese refugees in London at the time.”

Q.- When you were working with Stanley, did he have very specific ideas about what he wanted to shoot or did he look to you to feed him images or ideas?

Courtyard

Sketch of the courtyard set for Kubrick by Nigel Phelps

Lusthog Squad / Pagoda Courtyard set    (Warner Bros)

N.P.-  “It was a bit of both. Stanley did have a few photos, like the one of the courtyard, and he just wanted them duplicated as accurately as possible. When you did any sketches or concept drawings he would look at them and want to know how far away things were in the picture, how tall walls were, he was absolutely thinking about things as if he were seeing them through a lens. So not knowing how to do lens projection at the time I had to figure out a way to do that for myself, so that when I drew a perspective sketch I could work backward and draw a little plan and elevations to show him what the actual sizes that it would be.

Photo of U.S. Marine Corps base gate set in London.

Phelp’s illustration of army base gate for film set.

And then after you made the sketches, we’d make a model and then that would be photographed and you’d make 20-inch black and white prints of the photos and that’s what Stanley would really look at. He wasn’t very trusting of sketches.

Q. –What scale would you build the models in?

N.P. – “There were a lot of models. Mainly they were 1/4” or 1/2” scale.

Hue street scene set

Notes on building on a budget:                                                                                                  “What you’re seeing here is the entire build for the Hue scene.
There were just four shops in the foreground. There was no reverse scenery at all.
The background scenery ended to the left and there was nothing beyond the Billboards to the right.”        Nigel Phelps                    (Warner Bros)

Q. – How did you manage to work with such a small crew?

N.P. – “If I remember correctly, we worked six-day weeks. But on Sunday we were also expected to go to London markets to look for any set dressing.”

Q. –I’m still amazed you did that picture with such a small Art Department, even working a seven-day week.

N.P. -“The demands weren’t the same then.  You weren’t expected to produce nearly as much artwork as you are now.  It was a completely different level. Now you’re expected to do artwork and models of everything, with jam on it.   But back then you didn’t. You didn’t do endless options and you didn’t do concepts of all the sets either. There were just a lot fewer people involved in the process than there are now.  I wish I’d known then what a unique experience it was. I took it all for granted. It was an amazing process.”

Q.- Now, the Gotham set for that first Batman movie was huge. How many people did you have in that art department?

Phelp’s initial concept drawing for Flugelheim Museum

N.P. –  “I think there were about a dozen of us. Three or four full-time draftsmen, and another few for part of the film and a P.A. (production assistant). We didn’t have Art Department Coordinators at that time (in the business). I worked for the same Production Designer, Anton Furst, on Batman, and we didn’t do illustrations for all the sets on that film either. I was the concept artist for all of the sets and I did the sketches for all of the matte paintings as well. Julian Caldow did the vehicles. There were only two versions of the Batmobile ever drawn. And they were the same except one had a roof and one didn’t, sort of emulating the original TV show vehicle.”

Drawing of Flugelheim Museum interior

Flugelheim Museum set under construction

Panorama of finished backlot set. Gotham City Hall and Flugelheim Museum. Cathedral steps in the background.

Gotham City Hall plate and matte painting design

 

”But I have to tell you that Judge Dredd (1995) was even a bigger than the one we did on Batman. It was massive. It was also the first time that I had worked with concept artists, and amazingly, this group are still some of my closest friends; Matt Codd, Simon Murton, Julian Caldow, Chris Cunningham, and storyboard artist Robbie Consing.

Judge Dred

Illustration by Simon Murton

Lower Megacity One

Judge Dredd / Lower Megacity One (Matt Codd)

Mid Megacity One

Judge Dredd / Mid Megacity One (Matt Codd)

[Ed. note – Sylvester Stallone had insisted on constant script changes to make it more comedic. He was not thrilled with the end result but he and story creator John Wagner regularly praised the production design and the sets. Judge Dredd was Phelps’ first feature as Production Designer].

Q. –I wanted to ask you about the Trojan Horse on Troy (2004), I thought that design was brilliant, because you usually see it created as this finely crafted giant piece of sculptural furniture that would have taken years to build, and your version was this massive, somber effigy made from destroyed ships ribs, and it actually looked as if it had been hastily built from battlefield debris. It was so evocative of the whole story.

maxresdefault-4 2

Replica_of_Trojan_Horse_-_Canakkale_Waterfront_-_Dardanelles_-_Turkey_(5747677790) 2N.P. – That was really the result of a collective design,  The inspiration for that was a picture someone had given me a sculpture of a gorilla. that had been made out of rubber tires, and it was beautiful and expressive, and it occurred to me that that would be the right direction to take for the design of the horse, to take abstract shapes and fashion it from discarded ship parts. It ended up being about 40 feet tall.

Q. –That (Troy) was a massive set too. Were the buildings and temples on the far hills forced perspective miniatures? Surely those weren’t full size.

N.P. -Oh yeah, those were full size. That was a huge set. The studio wanted us to shoot as much as we could in Malta. We had found a great location in Morocco but it was dangerous to go there. So, we found a location in Mexico, at Cabo San Lucas which was amazing because it had these huge sand dunes that came right down to the ocean, and so we built a couple of massive sets there. So the streets of Troy behind the gates was done in Malta, but the actual gates and the walls of the city were built in Cabo San Lucas.”

Troy Design 02

Some of Phelp’s sketches of Troy

TroyVFX-25

The Troy set that was built in Malta

troy_mauer

The company built over 400 feet of gates and adjoining walls at the Cabo San Lucas location. A hurricane destroyed a large part of the set which had to be rebuilt to complete shooting. (Warner Bros)

“We had greensmen working for six months to dress the battlefield and clear it of scrubby undergrowth.”

R. D. Wilkins

Video – A History Of Seating

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Christopher Schwarz over at Lost Art Press made me aware of a new video on the history of the chair by Vitra International in Switzerland. The furnishing company maintains a museum and has recently completed a 90-minute film on the history of seating from 1800 to today, covering mainly the 20th century, which includes interviews with a number of famous chair designers. The film is currently available for free for a short time so don’t wait to watch it.

Before you leave the site, check out their store which sells over 50 beautiful miniature versions of historic chairs which you see used as props in the film. The details of these are really superb.

Screen Shot 2020-05-14 at 4.47.19 PMScreen Shot 2020-05-14 at 4.48.30 PMScreen Shot 2020-05-14 at 4.46.30 PM

Also, if you click on the ‘Downloads‘ page, you will find both 2D and high-poly 3D model files of many of the chairs in their collection.

Screen Shot 2020-05-14 at 4.56.39 PM

 

R.D. Wilkins

COVID-19 And The Art Department

Right now there are empty studio backlots and sound stages all over the world. Most of them are booked, waiting for shooting companies, but entirely unshootable until they are filled with scenery and set dressing. Just in the U.S., over 2 million film personnel sit waiting, wondering when the studio lot gates are going to open again.

Scenes from studio lots: clockwise from upper left: Melody Ranch; Warner Bros backlot; Sony Studios; Paramount moulding shop; Paramount stage; Warner Bros backlot; Metarie stages, Louisiana.

The studios and production companies wish they could give them a start date.

The flu pandemic of 1918 affected the film industry in the U.S. in a way nothing has ever done until today. Some stars died, including Harold Lockwood and Russia’s first film star, Vera Kholodnaya.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Gish sisters from Springfield, Ohio, and childhood friend Mary Pickford were spared. A young cartoonist named Walt Disney had forged his birthdate to be able to join the army and drive an ambulance in World War I. He returned from France after the war, possibly bringing the virus with him. He fell sick with the flu but recovered.

Shooting crowd scenes were banned and the studios rushed to finish shooting films before shutting down for a month, some stars decided to forego their salaries so that the movies’ crews could stay employed. It changed everything, including distribution, allowing the studios to grab up the exhibition venues around the country which helped established the studio system.

When the month passed, some of the smaller studios jumped into production before the majors and as a result, were able to attract star talent to their lower budget films. Eager to work, actors jumped at the chance to sign on to films they would normally never have considered. One director said of his all-star cast, “I had the pick of the flock.” Hollywood productions went back to work.

Spanish Flu Epidemic 1918-1919 in America. TO PREVENT INFLUENZA, a Red Cross nurse is pictured with

Security guards sprayed people at the gates with disinfectant and people would wear little bags of ground pungent asafetida gum (and very likely olibanum) around their necks to ward off the virus. Olibanum (myrrh) and asafetida are centuries-old elements for calming bees when harvesting their honeycombs. I’m guessing it was an easily obtained substance on studio lots as bee smokers loaded with hot coals and olibanum gum were a common way for special effects men to create smoke on stage sets up into the 1980s. People with long histories in the industry can describe it’s pungent scent from memory. As the pandemic continued to rage, a high death rate from the virus began to be considered as inevitable.

Mary Pickford in a scene from the 1919 film, “Daddy-Long-Legs”    (screengrab)

Masks were an accepted accessory, even on camera, having been worked into the storyline of some films. The biggest complaint against them was that they interfered with cigarette smoking. If you pick up a book on the 1918 pandemic you will start to feel that in some ways you are living a real-life version of the movie “Groundhog Day“. Over 50 million people around the world would die. In the U.S., 675,000 people would die, including my great-grandmother.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 may be just as disruptive, if not as lethal.

Living in a surreal world that very few people today ever imagined possible, the networks and streaming services look at their content schedules and carefully note the dates when they are going to run out of new content to air. The onus is now on the studios and networks, both streaming and broadcast, to figure out a solution to the same key problem of restarting production; what classifies as a ‘safe set’?

The news isn’t helpful: The U.S. Government wants to pretend that this will all be a non-issue on May 30, even if it costs lives; A new report states that the coronavirus is exhibiting the ability to mutate at an undetermined rate, sometimes multiple times in a single person; Death tolls in Europe are thought to be higher than reported.

If recent history is an indicator of likely production restarts, namely what happened after both the Writer’s strike of 2007 and the Great Recession of 2008. It was the surge of reality-nonscripted TV shows that filled the void of scripted content; in 2007 because it solved the problems of producing without scripts and in 2008 because it solved the issue of small budgets.

At the Realscreen website, they have posted their first in a series of roundtables of content providers and network execs to talk about the future of the industry. Participants of the first panel were Gena McCarthy, head of programming for Lifetime unscripted, Jodi Flynn, president of Content Group, and Aaron Saidman, president of Industrial Media.

While all three are mainly concerned with unscripted content, the discussion provided a good snapshot of the potential ‘reentry’ plan for the film industry in the States. Two terms that stood out during the roundtable were ‘COVID-proof’ and ‘evergreen’. The networks and streamers are looking for content that will transcend the current pandemic and for shows that will bridge the pandemic-era.

Other content providers have instructed writers to try to avoid COVID-themed stories, pointing out that there are currently more COVID-themed documentaries in development than they think anyone will want to see. There will be a push for more ‘premium-doc’ films and similar shows that have a ‘smaller footprint’.

They all acknowledged that unscripted or reality programs have a definite edge as far as being first in the pipe-line due to the nature of their smaller crews and smaller budgets. They seemed to agree that while budgets will not shrink dramatically in the wake of the pandemic, neither will buyers be willing to provide an open checkbook with the realization that the costs of providing ‘safe sets’ are still a big question mark for everyone.

McCarthy added that Sky Media in Britain has indicated that they don’t see large scale scripted dramas coming back until 2021.

The murmurs coming out of the upper offices hint at some big changes: less travel, more shooting within Los Angeles, less location work and more work within the studios on sound stages and on backlots.

The market is looking for known properties and content that is escapist and aspirational. The networks want shorter schedules, a not-surprising wish considering the challenges of future production.

The advertising market is a big question. Advertisers were cutting back before the pandemic and no one is sure what lies ahead. The Future Of TV Advertising UK just happened in London, where they question the ability of SVODs to compete with streaming channels for ad dollars in an expected post-pandemic recession.

Let’s backtrack, and go back to the Produced By conference held last June at Warner Bros by the Producers Guild. I didn’t want to spring for the $1000 fee to attend but I got the rundown from a producer friend:

22 and 24 episode shows are a thing of the past; The majors are planning to do less big features but spend on bigger budgets; the streamers are planning on creating more content on smaller budgets, generally, meaning the period pieces are going to be a struggle for the Art/Costume/Set Dec/ Prop departments.

And the threat of a Writer’s strike following the contract negotiation fallout hasn’t been resolved, with the writer/agent animosity still lingering in the background.

So what does this mean for the rest of us? When and how are we going to get back to doing what we’re trained to do? Some news articles have hinted that in the wake of production companies piling-on the insurance companies with claims due to the COVID required shutdowns, the insurance companies have said they will no longer recognize COVID claims. The studios are suggesting that crew will be required to sign a form releasing the producers from responsibility in the event of the person contracting the virus while at work.

At first glance, it seems outrageous that they would not take responsibility for an illness, but there is already a precedent. The California Association of Realtors has drawn up release forms that sales agents, home buyers, and home sellers must sign during the selling process absolving them of responsibility in the event of illness. This requires that the parties also wear masks, gloves, and booties during a home tour and only one person from the buyers’ party is allowed to be present. They must stand 6 feet apart and there can be no touching of surfaces. The first viewing of the property must be done remotely through video or digital medium. This is now complicated by the LA council voting to ban in-person showings of houses for lease or sale. Yikes.

In a recent interview, one producer mentioned what I had only heard in passing from other people; the idea of a quarantined show. If you are a Navy veteran you may start to understand what this would mean. Think of a tour on an aircraft carrier, a floating city. Unless the ship stops in a port the only way to get anything on or off that ship is by helicopter or a ship-to-ship transfer.

They are talking about testing an entire crew and then sequestering them on a lot or confined location until the end of the shoot. Equipment would have to be cleaned and brought in, a self-contained caterer would be part of the quarantine, no visitors or unnecessary personnel. This might work for most of the shooting company but would be hell for production designers, art directors and set decorators much-less construction crews, painters, set decoration crews and others who need to come and go.

To stay on a reasonable budget there would need to be ample pre-production time, like there used to be, thorough scheduling, shot lists, locked scripts, efficient production schedules. There would be no room for the loose, time-wasting shoots that we often see today with their endless last-minute changes which are usually a product of rushed productions and indecision. This scenario sounds more and more unrealistic.

Kurt Sutter recently mused on this conundrum, saying the quarantine process is much more realistic for a feature than a series. He was dubious of relying on a testing process after his doctor told him many of the tests only have a 48% accuracy rate.

He laid out what he believed was the bottom line: compromise from everyone.

“There are going to be sacrifices made. There are going to be changes that feel like a compromise. I think everyone has to wrap their brain around the fact that they’re going to have to do their job a little bit differently. And if everyone can go into it with that mind-set from top to bottom, I think we can figure out how to do this. I think when we’re going to hit a wall is when people start getting to that point of like, that’s not how I do this, I can’t do my job this way. I think everyone is going to have to figure out how they do their job under these circumstances.

And if they can’t do it that way, then they need to go away. That goes from the creative end — because we’re going to have to make changes in terms of how we write scenes, where we shoot them, and so on — to the directors, who are going to have to compromise visual integrity. Everyone is going to have to go in and say, I can’t have the same expectations I had a year and a half ago. It will be about, how do I do my job under these conditions? And if people can make that adjustment, we can f*cking get through this. If they can’t, we’re not.”

Sutter mentioned that a 40-day quarantine for a shoot would, for him, be a maximum time that you could expect people to be shut away from family and society. What does would this mean for art departments and designers who can often spend 9 months on a picture?

Tyler Perry recently outlined his plan to return his studio in Atlanta to functionality as well.

His studio is the former Ft. McPherson military base and the facilities which the studio includes may be a point of envy to other studios who need to create a crew-quarantine situation. Complete with on-base housing consisting of separate homes as well as barrack-style housing, Perry’s 330-acre studio already has the infrastructure to create such a contained shooting situation.

Materials, including set dressing, would have to be delivered through the main gate and go through a sterilization process like everything else.

Another point in Perry’s favor of having this situation work is that Perry shoots fast, completing an entire season of 22 episodes in 2 1/2 weeks. His plan is to shoot in three-week blocks.

“We will do three weeks at a time, then take a week off so the crew would go home to be with their families. Then they come back, and we start all over again,” he said. “There is another testing process, everybody comes back, we lock down for three weeks while we shoot the next season of the next show.”

With so much riding on the soundness of the quarantine measures taken, and the possible consequences of someone on the crew getting sick, especially a lead actor, the stakes are pretty high.  I don’t envy the people who have to come up with the solution, but they have to find one.

Perry was very forthright about the necessity of waivers:

“We are in the beginning of talking to insurers and insurance companies but absolutely, in order to be a part of this you would have to sign some type of release or waiver. Any of this falls apart between now and the next couple of weeks…If one of the union reps says no, if one of the cast says no, I don’t feel comfortable with it, or the insurance carrier says we won’t cover you, then none of this happens. I just thought that this was the best way to get us to work and get things moving. But all of these things have to line up. From the approval of the mayor, to the approval of the CDC, to the approval of Emory Health and Del Rio…all of these things have to line up for that to happen.”

Even Sutter admitted that because the insurance companies will balk at covering a pre-existing condition, some type of waiver will be a given:

“And I think as a result of that, I think everyone’s going to have to sign that f*cking waiver. There are going to be people who don’t want to do that, and I get it. But I do think that if studios want to get productions up and running and they want to get them insured, there’s going to have to be a certain risk/reward that is going with both cast and crew.”

2020 isn’t going to be anything like we thought it would be.

UPDATE:  5/8/2020

An article at the Deadline website covers a preliminary draft of a document put together by The British Film Commission which proposes safety protocols for reopening the film and television industry there. Among the drafts recommendations are for departments, such as construction, set decoration and lighting, to be given extra time to prevent overlapping set work. The paper also proposes:

 

  • Art department crew should be given more time to sanitize props, furniture, and set dressings that come into contact with cast and crew
  • The handling of key props should be limited to the relevant actors
  • Props and decorations should be purchased online where possible

 

 

Further reading:

When Film and TV Production Starts Again, How Will the Crews Stay Safe?

Reopening Hollywood: David & Christina Arquette Lay Out Bold Plan To Open Production In Arkansas & Brave COVID-19 Shutdown

Flu Season: Moving Picture World Reports on Pandemic Influenza, 1918-1919, Richard Koszarski

https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html

The Great Influenza, John M. Barry

 

R.D. Wilkins

 

 

Allen Daviau – An Artist And A Gentleman

hqdefault  Allen Daviau, the five-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer of films such as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Empire Of The Sun, Avalon, Bugsy, and The Color Purple, passed away on Wednesday from complications of COVID-19.  In 2007 he was given a Lifetime Achievement award by the American Society Of Cinematographers.

His professional film career began in the 1960s where he started out shooting documentaries, music videos and working as a still photographer. He met a young Steven Spielberg in 1967 and helped him shoot his short film, Amblin’. Years later Spielberg was in pre-production for ET when he saw a reel of a TV movie Allen had shot and hired him immediately.

Whenever I saw him, Allen was always personable and kind but it would be a mistake to take him for a pushover. He and a number of others were frustrated when they were denied membership to the cinematographer’ union. Universal had tried to sign him to a contract but the union was a closed-shop in all but name at that time and refused to allow it. Daviau and a number of other cinematographers including Caleb Deschanel filed suit to join the union and were finally admitted.

Daviau-Empire

I only got to work on one picture with Allen, A feature called The Astronaut’s Wife, production designed by Jan Roelfs. He was outgoing and approachable, always eager to talk shop. There are times when you work with individuals that you hold in such professional esteem that the initial interactions are awkward but that was never the case with Allen. I didn’t get to ask him all of the questions I had buzzing in my head about his other films. I refrained from ‘interrogating’ him the way I had once done to Werner Herzog when I ran into him on the backlot at Warner Bros Studios in an embarrassing ‘fan-boy’ moment.

I never got to ask him about some of the shots in Empire Of The Sun that I had analyzed but I did learn two things: he didn’t like multi-camera shoots and he didn’t particularly like translites. “They’re too sharp”, he told me. Unlike the traditional handpainted backings, they had a crisp photo-quality that defied being able to create a realistic depth-of-field. Even the painted backings often had black or white bobbinet stretched in front of them to create an atmospheric softening effect. It’s ironic that now, years later, a number of companies will custom print backings to create different degrees of softness to simulate an out-of-focus image due to depth-of-field.

allen

The multi-camera shoots were something he accepted as necessary at times but he felt that they diluted the quality of the lighting. He felt that being able to concentrate on just one composition at a time resulted in a superior product. There were lighting effects that became impossible to do effectively if you had to take other camera positions into account.  He was as technically adept as he was artistic and relied on both his eye and his light meter. He knew that the audience will only see what you let them see. And being able to shoot with a single camera allows you to get away with tricks that are harder to pull off when you have to light for multiple angles at once.

A camera-lover, he told me as part of his endowment to UCLA, each year he would buy a top-of-the-line Leica and leave it unopened in its original packaging.

When he was in Shanghai on Empire, they were unable to get dailies until a week later and playback technology was a long way off.  He had to rely on his light meter and his experience with the film stock to know if he had a proper exposure.

Daviau-Empire-light-reading_248ed78b6649d6cda0fcadc1ac9bc23e

One thing I learned from him is, there are times when you have to let the details go. We were doing pick-up shots and only had a few days to recreate several parts of the sets from the main shoot. Recreating a portion of the main characters’ apartment was complicated by the fact that the backing we had used outside the huge glass window wall was unavailable.

We found a cityscape backing that was close, but overall the values and details didn’t come close enough to really match the original. I hoped that the shot would be tight enough that the DOF would hide the mismatch, but was dismayed when the director asked for a wider shot. With so many elements to consider, the backing issue was the last thing on most people’s mind . Allan was behind the camera, lining up the shot and I finally called out to him, “But Allen, the backing.” He just looked over at me and raised his hands. He could have just ignored me, or been dismissive or irritated. He just gave a little smile and said, “It’s OK, it’ll be fine.” And it was.

There is an excellent interview with Allen in the 1992 documentary film, Visions Of Light, about the art of cinematography.

R.D. Wilkins

 

 

 

You Know Your Set Is Big . . . When You Can See It From A Satellite

It’s there on Google Earth, at least the footprint of it is. You can make it out from an image at 30,000 feet high, there in the giant parking lot of what was once an amusement park.

Set location in Google Earth shot from 30,000 feet

In 2013, pre-production began on the feature film Jurassic World. The picture would require the creation of a fictional amusement park, a resurrection of the island world destroyed by dinosaurs in the first film, Jurassic Park in 1993. Production Designer Edward Verreaux was tasked with bringing the dinosaur park back to life in Louisiana, outside New Orleans. The option that looked the most promising in the area was Six Flags New Orleans which had sat derelict since it was closed as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

When the levee broke as a result of the water surge in Lake Pontchartrain, the park was soon under seven feet of water and would remain submerged for over a year. After it was drained, the plan to revive the park was abandoned and it sat empty until snakes, birds and alligators made it home.

Six Flags New Orleans _ Bob McMillan/FEMA 2005

 

The original plan was to build the set within the confines of the original park, using the existing structures as a base, covering up or adding onto buildings as needed and covering up those that needed to be hidden. The sad state of the park was not only worse that expected but it was soon apparent that using the actual park was more trouble than it was worth.

Proposed plan for Jurassic World park set which utilized existing buildings.

Verreaux came up with the solution: the company would create the set in the huge parking lot adjacent to the park, avoiding the problems associated with hiding the structures that didn’t work and not be penned in by the claustrophobic original layout. This not only gave him the ability to expand the width of the streets as needed but allowed the company to have  much easier and safer access to the set.

You can still see the layout of the street and sidewalks as the paint has not faded even three years later.

The footprint of the set can be made out from the satellite photo in the middle of the parking lot

 

The set would be built there in the middle of the huge parking lot. The area between the set and the original park would be separated by a huge green screen, suspended from a framework constructed by the grip department.

Layout of set

 

 

Plan and elevations of the north side of the street-RD Wilkins 2014

 

panorama of Jurassic World street set – RD Wilkins 2014

 

 

View of street from visitors center_RD Wilkins 2014

The Maintenance Alley under construction_RD Wilkins 2014

The street with the original Six Flags entrance in the background_RD Wilkins 2014

Here is a photo from 2015, one year later after the set has been struck and another company is at work constructing the monster oil platform set for the film, Deepwater Horizon.

In Google Earth you can set the Historic Imagery slider bar and see the area transform from its pre-park days in 1998 to today.