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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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Some of Phelp’s sketches of Troy

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The Troy set that was built in Malta

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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

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

 

 

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.

Traditional Skills For A Digital Age

On April 8 and 9, I’ll be teaching two new classes at the Art Director’s Guild in Los Angeles. The classes are free to ADG members.

April 8 – Back Projection and Scaling From Photographs

Prerequisite: none. Class size limit: 12

Tools needed: notebook, calculator (does not have to calculate feet or inches, one on a phone will work fine)

The technique of ‘back projection’ was developed as a way of extracting necessary information from photographs for use with rear projection systems to build set pieces that would match the scale and perspective of the projected ‘plates’.

You’ll learn the basics of this system to find sizes, camera heights, focal lengths of lenses and more.  You’ll learn additional methods of basic photographic scaling that you can use to work from printed images, books or even your computer screen. You’ll leave with a set of tools, including digital calipers, and the knowledge to be able to use this practical and valuable skill.

 April 9 – Architectural Moulding

Prerequisite: none. Class size limit: 20

Tools needed: notebook

Curb your fear of moulding! This class will examine the history and development of architectural moulding in the western architectural tradition and trace their roots from ancient cultures. You’ll learn the 8 basic shapes that make up most profiles, understand the transition from Greek to Roman moulding, learn the proper names of mouldings from their beginnings, and learn the correct use of moulding profiles by architectural period and style.

You’ll learn what’s wrong with your moulding catalogue and also get a list of moulding catalogue profiles by date so you can classify them by their period.

And,  I’ll be bringing in many of my 18th and 19th century British, American and French moulding planes and you’ll see a demonstration of ‘sticking’, or creating traditional wood mouldings by hand.

Now In Print – The Art Of The Hollywood Backdrop

The Art Director’s Guild sponsored a book signing event at their gallery space in North Hollywood yesterday, with co-author Karen Maness on-hand to sign copies of the new book, The Art Of The Hollywood Backdrop.

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The book is a cooperative project between the authors, Karen Maness and Richard Isackes and the Art Director’s Guild. With a focus on hand-painted rather than photographic backings, the book traces not only the history and development of backdrops through Hollywood films but the artists who have developed the techniques used and who have passed along that knowledge to successive generations of scenic artists.

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The event was well attended by not only Guild members but by members of the Strang family and the Coakley family of J.C. Backings, the two families which have not only dominated the field in Hollywood but have been the biggest promoters and curators of the art form.

The Coakley family and fellow artists of J.C.Backings

The Coakley family and fellow artists of J.C.Backings

 

 

Co-author Karen Maness graciously signed books all afternoon.

Co-author Karen Maness graciously signed books all afternoon.

This is a big book, and I say that in every sense of the word. Larger than a quarto format at 11 x 14 inches, the hard-cover and cased edition is 352 pages long and weighs in at 13 pounds. Filled with crisp images of both black and white and full-color backings, the photos show the backings not only in a straight-on form but in the environment that they were meant for.  It’s filled with stills from the original films as well as set stills showing them in relationship to the sound stages and the companion scenery.

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dsc_0032This book will definitely appeal to film lovers who have very little understanding of film scenery and stagecraft as well as film professionals who have many films to their credit.

It is available for order through the publisher’s website and will soon make it’s way into bookstores. If you are still making that holiday gift list, this is definitely a book that will have huge appeal to anyone who loves movies. Read an excerpt here, and you can order the book here from Regan Arts.

 

Why I Love The Pencil

Chris Schwarz over at Lost Art Press contacted me back in February to see if I would be interested in doing a hand drawing in a late 19th / early 20th century style for a limited-edition poster to commemorate the 5th anniversary of his excellent book, The Anarchist Tool Chest. I was more than happy to agree to the assignment not only because I consider the book to be a classic, (Schwarz has been a leader in not only creating a hand tool renaissance among woodworkers but creating a whole new philosophy in the way we look at furniture and the process of creating it) but I was also excited to do a drawing entirely in pencil., something I hadn’t done for quite a while.

Except for the occasional quick sketch, it’s rare I don’t do a drawing now on anything except the computer. After digging out my good pencils and tools and some good vellum from storage, (the new stuff is made for plotters not pencils and gives horrible results when you try to erase something), I made a test drafting just to refresh my pencil skills as well as brush up on my hand lettering technique.

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As I began to layout the drawing I suddenly began to realize both the differences and advantages of hand drafting over CAD:

1 – There are no in-your-face interruptions such as email, instant messaging, software update notices, news alerts, etc.

The process of creating a working drawing has been hi-jacked by software. There is this fallacy, particularly among those who don’t draw, that the computer is doing the bulk of the work. This is patently false. The computer is just a fancy pencil. It can give the veneer of respectability to a drawing if you don’t know what you are looking at, but the document is worthless if the operator does not understand the basics of creating a working drawing. Also, the process of creating a construction drawing happens to a great extent in your head, not in the computer. A lot of the work on the screen is preceded by a good deal of mental gymnastics, which is why set designers hate to be interrupted. Stop us in process and it will take 10 to 15 minutes to return to the zone where the true work gets done.

When you are drawing with a pencil you are in a completely different mental space that requires you to constantly visualize the object in your mind. This not only makes you work in a much deeper state of concentration but forces you to think many more steps ahead in the process of breaking the object down into what needs to be drawn to communicate its complexities.

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2 – You have to think differently about the drawing.

The draftsperson is no longer spending brain power on software or hardware concerns. There is also the endless-zoom mentality where the operator does not have a realistic idea of the scale of the elements. The ability to zoom it 10,000 percent on a document is what leads to prints in which the dimensions and notes are virtually unreadable unless you’re using a magnifying glass. There is also an economy in a hand drawing that is absent from a CAD drawing. You only show what is important for that sheet.

Also a line is what you say it is. With CAD and 3D modeling there is this expectation of perfect scalability throughout the model. That may be a good thing if you are designing a high-rise where there are dozens of other engineers and companies involved but for set design it adds a layer of unnecessary work.

Where you were once chastised for drawing too many brick details on a facade, I’ll regularly get a digital model where every fastener is completely detailed with threads. This is why during the pre computer days it was considered that a good working rate for a draftsperson was a sheet a day, while the rate for most modern computerized Art Departments is calculated at 3 to 7 days per sheet. We used to fear that the computer would make things so much more efficient that less people would be needed. Just the opposite happened. Where a typical feature film used to have 4 to 10 Set Designers, on bigger shows now, there will  be as many as 30.

Proof for final offset prints. photo by Chris Schwarz

Proof for final offset prints. photo by Chris Schwarz

Detail of nice crisp detail of the poster by Steamwhistle Press. Photo by Chris Schwarz

Detail of nice crisp detail of the poster by Steamwhistle Letterpress. Photo by Chris Schwarz

The print is being offset printed by Steamwhistle Letterpress in Newport, KY. Only 1000 of the prints will be made and copies will be available on the Lost Art Press website.

Here is a video Chris made at the shop while the first prints were coming off the Vandercooke press.

 

Letterpress Print Run from Christopher Schwarz on Vimeo.

 

 

The VES Handbook of Visual Effects

Visual Effects are such a ubiquitous element of filmmaking that it’s rare to see a commercial or short film that doesn’t use them.

With the digital revolution changing the film production landscape on daily basis, from new cameras to capture formats, the field of visual effects is yet another part of the production process that is important to keep up with. As visual effects become more prevalent and take up a larger part of the pre-production decisions it’s vital to understand the basics of modern visual effects as designers.

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Much as the ASC Cinematographers Manual has been considered an essential volume, the VES Handbook of Visual Effects fills the same need when it comes to gaining a working knowledge of today’s VFX processes. At over 1000 pages the book is even more comprehensive than the ASC manual and covers everything from pre-production to post-production considerations.

It covers green-screen work, front and rear projection systems, shot design, motion capture, stereoscopic 3-D work, compositing, game and animation projects and motion tracking as well as traditional in-camera effects work like glass shots, forced perspective and miniature photography.

For understanding the modern visual effects world you would find it hard to locate another book with this much practical information.

Available from Focal Press for $75 in paperback.