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.

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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

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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

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.

 

The Golden Divider For Arts

The Golden Divider For Arts. Photo: GDA

The Golden Divider For Arts. Photo: GDA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love well-made tools, especially dividers. So when I got an email from Robert Lèvy in Switzerland describing a new set of dividers based on the Golden Proportion, I was very interested. He was kind enough to send me one of his tools on loan to examine and try out. The dividers are everything I would expect in a tool; beautiful, easy to use and very well made.

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The packaging is as well thought out as the tool itself. It comes in a black box stamped with the logo and name in gold. Inside, in black tissue, is a very nice calfskin case which is also stamped with the logo. The leather (real) and the stitching are very good. Unlike a lot of faux leather cases you see today, this one, of real leather, is well constructed both inside and out. The top flap is held closed by two magnets, both stitched into the leather, and the inside of the case is lined with a soft microfiber fabric. On the back of the case is a leather loop for attaching it to a belt.

The tool itself is excellent in every way. Laser cut from 316L stainless steel, it holds up to oil from hands. The lettering is laser engraved and the arms of the dividers are connected with permanent flush rivets. Rivets are usually the weak point of dividers as they are either set too tight or they quickly loosen up after some use. These rivets are not only well engineered but they are set at a perfect tension. The arms move easily but stay where you want them so gravity won’t pull them to a wider setting during use.

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One of the great thing about these dividers compared to others based on the Golden Proportion is that this tool’s  8 arms give you multiple proportions at once, not just a single one making it possible to lay out the primary, secondary and tertiary lines for a drawing. Drawing a volute is actually easy, and explaining a relationship between a cubit and a handbreadth and showing the golden proportion relationship of body parts is simple with these dividers.

Photo: GDA

Photo: GDA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo: GDA

Photo: GDA

Rather than go into a long-winded article on Golden Proportion, go to Robert’s website. Logo_20InventionG2You’ll learn everything you need plus get more information on his device, which by the way took the Silver Medal at the Geneva International Exhibition of Inventions this year.

 

 

 

The dividers are now at an introductory price of 295 CHF, or about $298 US. This is a very good price for a tool of this quality. Buy one while you can. Very well made specialty tools like this won’t be available forever.

Here is a video on using the tool to lay out regulating lines.

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.

The-VES-Handbook-of-Visual-Effects-post

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.

 

The Original Pre-Viz Tool – A DIY Lens Angle Calculator

 

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

 

 

Pre-vis Before Previs

Before the term “Pre-visualization” ever existed, there was the lens angle template. These were a staple of any Hollywood studio Art Department and were used when laying out a set to determine camera angles, backing sizes needed, rear projection screens and planning back-projected set illustrations for the producer and director to approve sets long before there were 3D computer programs.

There was a time when a basic knowledge of optics and lenses was considered mandatory and was necessary not only because the Art Director would design the sets to be shot in a specific way but this information was needed when designing effects shots such as forced perspective sets, glass shots and the like.

Todd AO template

A template for a 100mm to 300mm zoom lens in the Todd AO format. Todd AO was an early 70mm film format with an aspect ratio of 2.20.

The templates were for a single lens, usually a prime lens, and were made using 1/8″ or 1/4″ thick plexiglas. The projection lines were scratched or engraved into the acrylic, sometimes by a Set Designer but other times they were made by the studio sign shop. Some of my examples are obviously done with a hand held engraving tool while others have been done with a lettering template and have inked letters.

Todd AO lens template

Each template had two sets of projection lines, one set for the horizontal plane (for use with a plan view) and another for the vertical plane, for use with scale room elevations. Most are made for use with 1/4″ scale drawings but they are accurate for any orthographic drawing because the angle is unaffected by the scale. Most will have markings to note the distances from the lens entrance pupil in 1/4″ scale.

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The “Quick View”

By the 1990’s, there were so many different formats and lens combinations most of us in the Art Department in Hollywood carried thick manila envelopes of acetates of the various focal lengths, but I always seemed to be missing one that I needed and I found some were inaccurate from being cloned so many times. In 1998 I designed a device that had all the available formats and prime lenses  so you could just dial up the one you needed. I redesigned it in 2008 to include the digital formats but sold out of them a year ago.

I stopped having them made since they were expensive but hated to see them become obsolete since they are still so useful. For a director, they are the perfect way to see if a shot is possible at a location or see the limitations of a particular lens on a set when you can’t rely on wild walls.

Making A Quick View

Yours won’t be on Lexan like the originals were but will be sturdy enough plus cheap enough to replace if it’s damaged or lost. Download the files below and take them to your nearest copy center and have both the dial and the nomen printed on clear acetate. They don’t have to be printed at exactly 100% but they should be at the same scale to each other. Then you just line up the center marks and use a compass point or push pin to pierce the centers, creating a pivot point in place of the brass rivet as in the photo above.

The diagrams from the original instruction manual will explain how to use them. You’ll note that I’ve added a feature that wasn’t on the originals, a protractor which will tell you the angle of a selected lens.

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Quick View II User Manual_3

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Calculating Reflections – No Computer Required

It doesn’t happen often, but you occasionally have to calculate reflections.  A scene will be staged in a way that the camera is seeing the action in a mirror and it’s immediately clear that the shot will determine how the set is staged and dressing placed.

On one production I was asked how long it would take me to render a digital model with true reflections so they could determine whether the character would be able to see the other person from where he was seated.

I told them it would probably take about  an hour to texture the model and do the render they wanted, or I could figure it out with a pencil and it would only take about 2 minutes. They thought I was kidding.

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You’ll want to have the plan view and an elevation. Line them up so that the plane of the mirror is along an identical line. It doesn’t have to be in any certain scale as long as they are both the same size. It can be a printout or just a quick drawing on grid paper, as long as the mirror is correctly placed and sized.

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Cover the drawing with trace, being sure to extend it twice as far over the line of the mirror plane.

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Now draw lines from the vantage point through the edges of the mirror on both the plan and elevation.

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Draw a heavy vertical line through the mirror plane. Then fold the trace along this line.

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Since the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence, the reflected view is easily seen once the trace is folded back over the drawing, and it’s clear the person in the chair would have no way to see the person standing at the door.

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You can now pivot the ‘mirror plane’ down until the person is in view, although it will be clear that in plan the mirror would be at a strange angle from the wall.

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10 Design Reference Books You Should Have On Your Shelf

 

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I think I’ve already made it clear that you just can’t have too many books, especially ones on design and architecture. But it’s also a real pain dragging a lot of them around with you from job to job and it becomes a bigger job to keep track of them once they’re out of your house. So, I try to only take books to my current workplace that I either don’t have a digital version of or just really need to have close at hand.

If I had to limit myself to just 10 books, these would be the books I’d take to start a job.

Here is my must-have list with sources:

1. Architectural Graphic Standards – 5th Edition – This was when the books were filled with great hand drawings and actually showed you in detail how things were built. Lots of period details as well. Out of print for over 50 years (at least in this edition) you can still find copies for anywhere from $20 to $200. The 3rd edition would be a suitable replacement. the first edition is also good to have and has been reprinted several times. Check Abebooks for copies. Not available digitally.

If you are in Great Britain, McKays is the closest equivalent, and is actually superior in a number of ways from our standpoint as set designers. On the Continent, an older copy of Neufert’s is a must. See this earlier post for details. Not available digitally.

In Germany, the best book on period construction I’ve found is Konstruction Und Form Im Bauen, by Friedrich Hess. There are lots of very nice drawings and measured details. Long out of print but you can still find copies second-hand. In Sweden, an excellent book on traditional construction is Stora Boken Om Byggnadsvård, by Göran Gudmundsson. This is a current book and still in print. Neither are available digitally.

2. Time-Saver Standards for Interior Design and Space Planning, 2nd Edition. This is the design complement to Architectural Graphic Standards and covers nearly every situation regarding building interiors. You can find used copies for around $75. There is a digital version available but it’s not only difficult to navigate because of the size of the book but at the price you’d be better off getting a hardback edition.

3. Styles Of Ornament – Alexander Speltz.  Originally published in 1904, this book uses over 4000 drawings to illustrate 6000 years of historical design. As a general design reference I don’t think it has an equal. Architecture, furniture, text, carving, metalwork are all covered. A must-have. (Handbook Of Ornament by Franz Meyer would be a close second.) Available from a number of publishers for as little as $10. A digital version is available.

Low Budget Option- download the online PDF here.

4. The Stair Builder’s Handbook – T.W. Love – Not a design book per se, but a book of rise and run tables that make stair layout a breeze. Available from Contractor Resource for about $18.

Low Budget Option – download the PDF Common Sense Stairbuilding and Hand-railing. Skip the mind bending section on handrail layout and skip to page 99. Also, Stair building, which has a nice section on ornamental ironwork.

Also, In April a new book will be out called  Simply Stairs – The Definitive Handbook for Stair Builders, by Mark Milner, published by Whittles Publishing in London for £25. Pre-release information on the book makes it look very promising.

5. Backstage Handbook – Paul Carter. Originally a technical manual for theatrical designers, the book is full of great information for film work as well. There are more details in this earlier post from several years ago. Available from Broadway Press for about $22. No digital version is available.

6. American Cinematographers Manual – The new 10th edition will cost you about $80 in hardback and almost the same in it’s digital version through the iTunes and Android sites. There’s a free pdf of the 7th edition here, but much of the latest technology isn’t in it. This is the go-to book for all things dealing with cameras and image capture. A lot of people will tell you you don’t need this. I’m sure you could also have a great career as a car designer without knowing anything about how cars work. Because when it comes down to it, all we’re really doing is designing big, pretty things to bounce light off of. Just remember, if the department names were based on physics we’d be the Light Reflector Design Department.

7. Building Construction Illustrated – Francis Ching. An excellent and thorough book about construction details including wood framing systems as well as masonry. About $30. No digital version is available.

Low Budget Option – access the online PDF here.

8. The Classical Orders of Architecture – Robert Chitham. I think this is the best modern book around that deals with the classical architecture proportional system. This book was out of print for quite a while and fortunately is back in print. The new edition deals with the proportions for both metric and Imperial systems. Used copies can be found for about $45.

Low Budget Option – Get the PDF American Vignola by William Ware and The Five Orders by Vignola. Also, download the very nice PDFs on classical architecture from the The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

9. Illustrated Cabinetmaking – Bill Hylton. I covered this book in an earlier post. If you want or need to know basic furniture design and how furniture goes together this is the book you’ll want to refer to. It’s been referred to as the Grey’s Anatomy of furniture building. Full of exploded drawings of many kinds of pieces. Available from Fox Chapel Publishing for $24.95.

10. By Hand & Eye – George R. Walker & Jim Tolpin. Just because this is number 10 on the list doesn’t mean it’s the least important. In fact if you’re just starting out in set design this is the first one I’d tell you to buy. Most bad designs are caused by bad proportions. This book will give you a solid understanding of proportion and keep you from making simple mistakes. You can download a sample chapter here. Also, I wrote a longer post on the book earlier. Walker and Tolpin are promising a workbook that will come out later this year based on the book’s concepts so look for that. Available from Lost Art Press for $38, hardbound.

Low Budget Option – Cut back on the Starbucks for a couple days and buy a digital version for $18. The mental stimulation might be just as good as the caffeine and it’ll be a lot healthier too.

So what have I missed? There are other books I could list these are the best. What’s on your shelf? What books would you say are ‘Must Haves’?

Share your titles with the rest of us. Let me know the important titles I’ve missed here, I’m sure there are a lot. As an incentive, everyone who posts book suggestions goes into a drawing at the end of the week for a free digital version of By Hand & Eye.

C’mon, give us your list.

 

Last Minute Holiday Gifts For Set Designers

Beware. This is what happens when you give a set designer a crappy holiday gift. source: Awkwardfamilyphotos.com

Beware. This is what happens when you give a set designer a crappy holiday gift. source: Awkwardfamilyphotos.com

So, it’s just 12 days until Hanukkah and 13 until Christmas and you still haven’t gotten that special set designer in your life a gift. You could just give up in defeat and buy them that same aged cheddar cheese sampler you got them last year, ( which they carefully hid underneath your car seat and is the reason it smells like mold inside ) or you can get them something decent like one of the the items on the list below. At this point you’re probably going to have to resort to hideously expensive 2nd day air shipping, but who’s fault is that??

Best Value  –  Spike GPS device for smartphones and tablets – $299

The Spike GPS device for smartphones and tablets

The Spike GPS device for smartphones and tablets

That may sound like a lot of money but that’s 50% off the introductory price of $619. I got one of these during their Kickstarter program in 2013 and have been thrilled with it. This device does everything my $500 Bushnell rangefinder does and a lot more. Take a photo of a building up to 200 meters away and then take measurements off the screen, even after you’re back at the office, even weeks later. Easily get accurate heights, door and window sizes, measure billboards, estimate square footage. You can instantly send the photo to someone else with the measurements, GPS coordinates and square footage. Soon to come are the capability to turn your shots into a Sketchup model and point cloud scanning of irregular shapes. For iOS and Android devices.

This offer is only good until December 23 with the offer code FRIENDSOFIKE14.

By Hand & Eye – $16.00

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Another gem from Lost Art Press, this is probably one of the best design books written in the last 100 years. It outlines the world of design without a rule and using only dividers and proportional methods. I covered this in a previous post and always recommend it. It’s so popular that it’s currently out of print and only a digital version is available. Buy them this and a good pair of second hand dividers from Ebay and you will completely change the way they think about design.

Drafting Apron – $25.95

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Harkens back to the days of graphite dust, arm protectors and a time when you didn’t have to worry about hours of work disappearing from a computer failure. Hide a box of Tombow pencils in the pocket and watch them weep with joy.

 

WE Wood Watches – $75 to $150

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WE Wood watches are beautiful analogue timepieces made from a number of hardwoods and use precision movements. Each one is absolutely unique due to it’s wood case.They’ll have something nice to look at while they’re waiting for their render to finish or that endless production meeting to come to an end.

FastCap ProCarpenter Lefty/Righty Tape Measure – $8.99

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Most measuring mistakes that occur while doing a survey come from misreading numbers upside down when you’re measuring from right to left. This tape solves that problem by having the numbers read correctly no matter which way you hold it. The same company also makes the Flatback tape which works like a flexible story pole, making it possible to easily measure round objects. You need this.

 

 Magna Tip – $2.49

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This little guy will save you when you’re surveying alone and have a metal surface to stick it to. It attaches to the end of most 1″ wide tape measure and becomes a third hand. Especially good if you’re trying to measure something overhead. A great stocking stuffer.

 

Tape Tip – $4.95

Tape tip

Another little device that’s a lifesaver when you’re trying to measure inside corners. Attaches to the ends of most tapes. Inexpensive enough you can buy one for your whole art department.

GripTip – $3.00 for two

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OK, you’re saying, enough with the survey stuff. But this little gadget will save you someday when you’re trying to measure that stone or brick wall and the end of your tape keeps slipping off. The serrated edge will bite into just about anything and stop the cursing fast! At $3.00 for two, you can afford to have several in your kit.

Smartphone Projector – $27

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For the gadget lover, this is a low-tech projector option that works with palm-size smart phones, not the phablets. Made from cardboard, the device works with simple lens physics as the image and light from the phone is projected by way of a convex lens onto any white surface up to 6 feet away. You’ll need a dark room though, it won’t work in a brightly lit space. A great way to share when you don’t happen to have a 27″ monitor in your bag.

Geometrigraph – $14.95

Geometrigraph set

First manufactured in the late 1800s, these two stainless-steel templates were designed to make it possible to create curved, parallel or perpendicular lines as well as circles, angles and a range of polygons from 3-sided to 20-sided. By using the inset shapes of various curvatures with the circles and polygons, you can create an unlimited variety of ornamental designs.  All this can be done without using any other drawing instruments; all that is needed is paper, a pin, and a sharp pencil or fine-tip ballpoint pen. Two nickel-plated steel T-head anchor pins are included.  The templates are suitable for designers of inlay in wood, graphic artists, quilters, sign-makers, innovative youngsters, etc. The set comes with a 16-page instruction booklet explaining the various uses as well as showing numerous examples of typical designs. Remember the Spirograph? Well this is it’s Granddad.

Tape Measure Uniform – $42.00

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For those times when you need to stand out and let people know there’s a Art Department professional on the job. Or, more likely what it will be saying about you is, “Yes, I am a proud member of the Art Department and I have gone completely insane from breathing Spray77 and Zip Kicker fumes, living on stale coffee, doing endless revisions and dealing with constant software issues. So just stay away from me and no one will get hurt.”

 

 

Really, Really Last Minute Gifts

When you realize you’ve really screwed up and forgotten someone and have no time to run to the store, much less order anything, you can always gift a good app.

Log onto the Apple or Android store and gift your so-important-you-forgot-about-them friend one of these apps and your reputation will be saved:

I own and can recommend all these apps.

BuildCalc – construction calculator – $19.99

Magic Plan – indoor mapping, survey tool – free, pay per use

Photo Measures – saving and sharing measurements – $6.99

Artemis – professional director’s finder – $29.99 *

pCAM – camera info calculator – $29.95 *

Sun Surveyor – sun and moon calculator – $6.99

Stereo Calc – 3D stereo film calculator – $39.99 *

Moviola Pro Camera Guide – extensive database of camera info – $3.99 *

I.D. Wood – samples and data for 200 kinds of wood – $4.99

* iOS versions only