Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sometimes You Need To Leave Town

I was told that early on in my career. All I wanted was a chance to draft. I graduated from drafting school with A's and already had a fair amount of industry experience, yet it took me almost 4 years to get recognized because it took that long to get a break. I was then an instant hit, and even though I still wasn't granted a professional listing as a Set Designer, I managed to keep myself busy enough as one from gig to gig for over a decade.

Making the break is the hardest part. Not only because you need to convince those in power that you are good at a job that you have never been paid to do, but you are in a competitive mindset.

The factory system that is film production on a large scale, is a toxic environment to advance in. If you are good at your trade, and you are making a good living, and you have no desire to apply for the PD or Art Director position, all may be very well for you. As soon as you are apparently making your way up, you are entering into crab bucket mentality. Crab bucket mentality happens when you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket; they pull each other's legs off trying to get out.

I went from being popular, as an Art Dept Assistant, to being unpopular, as an emerging Set Designer, to being popular as an established Set Designer to being unpopular again when I became unable to do repetitive tasks all day and decided it was time to focus on advancing to a career in napkin drawing.

I remembered the early advice. I felt like I needed to stay, but I felt so unsupported by my peers. No one would recomend me in the Art Dept. Yet I was always working. I felt indispensable, yet trapped. 

Years later I took the advice. I now have doors opening that would never have opened had I remained in the factory environment. I'm broke. Im free to grow. I can see the light. I may very well be back there one day. I know it will take years, but I believe its my destiny to keep going.

We each have a unique path in film. Mine is now doing Indies and building a reel. Many start out doing what I am now doing 17 years into my career. I am doing it all backwards. There is tremendous value in gaining experience in both film environments; indies and factory.
Without the Indie experience I am now getting, I would have only had half the experience I will need.
Without references, though, its still almost impossible to get the break. Pro-Bono gigs are a dime a dozen. But the paid gigs are the ones with clout.

If you are good at your job chances are you need to look outside your Department for references. Chances are that if you have a steady track record, if the Department Keys love working with you, you can probably recruit some very strong references.

It's called Playing The Game. Its different for everyone. Its never impossible.

Friday, February 24, 2012

'Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It's about the big picture.' - Ed Wood

I retweeted this quote a few days ago.
When it comes to Set Design, I beg to differ.

An Actor prides themselves, overall with the ability to create reality from imagination. They spend years honing their skills at being believable, by 'being' the part.
Perhaps the quote applies to Acting, or Directing. I'm not a pro in either of those disciplines, so I canot give an opinion.

But it does not to Set Design. At least, not certain elements of the design.

Small details are what can give a Set away. Like a faux brick pattern that really wouldn't exist like it has been made. Or unrealistic signage like 'police' written L to R on a police car hood. Or a faux brick fireplace that has no soot marks over the opening. Just a few examples of small details that sell a set as fake scenery.

Fake scenery behind an Actor who is struggling to be believable? Attention to detail is everything if you want to make a believable world for the Actors to play in.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Skin Colours and Set Design

Skin tone matters in Set Design.

The colour of caucasian skin, or flesh tone, is one of the most challenging colours for the colourists to work with in post. I'm talking about the wall colour for the Set. Light terra-cotta, flesh tone, skin colour. These colours need to best be avoided. The trouble digital reproduction has with this colour is also apparent if you try to colour xerox anything that is pinky flesh tone. I don't know the science behind it, so I cannot explain the how and the why, but I've heard the complaints and seen the strange results many times.

Dark skin tone has a different issue. It is unfortunate when a Set is painted a rich espresso brown, because when an Actor of dark skin tone is playing, they can end up competing with the background scenery, which is devastating to a scene that would otherwise be well shot, needless to say, to the Actor aswell. Its a delicate balance. Sometimes lighting can make it a non-issue. A good DOP can work alot out with the focus too. But it is a limiting colour to use. I've seen complete re-paints over such an issue.

As a rule, I avoid both on any wall.

Monday, February 20, 2012

When Door Closers Suck

On a Location, often a door is operated by a door closing device. Normally for filming, this poses little problems. They become a problem when a Set build is part of the equation.

When a door closer is installed on a Set wall, the results can be dramatic. The pressure created by the mechanism is enough to rip up a typical set flat, giving the Standby Carpenter way too much to do, if you're lucky enough to have one. Set walls not only need to be reinforced internally to support them, the walls need to be secure, as the tension will disperse throughout the whole wall. This can be a real issue on a sensitive location install.

Its often difficult to cheat a door closer. Doors that are operated by door closers behave in a distinct way. A hotel door, for example, would read as odd if it wasn't mechanically operated. Likewise School doors.

For example, a shot of children bursting into a School hall would look odd because the doors would fly open, whereas in reality, the doors want to close, and they would only open enough for the flow.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Obscurity: Window Treatments

Windows almost always require a treatment of some kind on Location.

Vinyl frosting, such as Mac-tac can be applied to the camera-side of location glass. Its a good idea to mist the glass first with Pledge so that the frosting doesn't get too glued to the window, especially if the window is in the sun, heat or if its a lengthy install. Its pricy, but it looks really good.

Another option is window sheers; they are a classic look, and if it goes with the style of the set, it can look really classy. Blinds are a great window treatment; however its best to choose the wider slats. Ideally 2" blinds.
Mini-Blinds ans stringy drapes run the risk of moire on camera.

If its a run-down or scrappy look, Scenics can work wonders with baking soda.

Sometimes a window becomes part of the Set. When exposed glass is on a Set it often needs to be gimbaled. Some DOP's can work around the reflections, however it really limits a shot.

Night-time also presents a unique issue on a Location. When its dark outside, the glass acts as a mirror inside.
Shooting Day for Night has the same issues. A Grip can black out a window from ext, however now you've got a big mirror inside.

Textured glass is a beautiful thing. If your Location has it, use it! It is my favourite obscurity. Especially if it is old, cracked and pre-aged! 

Windows are usually an opportunity to do cool things with lighting and window dressings.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"If Your Idea Works, I'll Say It Was Mine. If It Doesn't, I'll Say It Was Yours"


Thats ShowBiz! Needless to say, after hearing that, and it wasn't a joke, that this particular Designer would never be a factor in my success. As a Set Designer, I felt extremely reluctant to perform my best, or go the extra mile when my Leader was clearly not a Team Player. I was not born to enable the success of others. I was born to be a part of it. This Designer just lost a key player.

Ideas that you have, while working on a Production, nonetheless, don't really belong to you. If you are an ideas person at all, and you need to be if you are intending to be a Production Designer, you will have your good ideas stolen.
The first time this happened to me, I was put off, however, I really admired and respected the Designer who had claimed my idea was his. The whole show he went on about it. I ate my humble pie, and learned to take it in stride. Months later, I watched 'The making of" and the Director was claiming it was his idea! No mention of the Designer.

If you have good ideas and others take them, take it as a complement. Take it as a sign that you have a gift. Use it, let it out, let others take them. After a while if it is a pattern, no matter how many ideas you had taken from you, you will eventually get found out, and you will become a go-to person on the team.

A true ideas person has a neverending spring of ideas. And no one can take the spring except you.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Everyone Wants To Be The Designer!

One of the most competitive positions is that of the Production Designer. There's alot of confusion around the role, yet one thing's for sure, everyone wants it. Its the God position. It is one that is often abused. One that has a wide variety of players with a wide variety of skills. A position where there is no pre-requisite. No guarantees. Lots of prestige.
Its not easy pursuing a career as a PD. There's just not enough well paid PD gigs to go around. Those that have a backup income can freely pursue it. If they are any good, they will float to the top. Those that are connected to the higher ups through family or relationship often get a break. If they're any good they too will float to the top. Those that do Indies for little or no money may get a break. Those too will float to the top if they are any good.

The face of the PD is changing these days. It used to be a tough club to crack into. When I started in Film, it was still the big money days. I got to work for really fantastic PD's. Things were done certain ways. The Designer would design a look and the Art Director would implement the action. It was a well oiled machine. Before my time there wasn't a position of PD. The Art Director was the PD, and the Assistant Art Director implemented the action.
The role diddn't really change until recently.

As the economy started sliding, new faces started appearing, those that would work for less, mostly Set Decorator types. Many are inexperienced in the Art Dept. yet have a great eye for colour and design. With new PD's coming from areas other than traditional Art Departments the position is blurring. Each new PD must hire according to their weaknesses and if they want to make the most of the existing Art Dept talent pool, they need to put their egos aside aswell. The smart new PD consults their crew and promotes their talent. It is, afterall, the crew thats doing their work. If they want results, they need to generate a creative team with a shared goal. Self gratification is a dead end.
Another factor in the change is the new generation. Its a new attitude. Its independent and its all about changing the Old School format of the Art Department. And I'm glad. The change is good.

One thing is for sure. Every PD is different, has different expectations and different ideas about their craft. I respect the ones that embrace change, creativity and talent. And I am flexible to those that inspire me. Those that have felt threatened by others' expertise are not the personality type that can last in this new landscape, nor will those that still cling to the notion that knowlege is power. That was yesterday.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Aging: When Its OK To Say It Looks Like Shit

Good Scenic Artists are defined by their skills to paint reality. Whether its matching a colour or texture or aging a sign; the object is realism. You'll see them studying bits of rock and brick, they have samples of stuff all over their shop. Don't throw out that chunk of broken tile! Its part of their kit!!!
Its easier to screw up aging than anything else. Anything else can ultimately get passed of as fake decor. Fake brick, cultured stone, faux wodgrain.
But a poorly aged Set is a shame. A beautifully executed Set can be brought down to fakery by one untrained Scenic. Over-aging is one of the most common give-aways on screen. Its a really hard craft to master. Thought and sense also plays a role. Where would it be most rusty? Where would the rot form from?
The new cameras also play a role. Aging needs to be less obvious, yet at the same time, white signage still needs to be brought down or it will be too hot.
I am a big big fan of photo reference. It doesn't always reach the Scenics doing the job, however. Sometimes good photo reference just ends up amidst the pile of Art Dept and Office paper, because thats just the nature of the biz.
If its really important, or you don't know your Scenics, go meet them, bring them the photo reference. You'll get huge respect from them that you even consider their efforts relevant, they are so far down the chain.

Friday, February 10, 2012

More On Headers

So whats a weird mix of the two?
Headers on a set are usually under the guise of a structural member. We often cheat the depth of a concrete beam and can get away with it. They usually wouldn't really be 3' deep, but their mass makes it less obvious.
3' deep headers spanning a set that are only 4" thick are a dead giveaway aswell. A 4" thick wall has limited structural span.
You also wouldn't see a moulded ceiling panel type header design with 24" deep beams intersecting at the center of the room, as this wouldn't be logical structurally.
The trickiest header scenes for me have to be hallways. How do you sell a hallway of headers as real architecture? In a hallway, you see the ceiling more than the walls often. They are often dolly tracked walk & talks. You have to either stick with typical construction standards for the right structural look or do something different.
Whenever I can I put all the money into the ceiling of a hallway set. The new cameras are so much more fun for set designers, as we no longer are dependent on overhead studio lighting. There are huge lighting opportunities in hallway headers. You can get away with minimal wall finishing in a hall that is all about the lighting.
In lieu of lighting the headers, I have found long wide headers sell best.
Its just got to look structurally believable.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Heading For Exposure

If you want to get me going, show me a "set". When sets are designed poorly there are obvious clues, and they give the set away to the trained eye. And even though these days prettywell anything goes in architecture, it doesn't allways fly, especially if the set is dated in any way.
Bad headers bother me like that. We need them for shootoffs and for ceiling panel suport. When designed well, they are believable as part of the building architecture, as beams and girders are.
What makes a header more believable? Definitely at least a thickness of 8", pref 10". Chamfered edges sell poured conc. very well. Porportions are another factor.
There are two types of header. Shootoff headers are deep, allowing lighting access from an open ceiling. These also are often accompanied by pilasters, which really help sell the architecture, plus they allow easy wilding. Too many pilasters and headers are tricky aswell. When this occurs, I've found subtle depth in the pilasters to work best.
The other type is the support header for the set with ceiling flats and suspended lighting fixtures. In a typical architectural design with divided ceiling panels, the headers would only be slight. The meat is above the ceiling. These would be maybe 8"wx 4" deep, with moulding surround.
Both are picked from the grid by the grip department.
What you really dont want is some wild combination of both. If in doubt, find a good photo reference to follow.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I learned the hard way how to go out and measure up Location Elevators. They nearly always require a matching set-build, because they are for the most part unshootable without wilding walls. They are too small. They are often reflective.
I used to toil away, sketch every detail in my quad pad, measure every increment, note every detail.
Not every location elevator had a key, so I was often making new friends and answering a plethora of questions as to wtf I was doing in the elevator?
Needless to say, I spent a long time in there, going up and down.
Then, around the time that I got my first digital camera,  during a hectic prep, I was just plain out of time. I took overalls, then I just shot the hell out of it with my camera, placing my tape measure in the shots as a scale. 
To this day I still do it this way.
I just email all the photos to the Construction Dept with a basic plan & Elevations.
Elevators are 90% moulding and panels. Its just too hard to jot it all down and get it right.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Lowly Position You're In

Most people have to make a stand at some point in their career. Most of us have started out as an Art Dept Assistant. If you had any talent and skill in either Set Design or Graphics, you could move up quite quickly. Without a solid trade, however, an Art Department Assistant's career is limited. You had to decide to keep trying or do something else.
Two types of Art Department Assistants end up stuck in a seemingly permanent place. Those that lack any valuable trades, yet are good at the job and are happy to stay there. These are the career Art Department Assistants.
Then theres the triple threat. Watch out for this one. Its the Art Department Assistant who is extremely talented, attractive and intelligent. Never given a break. No one lets them design anything. The more they stick it out, the more experience they get and the more threatening they become to those who are insecure about their careers. The Art Department Assistant who is always saving the day. The Art Department Assistant who is kept down, marginalized and apparently unpopular amongst the lower ranks. The Art Department Assistant who will ultimately get so fed up that they go off and make a huge YouTube masterpiece that goes viral.
10 years down the road it is this Art Department Assistant who will be calling you up to see if you are available to Set Design their show. Eventually the cream will rise to the top. If you disrespected them when they were lowly, I guarantee you won't be getting that call 10 years later.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

So Who Do You Spell For?

Having family in Canada has given me opporunities to work on Canadian Productions. Most of the Productions in Canada, however, are actually American Productions, and being a multicultural country, I have also had the opportunity to work with filmmakers from Britain and Europe.
As a Set Designer, I found myself in more than one spelling dispute over notes that I had written. I had to decide for myself, how I would define my m.o.
The people who generally created the work in Canada were American. The people hiring local talent were Canadian, or Immigrant, either way, their spelling differed from the American spelling.
With my loyalty somewhat split, I decided to write American on American Productions. Much to the dismay of my Canadian colleagues. My choice was based out of respect for the people whom had made it possible for me to be working that day. I was never asked to change it.
Now I live in Canada, and I have chosen to write Canadian for my every day life. But I switch back to American spelling if ever I am working on an American Production.
Its a personal choice Canadians have to make.
How can it be a loyalty issue when the Americans have brought the work?

Friday, February 3, 2012

When Scenics Fail

I worked with a PD on a few shows when I was a green Set Designer, and was often horrified at how OK he was with the terrible toon-town sculpture and scenic painting that was his pride.The fact was that on these particular shows, the toon-town gaudy was perfect for the genre and overall design of the show. These were ultimately kids shows.
Another truth was in realizing that top of the line Scenics may actually fall flat on a show like this. Yet put the toon-town crew onto an immense feature like Harry Potter, and they would have been fired long before the show would have been shot. The top Scenics worked on Harry Potter. The Production team wouldn't have allowed the production to be subjected to poor visuals.
So, really, in Filmmaking there really is room for all levels of talent and ability. The real challenge in pulling off a successful picture lies in cultivating the right talent for the film. And lining up the right talent is only part of the challenge. The talent also needs to work well together as a team.
If you have abilities that span several genres of scenic ability, it is good to know before you go to the interview, what it is you are interviewing for. A strong toon-town portfolio goes alot farther on a kids show than a variety of scenic skills.
It pays to customize your presentation for the job at hand.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Brick A Peel

Another brick technique I have seen well executed, yet controvercial is foam-mold sheets. I have seen this method used for  applications that are on curved set walls and also seen cave rock wall done this way, quite effectively.
The Sculptors carve a template sheet out of dense foam and create a mold from it. Then an insulation-foam blower type contractor is brought in to blast out sheets of foam rock/brick from the finished mold. Once the foam is set, the sheets are peeled from the mold, and pinned to the set wall.
Although this method creates a quick scenic wall with minimal supervision and minimal skill level for the most part, it is undeniably one of the most toxic of methods. Its toxic for the contractor, the labourers helping him and the scenics using the final product.
And its horribly non-environmentally friendly.
I try to avoid this method at all costs.