Monday, April 30, 2012

Shit Flows Downhill

It happens. Shit hits the fan. And Shit flows downhill. At some point it needs to land somewhere.
Where it lands depends on a few things. If its an easy finger pointer, ie, the Art Department Assistant sent the wrong file, its easy. The Art Deoartment Assistant will wear a few; its to be expected.

When theres a problem with the build the plot thickens. There are going to be several factors, several departments involved and chances are, each one affected the other, and no one knows the whole picture. Shit starts to slide.

The Production Designer hires people to do the job. Its not the PD's fault, nor is it their responsibility: Thats where the Art Director comes in. This is where the Art Director gets a personality test, and this is why the position of Art Director is so hard. Its the Art Director's responsibility, therefore, the shit must fall on the Art Director. Even if the Art Director diddn't do it; the Art Director's job is to oversee the production of the Set Design. How the Art Director handles this shit is the personality test.

A lousy Art Director goes directly to blame the person they can find at fault. They are missing the point of their job.

A good Art Director wears the shit boldly. Lets it stop there. Then, they find out what happened within their department, or the department involved, and takes steps to prevent any more wildfires, and of course, there are plenty more, just around the corner.

Art Director is a tough gig.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Restricted Design: Location Walls

Sometimes you can't paint them. So some brilliant mind made us Tuffback. For those who are unfamiliar, it is a removable sticky backed paper, that holds up to painting. It is great for changing the wall colour on a location when you cannot paint it. It is excellent also for last minute installations, as it is quick and easy to apply. Depending of course on the wall features you are covering. Pipes and conduit are a bitch.

One film I worked on we tried to wallpaper the Tuffback. The location wall was fairly small and straightforward. The day before the install, we wallpapered sections of Tuffback, and laid them to dry overnight. The following day we took the rolls of wallpapered Tuffback to the location. As we were pulling the backing off the tuffback, the wallpaper started to separate from the Tuffback. The Unit was 2 hours away.

It was nearly impossible to release thr backing without separating the wallpaper. Finally we managed to get the tuffback up on the wall, however the wallpaper was falling off. So we spritzed the wallpaper glue to reactivate it. That was good, the wallpaper now stuck to the Tuffback. But now the damp Tuffback was falling off the wall. The Unit was 30 minutes away.

We had to pull out the staple gun and the snot tape.

We made it; it looked horrible up close because of all the trouble we had with it.  I'm curious if there's a better glue we could have used, but I never got to try it again.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Oops, The Set Caught Fire

It actually happens really easily.

Sets are built from dry materials. It doesn't take much to set a blaze. I worked on three films that suffered accidental fire damage. Fires are an obvious hazzard when dealing with fire elements on set, however, its usually other elements that cause the fires. The SPFX Technicians take extreme caution, they are trained professionals (most) are doing it safely.

It's the accidents that cause the fires. The set has an overhang that is too close to the fire. It gets hot while no one is noticing, until it is too late. The old Set Dec lamp, the wire is starting to overheat at the power outlet. It goes unnoticed until its too late. The painters painting the set in the rain. Desperately trying to get the paint to dry, set fire to the set by accident with the flame heat. The crew jacket that is too close to the propane heater...

As a Set Designer, keeping this in mind, adding notes of caution, pointing out the seemingly obvious is never too much. Even if it merely makes the crew aware of the potential hazzards, it is effective in fire prevention. A note above the header, and a quick illustration of the Set Dec Altar with flames shooting up, will be adequate to enlighten even a novice carpenter that they need to be concerned about potential fire. They would then address the issue with re design, or fire retardant, or both. Either way, without the communication, and pictures work best, the carpenters will have no idea there will be a fire burning 24" below the header. Not if its a Set Dec item. It could easily get overlooked. Until it's too late. And that's just an example. As a Set Designer you have a position where you can really make a difference in safety on set. Make notes. Point things out. Everything. I'm a big fan of illustrating drawings. In the real world a Draftsperson would be fired for it.

If you haven't watched the behind the scenes interviews on the second disk of Ridley Scott's Legend, you may want to. Its a really good behind the scenes story about how (in my opinion) one of the greatest indoor sets ever built tragically burned to the ground.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Fire Features & Why The PD Needs A Cast Chair On Set

Fireplaces are fairly straight forward. You need a fireplace, a spfx fire box and adequate ventilation. All the equipment is easily concealed off set.

When you design a set with fire features free standing from the walls of the set you are presented with the challenge of concealing the gear. At a minimum, you will have gas lines running from the flame unit to the gas tanks off set.

Of course it depends on the nature of the set, how you can go about solving it. There are creative ways to conceal gas line within scenic flooring, however a discussion is due with the camera department re: floor dolly shots.

Platforms and steps are great and expensive.

Set Dec sometimes becomes the optimal choice (as long as the dressing makes sense).

Where the flame source is placed in the set can also make a difference. If you know ahead due to good planning that there will be no dolly or action issues (LOL), you have more freedom to design floor features to conceal the pipe.

Sometimes, its a non issue: the shot will be too tight, or the lighting will be to contrasted to see the floor (wink wink)

Its always good to be on set when they are shooting. It's the PD's job to make sure the final scenic picture in the camera is the final scenic picture intended.

Give them a chair at the monitor. Its why you hired them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

So You Think You're Not Good Enough? Read On

I fell into the Film Industry through a Theatre call. I was recruited into the Paint Dept. I quickly noticed the draftings and immediately identified with the area I wished to specialize in. I of course secretly allowed myself a 5 minute fantasy about being the Designer, but my rational thinking kept me focused on making a living.

I enrolled in a part time drafting course, which I excelled in. I decided perhaps I had potential, maybe I should go the distance, so I enrolled in a Drafting Diploma program that certified draftspeople for the architectural and engineering industry. I learned to draft houses, roads, rail, bridges... the whole gamut. I excelled and felt confident i had a healthy career ahead of me.

The first time my schooling killed my career was an offer to work on the X-Files. It was 6 weeks before my graduation. I decided that i ought to finish my program and get my ticket.

Lesson #1: X-Files credit is valuable in film. Drafting diploma is not. 

The next time my schooling killed my career was not immediately recognized. I couldn't get a drafting job! When I did get a chance to draft as an assistant, I was made to draw it badly. Constantly told to erase and redraw. I was being harassed over my drawings. I diddn't get it until a few years in, when I started noticing how all the drawings I was printing for everyone were so incorrect, drafting speak. Why wouldn't they let me draft? Clearly I had the trade cased, I was fast, wont anyone give me a break? I diddn't realise this when I went to scool, but I diddn't need to. I was one of the very few (2?) in our industry that was a ticketed draftsperson. Everyone was self taught. I was 'too good' visually, and 'too fast'. I was a threat.

4 years into my career, I finally had the chance to save the day. It was on a show with one of the best Art Directors in town. He was sold! Next show he had I was the new star Set Designer, overnight. That was great, but here I was, gone from zero to being raved about as one of the best Set Designers in town. There was alot of animosity resulting in my sudden fame. I felt it.
It reared its ugly head in the form of repression. The Art Department in my town was governed by its own members (not a good idea). They had the power to say if you can have a category or not. I was denied my Set Designer category for almost 10 years by my peers. I would only get a Set Designer gig from my loyal Art Director, who only worked once a year. I wasn't on the list.

Lesson #2:  Don't outshine the competition when you're just a pup.

I finally started to get accepted after 5 years , and was starting to get new Art Directors offer me work. I started having trouble physically though. The on-off set designing over the years had given me repetitive stress injuries in my arms. I decided to be a better Set Designer, so that I could get steadier work to prevent more injury (I still haddn't understood my overeducation problem). I took a VFX course, because I noticed a void in communication and understanding between the two departments. That was great, I thought. Now I can save the day more often. I can be the linchpin Set Designer!

It fell really flat. No one wanted to hear my know-it-all pitches. It was icing on my know-it-all, too fancy, over anal drafting. Not only that, but i made enemies by speaking out, being shot down and ending up being right ater costly rebuilds. (Why my best references come from the Construction Dept)

Lesson #3: Be sneaky about your knowledge. Suggesting issues pops questions. Stating issues pops challenges. 

Filmmakers today coming out of school know all about VFX. However, it is still a relatively misunderstood process in the Art Department. I was just an unfortunate Gen-X, caught in the tide of the old and new.

The lesson? Its not about how good you are, its how you play the game. I was too keen to be too good. I thought I wasn't good enough, when I was plenty good enough all along.

My Set Designer career is over. My injuries are permanent. It was over before I finally got my category. It was over at 36. It is not all going to waste, though.

Ironically all I can do now is be the Production Designer. If you don't follow your dreams, life may do it for you, but not the way you wanted it.

Furry Fun On Set

Animals are cheated alot in filming. They need special platforms, special surfaces, special rigs and special conditions. Animal shows have their own set of challenges.  If you ever get a chance to work on an animal film, I highly reccomend the experience.

A common animal stunt is the slide. Its an easy stunt for an animal to do, and if you are the Set Designer, you will be asked to design the slide. If a slide is built to a predetermined  slope, there's too much room for difficulties on set. There is no way for a Set Designer to figure out the slope of the slide from their desk. It is a formula that only the animal handlers and director can create with the actual rehearsal of the animal slide. The slope of the slide will dictate how fast the animal will slide. That is all important. On camera, the animal wants to slide perfectly. Not too fast, and not too slow. There's only one thing you need to do. Make it adjustable.

Just add a note for construction to a drawing like this. Its easy to build an adjustable slide; its problematic if a new one needs to get built, with your name on it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Backup Lesson Learned

I was attending a program that certified draftspeople for the Architectural and Engineering Industry. They had networked all of the computers in the class to a network hub, and taught us that in the real world, we would all be networked like this and they taught us to save all our work to the master backup drive. They taught us that we needed to backup every day. They taught us it could cost us our job if we diddn't.

Towards the end of the program, during the last 3 weeks, we were all working very hard. All of our projects were due for our final mark, a huge percentage of our overall scores. We were all working late. All of us were sweating it. It was crunch time.

One of those mornings, I arrived at class and something was up. Everyone was talking, looking around.... blank screens.... Who died?

I sat down at my computer. All my files were gone. Everyone's files were gone. Some of us lost a day or two, others lost too much and lost alot of marks. They just couldn't get it all redrawn in time.

It was the final lesson given to us from the drafting faculty.

Monday, April 16, 2012

5 Tips To Breaking Into The Art Dept

You've taken courses, worked for free, now you want to get paid. I am often asked how one goes about breaking in to the Art Department. Having been in both positions, Art Department Assistant looking to get in, and later as Art Director recruiting newbies during a feast season, I compiled a list of steps that you can make that really make a difference.

1. Have a Trade. Your Art Dept choices are Graphic Design or Set Design. Illustrators are moving into the Pre-Vis department. If you are an Illustrator, maybe check out the VFX industry. Its booming. If you have a trade, you will be indispensable to the Art Department when there is task overload; as a bonus you will get opportunities to add work to your Portfolio. Its OK to say you want to be a Production Designer or Art Director one day and your Trade is that you are indispensable on the internet and with Art Department organization.
Be clear. What do you eventually want to spend 12 hours a day doing? A Career as  Graphic Designer or a Set Designer can be an extremely challenging, yet hugely rewarding career. Follow your Dreams.

2. Own the Kit. Be Professional. You need a cell, a car, a camera, a computer, programs, printer, scanner. You need weather gear and sometimes a drafting board and your own chair. If you've got a Cricut papercutter or any other useful novelties, they will only help you be more useful.

3. Have a neat portfolio showing Art that is related to what it is you want to do. Make it a reasonable size. Often interviews take place in restaurant booths or trailers. Show what interests you. If you want to be a Graphic Designer but all you have is stuff you did behind closed doors, show it. You don't need to be an Art Superhero to make a really good and successful career in the Art Department. You need to be able to 'pump it out'.

4. Put it out there. Make a nice neat resume package and advertise yourself online. Fax your resume to current productions. I cannot emphasize this one enough. In our day and age of internet and social networking, the fax remains effective. You may not be in the Social Network where the jobs are advertised or referred. By faxing, your resume lands in the inbox in the Art Department. It gets physically handled. Now there's a chance it will get filed, or at least noted. Also, during the Production, sometimes they suddenly need extra help because it went crazy. If your happy resume is in someone's inbox, you are an instant source of help available. Its a powerful tool if you get the timing right. Keep faxing. You can locate Production Office Fax numbers on Film Comission lists.

5. Don't give up, and don't ignore other Departmental opportunities. Sometimes its easier to get your foot in the door through a less competitive department, where you are still working within the area of your goals. By working in the Paint Department, a Graphic Designer can become involved with Signage, which builds their portfolio, and connects them to key players in the Industry. Likewise, a Set Designer can make great headway as a Carpenter, gaining firsthand knowledge on how the Set is really built, giving them a leading edge when they make a break into the Art Department.

Last but not least, If you do get the interview, just remember. Get get the job, or be remembered.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Water On Set

Ka-ching!!!!! If I could go wild it would quite possibly include a water feature. Water is a powerful set design tool. It has its limitations, and it's a challenge with huge rewards.

The most common trouble with water features, eg aquariums and fountains, is the noise that they produce. Sometimes a fountain can be worked with without too much trouble, if it is an out door shoot. Inside, like with aquariums, the noise of the pumps are a real problem. It can be worked out, but it needs addressing ahead of time, not when the Unit decides it's a problem; you'll lose your water feature.

I love aquariums because they double as a layer.

Ponds are my favoirite. I love ponds because you get to play with the lighting on the water and the reflections are sensual. No lighting program can reproduce the natural beauty, or generate a mood like reflected water lighting.

Either the set is on a platform, the pond below, or the pond is a pool enclosed by a 'stone' wall. Depending on the size of the pool, you probably need an engineer to verify your floor can take the weight. If you want a Grip stirring the pool, it needs to be designed with an off-cam access, eg. against a wall.

Sometimes the set is half full of water, and nasty products like Marine Enamel need to be used. When someone tells me they need to use Marine Enamel for a set I remind; Marine Enamel is an extremely toxic product, and, ultimately some poor desperate painter will be nominated to use the product, and too often they are unaware of the hazards. Too often the shop crew take a design as a final, no negotiations. They will use the Enamel, even without the proper gear. They are dedicated.

As a Production Designer it is your responsibility to ensure that no one gets hurt as a result of your design. Sometimes there are other ways to do it. Coming up with solutions is what Production Design is all about.

Water = Expensive stuff!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rise & Run. Its Not About Your Morning Jog

In drafting up a set of stairs, the term rise and run refers to the height and depth of each stair.

There are standards that dictate a stair design, and variations on the rise and run matter in Set Design. If the Actor is using the stairs on camera, the rise and run ratio will dictate their movement.

In a standard residential setting, the rise and run is usually around 7 1/2 x 10. It varies, however, Architects usually work within the standard criteria of the rise and run adding up to 17 inches, within an inch of it. The tread is the total run plus the nosing.

In an old house, an attic stair would fall out of the standard. It would look right to have an Actor going up a steep stair. Likewise, a glamorous stairway in a mansion may have a lower rise and longer run.

Generally outdoor steps have an inch longer run.

On a side note, if you are designing concrete or stone stairs for your set; include an insulation note. Hollow sounding concrete steps sound like wooden steps.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Should You Date The Producer?

We've all seen it.

Struggling Art Department Female, dates Producer/Director etc. & PD's the next show.

It is the classic Hollywood faux-pas; the express route past all the BS to the top job. I'm not here to say don't do it, I'm just going to write about my observations.

The big warning given to young women starting in the business is: Don't date above the line, because if it doesn't work out, you'll (never work in this town again).  Not true. Its a game and if you are playing it well, if its your choice in games to play, you can come out a winner, for sure. No one knows where a relationship will go,  it can be a completly legitimate attraction, you may believe its marriage material; it just automatically holds baggage.

To just blatantly and falsely play the game to use someones power to get yourself a break is just callous. Producers have hearts too! Yet some consider it a legitimate way to get ahead for a woman; and I can understand some of their points. Its not a fair world, so why try to play like it is?

However, there is a price to pay. Again, its a choice whether or not you acknowledge the price...

The price is respect. From below the line. Most figures above the line have no idea how you got there.

Certainly you were referred.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Storyboards : The Undefinable Department

Are they not Art Department? They are Artists, they are often refered by the Art Department, however the position of Storyboard Artist is unique.

In most cases, they aren't designing or contributing to the esthetic look of the film, they are mapping out the shots for the camera. 

The Storyboard Artist is not hired by the Production Designer or Art Director, but by the Director or Producer, and works almost exclusively alone and with the Director. The Storyboard Artist works according to the Director's schedule, and they often work from their own studios.

You seldom find them in the Art Department, yet because of their artistic skills and connections they are part of the artistic community. Often they are given a table and chair in the hall. Sometimes their own or the Director's office. Its also common for a Storyboard Artist to be working out of a trailer on location.

Storyboarding to me is more like a visual AD. Its like an illustrated one-liner. Others place it within writing, Pre-Vis, Art Dept. or Production Office(?) Sometimes they do get their own department classification. It depends on the Production.

I have many many crew lists, and the position of Storyboard Artist falls into many categories. Like everything else in film, there are no rules, so just like the characteristically bohemianesque job descriptions the Art Dept Artists define for themselves, likewise the Storyboard Artist.

Their undefinable department.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Painted Linoleum Tips, Tricks & Limitations

One of the floors we used was circular and in a cave. To finish the edges we brought the dirt floor over the edge of the linoleum. Looked great.

Another asset was in the ability to hang the linoleum up on the wall and use a projector to plot the image.

It was a practical solution for a floor that we needed to reshoot periodically because it rolled up again nicely in between episodes.

The only real limitation we had using this method was in the minimum width of the lino. The trick to splicing the lino from behind with the most seamless results were in using patterns eg tiles, to tie the seam in with. It worked out fine; the seam was mostly covered by furnishings and hardly shot. It wasn't a 'floor feature' set like the one above.

The overall diameter of the one above was, however, determined by the 12' limitation on hand.

Restricted Design: Floors

One of the first productions that I worked on with a pro-active approach to set recycling was a low budget TV series. With set recycling and low budgets come restrictions in set design, as do locations. One issue in particular was the floor. We had several rotating sets and we wanted to change out the floor several times each episode. Repaints were a financial issue, time made it impossible.

When the floor cannot be painted there are few options. The new laminates that are coming out on the market are a new popular choice for stage, however on location the floor may be uneven; there may not be a way to lay it down. Carpets are easy, however often not an option for the set. Linoleum can be laid, sometimes this is a viable option. But sometimes the choices are too limited.

Large graphics can be printed; use a protective wax treatment or a repositionable product in order to prevent damage to the location floor when removing the graphic after the shoot. 

Another option is to flip linoleum over and paint the back. It's durable enough for the unit, especially if it has a floor glaze coat. Paper backed linoleum works best.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Got FG? The Wall Is Merely BG

Sometimes its whats within the walls that counts. In a toss up between expensive wall finishes and layering elements, unless we're talking about a padded cell or something like that, I always ditch the wall finish. Wall is BG. Layers are FG.

Layering elements give a set a sense of depth, in the case of using colonnades, or columns. The viewer can only see that there is space beyond, obscured. This can help to create suspense, or on the other hand it suggests scale. Colonnades are particularly loved in set design as they are functional to the filmmaker and to the design construction. They allow a series of rooms to be visible from one to the other, giving the camera more freedom to shoot. They help the room from being subjected to boring.

Factories and industrial facilities have vast layers of metal framing, pipes, conduit and materials. Great scenery for hiding, stalking, predator shots. Storage rooms and maintenance areas likewise are all great scenes for firearm scenes, where things can get hit, spark and explode in frame without causing overall set damage. 

Layers such as ornamental wrought iron create mystique. They look awesome in horror films. Confession booths are the classic layer look. A classic perforated metal, cloverleaf, is a really common grille. Looks beautiful with candlelight. Confession booths are a common build because in reality they are too small to shoot in. Other layering elements can be greenery, as seen in Legend with the use of Lilies. A trellis is also a good example of a greenery layer. Fabrics are beautiful in a window; nothing says 'its windy' or "theres a bad man outside' more than disturbed window dressing. Soji and other types of screens are also a great solution. Especially on a location where there is no build involved.

One note of caution; Stringy curtains and fine meshes can cause a moire effect, which you really don't want. There's nothing worse than annoying moire in the BG.

Most DOP's love to shoot through layers. They are a naturally occuring FG element that are a vital tool for a filmmaker, and will utilize them to create interesting and beautiful shots. They are an opportunity for creative lighting and can cast the most amazing shadows.

The walls sometimes just end up being a frame. Sometimes they don't even get seen.

It depends on the movie you're making.