Production Designer Mark Hofeling Discusses Creating Diverse Worlds In Disney Channels “Descendants”

Creating levels of decay transformed Vancouver streets into the Isle of Lost in “Descendants.” photo credit: Disney Channel

When Mark Hofeling was first pitched the story of Disney Channel’s original movie “Descendants” three years ago, the production designer’s gut reaction was to shiver in sheer terror.

“I was told the idea in broad strokes and all I could think was ‘How do we bring these revered Disney characters out of their animated format and into the real world?’” said Hofeling. “But anything can be scary at first. You approach it like a meal: by taking one bit at a time.”

“Descendants” depicts a time when heroes and all good people from Disney fairy tales inhabit a land called Auradon. Every evil-doer has been banished to the Isle of Lost. The story opens roughly 20 years after the banishment where characters including Maleficent, Cruella de Vil and others have struggled to maintain an average life. Worlds collide when their children are invited to attend the hero children’s prep school by Ben, the son of King Beast and Queen Belle. The film reteamed Hofeling with director/choreographer Kenny Ortega. The two had worked together on five movies, including the three “High School Musical” movies. Aware Ortega “always dreams of possibilities much larger than what our resources permit,” Hofeling was excited to be revisiting the level of trust and strong shorthand their collaborations have cultivated over the years.

Prior to any prep, Hofeling and other “Descendants” decision makers engaged in a six month discussion period to flesh out all aspects of the world and story. During this time, Hofeling re-watched many classic Disney animated films, including “Sleeping Beauty” and “Alladin.” “I was smothered in an embarrassment of riches,” the production designer marveled as he closely reviewed details that defined each character. He began formulating color swatches for Auradon that ranged from pastels in yellow, blue, aqua and purples, to a more complex range for the isle of Lost.

“Imagine a Jolly Rancher that fell in the dirt,” said Hofeling. “The Island has gone to seed. The idea was dirty candy; the colors of evil covered with rust and dirt.”

Once Vancouver was revealed as the shooting location, Hofeling knew he’d have to put a great deal of effort in establishing the Isle of Lost locations. The green, abundant vegetation and pristine settings lent themselves naturally to Auradon. While the line producer sent photos of the most industrial area their location scout could find, Hofeling knew effectively conveying the Isle of Lost relied heavily on set dressing and décor. Due to a tight budget, Hofeling relied upon local crew to fulfill the roles of his art department. Once he assembled his team, the group went over the specifics of the character’s histories and personalities.

“As a department, we create the back stories,” said Hofeling. “Imagine ‘Law and Order’ – the minute the police enter an apartment that room has to tell you more about that person than any back story could. We create that.”

One elemental means of creating back story on the set of “Descendants” was through a wealth of graphic material. The art department created everything from billboards to t-shirts to the litter on the ground. Prior to a single item appearing on-screen, it must be approved by the Disney Channel Legal and Standards and Practices departments.

“Many designers faint when they first learn that,” said Hofeling. “It adds substantial workload to the department. But after thirty movies with Disney I’ve learned to have fun with it.”

Some approved graphics appeared as old propaganda. Stickers and posters bore sayings such as “King Beast wants you to try to have a nice day” and an image of Fairy Godmother saying “Don’t Be Bitter, Be Better.” The art department added further layers of creativity by topping the posters with layers of graffiti.

The team also took care when adding dressing to interiors. Running off the suggestion that no new house ware has been sent to the island since 1979, the furniture, dishware and other common items are aged and battered. Graphics were further added to wall paper, such as a twisted double helix design for Maleficent’s house. After the paper was hung it was torn and distressed.

In addition to getting the surroundings just right, Hofeling also had to make adjustments to the set to properly highlight the characters. To provide the illusion that Kristin Chenoweth, who portrayed Maleficent, had a towering stature, Hofeling built a sunken living room. This allowed her to appear 18” taller than any other actors standing around her. Paramount to the design was the safety of all actors, particularly the young dancers. Rubber floors and spongy materials were used to prevent injury.

“These kids are young and excited and going 150 mph. They forget to ask if they can jump on a table,” said Hofeling. “We have to anticipate their thoughts and overbuild. Additionally, the shots for dance moves are floor to ceiling, so that takes on a different design process than building for two shots and close-ups.”

With over thirty films to his credits, Hofeling marvels at the course his career has taken. His entry into production design was working on low-budget movies and horror films. While he’s done numerous films with Disney, he also spends time working as an interior designer. He’s designed spaces for the Modern West Fine Arts Gallery, the offices of Schawel + Coles and the AirBnB Haus installation at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He finds great inspiration in working on content for children and young adults, and will continue doing this work as long as the projects keep coming in.

“Young people are very sharp viewers. They miss nothing,” said Hofeling. “You can’t think of it as ‘It’s just a kid’s movie.’ If you respect that, they respond.”