Production Designers – An Unlikely Fan Favorite
It may seem a little strange to think of a production designer as a fanboy’s object of affection. The standing room only crowd at the 2011 Comic Con Production Designers Panel proved that fans have a real appetite to meet the designers who bring their favorite film and TV shows to life.
After viewing a clip reel highlighting the work of the panelists including scenes from “Pirates of the Carribean,” “X-Men,” “Chuck,” “The Cape,” The Walking Dead, “ “Dr. Who,” and “Torchwood,” panelists John Myhre, Cece Destefano, Gregory Melton, and Edward Thomas were treated to a rock-star quality ovation. To calm the rowdy crowd moderator John Muto had to outline the agenda of the session, requesting that questions be withheld until the end of the presentation.
Each panelist shared their methods of research and what inspired them when creating their production design concepts. Myhre, using his work on “X-Men” as an example, didn’t reference the comics for inspiration but rather visualized images and sets as he read the script. Finding inspiration from movies such as “2001” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he wanted to incorporate color into the futuristic interiors, “not just black and white and silver.” He also employed his knowledge of the casting into the qualities of his design.
“I was excited that Patrick Stewart was cast in this movie,” said Myhre. “I used what I knew of Patrick Stewart’s acting style as a basis for the elegance of the concepts for the set.”
While Myhre was involved with developing the production design for the first “X-Men” movie, three installments of “Pirates of the Carribean” had already been released when he stepped in as production designer for “On Stranger Tides.” In addition to his knowledge of the first three movies as well as the theme park ride, Myhre spent time researching Blackbeard, a pirate that the film’s villian was based upon. He incorporated Blackbeard’s barbaric nature while infusing color onto the set by using entrails and blood to dye the ships sails, resulting in a deep red splattered finish. He also adorned the walls and deck of the ship with gilded bones.
“The real Blackbeard had a skull with horns on his flag,” said Myhre. “I played around with that image and came up with a bones theme used throughout the ship. This really let me create a new environment for the film.”
Thomas had a very different challenge when he became production designer for the very well-known world of “Doctor Who.”
“I stepped into the show after it had been off the air for fifteen years,” said Thomas. “The rabid fan base kept this show alive through all that down time. We were taking its forty years of history and not copying it but reinventing the show.”
Thomas applied a common sense tactic to his design of the Tardis, the time traveling device used by the Doctor. Because the craft is supposed to be over 500 years old, Thomas allows the interior to continuously become modified.
“Think of a 500 year old BMW – you wouldn’t have many of the original parts,” said Thomas. “The same goes for the Tardis.”
Unlike science fiction environments, the worlds represented in “Chuck” had to feel very familiar to the viewing audience. Destefano’s greatest challenge was defining a brand for the electronic store that provides a cover for the main character while avoiding a connection to recognizable brands. She researched chain stores to avoid creating an environment that was too similar or color patterns used in their branding. She also had to ensure her final decision complied to the network’s demands to have bright colors and a lighter emotional depth.
“I decided on using green, even though I was very concerned because no one looks good in green,” said Destefano. “It really ended up working out well with the actors, they all really pop from the background, and they all look great.”
A series like “The Walking Dead” provides unique challenges to a production designer because there are very few recurring sets. Melton stressed that he generally receives only eight days to get the sets put together before the episodes are shot.
“You have visual cues that you want to hit, but the story has new elements that are always being added that are not in a permanent set,” said Melton. “Trying to make things happen every eight days can be very challenging.”
The Production Designers Panel was presented by the Art Directors Guild. The ADG recorded the presentation. Those interested in learning more about the panel or viewing the presentation should contact: