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Academy Explores The Changing Face Of Production Design

Ivan Vejar / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Advancements in technology have had a great impact on contemporary cinema over the past decade, from the type of cameras used, to 3D productions and highly realistic special effects.  Jim Bissell, Board of Governors member representing the art directors branch for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science, has witnessed first hand how technology has redefined the field of production design.  Since his first feature as a production designer, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” in 1982, Bissell has become increasing involved in utilizing various software programs and understanding how to interpret the digital intermediary process to maintain the integrity of his design elements in movies such as 2007’s “300.”  With fellow Academy Board of Governors member and set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg, Bissell has put together a four week Academy seminar series entitled “Evolution or Revolution?  Production Design in the 21st Century” to explore topics important to today’s production designers.


“There are so many shifts going on right now in production design; there are so many new tools and the bar keeps getting higher,” said Bissell.  “Production designers need to stay ahead of the curve.  They have to look at the different pipelines and find the styles that suit them best.  Our job remains to engage and astonish, to find the unique perspective of story telling.”


Through the course of the seminar, production designers and set decorators representing a wide berth of styles, from animation (“How to Train your Dragon”) to effects heavy films ( “Star Trek”), from traditional techniques (1968’s “Planet of the Apes”)  to previs and 3D applications (“Alice in Wonderland”) will share comments and ideas on how production design has changed over the years, how these changes affect their craft, and what remains important to them with each job they approach.


For production designer William Creber, who received his second Oscar nomination for his work on “The Poseidon Adventure,” special visual effects were not an option.  Instead, careful collaboration with the cinematographer to provide an illusion of a ship filling with water helped create a believable reality for the viewer.  For example, stuntmen would jump and tumble while cameras rotated along tracking to provide the appearance of the ship capsizing. 


“We had a finite schedule and budget, if you didn’t finish a set the pages would be torn from the script,” said Creber.  “The production designer’s job is to help choose what’s going to work.  You visualize a great idea, and follow through.  You just get it done.”


While Creber was able to get away with using black paint on the rock face of a cliff to represent a cave in 1968, advancements in camera technology will no longer allow for similar optical illusions.  While working on the set of “Legends of the Fall,” Lilly Kilvert found it necessary to establish a complete village from the ground up.  Working with cinematographer John Toll, Kilvert studied the patterns of the sun for a week in order to build functional sets that fully utilized the natural lighting.


“I take the first couple of weeks to get the real sense and truthfulness of the environment,” said Kilvert.  “Research is key.  Visual effects and computer generated work has made the role of a production designer more important to find the truth in the scene.  Our role is to support all departments to make the best film we can.”


While preparing very complex sets, the tools used by visual effects artists have proven extremely useful to some production designers.  While working on  J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” production designer Scott Chambliss employed previsualization to help define the look of the multiple science fiction sets including the reimagining of the Starship Enterprise.


“The digital concept was a plus, there were so many layers to actualize and detail to refine and change instantaneously,” said Chambliss.  “With this technology we could get something done in a day that would normally take twenty-five days.  It’s a great staging tool, not the primary vision of a sequence.”       


Harley Jessup, a production designer who has worked on both live action and animated films such “Ratatouille” has used a wide number of computer programs and 3D rendering tools in his work.  While he sees contemporary programs as an additional tool to help tell a story, he emphasizes the importance of the basics.


“It’s a misconception that a computer does it all,” said Jessup.  “You have to design everything you see on the screen.  Everyone needs to be able to draw.  Drawing continues to be the fastest way to communicate ideas.”


Two panels remain in the “Evolution or Revolution?  Production Design in the 21st Century” seminars:  Set Decoration and the Design Collaboration on Monday, May 9th and The Criteria for Good Production Design on Monday, May 16th.  To learn more about the seminar and remaining panels, please visit: