Comic Con 2015: The Production Designer: Architect Of Imagination
Panelist prepare for the ADG’s 2015 Comic Con panel, The Production Designer: Architect of Imagination
The work of the production designer extends beyond the reach of film and television. Production design affects the aesthetic of toys, cars, and other everyday objects too numerous to mention.
With this thought, John Muto (Species, Home Alone) kicked off the Art Directors Guild’s annual presentation at Comic Con 2015. This year’s panel, “The Production Designer; Architect of Imagination” included Darren Gilford (Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Tron Legacy), Greg Melton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Walking Dead), John Mott (12 Monkeys, The Americans) and Ed Verreaux (Jurassic World, Looper). Despite an extreme shortage of high education facilities offering courses in production design, Muto marveled with some curiosity at the amazing work that is being done in film and television; work that bleeds into everyday society through the products we use and games we play. Before presenting questions to the panelists, Muto celebrated the achievements ADG members accomplished over the previous year – particularly those made by the guild’s female members.
“I assure you, we are no longer the club of middle-aged white men that you see up here today,” said Muto, indicating many invited guild members were busy on location.
Interestingly, the production designers who were able to participate on the panel had all recently wrapped work on reboots. Melton and Mott both participated in transforming content many viewers were familiar with from previously released features that were being revisited in contemporary television series. Mott described reviewing the fantastical world depicted in Terry Gilliam’s original 1995 film “Twelve Monkeys” and completely revising it.
“I love the movie, but it had an over-the-top feel; it was all very fantastic and imaginative,” said Mott. “I had to work out a (key element to the plot) machine that looks very realistic. Everything had to be based in reality for the series.”
Using production design to establish a story’s reality was also key to Melton’s work on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Unlike Mott who was familiar with “12 Monkeys”, Melton had never seen “Avengers.” He worked off an outline and “carved out a world the story could be grounded on.”
Unlike their counterparts who sidestepped integrating original designs when adapting films for television, integrating elements of the original films’ production designs were mandatory for Gilford and Verreaux. Working collaboratively with multi-Oscar winning production designer Rick Carter, Gilford described finding the design essence of the original “Star Wars” film that informed his directions in “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”
“I saw the original ‘Star Wars’ when I was eight. It’s part of my DNA,” said Gilford. “But everyone has their own ‘ground zero’ version of ‘Star Wars’. We had to whittle that down and find the true starting point that connects everything.”
Despite designing a completely new dinosaur habitat and slightly futuristic attraction, Verreaux had to make some very direct connections to past versions of “Jurassic Park” when designing “Jurassic World.” The film returns to the same island the last installment, “Jurassic Park 3” took place, and elements of the first film are referenced throughout the script. Verreaux had to directly integrate design elements into his creation.
Muto refrained from asking many questions during the panel, preferring to devote the majority of the time to the packed hall of attendees eager to ask pointed questions. These ranged from asking Gilford what it was like creating the garbage-saturated world in his first feature, “Idiocracy” to the always relevant, each participant encompassing, “How did you get your start?” Before turning it over to the crowd, however, Muto asked the panelists if there was a moment where they decided upon the visual direction for the project. They all agreed their direction balanced upon the desires of the director.
Some directors emerge from a visual background and have specific looks and styles in mind. Gilford discussed the difference of working with a director like Joseph Kosinsky (Tron: Legacy) – an architect with a Master’s degree – versus Mike Judge (Idiocracy) a director who transitioned into film from the music industry. While Judge had a strong talent at storytelling and understanding the complicated rhythm of comedy, his ability to preconceived a visual world wasn’t as fine tuned. Kosinsky had outlined a light grid system for “Tron: Legacy” as well as a previs version that Gilford based his production design around. In situations where a director may already have a strong idea and direction for a project’s overall look, the production designer often has to balance their vision with practicalities determined by time, resources and budget.
“The script provides a blue print for the design, but it’s important to remember you are working alongside a director and producer,” said Verreaux. “(Colin Tevorrow) was very specific about his likes and dislikes when working on ‘Jurassic World.’ It became my job to guide him towards certain visual decisions, and ensure he was always fully aware of the reasons behind certain choices.”
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