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From Lady Gaga To Vera Wang: Production Designer Weinhoff Creates The Look

When Lady Gaga prepares for television performances of a song and she has a concept of what she’d like to have on the stage, production designer Marla Weinhoff is the woman she’s relied on to lift these ideas off the ground.  Literally.

“Recently Lady Gaga was on the American Idol finale, and she was singing this song called ‘The Edge of Glory.’ She said ‘I want to have this big mountain like a cliff, and I want to be at the edge of this cliff, and then I want to jump off it at the end.’  We designed it and then I had to find someone who could build this mountain that could be rolled on and off the stage of the Nokia Theater in minutes,” said Weinhoff.  “Thank God I had my company Jet Sets out in LA.  They helped construct all my sets in the last ten years.  They carved it and it worked perfectly.”

Weinhoff’s origins in production design began when she took a job as set designer for a Versace ad that was photographed by Richard Avedon.  Stepping away from her roots in textile design, Weinhoff began meeting various artists and designers connected to the fashion world, which simultaneously opened doors into the recording industry as well.  While she continues to act as production designer for photo shoots, Weinhoff also tackles film, music video and commercials, allowing for the collaborations with first rate cinematographers and directors.

“Herb Ritts, who is no longer with us, was amazing, Stephane Sednaoui; I did some of my first music videos and commercials with Stephane and he was so creative and extraordinary,” recalled Weinhoff.  “Recently I worked with Bailey Walsh, I love him.  I only worked with Julie Taymor once; it was on her first commercial.  She was such an extraordinary talent that I was so grateful to have the opportunity to work with.”

The list of directors Weinhoff has worked with on various commercials and music videos is extensive, including Antoine Fuqua, Lance Acord, Malik Sayeed, Sophie Muller, Nick Knight, and Guzman.  The campaigns she’s worked on have featured top shelf talent such as Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Ed Norton, Julianne More, and Madonna.  The recording artists she’s worked on music videos with range from Prince, Kanye West, REM, Mariah Carey, the Dixie Chicks, and most recently, Lady Gaga.  Concepts attached to such a wide range of talent and projects run the gamut.

“It can go the whole range from detailing out what kind of pillows they want on the sofa to a stain on a wood,” said Weinhoff.  “There are certain art directors and agencies that are very detail oriented, and others are a lot looser and more open for interpretation.”

As Weinhoff works out the details for the design elements used throughout a commercial production, she is conscious of not only the product that is being highlighted, but the company that represents the product.  Certain products evoke specific moods, such as seasonal clothing, so Weinhoff will carefully choose a color palette that evokes feelings of that season, while balancing any direction that an agency or the client might have previously indicated.  In some cases, such as with designer Vera Wang, who had developed  clothing and décor lines for specific retail chains such as Kohl’s and David’s Bridals, Weinhoff is careful to keep Wang’s taste and aesthetic intact while also catering to the clientele of those specific stores.

Unlike a feature where a production designer generally has several months of pre-production time allotted, Weinhoff generally has anywhere from three weeks to a few days to prep for a commercial job.  Music videos tend to have an even tighter schedule, with only days to prep, due to the constraints of the recording artists’ schedules or release dates for singles and albums.  In addition to the craftspeople Weinhoff regularly calls upon for painting and carpentry needs, she also has a number of people she reaches out to for specialty items, such as the creation of a plexi-glass chair with gynecological stirrups attached for a birthing scene in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video.  In addition to the elaborate chair, a number of prosthetic heads were needed to be included in the set, a job requiring the help of a special effects makeup artist.

“We had other things made, like an umbilical chord that was attached to a gun, which we ended up not using in the video, but we were working with a special effects makeup person on that.  The woman who made the heads for us, Arielle Toelke, sculpted and cast those heads in probably five days, and it was a miracle,” said Weinhoff.  “I really felt that it looked just like Lady Gaga.”

In addition to designing elaborate sets that incorporate special effects, prosthetics, and fully functional sculptural pieces, Weinhoff is equally adept at providing exceptional design elements for the most minimally designed sets, tightest budgets, and on-the-fly decisions.  Weinhoff recalls the music video for REM’s “Lotus,” that was inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon as an example of minimalism that worked well for the video.  While the background colors were added in post, Weinhoff focused on providing simple set elements that complimented the musicians.

“I remember having condoms filled with paint we shot with BB guns to get some of those exploding effects, so we had very simple, almost handmade elements.  I remember going into the trash at Raleigh Studios and finding a bed frame and just making a little bed out of that,” said Weinhoff.  “It was one of those loving hands at home arts and crafts projects, and it looked great at the end.”

In addition to commercials, music videos and photo shoots, Weinhoff has been the production designer for stage shows, working closely with Lady Gaga on her recent concert tour and television appearances.  Engineers will sometimes be called upon if there are heavy pieces such as water tanks that are being used to ensure the load bearing weight ratio of the stage is appropriate.  Trap doors, wires, harnesses and protective foam mats used for stunts will have to be worked into the design.  And, in the case of the mountain set used for the American Idol finale, stunt coordinators were employed to ensure Lady Gaga’s dive was accomplished safely.

As with finding the right design elements and color schemes to highlight a product for a commercial, Weinhoff likes to ensure that her production design will fit with the personality of the musical performer for the concept, whether a music video or concert set, to be successful.

“When you get someone like Michael Stipe, all he needs is a chair and a line, and he gives this fantastic, expressive performance.  Lady Gaga has an amazing, strong identity.  For me it is great if someone has their own identity and their own style; it gives me more platform to create with,” said Weinhoff.  “But, to have the most elaborate set on earth, if you get someone who doesn’t perform, or the lighting isn’t right, it’s just not as good.”

When working on a commercial set, she enjoys the opportunities she has to collaborate with the director of photography to discuss everything from the size or color of a build as well as a lighting plan.  While these opportunities aren’t always available, she feels “the most successful commercials are the result of when everyone does discuss in advance and have a clear plan.”   With more visual effects and rapid editing entering commercials, she’ll make every effort to consult with these crafts people to ensure the look of the finished product will remain consistent throughout the piece.

Weinhoff is delighted whenever she is able to apply her roots in textile design to a project.  Although she loves beautiful rugs, fabrics and textiles, she feels that as a production designer she must embrace whatever the main material being used in the piece is with equal zest.

“Lady Gaga is very into goo.  She worked with an artist out of Europe named Bart Hess who developed a goo technique for a photo shoot with Nick Night.  Since then we’ve done different forms of goo: goo tanks, goo exploding from her pregnant belly.  So whether it’s goo, or metal, you just have to treat every element with love whatever it is,” said Weinhoff.  “I love flowers, I love gorgeous expensive antiques.  Who doesn’t?  But you know, if you are doing trash or doing fake money or whatever the element is, you have to love it the same way.”

To learn more about Marla Weinhoff, visit her website at: