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“The Production Designer: Architect Of Imagination”: A Comic Con 2016 Panel

Educator and production designer John Muto’s Comic Com panel, “The Production Designer: Architect of Imagination”, has become a highly-anticipated mainstay of the fan fest.  His 2016 panel, featuring Dave Blass (Preacher, Constantine), James Chinlund (War for the Planet of the Apes, The Avengers), Sean Haworth (Deadpool, Ender’s Game) and Suzuki Ingersley (Tru Blood, Colony) drew a standing room only crowd.

After filling the crowd in on the definition of a production designer and sharing the field continues to have the lowest amount of formalized courses at colleges and universities of all the production disciplines, Muto began by asking the panelists to describe the challenges that came along with some of their exceptional, current work.  Ingerslev began by highlighting her work on “Tru Blood.”  Noting series creator Alan Ball is a “visionary” that had outlined details for the sets of a very fantastical world filled with vampires and fairies his scripts, she found Ball to be open and receptive to her ideas.

“I wanted the sets to be grounded in realism,” said Ingerslev.

One example she provided revolved around the underground world the vampires frequented.  Noting the water table is very high in the story’s Louisiana based setting, she wanted to have water present in her design.  Referencing an area in Istanbul she’d previously visited where groundwater was sanctioned in large geometric tables, she built the water pools into the design that was eventually completed on a sound stage.

“People would fall in the water all the time because they thought it was fake,” recalled Ingerslev.

She also noted the vampire’s night club, “Fangtasia” was one of the more challenging sets to conceptualize.  With a direction that the set would be a “strip club with orgies” she knew it couldn’t look like traditional strip clubs.  She created a concept that included areal elements, rich colors, fabrics and a multitude of textures.  Ball was so impressed with the design she came up with he reworked the script surrounding the club’s first appearance.

“(Through the production design) I was able to contribute to the action, and drove the costume design and interaction of the actors,” said Ingersley.

Haworth felt a majority of the production design in “Deadpool” was pretty straight forward however there were some notable exceptions, such as the car in the very opening shot (the interior of the car had to be built out in multiple angles for every pass of the camera during the crash sequence) and the scrap yard fight scene.

“The more we discussed it, the more unrealistic it was to plan,” recalled Haworth.

Using an emptied out naval yard, Haworth and his team had to create an environment that looked like a realistic scrap yard that would be safe for the dramatic stunt sequence.  They brought in a number of shipping containers that they attached metal pieces to.  They also brought in metal pieces from old railroad yards and, in a fashion similar to erecting Lego buildings, welders forged together to add height and dimension to the sight lines.  The dangerous pieces that were involved in the stunt were cast out of rubber.  As the director continued to add height to the set, going up as high as 60 feet, Haworth learned how to rappel off the material, always going to check the design of the set as well as the safety features.

“Scrap from a distance isn’t interesting.  We had to work to make it look interesting,” said Haworth.  “We used a lot of previs during the construction of this set.”

Chinlund likes to get into his projects early, and noted he received the script early on for “War of the Planet of the Apes.”  Having an opportunity to understand the story allowed him to focus on creating a production design that evoked the evolution of the ape culture.   Reflecting back to the production design of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” he wanted to weave the kernel of early ape architecture and illustrate how, as time passed, their methods of design and material used evolved.  This was done specifically through a controlled palette and light penetrating sets that weaved the ability with the natural resources.

“When you see a gate it may be primitive, but through the course of the journey the structure gets defined,” said Chinlund.  “Cesar represents the panicle of ape architecture.”

Blass enjoys the particular challenge TV has over production design in the majority of films:  you have to imagine how a structure may be used later in a season, or in another season all together.  He referenced on particular set piece in “Constantine” – a mill house.  Noting it was conceived with extra doors, he imagined the construction of many rooms that weren’t defined early on, to ensure there was an element of realism as to how they would be entered and how their space integrated in the overall set’s design.

“There were hidden doors, so you had the idea of translating the extra door and being prepared for the extra room through hatches in the ground, rotating walls, things like that,” said Blass.

Blass also touched on creating safe environments for actors.  In “Preacher” many locations are built with the idea of being old and grungy.  He’ll start with a fresh build and along with this team, spend hours applying paint and aging elements.

“It’s clean trash; you want to inform the actors that the location is safe,” said Blass.