Unity Series Part II: Production Design

How IATSE Art Departments Build 3D Worlds. By Pauline Rogers.

How does Local 800 member Michael Corenblith, currently working on the 3D summer release Dolphin Tale, describe the production designer’s craft? “We depict the visual contours of the screenplay and select or create the environments and decors that best express this to an audience, without their ever being aware of our presence. We create the canvas upon which the director and cinematographer paint their movie,” he says.

In a visual medium like filmmaking, the contributions of the art department – illustrators, art directors and production designers – cannot be overstated. Think back to some of the most iconic moments in film history, and it’s likely the art department was intimately involved: the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, courtesy of William Cameron Menzies (production designer), the transformation of L.A.’s fabled Bradbury Building in Blade Runner – thank you very much Lawrence G. Paull (production designer) and David Snyder (art director), or Luke and co.’s adventures aboard the Death Star in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, carried off brilliantly on an extremely modest budget by production designer John Barry and a team that included art directors Leslie Dilley and Norman Reynolds.

Audiences experienced all of the above, of course, in good, old-fashioned two dimensions on the screen. But this happens to be ICG’s annual 3D issue, a format that requires a different way of designing and even thinking about how viewers will experience sets and environments. And, not unexpectedly, some of IATSE’s best art department members are excited about the new challenge, while others have growled they wished more emphasis was placed by producers on storytelling, and less on a way to bring audiences to the theater at a higher cost per ticket. One thing most agree on is the exciting (aka demanding) learning curve for visualizing a 3D story (whether it is 2D-converted or shot in native 3D). The result, all concur, is an even greater need to work closely with a project’s camera team to get the 3D right.

“The first week I started on The Smurfs, we were shown several films shot in 3D and others that were converted, which is what we ended up doing for Smurfs,” recalls Local 800 production designer Bill Boes. “Both techniques presented a new set of rules. For instance, if a film was to be converted to 3D in post it would be someone else making decisions about distance and space relationship,” Boes explains. “Planes would be determined and tweaked for emotional impact, while a film shot with two cameras in real 3D would have all the information already.”

The long time art department member, whose credits include Sleepy Hollow, Alien: Resurrection and James and the Giant Peach, says 3D cameras are “big and bulky” and often require an “umbilical hooked up to a van,” which can wreak havoc for creating traveling shots.

“The converted 3D [for The Smurfs] was shot on regular single cameras and had no umbilical,” Boes adds. “But we learned that even with 2D conversion, we’d have to shoot a separate pass, as the camera had no way of recording dimensionality in reflective surfaces. Also, in designing the sets with either technique, we could no longer use one of my favorite [design elements] forced perspective. Also no flat backings, either painted or translights, as they would look flat and have no dimension, which is something I learned the hard way!”

Boes says his 3D education on The Smurfs prepared him well for his next project: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Local USA 829 illustrator Gregory Hill found executing Boes’ designs for Journey 2 an interesting challenge. A “gag” that Hill can’t really give away became a bit of a head scratcher when it came to 3D capture.

“Bill asked me to tackle a scene storyboarded in two panels, one showing the characters walking along a rocky ridge and the other the scene after the camera pulls way back and we see something the characters can’t possibly see,” Hill recalls. “My first illustration was a Photoshop® mock-up that looked real and faithful to the storyboard. But it wasn’t unique to 3D.

“So, I had to find a way to rebuild,” he adds. “I have a great program called Carrara Pro [from Daz 3D], which enabled me to build a six-second camera move to demonstrate what I had in mind, taking advantage of the modeling and texturing that works in 3D. The idea was to create the final look of the scene by combining camera position and several unconnected scenic elements, which create the visual surprise in 3D. And I rendered it as a Quicktime movie.”

According to Boes, Hill really hit the mark.

“It was an interesting way to approach 3D for the gag,” Boes reflects. “And our director [Brad Peyton] loved it, so we’ll use Greg’s approach. It’s an exciting time to be in design. We’re looking at things in a different way for 3D and it definitely gets the creative juices flowing!”

When prepping for Drive Angry 3D, Local 800 Production Designer Nathan Amondson learned that many of the shortcuts used in 2D photography don’t work with 3D. He, too, had to approach backdrops and translights, as well as other 2D cheats, in a different way.

“The stars of Drive Angry were the cars,” Amondson explains. “So, we gave our vehicles a screen test to see how they would look in the 3D world.” First lesson learned: Many of the hero cars needed to have satin finishes rather than the standard high-gloss auto finish to prevent glitches in the stereography. Amondson also used Google SketchUp, a 3D modeling program, to see how the sets would work in the 3D world before anything was drafted for construction.

“I also learned that digitally placing TV content later doesn’t work well with 3D,” he says. “So all on-screen media had to be created before it played on the day.”

When prepping for My Bloody Valentine, Local 800 Production Designer Zack Grobler went in believing that design for 2D and 3D was essentially similar.

“We still endeavor to create detailed and believable sets, just like we do for 2D,” Grobler describes. “But, what influences my color choices was the things that affect the camera department, kinds of camera systems that are chosen and how much light is used, etc.”

In reflecting on 2009’s Valentine, Grobler noted that the horror genre worked well for 3D. “Tunnels and corridors lent a lot of perspective to the shots, and to using a moving camera, he observes. “The locations and sets needed to be a bit more spacious to allow for the larger system and crew. Medium and wide shots with ample depth of field tend to be favored more than close ups. Because Valentine was the first horror movie using the new 3D technology, we went out of our way to exploit any 3D opportunities.”

For the low-budget, New Orleans-shot 3D film, The Mortician, Local USA 829 production designer Russell Barnes knew he would have to be extremely cognizant of foreground, mid-ground and background elements as well as the overall perspective.

“We learned to take advantage of the locations but also had an exterior dressing kit on set that could be layered into exterior shots (fencing, street fixtures and construction materials),” Barnes recalls. “And, with 3D technology [the film was shot with the Technica 3D] we always carried more practical lamps and found ourselves adding ceiling fixtures to give [Local 600 cinematographer] Michael McDonough more flexibility.”

Barnes had a lot of fun coming up with concepts. Sometimes, however, there was the “oops” factor. “We had this great non-operational sausage factory which was our morgue,” he remembers. “We had a great time building a morgue freezer locker that was recessed into an existing doorway. Unfortunately, the freezer blocked access to the only working bathrooms at the location. Can you say ‘port-a-potties’ to the set, like now?!

“Add that to the good Samaritan who decided to paint over the graffiti the night before we were shooting in a grimy underpass, which we then had to recreate on the spot from scratch,” Barnes continues. “And the wide range of body fluids, goo and slime we had to experiment with to create ‘human waste’, making the art department look more like a kitchen laboratory; we had a really interesting time designing the 3D fabric for The Mortician.”

Every production designer we talked to could relate to the “oops” factor, Barnes mentions. And each, when taken in perspective (pardon the pun) was a challenge that turned out to be fun. Rusty Smith says designing Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore did not require many drastic changes in his workflow, since it was shot 2D and reformatted for 3D.

“If we’d shot in 3D, we would have had to restructure many of the sets to add foreground and background elements, and break the space,” Smith explains. “And we would also have had to consider how we could move the animals and hide their handlers.”

But for Smith’s upcoming A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, shot in native 3D, all bets were off. “Comedy is so much about visuals,” he says. “One of our biggest head scratchers was a joke about Harold’s house exterior set dressing. There was the scripted version of the joke, the design notion of what and who Harold was and the 3D factor. Each item, from large Santa Clauses and reindeer to candy canes and smaller items not only had to take the comedy one step forward, they also had to work for the camera and the foreground, background, etc., of 3D.

“When we designed the set, we had to congest it with material for the comedy,” he continues. “Then, when we got to the actual location, well, let’s just say a few things weren’t as we needed them to be. So, imagine grown men and women, running around a location, moving objects to fit the comedy – and the 3D perspective. Then moving them again, to accommodate the Technica 3D rig and pathways for the camera crew!  Then a run to look at the monitor to see if it worked and we’d be off again. Marrying 3D and comedy is not easy.”

Local USA 829 member, art director Mario Ventenilla (Step Up 3D) has found a middle ground in his approach to 3D. Getting past the “wow” factor, Ventenilla says it’s still about designing a set or location to fit the story, with the physical architecture of a space the key in either 2D or 3D formats. “We always must keep in mind: Does this building have interesting visual depth of field, wall textures and color?” Ventenilla asks. “Windows also play an important role in achieving depth and atmosphere. No matter what the format of capture.”

But, it’s what goes outside that window that can send a production designer working in 3D back to the drawing board, as Corenblith found on the upcoming Dolphin Tale.

“The customary use of 2D backings is no longer applicable, for in lacking a Z-axis, they appear flat in a 3D format,” Corenblith explains. “To give a credible match to what had been established in the world outside of our stage set necessitated taking all of the elements of a traditional backing and deconstructing them into a series of objects and planes that could be separated in space.”

That meant architecture, foliage and sky were considered as “independent events that were subtly arranged in depth for the shot or lens,” Corenblith continues. “The houses were individually scaled photographs that were adhered to flats, and cut as profile pieces, so that their eave and ridge lines could be arranged against foliage and sky in depth. We also added small dimensional elements to these 2D profile pieces, giving them a bit of two-and-a-half D.”

The effectiveness of the above approach was demonstrated when a set dresser placed an errant Frisbee® on one of the roofs, and Corenblith realized that it was a flat, rather than the sloped surface he “saw” outside the window!

Local 800 designer Robert Stromberg (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) finds the world of 3D tremendously exciting. “At times, we were on the leading edge of technology on Avatar,” the Oscar®-winner (shared with Rick Carter and Kim Sinclair) recalls. “For the first time, we were able to create 3D worlds and give [James Cameron] an opportunity to shoot in these worlds as if he were on location. Another great thing about this was that it enabled me to art direct on the fly, with Jim moving elements in these worlds to new camera positions or creating compositions in the moment. In a way, it was more like sculpting the frame.”

For his work on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, shot by Dariusz Wolski, ASC, in 2D, and converted to 3D in post, Stromberg says he again, “created digital environments that we could composite into the day of shooting. However, not being able to see these sets in stereo 3D became a greater challenge in post production.”

Stromberg, a VFX department veteran, says the industry has reached a time where “a production designer must not only have the knowledge of traditional crafts (i.e., set design, materials and construction) but also understand the new technology. What we have now is not only a traditional art department but also a digital art department. And I find that in every project I do, these two separate departments are becoming one. In the past, postproduction always came after principle photography. What I find, now, is that all of these postproduction roles are becoming critical elements of preproduction.”

IATSE crafts across the board are recognizing that they must work together to give their members the tools, technology and time to embrace this new dimension in moviemaking.

“Studios want more, usually faster and for less money, but often don’t understand that the process of creating great art can’t always be fast or cheap,” remarks Local 800 business representative Scott Roth. “All of our artists need to be given the time and, as equally important, the ability to create in a safe and nurturing environment to support the stories they are given. It is crucial that each category’s union representatives work cooperatively, and smartly, with producers, to construct a landscape where our artists can do what they do best – create.”

“And that includes education,” adds United Scenic Artists Local USA 829 President Beverly Miller. “Much like our brother and sister IATSE Locals, [USA 829] has begun an extensive program of training for our members in the new technologies now required in the craft. It is more than the 3D software programs tailored to set design. It is about a commitment to maintaining the high level of skills that makes hiring union people the only way to go in this high-pressure world of moviemaking today.”

Or as Stromberg concludes about the changing nature of a craft that has been around since the dawn of the industry: “We are still in the infant stages of this new way that we make these films. I can only imagine what we will be creating when we become adults!”