Hi Film Folk!
So Shane, what was your relationship to film growing up and when did you realise it was what you wanted to be a part of?
My parents were always very supportive of all of my creative endeavours. But I was also raised in a very sports-centric family – as long as I followed through on my sports obligations, like I played baseball and soccer, I could still do my fine art activities. I did a lot of drawing and stuff. So, I was getting support from my parents in both activities. I was lucky that way. My parents aren’t creative people, in terms of practice of art or anything.
Through high school, I had a basis in my film education before I went off to college. When I went to college/university, I was studying film as a fine art, so was looking at more non-traditional approaches to filmmaking – like, Paul Sharits and Bruce Conner; one of my mentors was Chick Strand. So, I had a totally different take on filmmaking. I landed my first job – with the Oxygen Network – by chance.
I had a friend who was an Art Director and she needed an assistant, and I wasn’t working, so I just got involved in the project. I had pretty good management skills and I learned how to do the job, as I was doing it – basically, on-the-job training.
After university I went to do a Masters in Filmmaking – I was exposed to the different arts; my education was very broad, in terms of painters, sculptors, photographers and video artists. So it was, sort of like, my education was already pushing me in this direction.
You started out in NYC on shows such as Pure Oxygen and The Isaac Mizrahi Show – and you did say you got that initial work by chance – but how did you proceed (hard work? contacts? luck?) and how did you make the transition to film?
I’d say I got accolades that supported me moving forward. People saw me in positions of a higher-end capacity that I have some sort of management and aesthetic, so that I can move and do things that were required for that department, so I was able to move forward that way.
Also, I was driven to learn more about the profession. I learned how to draw – I learned all computer programmes, to articulate and idea through things like Photoshop or Illustrator. I took the steps myself to learn what is required of an Art Director or Production Designer.
I never saw Oxygen Network as the pinnacle of my work life – it was an opportunity that afforded me the ability to keep working on my skillset.
In our profession, we move from medium to medium. It’s more like you see visual content and what’s required of the Art Director or Production Designer is different for each medium. For example, I do a lot of commercials, as well. What happens is that there are a lot of areas in between jobs that help inform each other. So, like even after the Oxygen Network I did smaller indie films, like “The Motel” and “November”. In the process, you’re learning as you go – what is required at certain budget levels to problem solve in ways that you’re not necessarily asked to do on larger budgeted films.
In my position, I was able to move from TV to film to commercials for financial need and creative need. But the goal was always to do film, because that is where my love is.
For those uninformed, please clarify to us the difference between a Production Designer and an Art Director? What are the day to day tasks of both, in prep and in production?
I think the distinction depends on the budget level. A Production Designer, for the most part, is working with the Director and the DoP, defining what the look of the film is. So, that comes via colour, tone references and how those elements are going to be expressed during the film – is it going to be through a character, specifically in costume? Or is it going to be in the environment, where they are at a particular moment in the scene? etc.
So this is when I’d be working with the Director and the DoP on a day-to-day basis. The Art Director is more of a manager of the art department. They’re sort of looking over the set designer and the construction team, if we’re buildings sets; they’re also overseeing the Graphic Designer, etc. So it’s a different kind of role. But the Art Director is really my right hand person, you know. I lean on them in terms of guiding the whole art department. That’s basically how it works.
In terms of my day-to-day, for example on the film that I’m working now, I’m out looking for locations – it’s going to be a mostly locations-based film – so I’m out with the Location Manager and we’re looking for specific locations for sets that are required in the script.
Then, when I find the locations, I’m also deciding what else we need to add to accentuate the colour or the tone that would help the film in some particular way. For me, it’s mostly about the architecture of the space – for example, if you want something to seem more dramatic, you might want to have a smaller space, to feel like the character is being encroached on or you might want something very large, so it feels like they’re overwhelmed by something. It might be like these subtle psychological elements, but they sometimes help with the narrative.
Because of my background, we were looking at Godard and Resnais and Bertolucci- you see a depth and you know there’s a reason why they chose that particular colour or that particular space. My hope is always to elevate the content to that kind of level. It’s fun for me. There’s a joy for me to try and do that.
Well, “Beginners” was exceptional. I think Mike Mills is a fantastic Artist. He came through Graphic Design and it’s always nice to work with people who see cinema in a different way. Those are the Directors I tend to gravitate towards. I like David Lynch; I like some of Julian Schnabel’s work. It’s coming from a different perspective.
I landed “Beginners” because I was Art Directing Sofia Coppola’s film “Somewhere” and the Unit Production Manager on it had recommended me to Michael Mills. Then, because of all the attention that “Beginners” got, what came from that was “House of Lies”.
But “House of Lies” is a TV series, so it’s a whole different kind of approach. When you’re doing television, you work upfront, working on standing sets. Then the rest of the episodes you’re out looking for swing sets or locations. There’s a whole different kind of process. So, I grew as a Production Designer because of that experience.
So what led to “Straight Outta Compton” – how did you get the gig? What were the major challenges?
I think just by another chance. I did an HBO film called “The Normal Heart”, about the start of AIDS in New York City – the time period is like from 1980 to 1984. So, I’d just come off doing that, so I had some experience working on locations – and, also, trying to age them back to a period place.
So that was one thing to my advantage – and the film had just come out when they were looking for a Production Designer. The second thing was that I grew up in Los Angeles and had a fond appreciation of hip-hop at the time – I was right in high school when N.W.A. came out, so I knew their music pretty well. I was very excited about the project.
The third part was that the Line Producer for the film and I had the same agent. So it just made it easier for us to bring all the pieces together. So that was basically how I came to the project and then I interviewed with Gary [F.Gary Gray] and we had a really good conversation. What I try to do when I interview for projects is I put together a presentation of ideas and I had some ideas, and I think he responded to them – and that sort of pushed me over to get the job.
Sometimes you get projects that are just jobs but because I had a personal connection to the material – in terms of my own personal history and my growth as a person – it was like “Yeah, of course I’d do it!” [laughs] “Yeah, I want to go for it!”
But it was a very hard project to do. We had 130 sets which is a lot of sets to try and deal with. The problem that I face a designer is that the period for the film is from 1986 to 1995/6, so it is a period film but in people’s minds – because it feels so recent – they forget that things have changed so much. So, the amount of time I had to prep to deal with those issues was not enough, in my mind.
And you had 5 different perspectives of what this film should be: Gary’s, as the Director, Universal’s, as the studio, you have Dre, you have Ice Cube, and Tomica Woods, Eazy-E’s widow, who also has a perspective. So everybody has their own perspective and what they want you to emphasize in that story. So…it was a challenge.
One thing that was exciting about this project is that a lot of people who were coming to it grew up in Los Angeles or were like my age – and that was an important time in our personal lives. For a lot of people on the crew this was important for them; they were excited to be part of the project. So that energy is infectious.
It was nice to be part of a project with a lot of love and support behind it.
How closely did you work with video/photo source material and how close were you trying to get to it?
Well, you want it to be period accurate, but then you also need to embellish enough, so that it feels a little modern and fresh. So that’s what we did in a lot of the stage performance stuff.
We looked at the original source material but then I embellished it more, just to sort of work with people’s ideas of what stage performances are currently. We used LED lights, we used banners, etc., stuff that they did have, but we just popped it out a bit more. So that sort of helps make a film a bit more modern.
On top of it, while we were filming, the events in Ferguson, Missouri took place – so everything that we were shooting felt very real. Especially about the African-American community relationship with the police department. It all felt very timely.
We wanted to show the evolution of N.W.A.’s stage performances. Like there was a club where they would perform, when Dre was working with Alonzo Williams, and that’s where Cube performed his lyrics for the first time. So we wanted to show the evolution, so that when you went to the stadium performance, like in Detroit, you could see where they had started – on these smaller stages – and built up to larger arenas.
And also to show that they were having fun: they’re not just political activists, they’re also young guys in a band, having fun.
How much of it was in the studio?
None. When you see the recording sessions, we were in Conway Studios, which is a famous recordings studio in Los Angeles. We took four different recording booths and made it look like different recording studios. So Conway almost became like a stage for us – we made it look like different places, but we were never really on a proper stage, it was all on location.
We call it location augmentation, that’s our term.
It looks like you had some pretty insane scenes to deal with – large graffitied streets, lots of smashing and SFX (or VFX), pool parties, huge gigs- what’s the secret to getting through such large scale scenes?
Well, like with anything, it’s just planning. I was fortunate enough to have an exceptional art department and we were able to sort of map out a lot of those sets and scenes with the other departments.
If the scenes were VFX heavy or SFX heavy, we were able to communicate between department heads. I think that’s the most important thing on film, in general – how well you work as departments. It would’ve never happened otherwise.
Like I said, 130 sets is a lot and you need to have incredible communication between departments, to get through that kind of thing. Especially when it’s location driven. If you’re on stage, it’s a lot easier because you’re grounded in one place, but we were moving constantly.
You have to problem-solve constantly: even if you go in with one idea to do something, it can change completely. You can say “We don’t want to shoot this way, we want to turn the camera another way”, so that when you do involve VFX or SFX, they have to adapt to what we’re seeing more of.
You have worked with some major directors, including Christopher Nolan, F Gary Gray, Sofia Coppola – is there one singular trait you feel they all share? And some interesting differences?
Oh my god, they’re all so different! [laughs] I mean, the unifying quality or characteristic that they have is that they have a clear vision of what they want.
What differentiates them all is how they communicate that particular vision. And that’s what is so interesting for me, as a Production Designer – every project I go into, I have to learn a new process. Or, potentially, a new way of communicating. You know, get in sync with those people.
So, it’s like we know we’re going to get our job done, but it’s an adventure trying to figure out how to get it done. That’s what makes it interesting to work with directors of that caliber.
For those on the outside toying with the idea of Production Design what facts can you tell them that they should be aware of before taking the leap?
Well, the most important part is to know your architecture. As a Production Designer you need to know standard dimensions of doors and openings, but I think it is also knowing the terminology that helps you communicate with the people that help you build it.
It’s like with music. If you know the basic chord then you know how to change it or move away from it. So I think that’s important for people interested in Production Design – know your architecture. Know who are the famous architects of the past two centuries, or even before that, so you just know and can identify certain styles and forms.
So that will also help you creatively, when you want to create something that has never been seen before. Or, also, help you articulate the idea to your own Director. For example, you can reference to a certain style; you can give them a reference point and say “I’m going to push it past that, in terms of how it’s supposed to look”. Just, study those things.
What one piece of advice can you offer to an aspiring writer, director or producer?
I think the most important thing that I’ve noticed is that you need to find good collaborators. There are certain things that you do on your own. As a Writer, you sit alone and write, but when it comes to the next steps it is always good to find collaborators who understand your particular vision or your particular way of working.
I think that’s the key – to find those people that can help you bring out the qualities that you don’t think you have or that you don’t think you can do, because, there are always aspects of filmmaking where you need help to get there.
That’s why, specifically with Writers and Directors, I think they need to find really good Producing partners, because I think that would actually help with the development of the projects and, also, just the development of their vision of what they want their project to be.
What are 5 films you recommend that every filmmaker should watch and 5 films for Production Designers?
Straight Outta Compton is out now internationally.Join us on FACEBOOK or TWITTER and sign up to our emails on the right hand side for articles straight to your inbox. Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below! Have a great week!