‘The Martian’ production designer – Arthur Max – In Conversation

Film Folk!

The Film Doctor team are delighted to bring you another insightful In Conversation in the run up to the big British and American Academy ceremonies. 

Today we bring you amazing BAFTA and Oscar-nominated production designer of The Martian – and lovely gent – Arthur Max!

 

The Martian - photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox - production design by Arthur Max
The Martian – photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox – production design by Arthur Max

 

Where were you raised?

I was born and raised in Manhattan. I went to college there until about 1969, then I got some work in England that kept me there for the next 25 years [laughs]. It was a good job.





 
 

So how did you end up with that work in England?

Well when I was a student at NYU, I was interested in all kinds of things. From photography to theatre design to lighting for theatre and I got involved with a bunch of weird theatre technicians and ended up at the Woodstock festival on the lighting crew.

I got a job from there working for Fillmore East for Bill Graham which was a big concert venue. I’m taking about the years ’67/’68/’69 and during that period Pink Floyd came to New York and played their concerts at the Fillmore and that’s how I met them.

The Fillmore closed in 1970 and I graduated college and didn’t know what to do with myself. They (Pink Floyd) suddenly arrived in New York and said ‘we’ve got this new album and we want to do a stage show for it involving projections and lighting’ – which I’d been talking to them previously about – and they said ‘we want you to do it’. That was The Dark Side of the Moon.

They hired me to come to England and work on a stage show for them and that lasted almost 5 years, doing that kind of work, and then I realised that the visuals were really secondary to that industry. By that time I’d met a lot of people in England who were working in film and I thought that was maybe a better world for me to occupy.

So I left the rock ‘n’ roll design industry and went back to college because I’d attempted to study architecture in New York after NYU but I never got a chance to do that because it was just cooler to go on tour with Pink Floyd [laughs]

So I went back and did architectural studies and worked as an architect for a little while and discovered that I really didn’t like it. I didn’t have the patience for all the planning permissions and the pace of real world construction.

Through some friends of mine in the film industry I realised that that was the right place for me because it was the right blend of fantasy and practicality and you’re only interested in surface. It didn’t have to last forever [laughs]

The Martian was a real world challenge though as things had to work and be seen to work on camera.








 
 

How did you end up on Se7en?

Well I worked my way up as an assistant in England to an Art Director working on feature films. Then Maggie Thatcher came along and took away all of the benefits – film finance and film subsidy – away. Privatising everything. The British film industry collapsed consequently.

The only thing around were commercials in those days. There weren’t even pop videos then. I was fortunate enough to know people who were working in that area, as editors or cameramen. I sort of drifted in to their world and got an opportunity to do a couple of TV commercials. 

At the time – this is now the late ’70s – British advertising was probably more interesting than a lot of feature films being made at that time and it eventually led to me bumping into a guy named Ridley Scott. I met him first in 1984 when he had just done the amazing – and still iconic – Apple commercial. The next thing I know, I’m on set doing a Coca-Cola campaign based on Blade Runner [laughs].

So advertising commercials became my full time employment for the next decade. It took me all around the world (we’re in the 80s now and people were spending large amounts of money on very high end commercials, sometimes with bigger budgets than a lot of movies do). That brought me back to America but mostly to California. Through Ridley’s production companies they worked in the deserts of California. I managed to meet David Fincher who was also doing commercials at that time as well as some films.

 
 

Ah, and he’d done Alien 3 of course..

Yes, that was around the time I met him. It was ironic because I was working at Ridley’s company and I’d just finished a job and a freelance producer came over to me and said ‘what are you doing?’ and I said ‘well, I’m just doing my petty cash receipts and then I’m going back to London’ because I was still living there full time. She said ‘Oh no you’re not, you’re coming over with me to Propaganda because the Art Director on the job that David Fincher is doing next has just got ill and you’re going to do the job instead.’

It was a big Nike campaign. The Nike campaign introduced me to Fincher and the next thing I know he’s asking me if I want to do this film called Seven and that’s how I did it.

It was just a lucky break of somebody not being available and filling somebody else’s shoes. Even further luck came to me on that job because originally it was an independent thing and non-union but when Brad Pitt was cast, he had a limo and the limo had a driver that was union and consequently everybody on the film had to be union.

I was Grandfathered in, as they call it, and that enabled me to carry on working on Hollywood movies on a larger scale i.e. Ridley’s movies. Previously I was unable to work on Ridley’s movies, I could only do commercials because they were non-union.

It was a few lucky breaks.

 

The Martian - photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox - production design by Arthur Max
The Martian – photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox – production design by Arthur Max


 

The Martian looks incredible. It felt close to 2001 in how in-space the audience feels.

Well there’s a parallel there. Kubrick did extensive research into the future of space exploration technology and the design. It still holds up.

That’s what we did. I went to NASA and JPL and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. We were shown round all their research facilities for what is going to be very, very soon, a real first manned mission to Mars. They’re already talking about test flights in 2018 and a manned mission in 2025.

With The Martian, it was essential that we were grounding in real science, in botany, organic chemistry and rocket technology that’s actually credible and, in most cases, in development now as we speak by NASA. We went with all those rockets and spacesuits and things as much as we could but because we were working in the future we also took a bit of license – with the encouragement of NASA and JPL.

They were saying “we look to you guys for cool ideas, so feel free to make us look good” because most of their prototypes are strictly done by engineers. They’re based on formulae and function rather than style. There’s also the issue of $ for £ in terms of what you can take into space. There’s a minimalism in their design philosophy as well.

When you embrace that you have a certain set of constraints around you when it comes to design. Personally I prefer it. I’d rather there was something to bounce ideas against and limits that you can’t step out of the boundaries of.

Because of the storytelling of The Martian, I think that worked. We had things that worked in shot, that functioned in shot i.e. the Rover, the pathfinder that he discovers, the probe he discovers to communicate back to Earth, the rotating gravity wheel. All of that needed designing.

Even the construction had to be completely credible because he dismantles a lot of it and jerry rigs components to take with him and kind of cannibalise and retrofit onto the Rover and his caravan for his cross-planet journey. All of that had to work or seem to work. The minutiae of infinitum detail was gargantuan compared to a lot of films.

For example, we used orange transparent tape in the scenes because that’s the only kind of tape they use in space because it doesn’t decompose. That choice wasn’t arbitrary. It was the only tape that would survive up in space.

I mean compared to Prometheus – which is another sci-fi film I’ve done. That’s set in a far distant future where anything is possible and all technology is truly amazing. You can just invent things willy nilly to amaze and stupefy the audience.

Whereas with this in 5 years time you’ll be seeing a lot of this stuff on your daily news channel.

 

 

So you’re doing this purely through the VFX department rather than through miniatures, where one might have in earlier days?

The only miniatures we were using were Art department sketch model miniatures of all the various sets for design processing and eventually for discussions between all the different departments and Ridley.

Not shooting on miniatures. Everything was either full size built or in the studio, on location and/or digital.

 
 

You did exteriors in Jordan – how long were you out there for?

We did a tech recce for about 3 weeks, then a 2 week construction of a 2nd habitat which was a doppelgänger of the one that was on stage.

We redesigned the landscape. Ironically, Wadi Rum is an absolute doppleganger for parts of the surface of Mars. We had to take out a lot of greenery both physically and digitally.

We had to change all the skies because Martian skies go from a kind of pink to a butterscotch yellow. A couple of moons are in the sky in Mars that we created. Phobos and Deimos. We embellished the landscape in the background with some giant volcanic craters and mountain rangers. As big as they are, we made them bigger still in the background digitally.

Generally, Wadi Rum, the geology, the colour of the rock and sand is very Martian.

 

Matt Damon in The Martian - photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox - production design by Arthur Max
Matt Damon in The Martian – photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox –  design by Arthur Max

 
 

You shot this with 4 cameras. Is that a regular thing now? Do you have to constantly now do 3D sets and did you not have to used to do that?

Most of the scenes were 3D. Sometimes we’d use more than 4 cameras, depending on the sequence and the budget. It could be up to 7 sometimes. With 3D, sometimes it’s impossible to do certain sequences or to get 3D cameras into spaces, so you end up doing 2D.

We also shot using GoPro cameras. That was Ridley’s idea. They were a certain model of GoPro that the DP specified. They were bespoke. I couldn’t tell you which model but I can tell you it was particularly compatible with the video playback system. That was the issue, not the resolution, but being able to play them back to Ridley live.

They were all over the place; in the Rover, in the Hermes, in the hab, out of the hab, in his helmet. It gave another dimension to the storytelling. It allowed us to eavesdrop visually on him and what he was doing.

All the time we’ve shot with multiple cameras on projects. Ridley is a master of setting up multiple cameras so that you don’t have to do individual re-takes of dialogue with the individual actors.

Everybody’s talking and being photographed live with multiple cameras. Wide and medium. At least three. Two will be on CUs with the actors. Sometimes more, depending on the size of the set. Ridley is one of the few directors who does that. Consequently, it’s very fast. Which if punishing to all of us!! [laughs].

 

 

Any word of advice for an aspiring Production Designer who’d like to follow in your footsteps? 

Do your research. Do your homework because it all pays off in the end.

You’re only as good as the people that you work with. So I would give credit to my Supervising Art Director Marc Holmes, my Set Decorator Celia Bobak, the Vehicles Art Director Oliver Hodge, my Motion Graphics Art Director Felicity Hickson, Ray Barrow our construction manager and a host of people around them. I couldn’t have done it without those core people with their dedication and hard work.

Also because we’ve worked on several projects together before there’s a sort of short hand communication that helps enormously. Bring a team along and keep them close. They are the ones that make you look good.

 

Thank you Arthur and good luck with the BAFTAs and Oscars!

See more interviews here.

 

Matt Damon in The Martian - photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox - credit: Giles Keyte
Matt Damon in The Martian – photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox – credit: Giles Keyte

 

 

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