The Set Up: Three Pairs of DPs and Production Designers Reveal the Creative Synergies Between These Two Departments
Without an environment to shoot, cinematographers have nothing; without directors of photography to shoot their sets, production designers have no purpose. It takes a lot of people to build a world for the camera to film, and while the director may inspire and supervise its creation, it takes a production designer and a cinematographer to get it in front of the lens. The creative and practical collaboration between these two key crew members often gets personal. It is always co-dependent. We spoke to three such teams about their most recent projects together – Inbal Weinberg and Andrij Parekh of Blue Valentine; Andy Byers and Sam Levy of Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno and Seduce Me shorts; and Tom McCullagh and Sean Bobbitt from Steve McQueen’s Hunger — about how they did their jobs on key sets and what made their relationships work.
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine was one of the most celebrated features at Sundance this year, lauded for intense lead performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. The script had been in development for years before Cianfrance got to make it, and when he finally did, he brought on cinematographer Andrij Parekh (Half Nelson, Cold Souls) and production designer Inbal Weinberg, who had worked with Parekh on Half Nelson.
The film oscillates back and forth from the present and the past. As we watch a couple’s marriage reach its breaking point, we flash back to long sequences of their meeting and falling in love. The seeds of their fundamental problems are planted, scene by scene, in the story of their early relationship; simultaneously we watch their love breaking apart, years later.
The filmmakers shot on two formats. The RED camera was used for the present day and 16mm for the romantic past. Says Parekh, “The format choices were based on a shooting style that would allow for extremely long takes — 45 minutes was our longest — and a theoretical approach to the past and the present.” Long lenses were used for the present and wide lenses were used for the past. “We wanted to be ‘away’ from the actors in the present, physically, and just watch them from afar, whereas in the past the camera was always close to them to give an immediacy and presence to the camerawork.”
“For the past sections,” says Weinberg, “our color palette was slightly subdued but also rich, accommodating both pastels and darker earthy tones.” Weinberg felt that the 16mm helped to “romanticize” the interiors “almost like vintage photographs,” a contrast with the more realistic present. “Film also takes well to patterns, which was great in the interiors where we used wallpaper.” For the present sequences on digital, “we went for a much more monochromatic and emotionally cold feel. The RED helped create a sharper and harsher environment.”
One of the most important sequences in Blue Valentine occurs about 20 minutes into the film. Attempting to reconnect to the wife he fears he’s losing, Gosling spontaneously books a night in a “romantic” themed motel a few hours from home. He picks “the Future Room.” When they walk into the silver-walled, midnight-blue hotel suite, replete with rotating bed and Day-Glo light fixtures, Gosling cries out, “this looks like the inside of a robot’s vagina!”
“I was like, ‘Ryan, did you have to say that about my set?’” jokes production designer Weinberg, who had spent the previous week slaving away to get the space ready. To keep his actors’ reactions as genuine as possible, Cian-france had made sure that his actors would see the room for the first time on camera. His shooting method also called for two cameras at all times, and, due to the nudity, a completely closed set. He also wanted the ability to shoot in every direction for up to 40 minutes at a time in order to give the actors the maximum amount of flexibility and space.
“Production had initially intended to build the Future Room on a stage, but we couldn’t afford the build,” remembers Parekh. The producers found a theme motel with an actual future-themed room, albeit several hours away from where they had based the rest of the shoot. The hotel’s version of the future room, says Weinberg, “was very crazy, pretty far from what we were going for, which was like a 1980s’ DIY version of sci-fi. The original room had red Formica on the walls with giant triangle structures harshly lit by two pending lighting fixtures. The walls really bothered me. I didn’t know what to do with them. I saw blue and white light for this room, not red.” Because it was a location, not a set, they were limited in their capacity to destroy the room; everything had to be restored to its original condition afterward. This temporarily set back Weinberg’s plan to paste a giant mural of a moon behind the bed, until she found a solution: “We basically built a fake wall on top of the wall that was already there, and then wallpapered this huge moon mural to it.” In order to build inside the room without harming it, they Velcroed and taped sheets of custom-cut Luan to the existing walls, and then painted over them.
To be faithful to the scripted elements in the scene, the art department would also have to add a dividing door to part of the room and a spinning bed. But the biggest challenge for everyone was the lighting. “Because Derek and I wanted to shoot 360 degrees at all times and run long master takes without turning around and relighting, we decided to design [the set] in a way where there was no chance to stop and adjust lights,” says Parekh. “The location was incredibly small, maybe 15 feet wide, 30 feet deep — like a big tunnel with 8- foot ceilings. You can’t hide lights anywhere. A d.p.’s nightmare, really.” And, remembers Weinberg, “The room has no natural light, no windows.” The only viable solution was to incorporate the lighting into the production design. “Instead of hiding the lights, we built them right into the set.” Approximately 40 Kino Flos were tucked behind opaque panels in the walls. “I also asked Inbal to provide some 25 to 40 watt globes that sat on the floor and contained low-wattage incandescent bulbs. These three ‘lights’ were the only lighting fixtures that were moved during the entire week.” According to Weinberg, these Ikea-bought fixtures “had a ‘spacey’ look that blended seamlessly into the set.”
Parekh chose three theatrical gel colors to gel the lights: blue for the part of the room where Gosling and Williams sit, drink and mentally destroy one another; red for the bed, and purple along the shower wall, “where they have a brief, passing moment of intimacy.” The effort was a joint one between the art and lighting departments; the leadman and the rigging gaffer working on the same fixtures at the same time. “All the lamps were fixed,” he continues, “so that we could only shoot during the shoot and not tweak any Lights, guaranteeing Derek only performance time during our shooting days.”
The schedule allowed for a rigging gaffer and art department to spend four days prepping the space before the shooting crew arrived. “Sometimes the crew is very divided — you just dress the set and someone comes to light it,” says Weinberg. “But this was a real collaboration.” Every light had to be part of the set, and everything was potentially visible. “There was a lot of experimentation while building, and a lot of figuring out how to hide wires.” For instance, because most of the technical crew (including the sound recordist) had to operate from an adjoining suite, cables had to somehow extend out of the set. Explains Weinberg: “we couldn’t lay them through the door, because it had to be functional at all times. So we ended up drilling a hole through the back of the closet, and threading the cables into the adjacent room.”
The result of everyone’s hard work is an insane and vivid blue and silver sex den, photographed in a way that is too strange and constrained to be corny, accented by red lights and mirrors that reflect the characters’ anxieties back at them. It feels airless; suction-sealed from the outside world. Accessorized with whiskey, cigarettes and a well of resentments and frustration, it’s the perfect environment to facilitate the rapid and violent breakdown that the couple endures inside it.
Both Parekh and Weinberg are noticeably proud of how far they went to get out of the director’s way. It took a week of full-time rigging by the lighting department and one quarter of the art department’s entire budget for the film. “It wasn’t just about making the set, it was also about facilitating the special nature of our shoot,” says Weinberg. Counters Parekh: “I realized early in my career that nobody goes to a movie to see great lighting. Once you understand that, that you need to make space for the actors and the director to work on the performances foremost, you approach things differently.”
What are the most important elements of a d. p. / p.d. relationship? According to Parekh, “flexibility and compromise. The thing with any movie’s budget is, there’s one pie, and everyone has to share that space and money. The more you can help each other, the more successful the movie can be. If you start getting selfish and eat too much pie, someone else’s department is going to suffer. For me, the production design is as important, if not more important, than the shooting format, because 35mm makes no difference if you’re stuck shooting on a set of four white walls. I’d rather take the money for film processing and put it into set dressing.”
For Weinberg, “the most important thing is to have a clear line of communication, to be communicating all the time, as much as possible. I love being around the camera, to look into the eyepiece, to understand what the framing is and what the shot is. I also try very hard to go to the screening of the camera test to see how the film stock is going to react to different colors. The aspect ratio is also important — that affects how I approach a set in a major way. For Blue Valentine I knew they were going to be doing a huge amount of very tight coverage and close-ups, so I had to come to terms with the fact that my sets wouldn’t be seen very much. It was about the actors, not my sets. A lot of what we did on that film was so the actors would feel comfortable — or uncomfortable, in the case of the Future Room.”
GREEN PORNO & SEDUCE ME
“When I first met Isabella, she said she wanted [the sets] to feel pretty naïve, and I said, ‘paper’s pretty naïve,’” states Andy Byers, designer of the sets and costumes for Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno and Seduce Me series of short films, available on the Sundance Channel.In the case of Green Porno, each vignette is the story of one animal’s reproductive behavior.
Green Porno: Praying Mantis for instance, begins with Rossellini’s elegant face, looking quizzical. “If I were a firefly… I would light up my ass at night. I would fly here, and there, and there…” she intones. The camera zeroes in on her regal rear end, lit with one bright bulb and flitting from one side of the frame to another. It cuts wide, to an ink blue-lit night scene, with a carpet of tall grass and curling, silhouette leaves in the foreground. It’s clear immediately that the set is made of cut paper. The tone is whimsical and deeply adorable, and it’s impossible not to think of the exceptional skills it took to craft it. Rossellini narrates the fireflies’ behavior as light bulbs of different colors begin to appear on the set, moving and blinking. Her face appears, lit up behind paper grass — “Different fireflies flash different lights… they are imposters! Mimicking our species’ flashes!” she cries, her face swathed in the dark blue unitard of her firefly costume.
The pieces are only about a minute long each, and all were shot on a soundstage, in front of a colored backdrop. Virtually everything — from the giant whale penises to the translucent squid face to the shiny school of three-foot anchovies — is made by Byers and his team out of colored paper with the occasional dash of fabric and bubble wrap thrown in when necessary. “When we met, I showed her a dragonfly made out of paper, and she thought it was fantastic,” says Byers. “So first it was like, ‘Okay, let’s just make everything out of paper.’ And now it’s like, ‘Okay, we have to make everything out of paper.’”
Rosselini begins with scripts and very simple line drawings of the costumes and sets, which she gives to Byers months before filming is set to start. D.P. Sam Levy, whose feature credits include Wendy and Lucy and the upcoming The Romantics, met Byers when they were both hired for the first season. “Sam is the first d.p. I’ve ever worked with who’s become my friend,” says Byers. “It works when you see the same thing. The most disappointing thing is when you read a script and you’ve got something really specific in your head — like, you’ve made the perfect kitchen for the character you read — and then the d.p. comes in, moves things around and lights in a way that makes it clear that you’re on completely different pages.”
One of the first things that the two agreed upon was how to light Isabella. “Really early on, we had this idea to do like 1970s pornstar lighting: kind of glitzy, gold, glamorous,” says Byers. “It makes me really happy when Sam does that.” For the snail episode, in which Rossellini, as a snail, defecates on her own face, “there’s this soft focus glow, which is actually super corny, but then she poops on her face,” says Byers.
Levy has used a different camera for each season. For Season One of Green Porno, working with a very small budget, he used a Sony HRV-V1U: “Basically a mini-DV camera that shoots 1080i. I wanted to use a primitive camera that recorded to tapestock that I could operate myself.” A black Pro-mist diffusion has been used since Episode One to soften the hard digital edges of HD. “Isabella had mandated a very handmade, simple approach,” says Levy, which led him to the simplest cameras he could find. “I always think that if you’re good you can point any camera at a subject and create a strong image, even if you’re using a cell phone. The V1U very much tested this theory.”
Originally designed only for small screens — simple, graphic images employing just a few colors each — the team got the chance to watch the series projected on movie screens when it became popular. After seeing them big, Levy says, “I wanted to photograph Isabella using 35mm depth of field.” For Season Two, he used a Sony EX-3 card camera with a Letus adapter and Zeiss 35mm superspeed primes, employing the Pro-mist filters once again. Before the first season of Seduce Me was set to begin, Levy bought a Canon 5D Mark II “like every other d.p. in the world,” knowing that the color space and shallow depth of field would be great for the project. “I love [the 5D] because it feels like a medium-format stills camera, which is the perfect way to photograph Isabella Rossellini.”
Byers has a background in ceramics and sculpture, not film. “Sam helps me with color quite a bit because there’ll be certain questions like, ‘I think this looks right together but what kind of colors are you thinking about?’ He’ll also help me with scale: ‘that’s not going to fit on camera’ or ‘that would look better really big.’”
At first, Byers was building the pieces in his apartment, a location that became untenable for various reasons, notably his young daughter’s discovery of the joy of stomping on paper animals. The operation was moved to Brooklyn, and then further out into Brooklyn as the sets themselves got bigger. Byers uses mainly Canson art paper, employing photo background “set paper” for the larger pieces. What you might expect to go wrong with enormous paper sets and costumes often does. “It’s gonna rip all the time,” admits Byers. “It’s gonna mess up. Also I sometimes forget that Isabella Rossellini is going to have to wear them and move around in them.” One of the main differences he has noticed between making art for art and art for film is that the camera only looks in one direction. “The back of these things are covered in duct tape and wire and glue; it took me a few film jobs to realize that you don’t have to make something beautiful all the way around.” The homemade touches are part of the plan, though it’s often hard for Byers to make things as homemade looking as he could. “I keep trying to make things look awful, like pieces of crazy garbage, but then we make them like that and I’m like… ‘Guys, these should really look better.’” Nevertheless, he loves the paper’s unslick, practi- Cal charm: “I hope people like looking at the stupid gags we create, and seeing the stupid tricks — I think it’s so much fun to see the wire that makes the whale penis move, rather than doing it with a computer — if we can’t do it on camera, we don’t do it.”
For Levy, color is what he thinks about most of all, beginning in preproduction when he meets with Byers to see the sets and animals in their early stages. “I look at what Andy’s doing, and that really sets the palette,” says Levy. Early plans were to paint the backdrop for each piece; they decided quickly that lighting the cyc with theatrical gels looked much better. Levy meticulously tested hundreds of colors of gels and built a reference board with all of his favorites. “When we shot the whale in Season 2, Andy had built these beautiful blue whales, so I lit the backdrop a muted blue — but then they had these enormous pink penises, and Isabella thought they were getting a little lost in all that blue. So each penis had its own Leko pointed at it, with a bit of pink gel, to make sure they popped. No pun intended.”
“I think the best way to work is to first ask the designer what their parameters are,” reflects Levy. “Especially on smaller budgets, the art department usually only has so much leeway with what they can do. These are the colors, this is the mood, these are the spaces. As a d.p., you just take those parameters and run with them, start thinking about the color temperature of the light, how it’s going to fit into what the designer is doing, how it’s going to contrast and complement the environment. There’s really only so much you can do with lighting and camera blocking to make something look good.” One would think that shooting two-dimensional sets out of flammable materials might force a great deal of photographic compromises, but Levy insists the opposite. “Andy’s sets were really easy to shoot. He used muted colors and matte paper, which I loved.” Using powerful stage lights — 12k chimeras and nine Lite Maxi’s — helped ensure that the paper was never close enough to any units to catch fire.
“Things look the best when the director can direct me and the designer to one goal, but when they also give you room to work,” continues Levy. He cites one specific example from their recent Seduce Me shoot, about duck mating. Byers had built a gorgeous paper duck, essentially a giant hat that allowed Isabella’s body to be under the paper “water line.” Levy and Byers had agreed on an amber- gold color for the sky, which Levy created with light, and showed it to Isabella on set (who happened to be trying on her bed bug outfit at the time). Knowing that the next part of the piece involved an immersive journey through a bright pink labyrinthine duck’s vagina, Rossellini requested to change the horizon lighting to pink.
“Sometimes what’s best for one individual image isn’t best for the transition, or the entire project. Isabella was thinking about the viewer in that case, and not just the one image, and we all agreed that it was the best thing. At the end of the day we’re all just trying to keep the viewer engaged in what’s happening on the screen, even if they don’t understand what’s happening inside this huge pink duck vagina.”
Color was also on the minds of the creators of visual artist Steve McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, a brutal and visceral film about one of the most famous episodes of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, a hunger strike endured by Republican political prisoners in Belfast’s HM Maze Prison that left Bobby Sands and several other IRA fighters martyrs for their cause. The film’s imagery is deeply beautiful and equally unsettling: a snowflake melting on the bloodied hand of a Protestant prison guard, trying to collect himself after a beating; the slow steps of a man in a Hazmat suit approaching a prison cell; the rings of concentric circles drawn in feces on the wall, fading as they’re sprayed off to reveal gleaming white tile. We enter the prison at the height of the “dirty protest,” when IRA captives, denied the status of political prisoner they felt they deserved, refused to wear clothes or bathe. The death of Bobby Sands and the plight of the hunger strikers attracted massive international attention, drastically changing The nature of the conflict.
“When I met with Steve, I knew that his take on the Troubles was going to be in a similar vein to the style of his own art,” says Mc- Cullagh. “From the beginning it was to be all about the reality of our environment, and the detail within that reality.” McQueen’s art films, several of which were shot by Hunger d.p. Sean Bobbitt, could well be described as being preoccupied with the physicality of environment.
“When you’ve got nothing, the only thing left you have [to protest with] is your body,” says production designer Tom McCullagh, a native of Northern Ireland who was a teenager during the hunger strike and remembers the riots that followed. He began his career working for the BBC in Belfast. McCullagh was initially reluctant to take on the project. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another so-called ‘Troubles’ film,” he admits, though McQueen’s approach as a visual artist and the imagery of the script, combined with his goal to make a film about the reality and detail of this extraordinary environment, convinced him that this project was going to be different from the rest. McCullagh had done extensive research into the Maze Prison and had been inside several times, a privilege that was no longer granted by the time the Hunger producers were ready to start. “It was all budgeted based on shooting inside the actual prison, which had been dormant since the Good Friday agreement [in 1998]. When I met the producers I told them that I didn’t think there was a chance we could get in there to shoot. It had become a very iconic building for the Republicans. It was just too politically sensitive.” McCullagh assured McQueen that they could build it, on budget, and set about recreating the prison exactly to spec. “I think Steve felt nervous at the beginning about what myself and the art department had to achieve within a very limited budget,” admits McCullagh. “If the prison set did not truly represent the original, then the story and detail that both Steve and I wanted to portray would not ring true.”
The early stages of prep were devoted to meetings between McQueen, his Heads of Department [HOD’s, in the local parlance], and a number of ex-prisoners and guards who had lived and worked in the Maze prison. From these meetings, says McCullagh, “we were able to build up a microscopic picture of what it was like to live and work there, from both sides.”
“Tom’s knowledge of the history, his knowledge of H block specifically, was stunning,” says cinematographer Bobbitt. “He created the most amazingly accurate set, working with almost nothing.” Explains McCullagh, “The Maze was a purpose-built prison with a very distinctive design, used specifically to house paramilitary prisoners caught up in that conflict.” The original prison was built in an H formation, a cross bar lined with administration offices, with cells running up either side. McCullagh built “a sort of L” inside a huge abandoned warehouse.
The longest portion of this “L “ turned out to be about 170 feet long and used up almost all of the available floor space in the warehouse. The surfaces of the actual prison are concrete and block work with painted concrete floors, which McCullagh’s team tasked themselves to copy. “The environment had to be unforgiving. There was nothing that we used as a finish which could give a comforting impression.” The surface of the walls was rough plaster, painted over with a few coats of paint. On top of that, inside the cells, was layer upon layer of prop feces, created by “trial and error,” says McCullagh. “I wanted it to look like a surface that never really dried out fully, therefore giving the impression of an endless, living damp; an untouchable surface — something hellish.”
McCullagh’s personal reckoning with the environment of the prisoners was also a reckoning with his own country’s history. PRISON HALLWAY SET. “A prison offi- Cer told a story about one of the guys who was covering his walls in feces, but actually doing a mural almost where he had outlined a fireplace on one wall. On another wall he had done the shape of curtains and flower pots and things like that. I suppose if you’re going to live in that environment you might as well get some humor out of it, though I can’t imagine it.”
McCullagh remembers the entire build taking about six weeks to complete at a cost of about £80,000. “When Steve first visited the set during construction, I think he was shocked by the scale of it,” says McCullagh. “I think he was expecting a lot less for the budget.” The metal bars used throughout the set were real iron, and extremely heavy, requiring four men to move each one into position. “I wanted to use actual metal for reasons of movement and sound: the weight of them when being opened and closed, and the sound that heavy gates like that would make.” They built the hospital set, which dominates the last third of the film during the scenes of Sands’s wrenching death by starvation, inside an unused gymnasium.
Comments producer Laura Hastings- Smith, “We had an eight-week lead-in for Tom so that the H Block could be completed — design, build, set, prop — for shooting. Then, [the art department] continued to build the hospital set while we were filming. The H Block wing had to be lit from above as well as from the floor to the side. Plus, the corridors are very, very long — a perspective painting that makes you believe the corridors are twice as long as they are. It was crucial that that was [done] right.”
For most d.p.’s and designers, sets offer the obvious bonus of flexibility. Walls can fly away, ceilings can rise up. But McQueen wanted the cells built as accurately as possible. “He wanted you to constantly feel surrounded,” says Bobbitt. “He didn’t want breakaway walls. It was very important to Steve to strive for reality, which we embraced.” For Bobbitt, the cramped space “was the choice that inspired us to shoot in 2:35 aspect ratio, so that you’d always feel the walls, so you could get that feeling of confinement. There was discussion about making the cells larger to get the camera in there but we all felt that the reality should be the first priority.”
“A lot of films use the Troubles as a dramatic backdrop but this is a truly visual depiction of the story,” says McCullagh. “Steve put a lot of trust in his HODs to create something that, while obviously visual, would have a tactile essence to it. The audience had to have a total physical experience while watching it. They had to be able to smell inside the cells, they had to feel the cold and damp, they had to flinch from the beatings — almost as if when they left the cinema they would need to go home and bathe in a warm bath. It was about trying to stir up your other senses.”
With regards to color and texture, McCullagh based his choices equally on what was real, and what was emotionally true to the story. “In 1981, when the film takes place, was before anyone had done any research into the emotional effect of colors in institutions,” reminds McCullagh. “We were told that the cell doors were red, the bars were black. I don’t think Sean and I are too far off the mark with the actual colors we used,” though together they focused on cold hues of blue, white and green.
Their dull, cold color palette “also lets the red stand out,” continues McCullagh, “the red of blood and of the visitors’ clothes. Red can be warm, but in this story red is also associated with pain. Red marks on their bodies, red blood on the floor spilling off their face after a beating.” In Bobby Sands’s hospital room, one red chair sits, unoccupied. “There’s nothing audible to know that [Sands] is suffering; it’s almost all visual. That snippet of red I think helps [that idea] along.”
“Their visual environment should reflect the physical environment and what they’re going through,” says McCullagh. “We based our use of creams and neutral colors on the fact that nothing was going to give [these prisoners] comfort. If you look at a cream wall, there’s nothing there to warm you or inspire any memories. It’s a combination of those kinds of thoughts — we stayed with creams for the walls, gray for the walls, colors that would reflect what the guys were suffering through. The hospital also is quite cold and blue — blue is a standard hospital color, but, for instance, we chose more warmed-up, comforting blues for the guard office. The hospital blues don’t give any comfort.”
The lighting, too, had to marry this extreme realism and extreme emotionality as well. “When we got into preproduction,” remembers Bobbitt, “Steve gave me a book of Velázquez, filled with his incredible chiaroscuro lighting.” Characterized by intense contrast and strong, often singular light sources — a candle, a window — the artist’s work became an important visual reference. “We started out just wanting to emulate Velázquez — in some shots especially we lit with just one light source, from a window,” says Bobbitt. “Which was fine, because sometimes all we had was one window or one skylight.” Indeed, light sources were few and far between in 1980s jail cells: often there was only one open window, one blaring television, or one hallway skylight. But in the real prison, says McCullagh, “any practical lighting is from florescent tubes running the length of the main corridor,” with a bit of sunlight coming in from skylights or windows. Working with Bobbitt, McCullagh worked precisely these same lighting schemes into the set.
“Any job I take on I just feel like [my work] is combined with the other departments, and that’s what makes it so interesting,” says McCullagh. “The final product should be a lot better as a result of that awareness. When everybody’s pulling their own weight, it can make you aware of these other [elements] — the conditions of light, the possibilities of sound.” Adds Bobbitt: “You make a lot of films, and once in a while you get one where everything works, when one pure idea can actually become a reality. It’s a rare joy to be part of that. The director has these ideas, which you then try to puzzle out with the designer and try, between the two of you, to turn into a visual reality.”