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“I Think We Sampled 100 Pinks”: Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Set Decorator Katie Spencer on Barbie

The character of Barbie is seen from the back as she stands looking out at the pink buildings in Barbie's world.Barbie (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Neither Barbie production designer Sarah Greenwood nor set decorator Katie Spencer had Barbie dolls growing up. “Or a DreamHouse, or anything,” recalls Greenwood, who joined Filmmaker on Zoom alongside Spencer following the record-breaking opening of Greta Gerwig’s feminist smash hit. “I was probably a little judgmental about Barbie until this film — I fell into that camp. But I kind of readdressed my thoughts after meeting this Barbie, and [its creator] Ruth Handler.” Spencer adds, “And [after] meeting Greta. We were a part of the backlash generation. Even if we wanted a Barbie, I don’t know that our parents would have let us have one.”

So the long-time collaborators and six-time Academy Award nominees (Anna Karenina, Atonement) ordered their very first Barbie DreamHouse from Amazon after they came on board Barbie, a purchase and experience Spencer calls “a revelation,” thematically and otherwise.

Below is our conversation on what went into creating the fuchsia-soaked world of Barbie, how this film relates to some of the duo’s previous collaborations and why the duo were so adamant about avoiding CGI.

Filmmaker: Since you mentioned your purchase of a Barbie DreamHouse, I only now realize that it was nice to imagine scenarios as a young girl where you could own a house and a car and things like that while playing with dolls.

Greenwood: Yeah, and this is what Katie was saying: [Barbie] was revelatory. I think this film is a very incredible investigation of all things Barbie. Love her or hate her, this is the truth of it: what she means, what she could have meant, what we did to her. 

Filmmaker: One of the things that I’ve heard you address elsewhere was the off proportions you’ve noticed in Barbie Land. I recall this from my childhood. I used to own a beautiful Barbie bath set, and she didn’t quite fit in the tub. How did you transpose that strange scale to the real world? 

Greenwood: That all came out of us buying this first DreamHouse. We were literally playing with it with the Barbie dolls we had in the office. You kind of go, “She’s big in this house.” You put her arm up and she can touch the ceiling; she doesn’t fit in the car, and as you say, she doesn’t fit in the bath. Somebody arbitrarily worked it out and said, “Well, the whole house [and everything] is 23% smaller [than they should be].” So that was a rule that we stuck to. In filmmaking terms, that made everything come into shot. The ceilings were small, so all our framing [had to be] different. And it made Margot and Ryan and everybody look much bigger. When they were in the DreamHouses, they were big, which gave you a subliminal effect of understanding that they were toys.

Spencer: Yes, it absolutely came out of [playing with the DreamHouse]: making some things bigger, some things smaller, the use of decals… That was a bit of a break: she goes to the fridge and does mad things like putting the fridge in the chimney breast, because there are no walls, for a start. It’s hidden, and therefore that’s appealing to children as well.

Filmmaker: I want to talk a little bit about your use of the color pink to maximalist effect. How did you make sure all that pink and all the maximalism was warm, inviting and happy as opposed to off-putting?

Greenwood: I think what’s interesting is that it was maximalist, but in a way, dare I say, quite minimalist too. We took a lot away. In the script, Greta describes houses with no walls. Houses with no walls wouldn’t stand up. So we ended up with that chimney breast that runs through the middle, the chimney with all this pink stone work that’s painted. That was a very structural thing that we had to get in there to keep [the house standing] up. But it’s about what’s not there as much as what is there.

Spencer: Which was a new thing for us, the absence of things being so important. It’s the space, it’s what you don’t have, what you don’t put in that makes it feel like a toy. There is nowhere for anything to hide. Everything makes a statement and is considered. But the big learning curve was the absence and the space, because there are no walls. Your perimeter is very different from what it would normally be. Your wallpaper is not just behind you. It’s all the three-dimensional things that are behind that, which are the trees, the mountains of houses, other actors, so that was quite tricky.

Greenwood: It’s also the quantity of color and light. If the colors had been off-putting — and I think that’s a good word to use — it would’ve been horrendous. But the colors and that pink were so pure. And Rodrigo Prieto’s lighting was so pure: like, a thousand sky pans in the roof and big soft suns. The wattage was fantastic. Normally when you go on a film set, it’s all focused into this little dark corner and everything else is black. It was the opposite with us. Everything was colorful from wall to wall. It was just brilliance and light and color. You walk onto those stages out of the gray Watford [UK] winter, and it was just like being bathed in something. Better than going on holiday. It was an amazing color therapy.

Spencer: We were talking about this to somebody last week, about Baker[-Miller] pink [as it was called in] the States in the ’50s. It was used to treat people with depression. [There’s] something uplifting about that color. 

Greenwood: But, you have to be very careful with pink, because there are nasty pinks out there as well.

Spencer: I think we sampled a hundred pinks that maybe came down to 12 key ones.

Filmmaker: I’m so glad you reclaimed the color pink. It made me realize that all these years, I’ve been made to reject it. I’m a bit embarrassed about that.

Greenwood: Yeah, that is true. [Barbie] gives you license to the things you want to like, and I think that’s amazing. And don’t be embarrassed, it’s absolutely the same for us. I honestly can say that I don’t think there’s any pink in any film we’ve ever done before, until Barbie. Now, [Katie is] wearing a pink shirt, and I’ve painted my bedroom pink. So, embrace your pink. 

Filmmaker: I want to bring up Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina among the other films you’ve collaborated on. I found myself thinking about it in relation to Barbie: that film is also set in a stylized and artificial world; like puppets dwelling in heightened theatrical sets. It feels strangely close to Barbie in that sense. 

Spencer: They are like sisters in a way. They couldn’t be more different and opposing, but I think they are like sisters.

Greenwood: It’s because Anna Karenina is in a world of its own, which is the theater. And Barbie is in a world hermetically sealed with no water, no light. Everything is imagined. The same with Anna Karenina. The actors had to believe they were in Vronsky’s house in Moscow. They were in a prop room in a theater, and it’s this kind of suspension of disbelief that you go into in Anna Karenina and in Barbie. Also, one of the interesting things we’ve had in a lot of our films is this sense of playing with scale. We made lots of miniatures for the set extensions in Barbie Land. We made miniatures that they photographed and put in in post. Then you get miniatures within miniatures. We like this layering, of not quite knowing where it is and what you are looking at.

Spencer: Do you remember in Anna Karenina, Keira [Knightley] and Kitty [Alicia Vikander] were sitting in a giant doll’s house? That was Moscow. Yeah, so they’re not as distant.

Greenwood: When Greta came to us about doing Barbie, we were like, “Why us?” She said, “Because you build worlds, you build complete worlds.” That is true. That’s what we do.

Filmmaker: What was perhaps the most complicated thing you had to build for Barbie?

Greenwood: I think it’s the whole world. I think it is that thing of finding the keys, and once you understand what it is you’re doing, be it the scale or the color, you apply that principle to everything. It is making it look like a toy. And it is making it a child on Christmas day, when he opens the box. And instead of being disappointed (like we all normally are with what’s in the box), making what’s in the box better than you could ever imagine — absolutely joyous. For us, that was building the main set of Barbie Land on a stage with painted backdrops and painted mountains and trees.

Spencer: The first thing we shot were the DreamHouses, and the way they had to be. Quite often on film, you get dictated by availability and all sorts of things. But we were lucky enough, this was the first thing we shot, and in a way, it had to be. Before we go to the real world or we do anything else.

Greenwood: Also what was interesting is not to forget the real world, because Los Angeles and Venice Beach are just huge. I mean, you live there, but for us, it’s like, “Oh, it’s so exciting coming here.”

Filmmaker: I’m in New York. But I do love LA, the land of movies and make-believe.

Spencer: It would’ve been very different if Barbie had gone to New York [laughs]. It would’ve been another film, but it would’ve been so good.

Greenwood: Barbie got mugged! [Laughs]. But I remember one of the references that Greta [brought up] was Midnight Cowboy, where Jon Voight is in bed with his cowboy hat, and everybody else is shorter and in gray. He walks through and he is like this supreme being, and that’s the same as what she said about Barbie and Ken arriving in the real world. They are aliens, and they’re just gliding through this world, and it’s just like New York.

Filmmaker: You brought up your collaboration with Rodrigo Prieto. I want to bring up another collaborator, costume designer Jacqueline Durran (who also did Anna Karenina). How did you collaborate with her to make sure the designs and colors were in sync in the right way?

Spencer: We’ve worked with Jacqueline quite a few times now. She’s an absolutely exceptional costume designer. From the beginning, it was talking about the whole world. It’s not just a question of what would this fabric do with this pink? It’s more conceptual conversations. But then of course, Barbie is what she wears, what she does. If she’s a Barbie doctor, she wears a doctor’s outfit and therefore she lives in a doctor’s house. Thank God that Jacqueline and we know each other and that we have this shorthand, because there was so much to do. Margot changes her costume every time you see her, basically. Even if it’s on the same day.

Greenwood: There’s no physics in Barbie Land, so there’s no time in Barbie Land, no logic. She might walk off wearing this, and she’ll walk back wearing something completely different. It’s because that’s what children do, they change the costumes.

Spencer: Exactly. We had literal conversations with her about what would pinks do, what’s she going to be wearing, what is she going to be sitting on, what’s she going to be backed against pink? You see lots of overlaps between the set and costume in the real world. It’s a lot of fun, and she’s a genius, and Rodrigo is another one. He made a brilliant job, but we didn’t make it easy for him, that’s for sure.

Greenwood: No, we didn’t. But then again, what we do isn’t easy. The shadow, the pink without shadows and things, it’s just like, wow.

Filmmaker: What was your process in getting both Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling acquainted with the sets?

Spencer: It was interesting because obviously Margot is a producer as well, and she’s not just a name or anything. She’s very hands on. I remember in the early days, when Ryan arrived, we had this huge prop room. We literally divided the room, [turned] this massive space into Kendom. A pink carpet and a brown carpet and things like that. It was following a concept we did of the two [worlds]. They were both there, and it was so funny. So yes, we were involved. You have to take them on the journey. Ryan is incredibly talented, and a lovely guy as well. He improvised with it.

Filmmaker: I understand that that authenticity was important to you, having everything built and painted and designed in reality, and avoiding a computer generated world. 

Greenwood: Well, that’s a big debate that’s coming up at the moment, isn’t it? I think CGI is an amazing tool, and it has its place. But in this instance, it was something that Greta said very early on that [was a deciding factor]. [Imagine] a child or a baby. Whatever a baby gets [the baby] puts in its mouth to feel it. And whatever kids do, they play with things, they touch things. So, you see the beginning of the sequence with [Kubrick’s] 2001: A Space Odyssey with the legs. Those legs were real, as were the all the rocks. The only thing that was [done] in post was the sky. For everything else, it’s the tangibility. You’re making a toy, and if you don’t, if it’s not real and it’s not there, it’s kind of irrelevant.

Spencer: And, you kind of feel like they’ll find you out.

Greenwood: With the purity of the color, the shape, texture, lighting and everything, there was nowhere to hide, so it all had to be real. There is one sequence that was put in in post—and I don’t think it’s the best sequence. It is when she’s walking up to Weird Barbie’s house. It’s too far, too cartoon, and kind of wrong. It should have been done differently — I wasn’t around when it was done. But anyway, everything in camera [is] tangible, due to the fact that we made all the set extensions. When you drive past the cinema and you’ve got all the shops and you’ve got the beachfront, and all the little houses when she’s standing on the roof and looking beyond… We made all of them as 1:18 scale miniatures. They’re all made in the same way we make all the sets, and then they’re put in post. In that way, it’s a kind of a quality control. Even young children now know if something is real. “Authentic artificiality” is what Greta called it. All the skies were painted. In the main set, the 800 foot long-50 foot high mountains were all painted. It’s all in camera. And it also means that when the actors walk in, they are in the world, it’s a completely immersive experience. In this instance, it really helped.

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