(Running notes from the View8 conference in Turin, Italy).
Germany's Tino Schaedler is an authority in progressive film design. After working for architects such as Daniel Libeskind, he moved into digital set design and has been since involved in feature films such as (among others) "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "V for Vendetta", the recent "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and the upcoming "His Dark Materials".
The creative vision behind cinematic spaces has a strong influence on our collective cultural memory and doubtlessly has been (and is) changing the way we perceive the world. In the last decade or so, the fast pace of hardware and software evolution has opened up a wider field for artistic expression and led to a significant increase in both quantity and quality of digitally generated sets. Tino focuses his speech, called "Remixing reality", on how computers are used in the creation of digital sets.
He describes the complex workflow involved in designing sets -- which are most of the time a mix-up of different kind of sets: miniatures, built sets, digital sets, matte paintings, and characters. "Generally, several of these things are combined together to create the illusion".
10-15 years ago, digital effects were limited to a single effect, which were mostly done in post-production (he shows a clip from "Terminator"). Now the film is designed around digital effects, and often digital pre-visualizations (quick-and-dirty edited animations) are used already before building a single set and shooting a single frame.
He shows pre-visualizations of the digital sets of "Charlie and..." and it's amazing how almost identical they look to the final movie. He also shows how digital design is used to imagine physical spaces, such as the glaring white TV studio in "Charlie and...", by modeling them in detail before getting them fabricated. "The whole process of film-making today is infused by digital tech".
Conceptual designer James Clyne (credits include "Transformers", "Minority report" and others) picks up from there. "Concept artist" is a difficult kind to explain, but (s)he's one of the first people hired when a movie production gets the green light: they're in charge of taking the script and imagine how it can be visualized, try to figure out (together with the director) the film's mood. "Most of the time we're not creating something out of nothing": He runs through images from Piranesi to Bosch, from "Star Wars" to classical illustrations of the Dante's "Divine Comedy", from an Iron Maiden album cover to photographs of everything from a boarded-up facade to a tropical fish, etc. "One of the first things is to gather big folders of references, we spend some time building up a huge database of images -- Google Image Search is my best friend now". "Really, often there isn't much that's described in the script; you just discuss with the director and then he tells you to go out and figure out something that's cool".
He uses Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" as an example (I blogged last year a talk by John Underkoffler, who also worked on that movie). They had to create a coherent Washington DC set in the 2040s, and the last five words in the next quote, he says, were the only reference to city-building in the script: "Overhead, the precrime Hovership roars past. In the distance we see familiar Washington buildings, along with some new ones". They started with pictures of today's DC, and created a fantasy city that "would look like it was designed by many architects over time, with different approaches, shapes, materials, etc". They also used some "eco-friendly" approaches: gardens on roofs etc. They developed a transportation system and vehicles that could go from horizontal to vertical traveling, with streets wrapping around buildings etc. He shows how they turned a banal US mall into a futuristic one. All things that weren't detailed in the script. He discusses how they created the futuristic-looking police ships in the movie, from first sketches to detailed drawings to storyboarding to physical construction to the final thing. Here a couple of steps in creating the images of the police's oddly shaped flying vehicle:
Grant Major is from New Zealand and is one of the leading film designers in the world -- he has worked on Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (and won an Oscar for "The Return of the King"), on "King Kong", and many other films. He talks about his experiences and like Clyne discusses the key initial role of the designer in starting the production of a movie, "a time to kick around any idea you have". He explains how "we tend to work around key art, key frames" that allow to create a library of images that are then used across the whole film. There is of course alot of historical/visual reference research (in the case of "King Kong": what was going on in NY in the 1930s? etc) that helps conjuring up the color palette of what the film will be. "Concept art is becoming more than just a tool to start off the design process: it's an ongoing process that can be constantly updated, allowing more freedom and flexibility to the director". "Pre-visualizing of action sequences often leads the way in terms of the geography of a film".
"Peter Jackson storyboarded the whole three episodes of "LOTR", he sort of pre-made all the three films in cartoon form" ("Three phonebook-size cartoons", says Major) and then in digital pre-visualization, which is a novel way to pre-tell the story, to pre-direct it in some ways. As the film is then getting made, "slices of the pre-vis are replaced with the actual footage, so the director is able to see his whole film at any moment while it's being shot".
He shows a long series of images from "King Kong" demonstrating how built sets and CGI sets come together to create the film. Example from his slide show: the first picture is of the set of a New York street: they built only the lower level of the houses, and notice the green screens at the back, where digital images can then be superimposed; the second is the exact same scene as it ended up in the movie, with all the computer-generated stuff added:
My turn to go on stage. I give a talk based on a "best-of" of TED talks and some amazing visual stuff that we've shown in Monterey over the last couple of years.