Interview with Stuart Craig
The following is an interview with Stuart Craig in FilmCraft: Production Design. Craig is best known for designing The Elephant Man, Gandhi, The English Patient, and the entirety of the Harry Potter series.
“You have to be pretty stubborn in this job. You’re forced into compromising situations all the time. You have to be really tough and resilient, hold your position against the real world, against circumstantial things, locations you can’t get, things you can’t afford, conflicting ideas and the doubts of others, whatever it might be. You have to hold onto your idea and hold your ground…
After exactly 12 years, I got a chance to design a film. I was scared to begin with—I’m still scared— but certainly toward the end of that 12 years, I was desperate to have a go, I was really pushing to have a go. I was lucky too—my second film was The Elephant Man and then Gandhi, and by that time I had very good art directors—Robert Laing and Norman Dorme, both older and more experienced than myself. I surrounded myself with very good people—no point in trying to look good against not-so-good people.
I met [set decorator] Stephanie McMillan on the movie Chaplin, which was part set in America and part staged in England, and she did the English sets. Every film since then I’ve done with Stephanie. It’s inconceivable frankly that I would do a film without her—she is absolutely an integral part. She makes up for my shortcomings, complements what I do absolutely. She has impeccable taste, she has a real sense of elegance, and I consult with her on color all the time, prop-making—buying and hiring, of course, but more than that, the color, mood, etc. Neil Lamont has been the supervising art director with me since The English Patient (1996). He has grown up in a film family—lived with film all his life. Nobody is more knowledgeable, energetic and organized. Andrew Williamson is a brilliant architectural illustrator who came to us on the Harry Potter films. His style has become more theatrical and expressionistic, to great effect, as the series progressed.
The time-honored method of working is to make a production sketch—sketch the master shot of a scene, and that would become the instruction to the draftsman who would do the construction drawing and also make a model for discussion with the director about the set. But over the years, I’ve done fewer and fewer of those highly rendered production sketches, and what I like to do now is start with a couple of rough pencil sketches then get straight to the measured plan, but also sections, elevations to scale—in other words, do a preliminary draftsman’s construction drawing. I like to get into real specifics very quickly and I want to know exactly how big the room is—heights and proportions are critical and unless you draw it to scale, you can miscalculate. Because I spent those 12 years as an architectural draftsman, I find it reassuring starting from that position.
I’ve always seen my job as being about an ability to make pictures, though, and I think I haven’t strayed very far from my fine art background in that way. I appreciate the importance of pre-viz and animatic and so on, but I still see it as a series of still images basically.As a designer you need that ability to make pictures, an eye for composition. So from my point of view, a fine art course is the perfect precursor to a career in production design. Some of those early films I did were made the old-fashioned way, where the film crew actually went and lived the adventure. I went to India for Gandhi (1982) and stayed there 11 months and became immersed in India and India’s film industry. We went to Colombia and Argentina to make The Mission (1986) and it was a real physical experience. We shot at Iguazú and it was just exhausting climbing every day, thank God they sent lunch up. You really knew you’d done something, you’d lived the life.
There was a kind of a halfway house on the early Harry Potter films because they were on location, but the locations were much less exotic—Durham Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral, Christ Church College, Oxford. I think anybody born in the UK has a sense of what Hogwarts might look like. Eton looks like it. Harrow looks like it. Westminster looks like it. But we did decide very early on that Hogwarts was in Scotland. So we went to the Highlands, and the most spectacular places there are the Glencoe Pass, Glen Nevis and Loch Sheil. Hagrid’s hut was in Glencoe and the quidditch field at the back of Hogwarts was in Glen Nevis. And you climbed up to the wooden bridge that connects Hagrid’s hut to the back of Hogwarts castle— that’s some climb. As the ten years went on, my age began to show.
The first film was full of real locations, because we couldn’t afford to build the entire world. When we did start to build sets, those physical locations became the reference point for the built sets, so they were probably more real and less fantasy than they might have been. For the later films, we didn’t go to Christ Church and we barely went to Scotland. We had a vast amount of sets on the back-lot—sets standing on all the stages, common rooms and dormitories and the great hall, the dark arts classroom, Dumbledore’s office, all stood there permanently for years. Hogwarts itself was a miniature for the first six films, a huge physical miniature on a big soundstage at Shepperton, and is now part of the exhibition at Leavesden. Then when it came to the final battle at Hogwarts, Tim Burke, the visual effects chief, said it’s time to make a digital model. I was dubious—there is a great tradition of physical miniatures—but we scanned the original model and that became the structure of the new model. That scan gave us the wireframe and we retextured it with real stone masonry and real rock textures, and these were of such high resolution that we could go much closer than ever before with the camera—take the camera right into it, right up to doors, windows, it was much better than the miniature.
I got the call to go to America and meet Chris Columbus for the first film when I was at home decorating my as-yet unborn grandson’s bedroom. He’s 11 years old now, and we saw the last film together. I went to the local bookshop and got the books—there were only two—and got on the plane the next day. J.K. Rowling has a very descriptive style, layer upon layer of detail.
The instruction is clear. My first meeting with her, she made a map for me of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. It showed the position of the station, the dark forest, the gates, Hogsmeade village and that became invaluable—it was the ultimate authority, this piece of paper, that I kept and referred to throughout the ten-year period.
I was there from the very beginning, right to the last day of filming. I’m still on it now! [Craig has worked on the Harry Potter theme park in Florida and the studio tour in Leavesden]. I did say to all the directors that they didn’t have to have me. It might have been very interesting for someone to pick it up and reinvent it. What made it really work for me is that we did change director and they were so different. J.K. Rowling was gracious enough to say she liked it and the world seemed to like it, but you had to be on your toes. We were shooting once outside Hagrid’s hut in Black Path when a little girl came up to me and said: “That’s not Hagrid’s hut, Hagrid’s hut is made of wood and this is made of stone! It has to catch fire!” So I took her inside and I said “you are right, but look at the roof, the roof is made entirely of wood and the floor is made entirely of wood, and the windows and the doors and all the furniture, believe me, this will make one hell of a fire.” She was somewhat mollified, but it wasn’t just J.K. Rowling you had to please, there were millions of kids around the world who knew it better than you did.
It was quite emotional at the end, really, it was. And that’s unusual on a set. Very strange indeed. After the last take of the last shot, when the first assistant director said, “that’s it, check the gate,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, truly. But I’m glad to move on now, glad to have wrapped it up and done it all…”
Excerpt from FilmCraft: Production Design by Fionnuala Halligan © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.