The Digital Art Department – Interview with Alex McDowell

Merged Media

Merged media converging in the new and improved art department is blurring titles, rewriting job descriptions, and re-establishing it as the crucible of all cinematic imagery. What was once done in optical houses after the fact is now performed as a matter of course by using pre-vis techniques at our work stations. Pre-vis and visual effects, now sub-departments of a greater conceptual dynamic, begin the process of design analysis and proactive certainty much earlier in the preproduction process with the Director and Production Designer. Combining all aspects of the analog and digital tools spectrum, they guarantee a richer visual product. The only downside is the length of the credit crawl at the end of today’s digital films. Otherwise, what is old is certainly new again. Many of the techniques of the digital cinema process rely on traditional methods of achieving the same effects within a “modern” context.

A comparison of the credit lists of six fi lms from Modern Times (1936) to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2004). Courtesy of the New York Times: Baseline/ Filmtracker and New Line Cinema.

Digital filmmaking has inadvertently done a good thing. By default, it has created a new playing field where designers are embracing the new technology and reclaiming visual control of the movie-making process. Victor Martinez, conceptual designer, added his response to the question about the merging of traditional and digital techniques at an Art Directors Guild lecture and workshop held in the spring of 2003:

Now, there is no longer the notion of “mixed media,” but rather, “cross-media.” This implies that there is an active exchange of ideas through the use of different techniques (i.e., hand/analog versus computer/digital) and that this exchange produces work that transcends any original gesture by either hand or computer. It becomes about the design. More importantly, under such a process, the art department can engage more complicated design projects, whether technical, physical, or artistic, and bring more control back into the art department in terms of development of work most often reserved for post-production—and do so more efficiently and critically. That is how an efficient art department should be organized—it should take the best of what is already there and use digital tools to expand upon that foundation, and vice versa, allowing the art department to broaden its capabilities.

Currently, there are a handful of designers who have done just that. Alex McDowell, whose interview follows, has forged a solid career as a digital production designer. Mavericks like McDowell have begun to cut serious inroads into the reorganization and redefinition of what the art department is and how it must operate at the center of the new paradigm. His successful hybrid status offers authority when addressing questions pertaining to his experience as a digital designer.

Formerly, the perception, understanding and language of digital technology for film production came largely from post-production and the visual effects department. That usage was applied only remotely to the new applications of these tools in pre-production. Although we—the design department and visual effects—are currently using many of the same tools, our use of digital technology in the art department has very specific applications and to a large extent a different organizational language. Despite this, a common, ongoing language is developing between departments to expedite the efficiency of the pre-production pipeline—this is where convergence is born and sustained.

Interview with Alex McDowell, Production Designer

(Man of Steel, Watchmen, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Cat in the Hat, Minority Report, The Lawnmower Man)

Film technique is universal and easily applied to its industry operating in any country in the world. The international filmmakers I’ve had the great pleasure to work with practice their craft just as assiduously as anyone else, and once a film product filters through the Hollywood system in production or distribution, it loses its accent. The expansion of cinema iconography into the digital realm similarly defines no political boundaries. As we continue our discussion, the fact that the following section will focus on another, more recent production designer of English cinema culture, Alex McDowell, is purely coincidental. In this case, my connection to Alex is derived through American art department artists who have worked with him on the projects noted, and it exemplifies the organic process of film networking, and ultimately, of how this handbook was written. An ongoing Internet conversation with Alex has produced a continuous dialogue to be shared here. How fitting that the data explaining the philosophy of twenty-first-century cinema process was exchanged through cyberspace.

Let’s begin with the digital art department: what is your philosophy about it?

Digital technology is opening up a growing wealth of new design resources for the film art department. Digital tools are more than just an extension of the design toolkit. Because the most sophisticated software is now available to the individual designer, not only is the art department able to explore the possibility of sets before they are built, but we are also providing accurate visual data to many departments, particularly visual effects. The look of sets that will not be fully realized until post-production can now be under discussion with the director and cinematographer in enough time to affect the development of the content of a film.

A sophisticated understanding of digital technology and a networked team of people using digital tools places the Production Designer back at the center of the flow of information that will determine and control the look of a film. For example, a large amount of the output from the Minority Report art department was focused on elements that would be built by the VFX houses, particularly ILM. In the past few years, as the idea of VFX really took hold, the designer took a back seat as VFX houses built up their own art department for CGI sequences. In contrast, not only were matte paintings and set extensions conceptualized within the art department, the designers also built all the key 3D elements and designed all the animations of the Hovership, Maglev vehicles, and traffic system, the Spyders, and the Hall of Containment sequence.

How do you implement the digital art department: the setup, the practical aspects of operation, etc.? What positions have been added/subtracted?

The digital aspects of the art department should be set up at the beginning of production, so that as the department expands each person plugs directly into the network, connected to one another through the server. This means that tech support from the production and within the art department is essential. I have found that on average it takes three to four weeks to set up the server and network, which means motivating production to set this in motion often before the art director is hired.

The digital art department is essentially straightforward to set up. Most office spaces that are offered up as art department space are already set up with an Ethernet network. A studio that is already using a network for accounting, for example, can assign part of that server space to the art department for archive, dropboxes, etc. Or an external hard drive can be plugged into an Ethernet network as a server.

The researcher and archivist scan images and archive them on the server to be accessible to concept artists as they start work. The locations department downloads all files to the same archive, where stitched images are stored by location and accessible to art directors and concept artists. Digital artwork overlaid onto location images is presented to the director, alongside research and concept art. The department starts to release a growing catalogue of images that portray an accurate picture of the director and designer’s vision of the film, long before anything physical exists. The 3D set designers work alongside traditional set designers, often in tag teams. The 3D files are sent through dropboxes on the server to the concept artists, who lay lighting, textures, set dressing, and set extensions over an accurate lens view of a potential set. The 3D files are also sent to the pre-vis artists, who combine the set models with storyboard information to create animated sequences within virtual sets that the director can control.

There are some issues with using a PC-based server if the design team is mostly Mac-based, but these problems are regularly overcome. The important thing is to have good IT support within the production, and definitely to have a very savvy computer techie in the art department. Generally, this person is employed as high-tier PA, and will be crucial to the Archivist, setting up the digital art department, maintaining the server, and constantly updating all publication of design data and images to the server. That person will be constantly busy.

On a small film, what’s more important — a server or a digital modeler?

The server. Even if your small film is only using a digital locations department, producing graphics digitally, or distributing storyboards, the server will increase the efficiency of the visual communication.

Do you consider power backup for your server in case of an emergency?

Power backup is definitely essential. Also a daily auto backup of the data isn’t a bad idea.

Are online servers useful or not customizable enough?

There are a couple of problems with online servers. They are likely not to be large enough to support the equipment and data storage that are generated by a department whose stock-in-trade is high-resolution imagery. And there are often security issues— production offices are very reluctant to allow any kind of system that involves an outside agency, or one that can be accessed externally.

During the Post Digital Workshop hosted by the Art Directors Guild at the Panavision Screening Room in 2003, you used a graphic at the beginning of your PowerPoint presentation depicting the sphere or structure of the digital art department. This image directly corresponds to the paradigm of the “new” art department and how it is being reclaimed through technology.

Yes. But please note that this is a work in progress, and only hints at the complexity of the film production structure. It is a good way to look at the consolidation of the design departments into all aspects of production, and how new technology can and will alter the structure of production itself. It’s already true that pre-vis and VFX are starting much earlier, and that the art department is actively involved in post-production planning, as well as driving design through to the end of post.

It is not noticeable at the moment that any positions are being dropped in the art department because of the increase in the use of digital technology. Certainly, there is a trend in both set design and concept design toward embracing these new tools, and I no longer work with any concept artist who does not use 2D or 3D software as well as pencil.

In set design, it’s important to note, that although film is far behind architecture in its complete embracing of digital tools, there are good reasons for film design not to commit fully to CAD and 3D. The most successful design teams that I’ve worked with have been a 50/50 split between digital and analog. The traditional or analog draft-persons have a deep knowledge of film and theater craft that is often not reflected in the younger digital designers who are tending to come into the industry from architecture. But more to the point, film is unique in that it deals with the re-creation of history, and where digital tools might be appropriate across the board for a futuristic film, the pencil will probably always be more relevant for the design of period and decay.

The digital archivist is a position that we created and that developed out of the combination of research and the opportunity that a server provides to both store a huge database of images and make those images, including concept art, animation, location images, graphics, etc., accessible and available to all the departments. Currently, our archivist publishes new images and references to the server on a weekly basis where the whole crew can be updated with new material. The side product of this is that the crew is receiving a common set of images, leading to a much greater consistency on the look of the film.

What’s the greatest argument an art director can make about the position of archivist as a vital member of the art department?

The argument is quite simple. Scanning and inputting research, concept, or location images onto a server that everyone can access saves equipment rental costs and printing costs, provided the server is properly administered by an archivist. Similarly, the digital storage of design imagery, plus data and images from many other departments, gives the producers a readily accessible archive in the post-production and marketing phases of a film. This is a completely new resource that in the past would not have been available, but is only possible if the data is constantly maintained and packaged into an accessible database by the archivist. This position is necessarily one that requires both a good visual background and an excellent knowledge of digital tools and a wide range of software.

Cite specific instances — with images — where this was clearly the case: The Lawnmower Man, Fight Club, Minority Report, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

I have had the digital archive in place since 1998 when we set up the Minority Report art department. At that time I had a computer specialist and a researcher working hand in hand to provide a research/archive/tech support department that worked well. Since then I have tended to separate research from IT, which works equally well and allows me to use researchers who do not necessarily have extensive computer skills. For Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), I had a good system with: 1) a researcher inputting to and updating the research archive; 2) all designers networked and constantly downloading new design work to the server where the research processes, prints, and archives; and 3) a locations department with their own digital unit for downloading, stitching, creating presentations, and archiving to the server. These days I show fewer and fewer images to the Director, because I can view the selection onscreen before any prints are made, and digitally we can create more easily a few shots at a high resolution that give a clear idea of a location.

It is important to note that, for each show, the art department has to set up and impose a clear file-naming protocol that each designer/user is responsible for maintaining with his/her own work. Otherwise the network will fall apart. This is as important as correctly labeling and distributing blueprints—an area that could be vastly improved through a digital system.

See the book The Art Direction Handbook for Film & Television, 2nd Edition for the rest of the interview.

Excerpt from The Art Direction Handbook for Film & Television, 2nd Edition by Michael Rizzo © 2015 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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