Category Archives: Production Design

Staying Ahead of the Curve in an Ever Changing Industry: Meet Video Artist Denis Ogorodov

Denis Ogorodov is arguably one of the most uniquely skilled video artists in the industry today. His ability to create videos that leave viewers feeling a deep connection to a brand has undoubtedly made him shine in the eyes of the advertisers who hire him, but it’s his jack-of-all-trades approach to media production that has ultimately placed him ahead of the curve and made him a creative worth looking to for inspiration. 

Last year Denis’s technical skill set and artistic prowess landed him the opportunity to design for the multi-billion dollar streaming giant Twitch from Amazon, an interactive platform where millions of users engage online to dive deeper into gaming, concerts and more. 

Video artist – Denis Ogorodov

Known for his vast skill set, Denis has proven himself as a leading editor, vfx artist, colorist and so much more, that’s one of the reasons he’s referred to as a video artist– because there’s no other title that can really do justice to all the things he handles. 

For Twitch, which is estimated to be worth an astounding $5 billion, Denis was called in specifically to work as the lead editor on their ‘Twitch January Drop’ digital campaign, which showcased the platform’s numerous features, as well as an impressive line-up of interactive events, programming and content.

The vibe of the campaign was intended to be energetic and fast-paced in order to coincide with the incredible range of things the platform offers

“We wanted this 60 second ad to feel almost overwhelming by showing just how much content there is on Twitch,” he says. “We had to find a song that was very energetic that was able to keep the momentum, but at the same time find a balance, where yes it feels almost overwhelming, but people are still registering what’s going on.”

Official “Twitch January Drop” video

“The campaign was designed to be interactive… So many of the assets had to be built in such a way that they could fit together like building blocks, sometimes changing the order, speed, branding or titles…the main video was designed to function as the kick-off for the event.”

The fact that the campaign was interactive not only made it unique, but also challenging, as it was updated live during each stream. As the lead editor, this is one area where Denis’s technical expertise proved invaluable, as his work helped ensure that the campaign’s design remained consistent across every channel and update.

Not only was Denis responsible for video editing the campaign, as well as working on some of the motion graphics and animation, but he worked with the other designers to build VFX templates that were capable of being updated on the fly. 

“He’s very proactive when it comes to finding solutions and is never one to sit around wasting time,” says his ‘Twitch January Drop’ coworker Hondo Logan, who is head of production at Color and Motion. 

“He’s also great at working with and coordinating larger teams. When the workload gets split up and everyone has their own job to do, I never have to worry about Denis’s part, I know he’ll always deliver polished work.”

While it’s no surprise that Denis was called in for the project as he is one of the best at what he does, there’s still a little something uniquely special about being tapped to work on the Twitch campaign.

He recalls, “Back in school I was always fascinated by both computers and art, I was always interested in video game development, photography and all that.”

With his long-time interest in video game development the Amazon Twitch job proved to be thoroughly exciting for Denis, but there’s no question that he put in an unfathomable amount of hours developing his craft in order to go from his humble beginnings in Italy to get to where he is in Hollywood today.  

Denis’s career really started to kick off back in 2014 when he landed a competitive internship at Reset, an acclaimed production company founded by Oscar Award nominated director David Fincher (“Se7en,” “The Social Network,” “Gone Girl”) and Dave Morrison (“Oblivion,”  “Gully”). He got his bearings in the industry at Reset where he was responsible for curating treatments to support their directors’ pitches. That early work had him utilizing a range of software such as Premier, Avid, DaVinci Resolve and Autodesk Flame in order to translate the director’s visions from the early storyboard phase right on through to the final editing stages. 

That use of software and being able to translate the director’s vision through the storyboard phase have been integral to his success today. Since his time with Reset, Denis has come to be known as something of  an industry “unicorn,” in layman’s terms– someone who’s an expert in an incredible range of areas. 

Considering that the commercial and film industries rely heavily on the ever-changing world of technology, having such a broad technical skill set like Denis’s has been an advantage that has kept him ahead of the game.

And when Covid hit he was able to adapt better than most, as his established digital career allowed him to remain on the precipice of change as the entire industry shifted towards working online. 

Denis Ogorodov applying his color grading skills behind the scenes

“With technology being the great equalizer, it is more and more possible to achieve professional industry level work from the comfort of your own home, and the current pandemic we are living through has accelerated this process,” he explains.

“Having built a brand of reliability and efficiency has allowed me to work on my own terms before the pandemic, which allowed me to transition to working remotely instead of in-house quite smoothly.”

While the pandemic has proved to be an extremely difficult time for so many, Denis brings a humble and kind-hearted approach in order to support the industry he loves, something that proves him to be the exact kind of creative talent that any media outlet wants to have driving their team. 

He says, “I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to get four of my US colleagues work recently, so it’s nice to be able to give back.”

Having collaborated with so many critically acclaimed filmmakers and global production companies, and led numerous companies to success with his work as a video artist, Denis Ogorodov has made a significant mark on an international level– and we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Manifesting a Shop of Eternal Life with Dara Zhao

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Creating a mood, an emotional atmosphere; this is the immense contribution of a production designer in the film world. The audience, the actors, and the crew are all required to do less belief suspension when the PD cultivates the world envisioned by the director. Dara Zhao is asked to glimpse the vision of her collaborators through their eyes, whether that be a dark one or one of optimism. It’s something she’s known for doing exceedingly well. She has been sought out by Indie filmmakers and massive production companies, as evidenced by her current work on the live-action version of The Little Mermaid. Her role as PD on Shop of Eternal Life skews to a tale much more about the foreboding and menacing topic of mysticism and the afterlife. Regardless of the subject matter, those who collaborate with an exceptional leader in the film community like Dara are eager for the opportunity because they know that her eyes can see their way to replicating the artists’ imaginings.

 

Many films are about sacrifice but Shop of Eternal Life is an original and cultural take on the specific cost of this. Every culture has its version of Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairytales, and the like; stories of foibles and redemption. Shop of Eternal Life takes place in the not so distant Twentieth Century and depicts the personal cost of trying to do something to help others. The plot follows a poor man who approaches a pawnshop owner about buying his wedding ring. Explaining that he needs money to pay medical expenses for his sick wife, the man’s offer is countered by a covertly sinister one from the shop’s owner. Rather than a small sum of money for the ring, the pawnshop owner suggests the man sell his soul for more than enough to cover all the hospital bills. When the man returns to the shop many years later, to collect his heart, the events which transpire are both shocking and telling about the potential for danger we all possess. There’s an obvious occult/metaphysical component but this applies aptly to the human character as well.

 

Shop of Eternal Life culminated in a DGA award for director/producer Yizhou Xu, who in turn praised Zhao for her ability to help realize the world he envisioned. The film which stars Award-Winning actor Jesse Wang (of the film God’s Not Dead and CBS series Code Black) as Chaofeng, Allen Theosky Rowe as Mr. Song, and Gengru Liu as Xiao Dong. Taking place in the 1920s and 1950s with nearly all of the action occuring in a pawnshop, the aging of the characters as well as the advancements in technology is subtly visible. Beyond the aesthetic challenges of manifesting this are the budgetary constraints for a smaller Indie production such as this. Dara remarks, “Yes, the most substantial obstacle for a smaller film is always the financial one. Ha. The freedom you experience is what you balance this against. I’m proud that we created two different decades in such an authentic manner. This was a really interesting environment which offered great potential. I wanted to create a narrow and isolated space; one with an unspecified location which seemed very real, especially with a sense of hopelessness at moments. Even thought this was a period piece, it was more like an allegory; a Faustian story. It was hard to combine these fantasy elements into a realism society environment. I used a lot of metaphors to support the storytelling. We used authentic props and set decorations from China but created what we needed when it didn’t exist.” The results are dramatic. Dara’s dedication and skill resulted in the world of Shop of Eternal Life transporting the looming anxiety of its characters directly into the psyche of the audience. The slow impending sense of doom and the constant comfortability one experiences when watching Shop of Eternal Life is a testament to the expertise of Dara Zhao to fully realize the world the film’s director aspired to display. Viewers don’t want to contemplate budget or lighting, or any other facet of the production process. Dara Zhao makes that concept a part of her equation when working on every production. It’s for this reason that you’ll find her working on productions throughout many different countries for quite some time.

 

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Production Designer Elisia Mirabelli creates new worlds through her artistic eye

For Canada’s Elisia Mirabelli, Production Design is an element of acting, inhabiting another person, stepping inside of their world, and feeling their story. Each time she begins a project, the seasoned production designer tries to imagine herself as the character whose space she is creating. She asks herself why each object in the space remains there, the history behind it, the psychology of how and why a space is divided the way it is. How much time has been spent there? Who a character lets into their space? What it looks like if their alone in it vs what it looks like if a friend is over? She maps out a life in artifacts, creating backstory, revealing loves, interests, experiences, peeling back another layer.

“Production Design for me is really designing and shaping the insides of a person outwardly. In a practical sense, production design is the construction and creation of a film’s overall look through its set and prop design,” she said.

Mirabelli has a decorated resume, with esteemed projects such as Night Owl, Pretty Thing, Let Me Down Easy, and many more. She has created the background for celebrated music videos and popular commercials and collaborated with some of Canada’s biggest networks.

A highlight of Mirabelli’s career came in 2013 when she did the production design for the prolific network MTV. Working with Bell Media and MTV Canada, Mirabelli designed the promo spot MTV #IN24, a collaboration between FORD and MTV promoting MTV’s new cross-platform series #IN24. It aired domestically across the country on MTV Canada and online at MTV.ca and was winner of the 2014 Media Innovation Awards and also received the Silver Award from Best in Cars & Automotive Services.

For the commercial, Mirabelli designed an indoor forest equipped with real foliage, taxidermy and textured dirt flooring. She and her team built the forest set around the Ford Fiesta. The set included a pathway for actors to dance on and a green screen backdrop for day and night simulated VFX.

“Working with MTV was always a dream of mine. It’s such an iconic production company with a history in creating unique, youth focused, genre pushing content. Additionally, the task of designing and creating an in-studio forest set was super exciting. Designing for a company as iconic and groundbreaking as MTV was a career milestone,” she said.

Mirabelli’s time with Bell Media was filled with exceptional projects. She did the production design for a commercial for CP24, a Canadian news network that reaches more than 3.1 million viewers a week and 3.7 million in all of Ontario. The commercial CP24 Moving at the Speed of Your Morning aired nationally on CP24. It went on to win the 2017 Promax Promotion, Marketing and Design Award.

When working on the commercial, Mirabelli refitted an outdated living room with new furnishings, lighting and small props and set accessories to make the location feel more modern, fresh and bright. She built five custom, faux LED screens that were set in each of the four locations. The LED screens played a pivotal role in the promo as they acted as the transition between scenes, with the camera travelling in and out of each of them. Additionally, her team managed the food styling for forty plus extras.

“The opportunity to create and work on a commercial for CP24’s morning show was really exciting. CP24’s morning programming brings in millions of unique viewers a week, so it was really incredible to work on something knowing that it would be reaching such a large audience,” said Mirabelli.

That same year, Mirabelli also worked with The Space Channel on their holiday programming, creating the commercial Spacemas and highlighting The Doctor Who Christmas Special. To do so, she designed a string of sets that replicated a collection of unique living rooms, fitted with holiday décor. The main set included a 14-foot Christmas tree that sat next to a scaled replica of the Doctor Who Tardis, brought in for the shoot from outside the province. The promo relied heavily on its production design and the ability to design a string of living room sets all captured during a single day of shooting. It went on to receive the 2017 Promax Promotion, Marketing and Design Award: Channel: Holiday or Special Event Spot.

“Space Channel is known for creating content that’s wonderfully lively and ultramodern, an ode to its fantastical programming. Working with props from the BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ series was a real thrill. Additionally, working with the creative director of The Space Channel was awesome and I’m such a fan of his originality,” Mirabelli described.

Once again in the holiday spirit, Mirabelli worked on Christmas commercials for Gusto, Bell Media’s speciality food channel. The set of commercials launched Gusto and was their first national holiday campaign, an opportunity that excited the production designer. After the commercial series, Gusto was nominated for International Channel of the Year at the 2016 Content Innovation Awards. It aired domestically across Gusto’s sister channels (34 channels total, including The Discovery Channel and TSN).

To create the commercial, Mirabelli built a winter wonderland themed set equipped with half a dozen 8-foot-high white trees, 250 presents, a snow machine, teal lights and custom-made glass ornaments spelling out the names of the program’s hosts, which included Jamie Oliver and Martha Stewart. They were able to design and build two unique, modernized Christmas sets that completely distinguished the promo in an ever-crowded market of holiday programming, which was no easy feat.

“Reimagining the look of a holiday promo into something fresh, modern and cool was fantastic,” Mirabelli said.

Undoubtedly, Mirabelli will continue to be a formidable force in Canada’s film and television industry. Keep an eye out for her work.

 

Written by Annabelle Lee

Production Designer Laura Santoyo talks new film ‘Falling’

Learning about various aspects of humanity is a passion of Colombia’s Laura Santoyo Dangond. Originally from Colombia, she has also lived in Peru and Canada, and loves to travel to experience different cultures and learn new languages, fluent in Spanish, English, French, German, and Portuguese. This desire to learn about the world and its people is part of what led her into filmmaking. With every new project she embarks on, she gets to tell a different story and learn something new about history, society, the human mind, and more. Beyond the stories, she works with people from all over the world that have different backgrounds and ways of seeing life, and together they share and experience their differences through their art. As a production designer, Santoyo takes everything she has seen and practiced and channels that into creating visually stunning and captivating sets and props that fully transport audiences into what they are watching.

“I make an effort to stay true to the story and what the characters are. I do a lot of research on the characters and the environment where they live. I also try to have many exchanges with the director where we discuss characters and share research and inspiration images, etc. to understand their vision and the direction they are taking the story to. I like to play with colors and used them to imply aspects of the story that are not explicitly spoken by the characters,” she said.

Santoyo is known for her work on award-winning films such as Lockdown and Tim of the Jungle, both of which made their way to several of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Last year, her film The Plague premiered, reminding audiences of what she is capable of, as Santoyo created a dystopian world. Her most recent film premiered just last month at the Slamdance Festival, and once again Santoyo shows she is unrivaled as a production designer.

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Bill Bowles, Laura Santoyo Dangond and Ewen Wright on the set of Falling, photo by Sam Shaib

“As soon as I finished reading the script I felt like I had to be part of the project. It is one of the most original scripts I have read, very intelligent and I thought that it was a story that had to be told and that I wanted to tell it,” she said. “The script of this film describes a number of absurd situations and uses humor to address subjects that are affecting our society. It was very important that the design of the movie supported the comedic tone without ridiculing the situations.”

The film tells the story of a potentially psychosomatic white man, a woman stuck in a vortex of mansplaining, and a young black man confronted by the racial disconnect of society, each trying to make sense of their lives as their worlds are set on an inevitable collision course in this surrealist comedy.

It was important for Santoyo and the rest of the team to differentiate the three storylines that run parallel to each other and to show the absurdity of the situations without being too over the top. Therefore, they assigned one color to each character.

The first story, about a man who can’t walk, represents the feeling of impotence that someone watching the news at night can feel when they see injustices with no way to help. This character takes the “sickness” he feels to the extreme. Therefore, they decided to use the color blue with him, which is very clinical.

The second story, about a woman who’s caught in male-dominated conversations turmoil, was assigned the color red. She is often angry and frustrated, and all the men that she’s with see her and other women as objects. Santoyo felt red reflected these feelings.

The third story is about a black man, who in the most absurd situation, ends up being shot by the police. The filmmakers gave him the color green, because he’s young and innocent at the beginning and at the end it is his case that makes the man in the first story sick.

“As a society, we are still fighting against racism, social injustice and women’s equality and this film raises awareness on these subjects in a comedic tone. I believe that it is very important to have films like this one because we can start generating discussions that could eventually lead to change,” said Santoyo.

Working on Falling has been one of the most fun experiences Santoyo has had throughout her career. From the first time she read the script, she knew it was going to be challenging because there were many locations with three different stories that at the end become one. Each story had elements of magical realism that could also be difficult to achieve in production design. Santoyo wanted to enhance the experiences of the character through the set, but not overdo it to a point that the messages behind each scene were lost. She managed to find the perfect balance, always keeping in mind the color palette they had decided for each character early on in production.

“I think many things make Laura an excellent designer, collaborator, and professional. The first thing that comes to mind is passion. She’s clearly passionate about what she does – she made it clear that she seeks out work that she connects with on a personal and aesthetic level. Once she’s onboard, she’s obviously all-in. That shows at every phase of a project when you see her initial ideas, the hours she’s putting in, the attitude she brings to every meeting and production day, and the diligence with which she executes. Beyond that, she’s a professional with outstanding training, instincts, and experience. She knows how to present her ideas clearly – both verbally and visually, she has leadership skills, she remains calm under pressure, she knows how to prioritize, stay organized, and keep others motivated to work at a high standard,” said Ewen Wright, Director.

Wright was looking through portfolios and films for a costume designer when Santoyo’s work caught his eye. He asked the costume designer who the production designer was that possessed such talent. He immediately reached out to Santoyo, who was extremely responsive and receptive to the idea of the film. They immediately began a strong partnership and shared ideas about the film.

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Ewen Wright, Laura Santoyo Dangond and Yonit Olsen, photo by Sam Shaib

“Laura has a creative voice, and in a key role on a collaboration that can’t be undervalued. She brings her lifelong sense of design, studied theory, and just pure instinct to her work in a way that gives her work a through-line. I really enjoyed developing a shorthand with her. Lastly, she has a phenomenal attitude and work ethic. She went above and beyond for our production – and even when things went wrong, or the hours ran long, Laura was a reliable source of positivity and joy. As a leader on the team, she set a tone for those around her that I know contributed to all of us doing better. When I was stressed or needed a moment, I always knew I could rely on Laura for a laugh – just as the rest of the time I relied on her for her eye on the image,” Wright continued.

Working with such a committed team was one of Santoyo’s favorite parts about filming Falling. She found everyone came together to tell such an intricate story, and she was constantly inspired by those she worked alongside. However, it was the message behind the film that truly made the experience for the production designer.

“I am so proud to have been a part of this film. I think it’s a story that captures the feeling that something is wrong in the world and the willingness to change it, but not knowing how to go about doing so. I think many people feel that now. I’m thrilled to know that it’s being watched by many people and it can maybe inspire some change in our society,” she said.

Now that Falling has begun its film festival run, Santoyo is looking forward to her next project. Undoubtedly, she has a very bright future ahead of her, and audiences can continue to look for her name rolling past their eyes in movie credits for years to come.

“I want to keep exploring and finding new stories to tell and more talented people to work with. I am looking forward to creating more worlds where magic is possible. I want my work to reach even larger audiences and present stories to the public that entertain them and that touches them. I have a couple of projects in line for this year that hopefully will help me accomplish this,” she concluded.

 

Top photo by Jesper Duelund

EXCAVATING THE EMOTION OF HISTORY WITH A CELLO

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(By Luigi Paglia)

Dong Lei has many credits to his career as a production designer. As PD for award-winning films such as Emily, Cage, and Next Door, he has enabled films of varying genres to deliver their story with immense success. Sometimes one must step out of a comfortable role in order to stretch and learn. For Lei, taking the responsibilities of writer, director, producer, as well as production designer allowed him to challenge himself in creating a period piece. The Cello Player takes place in the mid 1940’s World War II era and is a remarkable in its recreation of the look of this time in addition to conveying a heart-wrenching experience. The story takes place in Poland as the Russian army is about to converge on German officers taking refuge in a brothel. A musician who plays for the entertainment of patrons is toyed with by a German officer who is facing inevitable surrender. Hoping to enact power and control over those in the brothel, in particular the Cellist, the officer conducts a game of mental/emotional cat & mouse. The constitution of both is tested as the sounds of war outside the walls of the building escalate.

Dong’s work on The Cello Player was recognized in 2017 with the “Best Production Design” award at both the Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. A responsible production designer always begins with immersion in research. A period piece such as The Cello Player requires more than the average amount of this if you want astute audience members to buy into the believability of the story. Lei spent considerable time researching in museums, libraries, and online to ensure that he created an environment which contained no cracks that could reveal the modern day in this World War II era drama. He spent time interviewing the older generation familiar with this bygone time as a final jury to vet the weaponry and technology displayed in the film was accurate. Actor Thure Riefenstien (known for his work in The Man in the High Castle, among others) played the German officer in The Cello Player and has had extensive experience appearing in films of this era. He comments, “Due to my own lengthy history of success in the international film industry I feel fully qualified to judge Dong’s exceptional achievements. I found his attention to detail impressive and insightful. In particular, we discussed the look of authentic German uniforms. As an actor, the costumes and the sets are a part of what allows you to become lost in the character and believe in yourself. The look that Dong achieved for this film was second to none. This greatly assisted myself and the other cast members to deliver a performance at the top of our abilities.”

Dong acquired props through prop houses and aged them to feel appropriate to the location in which the film takes place. The location was an actual hundred-year-old brothel. Always a stickler for details, Dong had the entire set wired for European electricity even though it was originally wired for US electricity. He hired a European electrical worker to rewire the set with the intent of giving complete accuracy to its appearance and design. With this completed, the set, specific wardrobe requirements (which Dong had created at Western Costume), and accoutrements like vintage typewriters, the entirety of the mid 20th century was complete. While these all play a prominent part of the film, a central piece is the Cello. The production designer acquired it via an unexpected circumstance. When Dong contacted a composer to create an original musical piece for The Cello Player, he met with him to discuss the story and this composition’s emotional contribution. The composer was so touched by the story that he offered up one of his beloved mid 1940’s Cellos as a prominent prop for the film. The action of the film vacillates between domination and détente in a compelling look at what we demand from ourselves and others when we have power, framed in a tale of a time when people were often at their worst.

Dong Lei openly admits that the work required from him to manifest the look of this film was immense. Over planning was the template which he used. The budget may not have been supportive of this goal but it’s a resourceful production designer who finds a way to achieve their own professional goals within these constraints. The look was so convincing that many of the actors profess that it inspired their performances. Thure Riefenstien himself was so moved by the story and setting that he gave an unplanned interview (while in his Nazi costume) about the lives of his own family’s personal experiences in Germany. The tale was so emotional and riveting that it was actually included in the final cut of the film. The work of Dong Lei cultivated a sense of believability that blurred the lines for both audience and cast of The Cello Player.

Production Designer Mercedes Hachuel: The Dynamics are in the Details

Venezuelan-Spanish production designer Mercedes Hachuel’s lyrical sense of aesthetics, keen professionalism and zesty, enthusiastic creativity allows her to successfully take on just about any type of film job. Equally at home designing for commercials, music videos, motion pictures and television, Hachuel’s dedication and drive have earned her both a strong reputation and fast-growing resume of noteworthy credits.

For Hachuel, a lifelong romance with storytelling and art provided the ideal background for her choice of career. “I was born in Caracas, Venezuela and as a child I’d read books and draw the worlds that I imagined the characters living in.” Hachuel said. “My favorites were Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, so you can imagine that when the films were released I just felt in love with those worlds and wanted to create something like that myself. I loved ideas, I loved creativity so I studied social communication with a major in film in the Andres Bello Catholic University, the best in the country. Meantime I worked in a small advertising agency where we produced all our commercials in-house, and I realized I had to do something related to film That’s when I moved to Los Angeles to study production at UCLA.”

Arriving in Hollywood, she wasted no time. “I met Leslie Dilley, the art director of the first Star Wars and production designer of Aliens, Deep Impact  and many other amazing films.” Hachuel said. “He became my mentor and explained to me that everything I had done up to that point was actually production design. He taught me the secrets and the real magic behind the work. Everything I heard and did made me love production design even more and that’s when I realized it was my passion—what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, to create magic worlds and make fantasies reality. I think that was the best decision I ever made.”

Her industry peers certainly agree. Whether she’s assigned to a dark comedy like He Matado a Mi Marido (“I Killed My Husband”), the bittersweet family dramedy of The Astronaut, an intense thriller like The Cards or famed dancer-singer Brian Puspos’ atmospheric music video Murder She Wrote , Hachuel leaves her own distinctive imprint even as she ensures a seamless production.

“Mercedes is passionate, talented and reliable—characteristics that make her a great asset for any project,” Murder She Wrote producer Gonzalo Wagner said. “She has a great ability to adapt herself to new situations and solve last minute problems. You can rely on her and know that you don’t have to worry because she’s ready for anything.”

Production Design is a necessarily collaborative discipline and Hachuel excels at bringing a team together; her professional background—advertising, set decoration and art department experience—provides a rich cumulative basis which produces invariably superlative results.

“As production designer, I realized how important it is for the audience to be able to immerse themselves in the story, “ Hachuel said. “If we do not achieve that, it doesn’t work. It’s really important to have design and sets that support the narrative and backstory of the film. And to capture that—to set the tone—the art department, camera department, lighting, all have to work together, because only the right mix of set decoration, color, shadows and highlights not only tells the story, they also add depth to it.”

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Hachuel, with second assistant director Gavin McFarland, prepares to build another world (photo by Elie Sfeir)

“Mercedes is always attentive and passionate about her work,” Guillermo Polo, director of photography on The Astronaut, said. “She is always ready to change something in order to make the shot perfect, and is always ready for the next shot, which is really great for my department. That attention to detail is what makes her work unique.”

“I really do believe in details,” Hachuel said. “You have to be looking out for them all the time, to add or take them out and you design and build while always thinking about those little elements, because they are what will make what you are creating unique and believable. You can’t create another world if you do not pay attention to what should really be there, and those little details are what make all the difference in the end.”

Even for a short form music video project, Hachuel reliably gives her best, creative all.

“On Murder She Wrote, the director and I discussed every small detail so we could get a shared vision of the artistic concept,” she said. “It was the story of a man that lost everything he cared about and murdered his lover. We played with the idea of having all the sets suspended in a black hole that was infinite, timeless and dead, but it had to look classy at the same time. So, I had to be really careful with the color, since I needed to work with that stark contrast. Finally, I choose a color palette of gold, red and white—these represented the value and purity of love but also, at the same time, the blood and passion of those violent emotions. Experimenting with those colors, I composed and selected each set piece and everyone liked the results.

For Hachuel, every production design assignment is an artistic challenge, and she takes a great measure of satisfaction in crafting the most complimentary and ideal presentations a story requires

“I love projects where I have to create different props and build things,” Hachuel said. “I always do a great deal of research before I actually begin, to give myself enough information to be able to create a believable world. That’s my ultimate goal—to let the audience feel that the world I created could really exist.”

Production Designer Alex Craig’s Extraordinary Creative Vision

English production designer Alex Craig is one of the leading proponents of his craft. Well known to UK television audiences through a sterling roster of credits, from his contributions to the avidly watched BBC National Lottery and A Question of Sport and runaway reality smash This Time Next Year, Craig has perfected a mixture of bold creativity and context sensitive design that’s made him one of the most in-demand talents in the business.

Craig arrived at his position through a somewhat circuitous route; he initially studied fine arts at a series of prestigious schools when fate intervened. “A good friend at art school was training to direct film in the Media Studies department,” Craig said. “And he told me about the role of the art director in film and TV and that immediately  interested me. My initial experience was working on music videos and fashion shows, which I loved, so it just grew from there and I became hooked. A Fine Art degree isn’t the most obvious route into production design, but in my case, it was.”

In short order, Craig established himself as a reliably creative professional with a peerless instinct for creating solid, appealing design

“Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on a wide range of interesting and well known UK and international productions,” Craig said. “Many of these required a variety of studio and location work in the UK, China and Spain  Large scale entertainment shows are definitely a favorite of mine, and I’m a big music fan, so l welcome the opportunity to get involved in designing tours for bands and solo artists. As a personal project, I’d also like to experiment with some of the LED technology that is commonplace in studio design and apply it to create innovative bespoke pieces for interiors. Variety definitely keeps my designs fresh.”

One of Craig’s biggest and most challenging assignments has been as lead production designer for BBC1 TV’s long-running, start-studded annual fundraising spectacular Children in Need for almost a full decade.  Since its 1980 launch, CIN has raised 600 million British pounds for disabled children and young people, established itself as a prominent staple of British pop culture and featured many of world’s most famous entertainers—from Taylor Swift and Madonna to Rod Stewart and One Direction.

Alex-Craig-children-in-need-set-design-bbc (3)

“The show producers approached me in 2006,” Craig said. “They wanted to bring the CIN set up to date—it was beginning to look a bit old fashioned. They were impressed by my designs, as I’d been production designer on a number of high-profile BBC shows, and they thought it would be a good fit. I jumped at the opportunity.”

It was formidable job. “The telethon is a live, 7 hour primetime broadcast,” Craig said. “It features numerous ‘A list’ acts from the worlds of pop, musicals, comedy, dance, plus surprise performances. For the most part, these take place on a very large, impressive main stage. But the set also requires areas for presenters, surprise guests and more intimate performances so the set design also includes additional stages, a catwalk, multiple entrance options, several huge LED screens, plus a large studio audience. “

As a fully live, in-the-moment theatrical presentation, Craig has to not only anticipate myriad potential complications, he must be prepared to confront any issue head on. “The set also has to be flexible enough to get specific ‘performance sets’ required by any given artist, onto and off the main stage at high speed. It’s a technically complex event, which requires a mixture of creativity, logistics and a calm nature—especially when there’s less than a minute to go till the next spot and I can see an incomplete performance set still being put together on the stage.  Back in 2006 there was also a large orchestra to accommodate, and although the orchestra is now gone, the amount of technology has increased which brings its own challenges.”

“There’s a creative pressure to design a set that is going to have the style and presence to work as an appropriate backing for a diverse mix of some of the world’s biggest stars,’ Craig said. “The fact that it is live requires a lot of quick turnaround scenic setting, striking and re-setting throughout the 7 hours that we’re live on air. Backstage can become extremely cramped, with props, scenery and band equipment stacked everywhere you look. The set also incorporates a huge amount of LED technology which has to be integrated into the scenery as the set is installed. This can sometimes slow us down if there’s any kind of fault or glitch.”

Few have the drive, vision and skill to take on such monumental task, year after year, but Craig wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would the BBC: “Alex designed the main studio set for 9 Children in Need shows, which is an outstanding achievement in itself,” executive producer Clare Pizey said. “He is an innovative and extremely talented Production Designer who has managed to give the show a visual identity which sets the tone for the night. And he is always pushing to move the look of the set to the next level, which both uplifts and inspires the audience. This is much of the reason why Children in Need has become so special to British culture as a whole.”

Craig’s long stint with CIN is one of the crown jewels in his already glittering resume, and it holds a special place in the designer’s affections.

“I love designing this show and am proud of what it stands for,” Craig said. “It has become a very special annual event in my work diary and a career highlight for me. It’s an honor to have contributed to such a good cause for so many years.  The show has raised record amounts of money even during recession years, and that always spurs me on to dream up new ways of presenting a fresher, more innovative design.”

For more information on Alex Craig, visit alexcraig.com

Production Designer Shuhe Wang talks award-winning film ‘Red String’

Born and raised in Taiyuan City, China, Shuhe Wang was destined to be a production designer. Design was always her passion, and she never questioned what it was she wanted to spend her life doing. She understands every aspect as to what it takes to be an exceptional production designer, and that is why she is so highly-respected around the world for what she does.

Despite any challenges that arise, Wang loves what she does, and always shows audiences what she is capable of. Her work on the films Stay, Dancing for You, Cartoon Book, and Inside Linda Vista Hospital helped earn the respect of international audiences and win awards at several film festivals. However, despite this success, she considers working on the film Red String the highlight of her esteemed career.

“With each screening, people are really interested about the story and what is the background of creating the story. As a film, it is always the most important target that let people think about the meaning and something related in society after watching it,” said Wang.

The film tells the tale of an illegal Chinese immigrant who wants to keep his last line of his privacy in a terrible restaurant where he works. However, when he finally goes against his dignity, he finds that he even makes his life worse.

“This is a film about low-level class Chinese immigrant’s life. To make the film reliable and vivid, it relies on the production designer to create the atmosphere about Chinese culture and low-level people’s life. I did a lot of research about what exactly their life had going on, and created some characteristic elements in the film,” said Wang.

Making its way to several international film festivals, Red String impressed critics. It was an Official Selection at the Los Angeles International Shorts Festival, the Festival de Cortometrajes “Jose Francisco Rosado” Pacas, My Love Michelle Short Film Festival, and the Lift-Off Film Festival. It screened at the Festival de Cannes Short Film Corner, was a finalist at the Miami Film Festival, was nominated at the Golden Knight Malta International Film Festival, and was the winner of the Asians on Film Festival.

“I feel excited that the film got a lot of attention by telling a small and rough part of our traditional culture, and glad that the true and hard life of normal people is still being considered and cared a lot by universal audiences. This is a story about my national country’s culture, and it happens in some low-level class people. That is kind interesting to do because I can show audience a different angle of Chinese culture that not very noticeable in real life. And the story is absolutely tense and strong,” said Wang. “The director was very creative and open-minded. It was really great to work with him. He fully trusted me in my department’s process. It makes the work smooth and well- communicated. We were sharing all the thoughts and brainstorming without any concern. We were on the same page for each step.”

The director, Minghao Shen, knows Wang’s commitment to the film and her talent as a production designer largely contributed to the success Red String saw. The two had talked about the script and had found out that they both had a lot of deep thought and ambition regarding the story. Shen trusted that Wang totally understood the story and would create the sets perfectly.

“Shuhe is a designer that does not just care about how to make set pretty, but also about telling a story by the designing, due to her directing skills, so that actually helped the film be better. When Shuhe was working, she was always focused on the details and she was always careful about each single image,” said Shen.

While keeping true to the message of the film, Wang wanted to show some of the key elements to the world without over dressing them. The overall tone is a small bakery and restaurant in old Chinatown of an American city. Wang would go to Chinatown in Los Angeles to simply observe, and to capture the feeling of life there. She would see how they liked to dress and what they liked to eat, what they believed, what way they connected with the outside of Chinatown, what the difference was between the new and old immigrants, and more to truly understand what she needed to create.

“Once I locked each character’s personality, I chose the key elements of each of them and made it into the entire set,” said Wang. “However, the most impressive part of filming Red String was that everyone was so engaged in the story and helped to make it better. The lead actor even gave us some impromptu action with the props as the character and it worked very well. Sometimes we shared the thoughts based on our position to make the film more complete.”

The film was a collective effort by everyone involved, and Wang’s work helped to turn it into a masterpiece.

Production designer Andrea Leigh is a visual storyteller

What started out as a love for building retail window displays turned into a successful career as a production designer for Toronto based Andrea Leigh. She always loved building something captivating from nothing, where passers-by would turn to see what was not just her work, but also her art. This innate talent turned into a career, and now she is one of Canada’s best production designers.

It seems like a long time ago that Leigh was fixing window displays, as she has worked on several celebrated projects as a production designer, including the award-winning film Friends Like Us. Leigh knew after reading just a few pages of the script that she needed to design for the film.

“The minimal and sleek vision the director had for the main home really drew me to the project. It’s always fun to work on a job where you actually enjoy the content. The script was funny. The dynamic was entertaining, and it was nice to work with the amazing and talented Toronto cast,” said Leigh.

Friends Like Us tells the tale of a struggling couple – broke and pregnant – who find success through ripping off their friends. The plot twists when one of the women finds out about the affair two of them have been having and they accidentally murder their husbands with a piece of modern art.

“I got to feature some of my favorite artists in the main location we shot. Huge pieces, some abstract, some minimalist. Overall, the opportunity to design a space that said so much by not having much in it was a nice challenge. It really reflected the characters’ sense of new found wealth,” Leigh described.

The film went on to have enormous success at many prestigious international film festivals, and was even nominated for “Best Short Film” by the Director’s Guild of Canada. The production design was vital to the success of the film, and the recognition the film received was amazing for Leigh.

“It’s exciting to know it made it beyond just a ‘project’. You never know what will come of features and shorts. Sometimes they don’t make it anywhere. Sometimes they get wide recognition and reviews. Toronto can feel like a small city sometimes, so when something truly great comes out of it, word gets out fast,” she said.

Success such as this follows Leigh with each project she embarks on, showing audiences around the world why she is so exceptional with what she does. While working with the popular cosmetics brand E.L.F., the commercial Play Beautifully was aired on televisions across North America, and went on to have more than 2 million hits on YouTube alone.

“I feel a lot of young women connected with this commercial, and connected with the brand. It feels like we really got the message across, and that it was more than a commercial. It was more of a story, following the girl,” said Leigh.

The commercial featured an all-female cast, and was shot at numerous locations across Toronto. Leigh says it hardly felt like work, going to coffee shops, bars, rooftops, and more in the middle of the day. Leigh, who has also worked as an interior designer, says designing rooms for young women came naturally to her, and her own living space was even used as one of the shooting locations. She truly felt right at home.

 I have worked closely with Andrea on numerous productions and virally popular commercials, and have become familiar with the level of professionalism and skills required to be a top tier production designer and art director. My experience has led me to believe that Andrea is one of the most prodigiously successful professionals in her field,” said David Quinn, the director of the Play Beautifully commercial who has worked with Leigh on many commercials with the production company Skin & Bones.

The idea was to make the commercial look more like a short film than an advertisement. This is what drew Leigh into the story in the first place. She is a story teller, and her designs play a pivotal part in any story, almost as an extra character. It was a story brought to life by what she describes as amazing cast members. It was also relatable in so many ways for lots of young women.

“You have a rough time, a bad break up, your friends are there for you and sometimes you just need to throw on some lipstick, build your confidence back up after a broken heart and head out on the town with your ladies,” Leigh concluded.

You can view the commercial here.

Ingenious Production Designer Yihong Ding Wraps Production on “Mira”

Yihong Ding
Production Designer Yihong Ding

The striking talent of Yihong Ding as a production designer and art director is literally visible in every project she has touched. She moves seamlessly through the worlds of film, television and advertising; not an easy feat when one considers that the approach a person must take when designing the ambiance of a feature film to match a director’s vision is vastly different from their approach to creating the backdrop of a commercial meant to persuade an audience of consumers.

Originally from Shanghai, Ding studied in London and eventually got her master’s in production design at the world-renowned American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Since then, she has been hard at work on an ever-growing list of projects. To ensure each film, show or commercial conveys the right mood and feeling, she works closely with the director of the production to capture and physically recreate their vision. From color schemes to lighting, props to set design, she is responsible for turning the conceptual into the living, breathing worlds we see on film.

Ding has worked on projects ranging from The Birthday Boys starring Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mr. Show) to Mandala, the winner of the 2015 Los Angeles International Film Festival award for Best Foreign Film. She’s done several commercials for Diomany high-end lingerie and served as art director of an advertisement for the Microsoft Outlook app. It’s her work on films like Mira however that really showcases her incredible talent for production design and her awe-inspiring ability to create a self-contained world on the screen.

Working on director Amanda Tasse’s Mira, currently in post-production, Ding was given a dual-challenge. First was creating a marine biology research laboratory complete with the appropriate scientific equipment and actual jellyfish tanks. Second, she had to design an intricate “memory wall” which the title character uses to keep a log of her life.

“I had a lot of fun doing the research for this project,” said Ding, who studies every project’s background meticulously to ensure the environment seen on camera is authentic and accurate. “We ended up filming at an empty lab on Catalina Island, and dressing the lab into the jellyfish lab for the story.”

Vanessa Patel as Mira in the lab created by Yihong Ding in "Mira"
Vanessa Patel as Mira in the lab created by Yihong Ding in “Mira”

Filming on an island presented its own challenges. Ding had to personally pack all of the glass tubes and prop equipment by hand, and shipping all of the fragile items to Catalina was expensive and required her to closely observe weight restrictions and eliminate any waste in the budget while maintaining the realistic integrity of the set.

“Finding the jellyfish tank was another challenge. They were all costume-made and very expensive,” she said. “I almost had to build them myself, but luckily we found a person that was willing to rent three to us for a really great deal.”

The experience tested and proved Ding’s invaluable ability to balance the creative and financial sides of production design with aplomb. The laboratory she created is so authentic and convincing it’s absolutely indistinguishable from a research facility one might see at a university. While the lab provides the backdrop, the “memory wall” Ding created gives the viewer a personal connection to Mira’s title character.

The character of Mira suffers from a form of epilepsy that causes intense seizures and short-term memory loss of the hours preceding each attack. Mira dedicates herself to studying a species of jellyfish which may hold a cure for her disease, but her condition poses a huge challenge and she has to find a way to overcome the amnesia. So Ding helped design a “memory wall,” which becomes Mira’s method of constantly reminding herself of what’s happened before each seizure.

“She would take a picture right before she knew she was going to have a seizure… and then she would map out all the pictures on her bedroom wall,” Ding described. “It was a very complicated visual graphic to create, and I wanted to make sure that it looked real… and for the very first time I sat down and considered myself as Mira… I started to think like Mira, which was really amazing, because I found myself digging deeper into the design than I normally do.”

Yihong Ding has what many specialists lack: a multifaceted skillset combined with extensive experience in every level of design and the ability to work within any range of budget without ever compromising the quality of the project. From envisioning the conceptual to building the practical, from dressing sets to arranging the details and minutia for the perfect shot, she is a one-woman creative army.