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.”
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.