Constructive Concepts: A conversation with art director Paul Inglis

Trevor Hogg chats with art director Paul Inglis…

“My parents appreciated the arts,” says British Art Director Paul Inglis who as a child was taken to the theatre and gallery exhibitions by his statistician father. “They were happy for me to take the route I did through art college. I did a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London in a very specific course that was called Design for Film and Television.” The young student was following in the footsteps of renown alumni Stuart Craig (Harry Potter franchise), Gavin Bocquet (Star Wars prequels), and brothers Tony Scott (Crimson Tide) and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down). Inglis bonded with classmate Billy O’Brien. “The joy of being somewhere like the Royal College of Art is that Billy was also there as a student. We immediately clicked and from then we’ve been very happy to work together a lot.” The duo along with Alan Friel collaborated on the short film The Wind (1998) as well as on a series of commercials for Orange, National Lottery, and Rover Cars.

“I was lucky to get straight on to a very small feature film when I left, so I was immediately drawing up and then going on to the position we call in the UK, Standby Art Director; in America it’s generally known as On-Set Dresser. Not exactly the same job but similar,” explains Paul Inglis. “Basically, you’re the member of the Art Department who is on set while the shooting crew is filming; you’re there to deal with any problems that come up.” A fortuitous conversation led to an encounter with an Oscar-nominated Production Designer. “I was talking to someone at the time. I was out of work and they said, ‘Oh, Gemma Jackson [Finding Neverland] might be looking for someone for Bridget Jones’s Diary [2001].’ So I gave her a call out of the blue. I met with her Art Director David Warren [Hugo] for that show and I got a job with her. As long as you do a good job once, people do tend to use you again because you’re a known quantity.” A string of movie assignments followed: Iris (2001), To Kill a King (2003), Thunderbirds (2004), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), Isolation (2005) and Basic Instinct 2 (2006), resulting in Paul Inglis moving from the position of Standby Art Director to Assistant Art Director to Art Director.

“The Production Designer is the person who will have the initial meetings with the director, possibly with the director and the producer; he will convince them that the image that he has in mind is the right one to go with,” explains Paul Inglis while discussing the various roles in his profession. “He will be selected as the head of the Art Department. He will then employ a Supervising Art Director and a Set Decorator. The Supervising Art Director deals with putting together the main part of the Art Department which has to do with all of the drawings that are made to get sets built, and will then follow through the building of the sets to make sure they are being built properly. The Set Decorator on the other hand, certainly in the UK film system, deals with the props, all of the decisions involving what fabrics would work, what wallpapers would work, how drapes and curtains would work, all those sorts of things. Even practical lighting will fall under the remit of the Set Decorator. The Production Designer is responsible for both sides of the equation.

As for the critical skills required to be a successful Art Director and Production Designer, Paul Inglis says, “I think you have to start off with an arts background. You obviously have to be aware of how to visually put your ideas across whether that’s through drawings, photo referencing or however it might be.” Inglis tells me, “As an Art Director you have to be adept with technical drawings and reading technical drawings. As a Designer you can get away with not having to do so much of that. A lot of them are very technical in that area. You have to be aware of scheduling and budgeting and have an understanding of how a film is made globally. You have to do very good research confinement to understand which elements of research hold valid to the look of the designs you need to create, and not interrupt your research with too many redundant ideas.”

The rising talent was recruited for a science fiction tale helmed by Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). “Alfonso is the director who makes films in the moment,” observes Paul Inglis. “He will give you a general notion of how he wants to approach it but it will be in slightly philosophical terms and you then have to find as you go along what that might be. We found on Children of Men [2006] that we would often go to the same location and each time he’d think of a whole new way of using it. He would decide to shoot in a different direction from the one originally planned or run the action in a different way. Things were slightly more malleable.” The filmmaker kept quiet about a certain aspect of the movie as he did not want to “dilute people’s experience of watching it.” Inglis reveals, “There were a number of digital effects in that show that the causal audience would never notice – invisible effects to help make scenes longer or tie action better together or very subtle set extensions or changes to the world. Changes to the environment that aren’t designed to be noticed at all; they’re not even meant to look like effects. They’re just part of his armory as to how he makes a film, the same way with the lights and the camera.” For his contributions, Paul Inglis was co-nominated for an Art Directors Guild of America Award in 2007.

Mentor and protégé reunited for Death Defying Acts (2007) directed by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). “She was from our perspective more straightforward to work with than we had been led to believe she might be,” remarks Paul Inglis. “She has a reputation for being quite tough on Art Departments. But I think Gemma, Anna [Lynch-Robinson] who was the Set Decorator, and I worked on providing what she wanted.” Inglis believes, “When people who can be tricky calm down with you it’s great. Once that trust is in place, it’s hugely helpful with getting the whole production running smoothly.” However, one has to be extremely careful. “You tend to find that if for some reason you lose someone’s confidence early on it’s impossible to ever regain it no matter how good a job you do from that point onwards.” In 2008, Death Defying Acts was lauded with the award for Best Production Design by the Australian Film Institute.

While working on Incendiary (2008), Paul Inglis became involved with an iconic movie franchise. “Bond is an interesting invitation, historically speaking,” reflects Inglis who worked as the Art Director for Quantum of Solace (2008). “Spielberg [Raiders of the Lost Ark] has always wanted to do one, Quentin Tarantino [Pulp Fiction] has always wanted to do one. It is a ticket you take but you take it knowing that there are different restrictions than what you might normally have.” As for what it was like working with the director, Inglis states, “He brought an amount of Marc Forster to the table but it wouldn’t have been a pure directorial spirit, as working on Finding Neverland [2004] or World War Z [2012] which he is doing at the moment.” Safety was a major issue especially with the Bolivian hotel that blows up at the end of the movie which Inglis helped to design. “We were building it on the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios which had burnt down a couple of years before. To have that degree of fire effects on the stage we had to be very careful. You talk to people and you discuss the issues. We made sure that the set was built predominantly from plaster, nonflammable materials, metal, [and] glass. You’re not dealing with lots of timber in the set, and if you are it’s shielded behind fireproof material. All the doors in the hotel were fire doors so if something did go wrong it would limit the spread of the fire and contain it within the set. There were sprinklers systems built in by the special effects team; they would build mockups of the set at their own facility to see what smaller versions of the explosion do in a controlled environment and round them up to the point that they felt safe about it. We would make sure the set was made in time for the stunt department to rehearse on it, to get to know the set, [and] to make the changes they needed to have made.” The work did not go unnoticed by his peers as Paul Inglis was honoured with a co-nomination for an Art Director’s Guild of America Award in 2009.

“The reason for going to a location is that it gives you something physical; it wouldn’t otherwise make sense for you to spend money building,” explains Paul Inglis when comparing the pros and cons of shooting on real settings or in a studio environment. “It allows you to get a larger scope for your film than you could achieve just by using the soundstage. That being said there can often be compromises. Sometimes the ideal location just doesn’t fit, or doesn’t exist close enough to where you’re filming to make it a viable location to go to shoot on.” There is also the issue of having to deal with individuals who are, in most cases, unfamiliar with the ways a film crew operates. “On the stage it is much easier. It’s a blank canvas but at the same time that means you have to create everything from scratch. And that has its own challenges. It also ends up being a much longer slog. On location you might be there two or three weeks, even if it’s a big location, before you shoot; on the stage you might be building for 10 or 16 weeks.”

Paul Inglis was the Supervising Art Director for The Young Victoria (2009) which contended for Best Art Direction at the 2010 Academy Awards. “I think it has to be grounded in some sort of reality,” believes Inglis as to what makes a production design look authentic. “There has to be some reason why things are where they are. And that’s just the first step to how the space is actually used. Even if you are putting on a piece of curious detail just to make the set look denser or more interesting, you try to do it in such a way that it looks like it has purpose. In your head you’ve come up with a reason for why that thing is there. Obviously, doing period work you’ve got a much better idea of why a push plate might be where it is at a particular height on a door.” There is another crucial element required in making a cinematic environment believable. “Every set needs to have aging; even if it’s relatively new, if it doesn’t have any aging on it, it will always look bad. Bad aging is bad because its been applied in the wrong place. It’s not because the texturing of it is necessarily unskillful. It’s that the choices of where to put it don’t relate to where that aging would occur in the real world.”

Whether it be the family drama of The Boys Are Back (2009), the slapstick comedy of Get Him to the Greek (2010), or the science fiction of Prometheus (2012), certain production design fundamentals apply. “As to how you make the decisions about how it looks, I don’t think the genre makes a difference,” remarks Paul Inglis. “If you do your research, you’ll find your imagery. You’ll want to create sets with depth, with interest, with chances for light and shade, and with interesting textures, unless you specifically want it to look very bare and untextured. But again that’s a choice you make that’s generally based on the story, on the visual emotions you want to conjure up.” Success is achieved when the audience believes in the cinematic world which has been created. “A good Designer will know how to use physical visuals to help tell a story,” says Inglis who counts The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Age of Innocence (1993), Richard III (1995) and the Harry Potter films as great examples of the various types of production design.

“If people want to look further there is literature out there,” states Paul Inglis. “There are books they can get that explain other people’s perspectives, very experienced Designers for the most part, how they approach their craft and why they’ve done what they done over the years.” Included on the recommended reading list are Production Design & Art Direction by Peter Ettedgui and By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers by Vincent LoBrutto. “Every film has challenges that you arrive at through the things you do. For me, doing Quantum of Solace was an accomplishment as well because it’s a huge machine. There are a lot of very experienced people doing their jobs in the other departments to keep happy. If you can do that it’s an achievement in itself.” Inglis is reacquainting himself with Agent 007 as he is currently working on the tentatively titled Bond 23 (2012) being helmed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), lensed by Roger Deakins (True Grit) and production designed by Dennis Gassner (Bugsy). “I do have ambitions to design,” admits Inglis; however, his aspirations do not extend to the director’s chair. “I don’t think crafting a film in its entirety would give me the same reward I get from designing and making sets.”

Many thanks to Paul Inglis for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview. For more on the art director, and for samples of his work, visit his website.

Check here for more as Paul discusses his work Game of Thrones and Prometheus.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.