Constructive Concepts: A conversation with production designer Patrick Tatopoulos

Trevor Hogg chats with Patrick Tatopoulos about his career highs and lows as well as the craft of production design…

“My mission to come to the States to work was to create creatures and I’ve done that all the way through to I Am Legend [2007],” states French Production Designer Patrick Tatopolous who has frequently collaborated with filmmakers Alec Proyas (Knowing), Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow) and Len Wiseman (Total Recall).  “There were a lot of movies where I was only doing creature work and then a lot of them were I was doing creature work and production design.  I ended up doing some art direction for sets before I opened my creature shop.  I had a couple of bad experiences in the past but they made me think a creature has to fit in the element it’s created for.”  An essential element is to develop the creature before creating its environment.  “A great example is Independence Day [1996]. I designed the alien before I nailed the spacecraft.”  The technique allowed the sets to be built to accommodate the required proportions of the outer space being.  “If you had somebody working on creatures and somebody working on sets sometimes that gelling thing doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s a cool creature on a cool set but do they seem to blend with each other? Sometimes they do.” Tatopoulos notes,  “I studied Architecture and Art in Paris.  I was excited by it.  I still had a need to go beyond and say here’s another world. The designs of the buildings have changed drastically since we’re working on computers.”

“Great production design is when you watch a movie and everything fits harmoniously together,” says the native of Paris, France.  “I want to be able to watch a movie and extract one moment and say, ‘I know what movie this is.’  Even if the film has 20 different designs there is an aesthetic that’s there.  That’s not just the production design; it’s a combination of the way it’s filmed.”  Tatopolous observes, “When I started production design many years ago I was working with markers and pencils, and drafting.  We’d build miniatures all over the place and integrate them through background plates; that was my first experience.  Today with a 3D world, the tools we’re using such as Maya within the Art Department we can create infinitely more than what we build.  My team built the whole China Fall [the giant elevator in Total Recall] in one piece to scale so that everything made sense.  I extracted out of this subject only the set pieces we would be building and built those using the exact data.”  The digital revolution leads to less mistakes being made.   “When we give all of those elements to the visual effects team, they can take my practical set which we have shot and shove it back into its own spot into the 3D model.”  The old system required a lot more guesswork.  “Today it’s a precise science where everything is meant to fit in perfectly and we can do that. It’s an amazing asset.”  Tatopoulos reveals, “I start my process at the 2D level.  I do my keyframes painted.   I get the design going.   The shapes are most important because after that there are so much other things to do.  I hire 3D modelers; they work with us and develop the object in 3D. They are tweaking to make sure it works well.  When that object is done we paint it in 3D and have an exact look.”   Previs has a major impact on the production design process.  “The director can figure out everything in a practical way and when it is working for him I can build my set.   It means the day the director walks on the set he has an exact replicate of what he wanted but only better with beautiful paint. It’s an amazing tool that I never had before.”

Independence Day was being a very lucky bastard,” chuckles Patrick Tatopoulos who looks upon the space invasion film as being a career highlight though another science fiction tale stands out to him.  “Dark City [1998] is the one I’m most fond of today; it is a visual benchmark.  The fact that I started as a concept artist and was promoted to production design because the director was so excited with the work was a big deal.  It was interesting because I ended up doing my first production design for Independence Day.  Alec Proyas talked to me before Independence Day to start creating designs for Dark City and then he went to Australia and said, ‘Looks like we won’t be able to hire you; they want to us to use Australian people.’  And then the thing collapsed and didn’t happen at that time.  I went on designing Independence Day; at the end of it, Alec Proyas travelled to L.A., and came to visit the set and was impressed with it. He said, ‘You have to design Dark City.’  We tried it again. It was difficult but it ended up happening. It’s such a different movie. I keep hearing that The Matrix used that look. I don’t quite see it. This movie got me a lot of phone calls from commercial directors, and in the hip world of design and film it became something [of a cult hit].”

“My favourite as a creature designer is Pitch Black [2000] which was not the biggest movie by far but they are projects that mean a lot to me,” states Patrick Tatopoulos who was involved with a piece of infamous cinematic history.  “I got a phone call from Roland Emmerich who said, ‘I know this guy who is a great director and he’s doing this movie Battlefield Earth [2000].’  I didn’t pay too much attention of what the consequences could have been.  It was a nightmare from the beginning to the end for me; only my relationship and connection with John Travolta [Primary Colors] was amazing.  The movie is what it is. When I finished Battlefield Earth I felt that nobody wanted to work with me again because even if your part of the job isn’t the most terrible you’re affected by it. For a year and a half I had to work in TV. I started to do a TV series called Special Unit 2 [UPN,2001 to 2002].  For some weird thing it felt like no director who liked my work would call me; then I understood it was just bad timing.  I was panicked at one point.  I thought, ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize that this was such a bad idea.’  As it turned out the directors weren’t doing anything and I didn’t end up working on anything.  Slowly things came back and I had to reinvent myself.”  Tatopolous reteamed with Alec Proyas for I, Robot (2004).  “It felt to me that the movie Alec [Proyas] wanted to make when he went to Fox was different than what ended up happening.  Alec is actually fun but his movies are always dark in substance.  The script was much darker. The studio approached Will Smith [Ali]  who was interested in the project. When you have Will on board this is going to capture a bigger and broader audience so we felt it couldn’t be as dark. This is part of the process of filmmaking.”

“I met Len [Wiseman] on the set of the film Stargate [1994] many years ago,” states Patrick Tatopoulos who recently collaborated with Wiseman on the remake for Total Recall (2012).  “I worked with Roland Emmerich at the time, and Len was a prop assistant on-set.  We worked together on Independence Day [1996] and Godzilla [1998]; that was the beginning of our thing.  We weren’t friends at the time but we were quite friendly on the set. We lost track of each other and he went to do music videos.  I got a phone call a few years back and he said I’m doing this movie Underworld and I need the creatures, werewolves.  ‘I remember what you did for Godzilla; it was amazing.  I like to work with you again.’  We started the relationship again for the first Underworld.  The second Underworld [2006] Len asked me if I was able to do production design as well. The second Underworld I designed the movie but also did the creatures again.  The third movie I directed for him.  It was my first directing gig Underworld 3 [2009].  In the meanwhile, we did Live Free and Die Hard [2007] together.”

When questioned about the short film Bird of Passage [2000] which he helmed, Patrick Tatopoulos laughs, “A cute little failure.  Zoi, my daughter, was in it. It was a huge learning curve.  I was compromising everyday because of the schedule, and this and that.  I realized that you can’t compromise.  If you compromise you’ll screw yourself very badly at the end.  There’s a side of me which is proud of it. Visually it’s stunning but I understand that it’s missing too much.   We hadn’t scheduled it well. We couldn’t do it.  We were out of money.  That was a fun little experience.  Not a bad memory. There’s a side of me that says, ‘I should finish it one day.’  But I can’t. My actors have grown up.”  In regards to his feature length directorial debut, Underworld: Rise of the Lycons, Tatopoulos remarks, “Directing was a fun experience.  I felt completely in my place and Len felt the same way.  It started with great fun and excitement, and then slowly turned into, ‘Wow! Hold on.  It’s the first one without Kate Beckinsale.’  She’s a strong appeal in this movie [franchise]. People go to see Kate; she’s beautiful.  I’m going to go straight to video. There’s a language which had been established but my world is completely different which could be a blessing but at the same time I can’t reinvent the wheel. I felt without Kate I should just go for it.  The movie cost $27 million and we opened at $21 million in the first weekend. The studio said great job.  It became a calling card for me.”

The Last Voyage of the Demeter [2013] is a huge disappointment for me,” admits Patrick Tatopoulos when addressing the long delayed seafaring vampire tale which is to be helmed by Alec Proyas.  “I love that script.  It’s a fantastic thing.  We developed an incredible look for the movie. We worked on the script for a long time. It was a painful process thinking it, rethinking it, thinking it, and rethinking it.  Many years later and we’re still developing it. It looks like it’s kicking in finally.  I was involved four years ago. I don’t know why they didn’t get it going with me or someone else for that matter.  I’ve spent so much work on this project.  It’s an amazing project. For someone with a visual sense, it’s strong.   It’s Das Boot [1981] meets Dracula; that’s the kind of project I’d like to direct.” Currently, Tatopoulos is responsible for the production design for 300: Rise of an Empire (2013).  First of all my family is from Sparta, Greece. Missing out on the first one was bummer.  The director said to me, ‘You have to design this.’  I was happy to do this. It’s a visual language we had to redefine. We can’t look like the first 300 [2006] with what we do.  It’s an interesting challenge that we have.  People who have seen 300 what to see it again but at the same time many movies and TV series have been using that language. It’s everywhere now.  It had to be reinvented.  We’ve got the right director for that and design wise it is quite cool.  I can’t tell you too much.  I’ve had the chance to design things that I haven’t done before and they look good on the screen.”

“It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of his work and so is Len [Wiseman] by the way,” states Patrick Tatopoulos when discussing filmmaker Christopher Nolan (The Dark Night Rises] who favours utilizing practical effects and augments them with digital ones.”  “He is a clever and intelligent director.  I’m doing the new 300 so you can imagine I’m building partial sets.   Everything is done in CG and I’m having a blast of a time.  I’m fully excited about visual effects but I believe when chances are given to you making them real is important and so much more for movies that are suppose to depict the future.”  Tatopoulos believes there to be a reaction against too much CG.  “What’s interesting is that the new generation of directors is often the ones who request the practical effects more than the traditional filmmakers.  It’s like they’ve been offered a new tool that allows them to spend less time on-set doing the things they don’t want to do because all that practical stuff is a big headache.  When your actors love those practical effects they actually enjoy shooting those things.  Practical effects take time so they don’t always fit into the schedule.”   The production designer reflects on a science fiction tale which was helmed by a frequent collaborator. “When Alec Proyas and I did I, Robot we decided that the world was essentially CG at multiple places and still today I look at some of the sequences and think, ‘They look very CG.’  It’s not to say the groups that did the CG did not do a good job.   As a director whatever you shoot and light the way you want during production it’s always something you know you’ve got.  What happens in post-production, for multiple reasons, is that you have less control.  Things with all the good intentions in the world don’t go quite look the way you wanted them to.  The more you can give the visual effects company the more chance you have to retain what you want to see on the screen.”

“You know what is different today?” asks Patrick Tatopoulos.  “A big chunk of the movie design is done in the visual effects world.  It is complex and difficult.  Years back the designer would come up with a vision and a look with a director.  Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) and Robert Stromberg (Maleficent) come from the concept world; they are a new breed of Designers. They existed before but more of those people are becoming Designers because more of the requirement of production design is based on visual effects and often less in the build.  What makes a great designer is one who knows how to supervise a build as well as guide the visual effects.”  Tatopoulos notes, “There is a side of me that feels, ‘Well, this set is going to cost this much.  I’ve put enough money in there to be able to finish it tightly and beautifully.’   Sometimes the visual effects tasks are humongous, there’s so much to do.  They need to say, ‘Wow.  There are 100 shots for that scene.  We can’t have all those shots as tight.’ Where do you make your choices?  The job of a Designer when he steps in with a director is to make sure all of those things have been chosen by both of us are never lost.”  The son of a Greek father and French mother who owned a clothing store believes, “Practical effects don’t age as quickly the visual effects do.  CGI is growing at an incredible pace and doesn’t seem to stop. Directors today who chose practical over CGI do it because they’re worried about the realism.   Many directors react differently with practical things than they do in front of a green screen. I’m experiencing that now [with 300: Rise of an Empire].  Though we’re building quite a few sets there’s always a side where you look at a green screen.  The job is more about developing visuals beyond the set.”

“The reason I’m back in design because I’ve got to make a living,” admits Patrick Tatopoulos who has appeared as a co-judge on the reality television series Face Off [Syfy, 2011 to present] where a group of prosthetic makeup artists compete for the grand prize of $100,000.  “I cannot disappear for three to five years from what I do best; my job is to be a Designer.  I realized that it was better for me to be on the map. Coming out with big movies, like Total Recall and the new 300, is better than trying to develop a project for three years.  If your name is out there and they keep hearing it, you’re going to get your next movie.   Keep being busy even it’s not directing.  What’s best for me is not to sit down in a dark corner and try to develop one movie. I’m developing between five to six movies right now for directing.   They’re all moving forward. I don’t know which one is going to kick in first. I’ve a bit of an idea. It’s a lot of work but at the same time I need to keep designing. I need to be doing my stuff so people know I’m active.”   With a career that commenced over twenty years ago as an uncredited concept designer for The Doors (1991), Tatopoulos remains unwavering in his enthusiasm for the craft of filmmaking.  “When I work on a project I get passionate and excited.”

Many thanks to Patrick Tatopoulos for taking the time for this interview, and to uncover more of his insights make sure to read Recollections: The Making of Total Recall.

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