Constructive Concepts: A conversation with production designer Andy Nicholson

Trevor Hogg chats with Andy Nicholson about going from being an architect to the production designer responsible for Gravity…

“After studying a wide variety subjects at school I narrowed them to Physics, Classics and Sculpture at college, then Architecture to degree level,” states Andy Nicholson.  “After graduating I took a job at an Architectural practice in Toronto as I wanted to work in a completely different Architectural environment.”  An alternative career path was taken by Nicholson. “Architecture wasn’t for me as a profession so I returned to the UK and volunteered on student films at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. I ended up practically sleeping on the floor there for six months whilst working on a variety of projects. Work on Commercials and Promos came to me through contacts I had made at the school; my career has developed through word of mouth and reputation from there.”

Nicholson started his 18 year career as a Draughtsman and moved up the ranks of the Art Department to become a Production Designer. “It means that I probably give my Art Directors a hard time! It’s important to know what different jobs are in the industry and especially within the Art Department. There are plenty of people who have come to Production Designer via different routes and not by working their way up through the Art Department but it can be a helpful grounding. Ultimately, it is a different job from others in the Art Department. As the Production Designer you have a one on one relationship with the Director and other key HOD [Heads of Departments]. You are responsible for designing and directing your departments output rather than just being part of it. You participate at a different level in meetings with Producers and Studio executives so you need to develop a skill set that includes an understanding of how things are budgeted and built in parallel with the ability to take an active part in any creative discussions. I also think it’s helpful to know how the Shooting Unit works and one of the most informative things you can do in the Art Department is spend time with a shooting unit. If only to understand how much you don’t see of those details you cared about while you were working them up on a drawing board!”

“As a Production Designer, in collaboration with the DP and VFX Supervisor, you are responsible [to a greater or lesser extent] for everything seen around the Cast,” explains Andy Nicholson.  “Whether it is how you augment a location or design a set, or whether that set is physical or virtual, listening to the Director’s vision is key and being able to come up with suggestions that could expand and refine it is a required skill. It’s a collaborative process. Good Production Design shouldn’t be an exercise in ego or design for its own sake.  It should focus on the story and mise-en-scène and become invisible within that. ” Nicholson remarks, “I was always interested in Art Departments working closely with Visual Effects; the first hugely computer effects heavy sequence in a film that got my attention was the attack of the bugs on Klendathu in Starship Troopers [1997].  I was working with the Production Designer Allan Cameron on The Mummy [1999] when the movie came out and I remember thinking, ‘Now that something as epic as that can be achieved there are amazing worlds that can be realised and brought to the screen.’”

“When I sat down with Alfonso Cuarón [Children of Men] and Tim Webber [VFX Supervisor], and looked at an early ‘tech-viz’ animation on Gravity [2013] I thought the same all over again,” reveals Andy Nicholson.  “This was part of how something completely different could be done.  It was going to be a technical and logistical challenge but it couldn’t be done in any other way.  It was clear it was going to be a huge learning curve for everybody and that was extremely appealing.”  Helping matters for the native of Britain was the cinematographer responsible for the lost in space thriller starring Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) and George Clooney (Michael Clayton).  “It was great to work with Emmanuel Lubezki [The Tree of Life] again. I was the Art Director for the village set on Sleepy Hollow [1999].
“I worked with Peter Wenham on The Bourne Ultimatum [2007],” recalls Andy Nicholson.  “Peter is a good friend of mine and has a similar background to myself.  I joined the film for the additional photography and it was a demanding schedule.  New sets were needed every other day and many others were rebuilt.  Peter ended up taking something like 126 flights during on that film. More than once I can remember being at either Shepperton or Pinewood studios, on a Saturday evening on the phone with Peter who was at an airport in a different country about to get on a plane somewhere else; it was that kind of movie.”  Nicholson has also worked on the small screen.  “Band of Brothers [HBO, 2001] was project with huge scale and was an important story to tell.  As there were 10 episodes we had two shooting units working on alternate episodes and the shoot lasted a long time. The Art Department was divided into two teams each working on alternate episodes.  It was new experience for me having a Director join the project for an episode while there was a different unit in middle of shooting a different episode with another Director. The Art Department had to be able to incorporate any of the new Directors refinements to the existing sets and locations for their episode as well as prepare new ones.  The project was structured like a movie because of the volume of work and the duration of the shoot time.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with Rick Heinrichs [Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events] on Tim Burton [Corpse Bride] projects more than once,” remarks Andy Nicholson.  “Tim works closely with his Production Designers and Art departments; he is constantly producing exquisite, sometimes tiny watercolour sketches. Many of the key moments, props, and vignettes you remember seeing in a Tim Burton film long after you have left the cinema have often begun as sketches that Tim has drawn.  Early on in my time working for Alex McDowell on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [2005], I remember seeing beautiful sketches by Tim of an Oompa Loompa and the candy-pink seahorse/Viking ship. On Frankenweenie [2012] I was working at Culver Studios in L.A. with a team of concept artists while Tim was editing Alice in Wonderland [2010]. It was a privilege to work on that story as it contained many of Tim’s key themes.”  Nicholson has also done Art Directing for Production Designers such as Robert Stromberg (Avatar), and Anthony Pratt (Hope and Glory).  “They all had different skills and I learned something from all of them.  To be able to interact with people like that on a daily basis was hugely educational and a privilege.”

“I have just finished working on Divergent [2014] for Director Neil Burger [The Illusionist],” states Andy Nicholson.  “The story is set in a specific future Chicago and it was a lot of fun Designing for that world. There will be many large scale city views and all will have to be CG augmentations of the existing skyline.”  Creating a sense of believability and realism was essential.  “Neil and I developed ideas and concepts for much of the infrastructure in the world, how it would work, and a hit list of 30 to 40 key elements it should contain.  We also had to keep within the realms of the book that the film is based on and took scientific advice to ensure our vision was plausible.”  Nicholson observes, “Although it isn’t always possible I think it’s good to try and take a small break between projects. It’s important to take a little time and reflect on the things you learned and dealt with in order to be more effective the next time around.  It gives you more perspective. It can be immersive and all-consuming when you’re in it.”

Many thanks to Andy Nicholson for taking the time for this interview and make sure to read his insights into the making of Gravity.

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