Interview with Production Designer Sean Haworth

At San Diego Comic Con 2016, Sean Haworth appeared on the panel, “The Production Designer; Architect of Imagination.” His work includes movies such as Deadpool and Ender’s Game. You can view his website here. WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS Deadpool SPOILERS!

What steps did you take in order to become a production designer?

I think everyone you ask is going to have a different story. For mine, I was very fortunate to have a father who was a production designer, and I kind of grew up around it. It wasn’t the first thing.

I wanted to do as I was very into visual effects after growing up watching Star Wars and Blade Runner and I would build miniatures as a hobby. At the time I spent a lot of time working with my dad after school and trying to be helpful such as making coffee and running the blueprints. I had no formal training so I was basically learning on the job and it was one of those things where you make yourself useful and little-by-little people would give you more challenges. I remember one day where there was a designer working away on a miniature for one of the sets and I just timidly approached him and asked if I could help. I think I was 16 or 17 at the time, and the designer just had me make trees for him, so I was there just making miniature trees. It’s kind of where it starts, where you’re making blueprints and as you’re making blueprints you look at the drawings and try to soak up as much information as you can. It was different at the time, as back then it was hard to get formal training. Nowadays you have a lot of great film schools and great design programs. I was just at an art center the other day and they have an entertainment design study course. If I started today I think I would have had an easier path rather than just having to do any random job I could take for the studio in order to keep moving forward. I think a lot of it is about persevering and being at the right place and the right time.

How much detail are you generally given in creating a scene?

A lot of it depends on the director. The director is the driving force in translating a script from a printed page to the screen and, along with the producer, they will be the first to interpret what visuals they imagine in that translation. Sometimes a script can be very specific to the details of a setting, but often a lot is left to the imagination of the reader.

As a designer you are tasked with complimenting a Director’s vision in telling his/her story. At times you will collaborate with directors who are very visually gifted and have very strong ideas of what they want to see and express to the audience, other times they are more driven by actor performance and written narrative, so it’s up to the designer to suggest complement the story’s visual narrative.

On Deadpool for instance, the director Tim Miller’s background was as a visual effect artist and had a very strong idea of what he wanted to see on screen. He had already spent years thinking about what visuals he wanted to see realized. In addition, he was maybe one of the biggest comic book fans I have ever met. I always thought I knew it all when it came to comic books, but Tim put me to shame as he knew every title and every character along with what made them special and why he liked them. So I came to the table working with someone who really had an understanding of what he wanted to see and what the characters were about. At that point your role is to complement that that vision, it’s about translating it from one artistic medium into another, in other words from a stylized graphic form into a real world setting. I remember for the first meeting I had a completely different take on what the look should be with ideas such as the lab being very slick and high tech, and Tim looked at it and said, “that is 180 degrees from what I want” and started elaborating about how he wanted it to be this dirty and gritty world. As soon as he said that, everything just clicked, he knew what he wanted and what he that world should be, he had already visited it in his mind’s eye, I just had to find a way to create what he had imagined.

Every project is different there are many degrees of collaboration sometimes a director will rely on the designer to do more interpretation of the visual. They’ll have a broad idea of what they want to see to further the narrative but will give you a lot of freedom to suggest visuals.

When creating the world of the story, how do you balance the demands of the director with the creativity of the artists involved?

You always start off with a much bigger plate than you end up getting and you’re always designing as much as you can and then having to bring it back to the reality of film production. So there is always a number you have to hit. On Ender’s Game for instance, we started off with an insane number of sets and I think we had over 120 sets at one point from the first script. It was our job to determine what sets we really needed to tell the story and where we wanted to spend the money. If we had a cafeteria on the space station and had only half a page of dialogue on it, then you’re not going to build an $800,000 set, it’s just not practical. So in that approach, we ended up recycling a lot of sets and had to think about not only the aesthetic value of the set but also the practical approach. So in the end, we recycled the cafeteria for the training room and also the classroom, so we reused it three times and we have to make it so people won’t recognize it from one to the next.

How often are scene concepts scrapped?

All the time. Sometimes it’s for the budget and in the case of Deadpool, I think Tim has talked about this before, the freeway sequence was extended way beyond what we ended up shooting mainly due to time and money. The scene would have just kept on going with multiple levels, crashing tractor trailers, overturning motor-homes, and fights inside tumbling motor-homes. It was a wonderful sequence but in the end we just couldn’t afford it and just had to work with what was given to us. That forces the director to think of what he needs and in my case how to allocate resources.

I don’t know if I heard this incorrectly, but I heard that for one of the final scenes in Deadpool with the big fight sequence at the shipyard, they were going to have a big shootout sequence, but since they didn’t have the budget they just decided, “why don’t they just forget all of the guns in the car?”

Again, you have to look for opportunities to turn limitations into your favor and you have to find a way to do something else that is just as good or just as funny or create the same effect. To Tim’s credit, he is wonderful at determining what resources he has and making it work while finding something just as good, if not better. There was a scene in the original script where once again at the top of the carrier, not helicarrier, where there is another laboratory inside the con tower and a whole new action sequence where they’re fighting on catwalks down multiple levels of the lab and we just couldn’t afford it. I think if you look at the movie now there isn’t anyone who misses it or feels like something is missing. It was a huge set piece that would have cost a fortune and a lot of time with rigging, stunts and everything that goes with it. Looking back, it would have been fun to build, but maybe it wasn’t necessary to make a fun film and tell a good story.

What sorts of challenges do you face when designing the setting?

It’s always matching your ambition to the reality. No matter how big the movie, you never have enough time and you never have enough money. You always find yourself in a position where you wish you were able to do something, but again you end up making it work. You need restrictions to get your focus on what’s important, but you do end up doing a lot of designs that end up going nowhere such as a lot of versions of costumes, props, and settings. It’s the same with every department. I know the stunt team on Deadpool came up with wonderful things that we weren’t able to do. It’s all about fitting all your ambitions into this reality box as the producers like to call it.

How do budgets affect the way you work on a film, if at all? If so, how do you deal with those types of restrictions?

Going into the project, the budget is going to affect you right off the bat. It’s going to determine how much help you’re going to have, how much labor you’re going to have, how much time you can dedicate to a certain sequence. Right off from the start, based on the number they give you, you know the size of the team and how much time you have to keep those people employed. That’s what you have to start focusing on. You tend to do analysis of the script and a page count to figure out how much time is devoted to each setting or prop or anything and you basically have to reverse-engineer it from that. You have to determine how much time you can afford to spend on designing a setting and it kind of falls back from that. It’s like that for any business, for example, you’ll know how much a car is going to cost before you start designing it. You’ll know what type of car it is and what the market is. It’s one of the less fun parts of the job and you’re put in the middle of the financial realities and the creative realities and you just have to find the happy medium, but if you work with a great director then it’s not much of an issue. At the end of the day, it’s basic problem solving and having the right people around you.

Sometimes it’s how to make a prop work for a specific sequence, so we will spend ungodly amounts of time figuring out all the details. The Punch Bowl in Deadpool for example was a huge nut to crack because the script required it to do all these different things, so it took a huge amount of time where we had to figure out how we open it, how we close it, how do we hide lights in it to see the actor’s faces etc. Every department comes to the table with their specific issues such as the stunt team who is responsible not only for the performers safety but the design of the action in and out of the prop, so we had to figure out tons of little things like which parts were rubber to protect fingers and limbs while closing the lid as well as the design looking appropriate.

How do you determine when it is best to use CGI for a scene?

I’m one of those guys who actually embraces CGI. I think it’s all part of a design exercise. My first question is always what makes the most for the movie. When working with the visual effects supervisor and producer, you have to be honest with what they need, what you need, and what makes the most sense for the end product. There are times where I will be the first to say, “I could build this, but I think it makes the most sense to use CG,” not because I am saving myself the hassle but because whether it’s for the quality of a shot or the nature of the scene or the scale of the project. Sure, I have been on projects where you can just build the whole world, but there are times where you feel that it’s not best for the movie or it’s not money well spent, so you just have to be honest with yourself and not do something out of ego.

Do you have any advice for aspiring Production Designers?

I would say embrace everything you see and experience as a source of inspiration. The most mundane everyday thing can be seeds to your imagination, it’s a profession where crafts, art and science collide and I believe that every part of one’s life experiences contributes to becoming a better filmmaker.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Berg-Johnsen is a college student studying Business Economics who also aspires to be a creative writer. During his free time he likes to develop his story ideas into full length narratives. While he can't draw to save his life, Matthew still seeks to make said narratives into comics. If you have any questions (or criticisms) for him, you can either leave a comment below his articles.

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