Interview with Production Designer Dave Blass

At San Diego Comic Con 2016, Dave Blass appeared on the panel, “The Production Designer; Architect of Imagination.” His work includes television shows such as Preacher and Constantine. You can view his website here.

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

I started out working with Roger Corman, the king of all B movies, and he would give you four dollars and some duct tape and say, “here, now make a movie.” There are a bunch of different paths to getting into design and you’ll hear different production designers talk about the different ways they got in. I started out working on lower budget movies and then moving up from doing drawings and paintings to being a prop master to eventually becoming a production designer. Other people may start off working on bigger shows and have always been working on bigger shows, and that’s just another way to go, so it’s really just different paths for different people. Right now, I think television is a great place to be as we are kind of in a golden age of television because there is stuff like the second to last episode of the latest season of Game of Thrones which was as good as anything I have seen in the theaters. In fact, I watched it in a theater and I was just blown away. We are making some amazing television and the opportunities to do period shows and fantasy stuff are greater than ever. 10 years ago shows like Man in the High Castle and Preacher wouldn’t have been made on television, but now the networks want the next big crazy thing, so it’s a really good time to be involved in TV where you have the ability to tell different stories that don’t just last a few hours long but can be told over a season or several seasons.

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

A lot of times it is vague such as a couple of lines in the script. Sometimes it’s, “here is exactly what we want.” It all depends on the script and I use the script as a bible. For shows that I have worked on such as Preacher and Constantine, you have the source material that you can look to. Again, a lot of times it is vague. You will have writers that write stuff such as “you’re at a shop.” They don’t care what kind of shop it is, they care about the dialogue and the conversations. If they say that they want a certain type of shop or building, I can tell them how we can make that shop or building look cooler or more interesting. It really varies, and I have been on shows where they give absolutely no description. On Constantine, the set was supposed to be a millhouse, and we just went from there as to how it would be.

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

Well, there is a difference between Film and Television. For television every week there is a new director, so when you’re designing a TV show as opposed to a feature film, you get a new guy every week saying, “ok, this is what I want to do,” and a lot of times they don’t care what the previous director did before or they do care because they want to do something completely different. So it’s a balance as I am the caretaker of the look of the show, so it’s working with the director to achieve the look while protecting the vision of the show and the show-runner. In fantasy shows it’s like, “these are the rules of our fantasy environment, so you can’t do this,” or in Constantine it’s like, “you can’t go down that hallway cause that’s the mystical, magical endless hallway that is seen in three episodes and we have already talked with that director.” A lot of times you will have a location that you really love and that’s where the director wants to shoot the show, but I have to tell them that that location is needed for another episode. So it’s working the director and keeping everyone happy while balancing the different visions.

So what if there is a conflict with a director, how do you get those conflicts resolved?

A lot of it is just politics and I would say that half of what I do is design and the other half is politics whether it be politics between directors and producers or your own staff, and it’s about creating a happy medium. If a director wants to make something a certain way, but isn’t willing to compromise, then sometimes you have to call the executive producer and have them get involved and let them decide. These days in television, the writers and producers are all up in Los Angeles while we are in the “trenches” in Atlanta, New Mexico, wherever, so they can’t say whether they like something or not and so I have to use my own judgement and the director’s judgement.

How often are scene concepts scrapped?

All the time. I did a show for ABC called Secrets and Lies and I had to design it not knowing what the story was and we built a huge bullpen set that we never shot, so that was a chunk of change thrown away, but you never know. With the flow of scripts, a whole episode could have played out in that room, and then it would have been money well spent. There was a whole upstairs to the Constantine lair that we shot just once and I had all this stuff designed into it, so you often scrap a lot of stuff. Last week I was designing a bar set for a show I’m doing and well, we didn’t have the money to afford it so that all went away. Things change all the time and we just have to move on, that’s the business. That’s why I work digitally so I can just move things around rather than having to redraw something.

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

The important thing to ask is what is the script and what does the set need to look like and do. In Preacher, we had this big fight scene at a motel, and we knew going into it that this motel was going to have this epic fight scene of massive proportions in a very small space. So the space has to look like a motel room and feel like a motel room, but also be done in a way that we can shoot it with movable walls and panels and things like that and get to destroy it and set it back up again. Those things really defined what the set looked like because we knew what it had to do. People working on the Fantasy and Sci-Fi shows know that things are more likely to blow up or have blood all over it than working on a scripted drama on NBC or something, so you shouldn’t rent a $10,000 white leather couch for the scene that’s going to blow up. For Constantine, we had a DJ Booth, and my decorator didn’t quite understand what we were talking about when we said this stuff is going to get blown up with blood that’s going to be everywhere, so she rented a full DJ booth full of super high-end equipment where we couldn’t get any blood on anything. The problem was that everything was going to blow up and three people were going to spontaneously combust and blood goes everywhere. It didn’t really matter what the DJ booth looked like, I just needed to get blood all over it. So it’s about what the room needs to do and then determining what it looks like.

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

Budgets are tough because a lot of times, you don’t know budget at the start. The producers have a fun game of “show us your designs and then tell us how much it’s going to cost” and they approve the designs, and then you have to go in and work with your people and budget it, but then they will tell you, “we can’t afford that.” So then it is working within the budgetary restraints set. A lot of it is also now about visual effects such as how much do I build versus how much do the effects company build, so a lot of times you’re talking set extensions or something as simple as a banner. So say that we’re shooting in Comic Con and we have all these Comic Con banners; it may be more expensive for me to reprint and do all the banner compared to the digital effects guy who can just add them all there. For Preacher, we had a whole 1881 flashback that our decorator Edward McGloughlin really just took and ran with.  He is a master of westerns and there was no real description of the town so we sat and figured out what kind of shops he could do best and that would be dynamic.  A coffin shop or a lumber yard, or the Hex Livery weren’t in the script so Edward and his team really drove the creative in that world all the while keeping it in budget. Another example is if I want a gondola and a ski mountain, I could make the gondola but I don’t want to drive the crew up to a ski mountain, so we build that on set. It’s a balance of determining what is the best way to do it and what is the most cost-effective way.

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

Safety and speed. Also to add scope to something if we can’t build it with our production budget. We can do close-up shots, but we can’t do wide pull-out shots, so that’s where CG comes in.

Do you have any advice for aspiring Production Designers?

Work hard and believe that if you really want something to happen, it will happen. A lot of people will have this reality that it’s really hard and it’s a really hard business to get into and everything. I was telling a guy yesterday that 15 years ago, I was working the camera in the back of the hall taping the production designers and all the cool kids up on the panel and now I am up on the panel. So believe in yourself, believe in your dream, and just keep on working hard. It’s not an easy career, but in the end it’s like you’re living the dream.

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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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