Category Archives: Production Designer

Production Designer Elisia Mirabelli creates make believe to explore fundamental aspects of reality

When Elisia Mirabelli was a young child, she found learning to read to be a challenge. Because of this, she found herself stepping inside the experiences of other people through film, rather than books. This began a lifelong passion for the medium, teaching her empathy and the certainty that every single person has a story to tell.

Mirabelli’s first filmmaking experience came when she was just a teenager when she was the production designer of a short film that made its way to the esteemed Toronto International Film Festival Kids. It was then when she realized she could turn her passion for filmmaking and design into a fruitful career. She has since dedicated her life to creating the “make believe” and yet using her talent to teach audiences the most intimate aspects of reality.

“Sometimes I can’t decipher the difference between a personal memory and something that happened in a film. For me, they are one in the same. Working in film feels like I’m part of a community of magic makers fueling one giant empathy machine,” said the Toronto native.

With her contributions on the film Let Me Down Easy and the acclaimed web series Night Owl,Mirabelli shows audiences around the world just what she is capable of as a production designer. In her home country of Canada, she continues to impress with her work with Bell Media and DHX Media.

Another highlight on Mirabelli’s resume came back in 2013 with her film Pretty Thing, telling the story of an elderly man reflecting on the lost moments and broken truths surrounding the butterflies that escaped from the mouth of the girl who got away. Pretty Thingrelied heavily on production design as the film is influenced by a blend of magic realism and classic fairy tales. Although the film is rooted in a contemporary setting, the film’s protagonist looks back on moments shared between him and a lost love with a romanticized, dreamlike luminosity. These flashes of time spent together were filmed in tailored sets and locations designed to reflect the magical, surreal quality of falling in love. These sets included a stage equipped with a hand painted pastel arch and mock vintage floor lights situated in a field with wildflowers and plunging hills, a bathroom with a clawed footed tub surrounded by a sea of antique champagne bottles and a bedroom lined with teal baroque wallpaper chock-full of wilted floral bouquets and arrangements.

Pretty Thing follows the memories of an old man who is fixated on the narrative of ‘the one that got away’. As the film continues we learn that his estrangement is less of a romanticized, fairy-tale like parting and is in fact an outcome of his possessive and controlling behavior. For him, she is merely a pretty thing, an entity he wants to pin down and have for himself. There is an exploration of the way women are objectified in film. The method in which they have been traditionally objectified through the male gaze, their form sliced up in close-ups, their appearances gussied up and painted, filmed with a soft light like some angelic plaything there to be gawked at, won, saved or, if they’re in control of their autonomy, shamed, tainted, slandered, destroyed, ‘not the keeping kind’. It is an important story, even now, five years later,” said Mirabelli.

After premiering online with The National Screen Institute, Pretty Thing carried a successful festival tour, which included The Seattle International Film Festival, and took home several awards across North American festivals. However, the highlight for Mirabelli came when the filmed was screened at Cannes and was then handpicked to represent Canadian talent at the festival by Telefilm. Seeing the film at such a prestigious setting and knowing it had been selected to represent her country was one of the most surreal and fulfilling experiences of Mirabelli’s career.

Pretty Thing is a project rooted in the storytelling aptitude of production design. Each frame of the film is like a painting, not purely its splendour, but also in the sense that each piece of film the is open to interpretation, where meaning is altered by the perception of those that look upon it. Being able to disentangle a film purely through an aesthetic lens was a production designer’s dream, and an opportunity Mirabelli took full advantage of.

The most extraordinary aspect of the production design was the film’s opening and closing scenes which had a live butterfly flying out of the mouth of one of our characters. To achieve this, the butterflies had to be kept at 4° C which left them in a sleeplike state. The temperature of the actors; mouths would then awaken the butterflies, creating an incredible result far superior to any visual effects done in post-production.

Mirabelli’s work helped convey the films reference to the way many refurbish an agonizing memory to suit the narrative they tell themselves about what kind of person they are. Shaping the films design meant creating two dissimilar, nonetheless linked, worlds. Sets were first captured in their most striking, glittering almost fairy-tale like forms followed by the practice of withering them down, skinning their facades, peeling away all the layers that make them shine. Without the films production design, there really would be no Pretty Thing, and without Mirabelli, it may never have been the visual masterpiece that it is.

“The unconstrained ability to construct art that supported the story so heavily was amazing. To create a gleaming, intricate and elaborate succession of worlds only to place as much importance and thought on knocking them all down. Obliterating your work and seizing the bones of that ruin on film felt like a gift that few production designers are given,” she concluded.

Be sure to check out Pretty Thing to see not only the outstanding production design from Mirabelli, but also an impactful and relevant story.

Laura Santoyo Dangond’s sets in ‘Lockdown’ transport audiences to high school

Originally from Bogota, Colombia, Laura Santoyo Dangond has always been a fan of movies. Growing up, she watched her favorite films, like Matilda and Jumanji, and would see more than the story. She would ask her parents how the filmmakers were able to create other worlds and dreamlike elements. Although her parents did not have all the answers, they encouraged their young child to make her own hypothesis as to how “movie magic” was achieved, and she never stopped wondering. As she grew, exploring the world and various cultures, her hypothesizing never stopped, and eventually she turned her passion into a career. Now, Santoyo no longer wonders how to achieve the magic of movies, and as a sought-after production designer, she is now the one creating other worlds.

Throughout her career, Santoyo has shown just what an extraordinary production designer she is. Her work on films such as Tim of the Jungle, The Plague and Falling are just a few examples of what this acclaimed production designer is capable of. However, despite such success, Santoyo considers the pointed drama Lockdown as the highlight of her career.

“It is probably the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve had in this profession. I loved working with that team of people; we all believed in the story we were telling and together we overcame so many difficulties. Particularly for me, it taught me the importance on trusting the people you are working with and to support each other. In the end it all paid off, because it’s been one of my most successful projects,” she said.

Lockdown set

Max Sokolof, Caleb Heller, and Laura Santoyo Dangond on the set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Lockdown is about a 17-year-old boy named Julian. He is a misfit struggling through high school when he is taken hostage in the school restroom by Brandon, a classmate with a gun. Their perilous standoff proves that nothing is as it seems. Julian fights to hold onto the hope that he will survive – not just the hostage situation, but his entire high school experience. Throughout the film, audiences learn of both characters’ complicated backstories.

“This story talks about very important issues, such as depression and anxiety in adolescents, bullying in schools, access to guns, police brutality, and more that are affecting our society. It can help to bring these subjects to the table and encourage people who watch the film to have discussions about them,” said Santoyo.

After its premiere in November 2016 at the American Film Institute, Lockdown went on to be an Official Selection at many prestigious international film festivals, including the Orlando Film Festival, Garden State Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival, Byron Bay International Television Academy Foundation for Best Screenplay and won the Golden Lion Award at the Barcelona International Film Festival. Such success may never have been possible without Santoyo’s outstanding production design.

“It is a great satisfaction to know that all the hard work, time and effort we as a team put into this project doesn’t go unnoticed and that we accomplished the purpose of telling a story that touched so many people,” she said.

Lockdown bathroom set
Laura Santoyo Dangond, Max Sokolof and Caleb Heller on the bathroom set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Having worked with Santoyo on his previous film Hotbed, the Director, Max Skolof, reached out to the production designer knowing the caliber of her work. At the time, he did not even have a clear idea of what the story was going to be, but he trusted Santoyo to help turn his vision into a reality. In the beginning, there was no script, and Skolof only had a newspaper article that he wanted to base a film around. Knowing the difficult but pressing issues the film addressed, Santoyo was immediately onboard.

“Working with Laura is a joy. She’s always curious, always soaking up ideas, always creative. She takes disparate things and puts them together in unexpected and revelatory ways. She has the highest standards for herself. Every detail is thought of. It helps me direct and it helps the actors find real depth. And on top of all that, Laura’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet. It’s also rare to come across someone who has such a strong and unique sense of aesthetics. She’s incredibly precise when it comes to expressing the story and the characters visually. Laura is brilliant in that way. She understands the language of cinema and she uses every tool at her disposal to help tell the story. Whether it’s knowing how to make use of space, or how to evoke a certain subtext with just color,” said Skolof.

When she begins every project, Santoyo makes sure to research her characters, and Lockdown was no different. She looked into what neighborhoods these adolescents would live in, the sociological and economic backgrounds and more, just trying to get to know as much information as she could to create a realistic design that would reflect both her leads.

Upon completion of the script, she did a breakdown of all the locations and noted what bits of the story took occurred in each place. When doing this, she noted the most important location in the story was the bathroom. Its design became her priority, and she began looking for a crew that would help bring her ideas to fruition.

“The design of the restroom was the biggest challenge because is where the two boys meet, and their feelings are revealed. We used a very restrained color palette that reflects the psychological state of both of them,” she described.

Rather than using a real location, Santoyo built the entire bathroom set on a soundstage. She went back to her research and looked for paintings and photographs that evoked the same feelings and emotions that she wanted to convey and saw a pattern in the colors. Most of the references she liked used yellows and reds. With that in mind, she did a preliminary design and presented it to the director. After his approval, she ensured all other departments, such as lighting and cinematography, could work with her concept. Once the designed was approved by everyone, the members of the art team, led by Santoyo, began sourcing the materials and painting samples.

The complexity of the two characters had to come across in the visual design and Santoyo achieved such a feat. She worked closely with the director, the director of photography and costume designer to better express the anguish and anger the characters were going through. The sets that she designed allowed the actors to better understand the characters’ backgrounds and helped facilitate the process of getting into character. In one instance, she even wrote offensive graffiti in the bathroom stalls that bullies may have written about their characters.

Such small details may seem trivial to some, by Santoyo knows how important they can be, and that is what makes her such a distinguished production designer. When watching Lockdown, audiences notice and appreciate how authentic the set is and allow themselves to be fully taken away to the high school. Any moviegoer knows, that is what makes a good film, and Santoyo makes that happen.


Top photo by Caleb Heller

Production Designer and Art Director Katsuya Imai brings life to ‘The Next Generation Patlabor’

Patlabor2_by Eri Kobiki
Katsuya Imai on the set of The Next Generation Patlabor

Katsuya Imai is more than an artist. He is a storyteller. His passion for art that started as a child, painting and building models, transformed into something much more as he grew. His love for movies became more prominent; not just watching them, but observing them, noticing the craft and skill that took place behind the scenes. With interests like these, it is no wonder why Imai became a production designer and art director. However, it is his talent that has made him the success he is, and recognized as one of Japan’s best.

Throughout his career, Imai has had the opportunity to work on projects that he was already a fan of throughout his life. As production designer on the film Ninpuu Sentai Hurricaneger: 10 Years After, he was able to design for his childhood heroes. While working on the films and television series The Next Generation Patlabor, he was able to do the same.

“I have loved the animation in the original Patlabor films since I was a student. I watched these so many times and have some books about the art setting and method of directing in them. I have knowledge of these background, so it was very helpful to design it,” said Imai.

The Patlabor franchise includes three films and a television show. Therefore, The Next Generation Paltabor has many background stories that do not need to be mentioned in the script. Imai has worked on many different aspects of The Next Generation Patlabor, including the film The Next Generation Patlabor: Tokyo War.

“It was very exciting. I was so happy that I could read the new script of the film. The script was connected to Patlabor: The Movie 2. That is my favorite film. I really enjoyed designing it. I thought it was one of my dreams coming true,” said Imai.

As a fan of Director Mamoru Oshii’s films (Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and the original two Patlabor films). Imai also wanted the opportunity to work alongside one of his filmmaking heroes. He immediately impressed all those he worked with, and contributed greatly to the film’s success.

“Katsuya had years of experience and was very skillful, so we could leave the shooting to him. He is very serious and calm as art director. He always directed surely to the other crews,” said Supervising Art Director, Masato Ando.

The film tells the story of an attack that takes place on Rainbow Bridge in Odaiba, Tokyo by the fighter helicopter `Gray Ghost`. Two days earlier, the Gray Ghost was stolen. The perpetrators are followers of Yukihito Tsuge. Yukihito Tsuge planned a coup of Tokyo 13 years earlier. The leader of Special Vehicle Section 2, Keiji Gotoda, sets out to stop the terrorists. It went on to be an Official Selection at the Montreal World Film Festival.

Patlabor3_by Hitoshi Ohta
Katsuya Imai on the set of The Next Generation Patlabor

“I was very happy to hear that. It’s always an honor that the film I worked on is watched by many audiences,” said Imai.

As Art Director, Imai went to location scouting, trying to find the perfect set for the film. His knowledge of the Patlabor series were designed elaborately and rated highly by the fans. This made him an asset to the television series The Next Generation Patlabor as well.

“Normally working on a television show, we shoot each episode at a time. We are given the next script during filming the previous episode. The production has to reflect the review and reaction from the audience to the script. However, this project already has all 12 episodes scripted in the pre-production. This made it easy to plan and design the whole project,” said Imai.

The show is a story of a world where giant robots are built and used for labor, a special police force of robots is created to handle crimes relating to these machines. Imai built two full-size robots. Each one was eight meters high. This made the series a bit conspicuous.

“While we were filming, fans were not aware of a Patlabor revival. However, we had to do shooting at the location with a full-size robot. It was impossible to hide it because it’s too huge. Some people noticed that robot and posted the photo to Twitter. All the Patlabor fans were excited on Twitter,” said Imai. “We ended up using the full-size robot for the promotion. It’s huge and attracts people. The Patlabor fans said the film became reality.”

Episode 10 of the series went on to be screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2014. Without Imai’s keen eye while designing the set and special props, such as the iconic robot, the show may not have achieved what it has. Fans of the original series were immediately enthralled with The Next Generation Patlabor, enjoying how true it kept to its base story. Imai, as a big fan of the show, knew exactly what was needed to win over the hearts of other fans, and he definitely succeeded.

Production Designer Shuhe Wang contributes to the delightful horror of ‘Inside Linda Vista Hospital’

Making something from nothing is what all filmmakers achieve every day. They are creators, they are storytellers, and they are artists. Shuhe Wang knows this well. She takes the pages of a script and transforms them into sets. She creates a visual world, turning each nothing, such as a meaningless prop, into something, creating a masterpiece. She is a one-of-a-kind production designer.

While working on films such as Stay, Dancing for You, Red String, and Cartoon Book, audiences were given the opportunity to see Wang’s ability to transform a drama into a completely immersive experience, making it evident why she is considered one of the best. However, this past year, Wang has brought her extraordinary talent to a new genre: horror. Working on the film Inside Linda Vista Hospital, Wang’s production design skills were on full-display, helping to fully immerse audiences in the terrifying story.

“This is a classic horror style film, so I focused more on how to show and even amplify the emotion and tense by color, texture and overall set dressing. Even each small prop can be an important storytelling step. That quite an adventure for production designer,” said Wang.

Inside Linda Vista Hospital tells the story of a young girl who wakes up in a hospital surrounded by police covered in the blood of her boyfriend. With the help of a video camera, she slowly pieces together what happened, and she may not like what she finds.

“Horror stories are connected with our real lives, but with different point of view. I needed to find and create the elements to scare the audience and keep the emotion of the storyline in the right place, and at the same time the elements should make sense in the world.
Color and tone are always the most important parts in designing a horror story. Even a tiny subtle difference would affect the whole feeling of the set,” said Wang.

The film has gone one to do exceptionally well at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. It was an Official Selection at the Festival de Cannes Short Film Corner and the Pasadena International Film Festival, it won Best Director and Best Horror at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Best Editing at the United International Film Festival, and Film of the Year at the AFMA Film Festival of Young Cinema 2017.

“Horror story is always a popular style, but there are a bunch of these type of films that are terrible when it comes to actual storytelling, that is what divides a good horror film from a bad one. This film is a good one because it shows a tense, strong and simple story, which perfectly matches the horror genre, so I think the film totally deserves all those awards,” said Wang.

The production design directly contributed to the film’s success. She had to design in accordance to many special effects and stunt work, and the film is set in a true historical building, and the cultural importance of this influences the story in an important way. To make the set highlight this, she researched and applied this to her work.

“It was a dramatic and kind of emotional showing story. I watched a lot of classic experimental and psychology films to get more inspiration and insight into how to let the audience feel the inner world through the production design,” said Wang.

This commitment to both the genre and the film impressed all that worked alongside Wang on Inside Linda Vista Hospital. The director, Jun Xia, knew no one else could do the job but her.

Working with Shuhe was a great experience, she was familiar with each of the details of the whole story, and her plan for working was effective for the shooting process. Shuhe is sensitive with color and designing, and she knows how to create and decide the correct textile and color to present the emotion. That is actually a really important part of the horror genre,” said Xia.

Xia approached Wang to work on his film, knowing he needed the best to make the film the success that it eventually became. When he sent Wang the reference of the visual style, so knew she wanted to take part in the project, as it was quite similar to the style she always loves.

“I felt confident and interested in designing this film after talking about the film and the story. Jun is a talented horror film director, he is always enthusiastic, and he is really insistent on what he wants which is good for making a great film,” Wang said. “What I really liked was how I could see how the set dressing worked so well when the lights and performance came together. It makes the visual complete and seemed like we accomplish the original idea of the director.”

There are many nuances to production design that are easy to get lost in the big picture of a film, but with Wang as the designer, audiences are sure to take in each and every part of it.

Production Designer Andrea Leigh essential to award-winning video for Thugli’s “Sic Em”

Production Designer Andrea Leigh

Andrea Leigh is not just a production designer. She is an artist. She is a creator. She produces a specific world, completely designed with the goal of portraying a message, or developing a character, or evoking a feeling in an audience member that no human being on the screen saying their lines could. Being able to do that through her work gives meaning to every job she works on, and she is outstanding at it.

Working on several award-winning and celebrated projects, such as the film Friends Like Us and the web series Whatever Linda, audiences and critics at the world’s most prestigious film festivals have appreciated Leigh’s work. She also has worked on many celebrated commercials, including the award-winning Prickly for Scotts Weed B Gone, the viral E.L.F. Play Beautifully advertisement, and the insanely popular 2015 Teleflora Mother’s Day campaign that received international media attention and 11 million YouTube hits. However, Leigh’s success does not end there. She has also worked on some captivating music videos, including Downtown for the Juno award-winning rock band The Sheepdogs, as well at the Thugli music video Sic Em.

“The guys of Thugli were great. They loved the director Amos LeBlanc’s vision and loved how we brought all their ideas to life,” said Leigh.

Amos LeBlanc has directed a controversial video that was widely successful, and he had won “Best Video of the Year” the previous Much Music Video Awards (MMVA). The tone of the Sic Em video was dark and thoughtful, and this made Leigh want to work on it.

“It was great working with the director Amos Leblanc, he had a very clear aesthetic image that he wanted to portray, clean, modern, dramatic skyline, lots of smoke and special effects. He was always interested in hearing what kind of changes I thought we could make art direction wise. It’s nice to have your creative vision valued when shooting something so specific and thoughtful,” said Leigh.

Music videos are usually long days packed with many shots and not enough time, but this was a two-day shoot that Leigh used to her full advantage, and had the time to do exactly what she wanted. That also meant they had that magic hour lighting two days in a row, something she describes as quite spectacular.

“That’s one of my favorite shots in the video, where the guys are all standing in single file formation with the magic hour sky behind them,” Leigh described. “The cast was a blast to work with. It was a night shoot so naturally things can get a little silly when everyone’s trying their best to stay awake. Lots of jokes, lots of laughs. It always helps on a long shoot when the cast and crew hit it off.”

With the help of Leigh’s eye for production design, the video went on to win the Much Music Video Award for “Best Dance Video.” The music video also earned over 75,000 views on YouTube, sparking widespread popularity among fans and critics. Leigh says she feels like they really accomplished something with the video, and the producer Geoff MacLean says it wouldn’t have been possible without her help. MacLean is a very respected and accomplished Executive Producer. Vision productions is an iconic production company that has produced work for several internationally renowned artists, such as Prince, Rihanna, Drake, The Weeknd, Calvin Harris and countless more.

“The music video is, thanks to Andrea, a fascinating visual production which instantly captures the attention of the viewer. She coordinated closely with the director, the choreographer, and other experienced creatives on set to determine the placement of the props, and the organization of the set. While the entire production is a visual achievement thanks to Andrea, specifically her work arranging the set for the dancers, as well as the props and décor for that segment gave the music video its down to earth and ‘back to the basics’ feel, which was the goal of the client. I credit a great deal of the video’s success to Andrea’s leading role, and attribute her with much of the music video’s all around commercial success and critical acclaim,” said Geoff MacLean.

“Andrea’s achievements throughout her career are reflective of top performing production designers and art directors in her field. The success of her productions is indicative of this fact, to be sure,” MacLean added.

Watch the Thugli Sic Em music video here.

From Hundreds of Commercials to Hit Films, Production Designer Hank Mann Sets the Tone

Established production designer Hank Mann has seen, and created it all. From designing over 200 commercials, including his famous Go Daddy ad with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mann has also created the setting and tone for Sarah McLachlan’s Ordinary Miracle and Nickleback’s How Your Remind Me music videos, constructed sets from scratch while collaborating with the art department, as well as managed film crews and budgets on feature films, all simply to create the director’s vision.

“Every job has its own unique structure that is revealed as soon as I read the treatment and script,” says Mann on his beginning stages of design.

His passion to work in film started at age 5, when Mann impressively created Super 8 stop-motion movies. The urge to work in film and design never left him, as he studied Film Theory and Sociology/ Communications at Queens University.

Mann worked various other crew jobs before landing his first major production design job on a global Ford Mondeo commercial starring David Duchovny (The X- Files, Californication), which carries a Twin Peaks / X-Files like surrounding and tone.

After designing commercials for McDonald’s, Burger King, Nike, Best Buy, Audi, Subaru, Toyota, Advil, TBS, Nickelodeon, Fisher Price, just to name a few, Mann decided to go back to working on films.

Mann prefers working in the realm of film and television because “in the process of production designing I really get into the characters – their history, their successes, their faults, their stories. Film and TV allow for a complete submersion into a character’s life.”

And by doing so, the audience can visually comprehend the depth, and perspective, of a particular character and their setting.

In 2008’s Kill Kill Faster Faster, Mann’s first feature film as a production designer, spectators can clearly establish the film’s gritty, suspenseful tone and enticing nature of each character and their drive in the narrative.

Produced and directed by Gareth Maxwell Roberts (The Mortician, Writer’s Retreat), Kill Kill Faster Faster focuses on an incarcerated man named Joey One-Way, played by Gil Bellows (Alley McBeal, The Shawshank Redemption). Joey is paroled from prison after receiving an offer from a producer named Markie, played by Esai Morales (La Bamba, NYPD Blue), for a script Joey wrote behind bars. However, Markie is in over his head when Joey has an affair with Markie’s girlfriend.

For this particular film, Mann established a color scheme for the characters, not only to support the storyline of the script but to work within the budget of the film. “I chose to put a lot of initial resources into establishing a colour hue for each character so that regardless of how little money we had, at minimum there was a common tone the creatives could all work towards.”

The film garnered two wins in 2008 for Best International Feature at London Independent Film Festival (LIFF), as well as Best Editing at the HD Film Festival.

In 2010, Mann worked on the action-drama film Repeaters. The film starred Amanda Crew (Silicon Valley, Charlie St. Cloud), and Dustin Milligan (90210, Silicon Valley). Directed by Carl Bessai (Sisters and Brothers, Emile), Repeaters follows three friends who are trapped in a time maze, similar to the film Groundhog Day.

At the 2011 Leo Awards, Repeaters was nominated for 10 awards and won for Best Supporting Performance by a Female in a Feature.

Mann continued to work on films in 2011 on the set of Reinout Oerlemans’ Nova Zembla, a historical Dutch drama which centers on a team of explorers who travel from the North East Passage to the Indies, while encountering rough weather conditions.

The film was shot on location in Iceland, Belgium and Canada, where Mann created a slew of captivating sets.

“My initial approach was to research as much as possible, visiting real locations and reviewing online sources and then extracting the most interesting and iconic bits to then combine into our stage set builds,” says Mann.

Like his other two films, Nova Zembla received recognition and was nominated for two Rembrandt Awards and received a Golden and Platin Film Award.

This past year, Mann recently wrapped up commercials for Nissan and PetCo, as well as a six screen art installation he worked on and collaborated with Oscar winning director Denys Arcand (Barbarian Invasions), and installation artist Adad Hannah. The piece is entitled The Burghers of Vancouver, and was inspired by Rodin’s The Burgher’s of Calis.

The installation premiered in Paris earlier this year and ran from February to May at the Montreal Museum of Art.

The Art Department’s Leading Lady, Yihong Ding

Yihong Ding
Production Designer and Art Director Yihong Ding

As the production designer on the films Mira, Mal de Ojo, Second Love, To See the Sunrise and the multi-award winning film Slut, Yihong Ding has proven that she has the malleable creative vision necessary to set the perfect stage for any story regardless of the genre.

As a successful production designer and the leader of the entire art department, Ding has to do far more than just design every set in a production so it perfectly fits the story. In order for members of her department to be able to effectively build what she has envisioned for each set, she has to be able to guide each person on her team on the best way to execute each build, something that can only come from experience.

Ding laid the foundation for her professional career early on by working in every aspect of the art department and it has definitely paid off. Ding’s work in the art department on the series Birthday Boy and Chasing Life, a set dresser on the feature film Caught and a scenic painter on the film Mandala, have been integral to the success of the productions, but more importantly, these achievements helped her get to where she is today.

Over the years, Ding has also art directed an impressive list of productions including Ryan Velásquez’s film Drowning, the documentary A Man Before His Time, as well as several commercials including a campaign for Microsoft Outlook’s app.

For the Microsoft commercial where she had to build a café on a sound stage, Ding recalls, “We had a really busy shooting schedule, so everyone was constantly moving. For art department we always have to be one step ahead, so when the team is shooting, we will go ahead and start dressing the next set, and when they move on, we will come back and wrap out the set that they were shooting.”

The combined knowledge that comes from Ding’s experience working as an art director and production designer allows her to function at a higher level than those who work as either an art director or production designer because she knows the tools that each person requires in order to do the best job.

“An art director focuses on how to achieve the look. They are the second hand to the production designer. Their main job is to keep the production designer focused on the design, rather than getting distracted by practical problems,” explained

Ding. “I enjoy being an art director because I think it is necessary… And it helps me to be a better leader when I am production designing. You don’t want to make your ideal design sound ridiculous so it helps to work as an art director because then you know what is achievable.”

When she’s art directing Ding knows exactly what questions to ask the production designer in order to nails their vision and make sure she nothing gets lost in translation. And when the roles are reversed, she knows exactly how to break down what she wants for each scene of a production in a way that is clear and manageable for her art director.

These may seem like minor aspects of the job to outsiders, but when your department has a $100,000 budget to furnish a house with Victorian furniture, but your art director returns with a truck full of Edwardian furniture, the whole production suffers. While the differences between these two styles might only be noticeable to the trained eye, you can bet the director, producers and production designer have done their research, so not only will the shooting schedule be delayed as the art department scrambles to replace the furniture, but the art director has successfully branded themselves as a no hire for future productions.

For the inexperienced art director or production designer the level of detail Ding devotes to her work might seem insane, but that is what it takes to work in the big leagues, and to her, it’s all in a days work.

In 2013 Ding’s creativity was put to the test when she was hired on as the production designer of the film Maria Bonita. A beautifully shot film from multi-award winning directors Jacob Lundgaard Andersen (Dustland, Rumspringa), Gareth Dunnet Alcoce (Contrapelo, Veladora, Wild Horses) and Camille Stochitch (Interstate, Les Grands Espaces), Maria Bonita follows a South American woman as she transforms from a sweet and innocent girl who lives and works on her family’s farm into a fierce guerilla fighter.

The story Maria Bonita brought to the screen had no dialogue, so the narration of the unfolding events and changing tones of the film were driven by a combination of Ding’s captivating set design, the soothing music of Pedro Bromfman and the emotional expressions of the actors.

Earlier this year Ding production designed Chloe Okuno’s dramatic film Slut starring Molly McIntyre (Halloween Hell, Ditch Party, The Want Dick Dickster) and Oscar nominated actress Sally Kirkland (JFK, Valley of the Dolls, Bruce Almighty, Days of Our Lives).

Set in Texas in the 70s, Slut follows Maddy played by McIntyre, a nerdy teen who reinvents herself in order to get the male attention she’s never had; but, when a mysterious stranger comes to town, Maddy’s new look gets her much more than she bargained for.

As the production designer of the film Ding created a physical environment for the film that fit the 70s era perfectly from the plaid couch in Maddy’s grandmother’s living room and a grandiose amount of wood furnishings down to the old school television set with adjustable nobs and the pink quilted bedspread in Maddy’s room.

Ding set the tone of Maddy’s dreary small town life in Texas by designing the girl’s room with soiled floral wallpaper that is missing large portions of the paper exposing the dirty wall underneath in some places and barely hanging in others.

While decorating the sets for the scenes in the film drew on Ding’s creative side, she was also tasked with designing a break away floor and ceiling for a scene where one of the characters, and we won’t spoil it by telling you who, falls through the second floor bedroom into the living room ultimately hanging themself to death. This aspect of the production required Ding to factor in multiple variables in order to get the best shot, as well as logistics concerning how to keep the production schedule on track and continue shooting after the floor breaks.

“There were many different ways to approach this, but I wanted to give the director and the cinematographer the best option to shoot this,” explained Ding. “We built the whole living room with a breakaway ceiling and a hallway with a staircase, and a bedroom with breakaway floor on a platform. We had to build a separate puzzle breakaway floor piece so that it could be replaced with the real wood piece when we were doing the stunt.”

Nominated for seven awards at film festivals around the country, Slut won the Best Cinematography Award at the HollyShorts Film Festival, the Jury Prize at the Las Vegas International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Atlanta Film Festival, the Festival Trophy Award from Screamfest, the Bunny Award from the Boston Underground Film Festival, as well as an award from the Sun Valley Film Festival.

Ding, who recently wrapped production as the art director on the upcoming comedy series Chasing The Dream, has propelled herself to a place in the industry that takes most people decades to get reach, and she continues to impress us with every new project she takes on.

From Film to Fashion, Production Designer Claudia Simoes Sets the Tone

Born in White Rock, Canada, a small town just outside of Vancouver, production designer Claudia Simoes has used art across various mediums as a means of communication for as long as she can remember.

As a child, Simoes excelled as a painter, dancer and photographer; but if you had asked her at that time what she wanted to do in terms of a career, her answer would have vacillated between the various art forms she loved. In reality, none of them singularly held the potential to encompass all of her talents.

“I changed my mind so much as a kid I was kind of all over the place, I had wanted to be a dancer for a really long time I even thought of opening my own dance studio, but I was about 12 with that dream… I wanted to be a painter at one point – I had a crazy obsession with Frida Kahlo in high school,” says Simoes. “Everything that I had said I wanted to be always had something to do with art and entertainment.”

It wasn’t until Simoes attended the prestigious Vancouver Film School for visual art & design that the young creative found a funnel for all of her diverse talents through production design.

About discovering the career she was clearly destined for, Simoes explains, “It was a great feeling, I got insanely lucky to be able to find a career that combines everything I love, not everyone gets to experience that.”

One of Simoes’ first professional projects in the industry was the music video for Mackenzie Porter’s debut single “I Wish I’d Known.” As an integral contributor to the set and production design of the video, Simoes used her artistry to create a shabby chic look within an old warehouse that perfectly accompanied the sweet country style of the song.

After working with Simoes on the music video for “I Wish I’d Known,” production designer Caitlin Byrnes enlisted the young genius’s contributions on the feature film Preggoland.

Preggoland, which was released last year, starred Oscar nominated actor James Caan (The Godfather, Las Vegas, Elf, Middle Men, Get Smart) and multi-award winning actress Sonja Bennett (YPF, Random Acts of Romance, Stained, Rise of the Planet of the Apes).

The winner of the Best Screenplay Award at the Fargo Film Festival, the Best Film Award from the Omaha Film Festival and the Most Popular Canadian Film Award from the Vancouver International Film Festival, Preggoland followed Ruth (Sonja Bennett), an unwed and childless 35-year-old who fakes a pregnancy in order to fit in with her friends.

Early on in her career Simoes wrote, directed, produced and production designed the film Always Midnight. A beautifully shot black and white silent film, Always Midnight revolved around an abusive relationship brought on by drug addiction.

“It was very dark,” recalled Simoes. “I knew I had to have very strong production design for this film because there was no dialogue, so I did a lot of research on what props would stand out in black and white.”

In 2013 Simoes wrote, directed, edited and production designed the film Sh*t Winos Say for the Vinos Film Festival in Whistler, British Columbia. Yet another testament to her talents as a filmmaker and production designer, the film was chosen as one of the top eight out of over 300 submissions; and it went on to receive astonishing praise as one of the few films selected to screen at the festival.

As a filmmaker, Claudia Simoes knows exactly what it takes to get a story across visually, a facet of her skillset that has made her an integral contributor as a production designer on a wide range of projects. What sets Simoes apart from other production designers working in film and fashion is her vast knowledge of lighting and overall design, and how the two blend together to create a desired mood on film.

Having worked as a professional photographer in the past, her expertise in lighting has been a rare asset to all of the productions she has worked on. Simoes even led several lighting workshops while in Vancouver over the last few years.

As the production designer on Ruby Starling’s video “27 Club,” her work garnered international attention last year when the video was featured on Black Magazine’s BLK TV. What’s more—she even designed the shirts featured in the video!