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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.

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