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.