On 6th April I attended the BAFTA Craft Masterclass with Eve Stewart talking about Production Design. I was really lucky as she is one of the three designers I am studying. The others are Sarah Greenwood, who I saw in November at another BAFTA Masterclass (link to blog post here), and Alex McDowell, who lives in LA so is unlikely to host a lecture I can attend, but I hope to be able to contact him in the future.
I have also already written a post on Eve Stewart’s career here, and a post on Danny Cohen’s lecture here. He was the director of photography or DoP on both King’s Speech and Les Misérables . She often works with the same people and is known for her work with Tom Hooper (King’s Speech, Les Misérables ) and Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy). She is also known for her work in TV, such as The Hour and Call the Midwife.
While on a foundation art course, Eve said that she tried all disciplines but couldn’t decide on one. She realised she ‘had a slight megalomaniac quality to wanting to control my own world’ and was told by a tutor to do theatre design. Coming from this theatre background, Eve Stewart was used to designing everything that is visual including costume design, set decoration and the overall design of the set. Letting go of responsibility for some areas when working in film was difficult for her. This means she often chooses to work with the same small team of people that she trusts and works well with.
‘Moving into film held its own frictions at the beginning because coming from theatre you do the scenery, plus all the dressing, plus little costumes, and you’re creating the world all by yourself. It’s not being egotistical, it’s just the way it is’ (Page 160, Halligan, 2012).
She took this training in ‘world creating’ to her designs for film. For her work with the director, Mike Leigh, Eve took to interviewing the actors in character in order to research her set. This was due to Mike Leigh often working without a script.
‘I had to know each character inside out… And I create their lives for them, make it all real… Nothing was taken for granted’ (Page 160, Halligan, 2012).
She researches extensively and is usually brought on to the production at the same time as the director to gather the research and resources they need for the production.
‘The way I work is very, very based on reality – then you can spin off on the frivolous, if you need to’ (Page 160, Halligan, 2012).
‘Research drives it – it’s the skeleton, the groundwork’ (Page 160, Halligan, 2012).
For the film Topsy-Turvy (1999), she wasn’t even told which Gilbert and Sullivan play the film would focus on, so she created scale model boxes for each. She took this research and design process forward and applied it to all her work.
Eve described the role of a production designer as a growing role. Part of this role is to provide a calming presence for the director in contrast to the sometimes more ‘jittery’ producers and directors. In the talk Eve discussed how drawing is an important tool for conveying ideas to the director and producer who would possibly less swayed by technical plans.
‘Not many designers draw anymore and I think it’s really, really important because … you can talk about a certain chair until the cows come home but unless you can draw it and draw it quickly you’re not going to get your own way.‘
Her designs seem to be highly textured which is still clearly reflected in the concept sketch stage. I thought that this could either be on purpose to reflect the final outcome or it could possibly be that the illustrations influence the texture which is used for the set design.
From listening to her to talk at the BAFTA Masterclass, I believe that her sketches are a reflection of her style, which has an equal effect on her drawings and final design. As she still does her own set dressing the design isn’t handed over. She works closely with all the members of her team to achieve the exact outcome she wants.
Most of the talk was unsurprisingly on Eve’s work on Les Misérables , for which she was nominated for an Oscar and won the BAFTA for production design.
Eve still prefers to use larger ‘theatre models’ of her set designs, which are usually 1:25 scale and painted accurately rather than the traditional white card models made from the architectural plan, as they don’t ‘convey anything of the spirit of the thing’. For Les Misérables , Eve produced and painted her own models of the sets so that precise construction could take place even if she had to be elsewhere.
Eve discussed some of her design choices for Les Misérables with Marnie Hanel at Vanity Fair.
‘On the stage, it’s very blue and grey. Very cold. [But] if you look at pictures of the poorest areas of the world, India, South America, they’re always really vibrant… People have a stamp on their own square foot of life. That’s what I wanted to show’ (Hanel, 2013).
From Eve’s descriptions of events on set of Les Misérables, the production designer seems to need to be a good problem solver. The decision to record the sound live made Eve Stewart’s job even more complicated. She had to source rubber horseshoes and beads so that the sound didn’t interfere with the singing. Another difficulty she had to face was getting the 100ft long barricade from Pinewood Studios to Greenwich. Her solution was to build the barricade onto the lorries and sneak them down the motorway. The lorries after being covered in furniture were around 42ft long and 20ft high.
- Halligan, F (2012). Filmcraft: Production Design. Edition. Ilex.
- Hanel, M (2013) Vanity Fair – Sketch to Still: Les Misérables Designer Eve Stewart, Last accessed 9th April 13, Available http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2013/02/les-miserables-oscar-nominated-sets-barricade