BAFTA Craft Masterclass – Eve Stewart on Production Design

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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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‘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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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  1. Halligan, F (2012). Filmcraft: Production Design. Edition. Ilex.
  2. 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
The Hour

Production Designer – Eve Stewart

After graduating from Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, and later The Royal College of Art with a masters in Architecture, Eve Stewart began her career in theatre design. She met director Mike Leigh while working at London’s Hampstead Theatre and became his art director for films Naked (1993) and Secret & Lies (1996). She then became the production designer for Topsy-Turvy (1999) for which she was Oscar nominated.

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The film required a recreation of the Savoy Theatre in the Richmond Theatre, London. Eve Stewart photographed original samples of wallpaper from the Savoy Theatre kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum so that she could recreate them later for Topsy-Turvy.

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In films such as Vera Drake (2004) Mike Leigh would often not use a script, so Eve Stewart would interview each member of the cast for an hour while they were in character to help with her research. She says her role as a production designer means she is ‘responsible for everything that appears in the film: locations, scenery, props, graphics, coordinating other departments such as costume and make-up to make sure it’s all part of the same visual world.’ (Hudson, M. 2011).

In 2005 she worked on the mini series Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren and directed by Tom Hooper. She later worked with Tom Hooper on The Damned United (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010).

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Her most recognised work is for The King’s Speech, for which she was again Oscar nominated. She was one of the first people to get involved in the film, having previously worked with the director Tom Hooper. She uses her sketches as a form of brainstorming which she can then show the director. This is often her first step in the design process, which she uses to narrow down her further choices.

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The most talked about set in particular was Logue’s office and what is often referred to as ‘that wall’. Eve Stewart explains her design choices in her interview with the ICG Magazine (The International Cinematographers Guild):

Logue’s office was the only “bright spot” in the early scenes, contrasted by the dank waiting area. Why did you decide to do that? The film needed opening up at that point as Bertie’s world was opening, too. This character Logue is quite theatrical, down to some of his larger-than-life techniques. The room fed that. The place seemed like a beautiful garage where great ideas and notions are born. The skylights signified their being looked down on by eyes of the world. Textures were really important to show the layers of people who’d been there before. (ICG Magazine, 2011)

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She also talked about her working relationship with the film’s director of photography, Danny Cohen, who hosted a BAFTA Masterclass on Cinematography that I attended earlier in the year.

‘The DoP is very influential. It’s a subtle relationship – a bit like a spider dance. You wander around each other till you know what makes the other one excited and what visual references you can both engage on. It’s quite intricate: [Cinematographers and production designers] have to feed into each other and offer the things that each needs.’ (ICG Magazine, 2011)

You can read my post on the Danny Cohen’s talk here.

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Eve Stewart believes that the relationship with her team is very important and she often tries to work with people she has worked with before. She finds that develops a short hand of communication with people she has a good relationship with. For The King’s Speech, there seems to be a lot of mutual choices in the design.

‘I’m a great lover of practical lighting and Tom and Danny were keen on sources being real and not contrived. We used original lamps and old light bulbs still being made in Poland with right elements so they didn’t look modern at all.’ (ICG Magazine, 2011)

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This love for authentic lighting is also evident in the BBC mini-series The Hour (2011-2012) for which her design was nominated for an award by the Art Directors Guild.

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You can watch a behind the scenes featurette about The Hour below.

Eve Stewart has just finished work on the musical Les Misérables, again with the director Tom Hooper. Take a look at the Craft Featurette on the production design below.

References:

  1. Hudson, M. (2011). Baftas 2011: sketches of The King’s Speech. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/baftas/8319022/Baftas-2011-sketches-of-The-Kings-Speech.html. Last accessed 2013-01-09
  2. Admin, (2011). Eve Stewart. Available: http://www.icgmagazine.com/wordpress/2011/02/02/eve-stewart/. Last Accessed 2013-01-08