A Conversation with Academy Award Winning Set Designer Catherine Martin

A Conversation with Academy Award Winning Set Designer Catherine Martin

The work of a Production Designer has many parallels with that of an Architect. Both are tasked with bringing to life a conceptual environment, keeping true to that concept through budgets, time pressures, logistics and regulations. Both share a similar creative process, developing the ideas and then collaborating and coordinating with a team of professionals to give those ideas physical form. However, Production Designers are concerned with creating environments to be captured on film only for a matter of moments. Not something a standard Client is likely to request from an Architect. 

While the freedom of not having to fully resolve building details – just making it look that way (not to mention the added bonus of avoiding the inevitable callbacks for defects), may seem appealing, consider having to dismantle everything you have created at the end of the process. Somewhat of an anticlimax you would think.

Not so, says Catherine Martin, veteran Production Designer, two time Academy Award winning Art Director, and the creative force behind the sets and costumes of Baz Lurhmann’s films.

I sat down Martin recently, while The Great Gatsby juggernaut was in town, to discuss this very issue. Martin told me that, as the film captures everything in the precise moment for which it was intended, there is an enduring record of the team’s efforts and that the “film is enough”. But reaching that moment is probably less slap dash than you might imagine.

Getting the details correct becomes a huge part. Firstly because it is important for the audience, who will readily spot inaccuracies, to believe the world that is presented. Martin says “people do have an understanding of architectural details” so “when you are creating environments, there needs to be a certain amount of architectural rigour”. Martin combats this by ensuring that many of her team have an architectural background.

Secondly, it is also extremely important that the audience connect with that world on an emotional level – that they are drawn into the storytelling on every level. After all, the whole point of a movie is to engage an audience and provoke them into feeling something. Martin is particularly adept at achieving this kind of engagement. With a background in theatre and costume design, she applies the same attention to detail, the same consideration of texture and embellishment to her built worlds as she does to her apparel designs. And with eye popping results. 

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp, Bazmark Films & Screen West

Her award winning work on Moulin Rouge created an all-encompassing fantasy world, which immersed the audience in turn of the century Bohemian Paris; the production design for Australia (which interestingly also brought the vernacular architecture of northern Australia into international spotlight) also conveyed, in a palpable way, the heat and grit of the Australian outback. The effect of 3D technology in The Great Gatsby however, takes this to a new level. The vivid layering of details draws the audience into the extravagant party scenes and creates an intimacy between the characters and the spectators.

In fact, in the same way that CAD modelling has changed what it’s possible to architecturally resolve in the real world, advances in film technology have altered what can be achieved in post production. Manly’s St Patrick’s Seminary beautifully performs in the role of Jay Gatsby’s Mansion, although is hardly recognisable as digital enhancements morph it into a Disney-like castle of turrets and dormers, to fit Fitzgerald’s description of a “huge, incoherent failure of a house”. Nick Carraway’s house and the grounds that link the two were filmed at separate locations around Sydney then stitched together in post production using a LIDAR scanner which creates a 3D model of each set.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures, Bazmark Films & Village Roadshow

Martin is quick to mention though, that it is still far cheaper to build a set than use computer graphics; plus, sometimes it is just not feasible. She also points out that the effect that a convincing, real life set has on the cast and on the creative process also cannot be understated: “you cannot underestimate the impact that creating an environment has on the cast – to actually sync them into the world”. It seems the cast agrees - Carey Mulligan has described getting sucked into the authentic, detailed sets and how it “it sort of does the work for you”.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures, Bazmark Films & Village Roadshow

Although all the best buildings provoke some sort of emotional response, for architects, emotional response is not generally the main point of the exercise. The psychology of planning and the human response to materials and finishes can often take a back seat to more pragmatic requirements of functionality, longevity and site relationships. But what if all you had to consider was how a building made people feel? And how far would you allow technology to ease the process if you knew it dulled the effect? It’s an interesting proposition. Human behaviour has always determined how buildings are received and therefore defines their success. It would be interesting to see the results if architects too considered the experience of a building to be the enduring record rather than the bricks and mortar.

This article comes courtesy of Charlotte Neilson, the author of the fascinating design blog Casting Architecture. Her column, Through the Lens, will look at architecture and production design in TV and film. You can see more on her interview with Catherine Martin at her blog.

About this author
Cite: Charlotte Neilson. "A Conversation with Academy Award Winning Set Designer Catherine Martin" 05 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/381007/a-conversation-with-academy-award-winning-set-designer-catherine-martin> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.