Production designer Annie Beauchamp contacted me shortly after reading an article about Black Mirror series and what it can teach us about the future of architecture —something exciting for me since she was in charge of the visual look in Striking Vipers, the first episode of the dystopian series' fifth season. Beauchamp who has extensive experience working on major productions such as Sleeping Beauty, The Yellow Birds, Adoration, Top of the Lake China Girl, LEGO's Ninjago Movie, also served as an art director in nothing less than Moulin Rouge.
We've talked with Beauchamp to get to know her thoughts on the connection between films and architecture. The following conversation explores her beginnings and inspirations, her work process, as well as her views on the era of computer visualizations. In addition, we concluded the conversation with a couple of recommendations for a new generation interested in production design.
Fabián Dejtiar (FD): What inspired you at the beginning? What motivated you to become the person in charge of the overall visual look of filmed stories?
Annie Beauchamp (AB): When I was a young child, my brother made Super 8 movies. I recall feeling magic or ‘wake-dreaming’ while watching his films projected on the wall. I was often acting in these films and helping him put the shots together. I realize now that it was my first introduction to filming. As a young adult, I went to art school with the intention of becoming a photographer. Eventually, my path led me to film school where I specialized in production design. I tried a little bit of everything, editing, sound, directing, animation with a stop-frame Oxberry camera, and made a few short films. Film school taught me collaboration and how to articulate the visual framework of a film; it’s where I crystallized my creative passions.
FD: As an expert in production design, how do you know if a particular space or place can contribute to the storytelling?
AB: The design of a movie can portray the film’s story with great precision and isolate its most intimate moments. It can also make a character likable, establish a mood, and make a scene relatable. The designer’s work helps to drive the plot, describing the characters' circumstances and emphasizing the metaphors and subtext.
In general, I have always been fascinated by architecture, which I think is a universal language. Through buildings, we see how cultures express themselves and how people live. It’s a very important aspect of being human.
For example, with Black Mirror's Striking Vipers, I was very excited about finding the connection with gender identity, role-playing, and sexuality in a virtual reality game called Striking Vipers. This gave me a license to play, invent, and create. I felt that both, the ‘game world’ and the ‘real world’ had to be visually linked and, most of all, I felt that I could play.
Striking Vipers was originally based in the UK but we eventually moved the setting to the US as we felt this would highlight suburbia and the routine of Danny & Theo’s marriage, the main characters of the chapter. This led us to shoot entirely in São Paulo, Brazil, for the dystopian and futuristic United States we were looking for. I found a "Subtle Heightened Stylization" in my researched Brazilian locations. São Paulo is unique: it has virtually no advertising and many of the buildings took on a delicate soft pastel color palette. The city is filled with incredible architecture, with buildings by Oscar Niemeyer, Lina Bo Bardi, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Piratininga Arquitectos Associados, and the iconic Alphaville, inspiring me for the setting of our Black Mirror episode.
Through my design, I imagined a play on repetition, grids, and the use of minimal textures and materials. After diligent research for our game world, I was inspired by the Japanese Anime artist Hiromasa Ogura and the aesthetics of Street Fighter. Writer and showrunner Charlie Brooker had imagined different game environments but I pitched a Japanese theme to create a more cohesive design game world. Both director Owen Harris and Charlie Brooker agreed. In fact, this kind of collaboration was incredibly rewarding and once we built the structure, we were complementing the film with all our design decisions, made in collaboration with the cinematographer Gustav Danielsson. We refined our color palette, developed the idea of frames within frames, introduced the use of mirrors and textures to shoot through glass surfaces, and crafted a visually unified world.
FD: Could you tell us more about your work process? How do you deal with deadlines, given the fact that the film industry operates fast? What is the range of experimentation you have?
AB: During the first reading of the script, a very instinctive process is triggered. I try to remain open to the material, imagining the characters and environments with the emotion and subtext. Each script is very different from the other, and this gives me a license to play, invent, and create specific ideas for each one.
First, I start thinking about ways of designing and making something out of something that doesn't appear interesting at the surface. I begin with the script then unleash my research skills. I always think about creating settings that generate overtones of what should be felt rather than just seen in the first stages. After that, I create a book of visual references. I’m very organic with this process. Some images are like placeholders, others are meant to suggest feelings or moods, a few consider design themes and color palette, and finally, some of them are for the director or cinematographer.
Once ready, I then write a list of all the requirements for the picture so I can practically see how the project looks overall. I hire key collaborators like a supervising art director, concept illustrator, art director, set decorator, construction co-ordinator, and scenic artist, all with experience in the film industry. We then share the vision, and as a team, we deliver the whole look of the film within budget and on schedule.
When I start to feel that I am really familiar with the story and the characters; and that the design ideas are clear in my mind, I begin working on the concept art. Actually, I pin-up, in order, all the sets and locations mentioned in the script, and then I add more details underneath with visual references, fabrics, paint samples, set dressing, and set drawings. Everyone can, therefore, visualize the story. I find this a very useful tool for the art department director, DP, and actors, to see how the whole film will look.
From here on, every decision, from location choices, to set materials and colors, is based on these first ideas. This process helps solidify the needs of the movie, before filming. Technical aspects are part of everything. I even look at the smallest details, although I believe that it’s important to remain organic, open to change, and always curious.
FD: In the era of computer visualizations, it seems that the design of spaces for films has no limit. Can you comment on this? how do you decide which space or architecture to keep?
AB: My process is always the same —conceptualize, design, and then build the environments of the film. The relationship between the director, designer, and DP is very special in the early pre-production phase as we essentially decide what language the film will speak on.
With the era of computer visualizations, we now have incredible tools to express the vision and communicate clearly the film environments. Currently, I am using Twinmotion, an architectural rendering/visualization software program that is extremely efficient and works well with Sketchup and Rhino. It produces still fly-through renders and videos within a matter of hours. Moreover, the director will be able to walk through the set with Oculus glasses. Although technology advancements are amazing, I still love to build simple and useful white card 3D models.
Execution of the design often comes down to a question of scale, resources, and physical space to achieve the vision. I regularly see the benefits of physically building something as reasonably as possible, for a better interaction with the actors and for establishing details, textures, color palette and lighting.
My involvement with the visual effects department on a movie, can be described as a revolving door. I am in constant contact with the VFX supervisor, providing them with detailed concept art, design/reference packages, and architectural drawings. The Director and VFX Supervisor, working on my projects, often see the value of the designer’s input in post-production.
FD: Any recommendations for those interested in production design, and for the new generation that works more with digital tools?
AB: I would advocate for studying - complete a course in production design or an industry-based course. Gain work experience, find opportunities and stay in touch with the industry contacts you make. Create a website as an online portfolio to demonstrate your inventive and creative approach, and showcase your technical skills. Read books on production design. Learn technical skills like sketch up, photoshop, rhino, Vectorworks, or Maya – find the tool that suits you best. Connect with a mentor. Finally, watch films, be flexible, and always work with energy and humor.