Luca Tranchino is a production designer well known for his participation as an art director in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, the Aviator, Hugo Cabret, and Disney’s Prince of Persia, among many other productions. His work is designed to take us to magical and historical worlds. We recently interviewed Tranchino to look behind the scenes and uncover connections between film and architecture.
Fabian Dejtiar: You told me that you were very interested in architecture, and that production design uses the same language as architecture but that it is very different. It has more freedom and fantasy. Is that what initially inspired you to choose to be a production designer?
Luca Tranchino: I decided that I wanted to be a production designer, probably when I was 7 or 8 years old, when I realized that I enjoyed fantasizing of constructing environments from my imagination. I was building entire villages in my mind, with houses, skies and mountains, and I visualized them so that it could all fit inside the limited space of my room. Somebody from my family told me that this could have been the profession of a production designer, and from that moment, I've tried to accomplish it. I’ve always been interested in architecture as well; but even if production design often uses the same language as architecture, its purpose is very different. Primarily because it doesn’t recreate reality as it is; instead, it represents what is perceived through the mind and the eyes of a story's characters.
I think that production design uses architectural environments to express an emotional state, investigating the psychological implications of it. Compared to architecture, production design is more like looking inside our subconscious, at our memories, our dreams and deepest fears, using space, color, texture, graphics and symbols to bring the audience to other worlds, and to make them relate to them. In some ways, designing for a movie or for a TV Series, it’s similar to the work of an actor that has to put himself in the role of another person, sometimes from other periods, or other cultures. The production designer has the freedom to use and reinterpret architecture of various styles, periods, or geographies. For each project, there are many different variables and requirements, and the subjects are often very different: from historical, to fantasy, to sci-fi, and so on. For example, for a specific assignment, you might need to express an unpleasant feeling, maybe through an oppressive and labyrinthine corridor, that reminds of a nightmare, or maybe spaces that are flooded with water, filthy, nasty. There is no limit; you can build structures that are considered impossible by the laws of physics, or introduce materials that have not been invented yet. Production design is the visualization of an idea, it’s like moving to parallel realities when even the impossible is possible.
FD: I notice that you have an interest in handmade drawings. In several of your works they seem to be very present. How does drawing help you?
LT: Throughout my career in the film industry, advancing positions from Set Designer, to Art Director, to Production Designer, I have been hand-drafting for many years, for productions such as Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, the Aviator, Hugo Cabret, or Disney’s Prince of Persia, and for many others. Unfortunately, this practice is slowly disappearing in favor of digital drawings where you can make revisions much faster, and they are easier to transfer, to measure, etc. I think that we should always be up to date with the times and new technologies, but drawing by hand still offers irreplaceable potentials that I would like to preserve.
A drawing made by hand has a quality of imperfection and roughness that is uniquely human, and that gives it life and emotion. A draftsman that works by hand is usually able to emphasize some lines more than others, communicating a feeling of material, texture, lighting, and the general mood of it, especially if dealing with historical architecture. I think that working on a drawing that is physically in front of you, on a drafting table, will always give you more control and focus on the overall project than only looking at it through a computer screen. Sketching is also essential; starting with a rough idea that then gets refined increasingly. Drafting by hand enables you to focus in a specific order, depending on the scale, starting from the overall idea, from the essence, and later on, to developing the details at the right moment. This can also be observed comparing 3D renderings with handmade environmental sketches. They offer the opportunity to subjectively stretch and bend the rules of prospective in order to better express a specific idea.
FD: Building large scale sets must be a daunting job. How do you make the transition from drawing to actually constructing the design?
LT: It’s still very fascinating to me to be able to visualize a place, an environment, that exists only in my imagination, and then to see it materialize after a short time, and actually walk in it, especially if it's at larger dimensions. But in reality, creating a set requires a lot of stages and development before the actual construction will start. Usually it begins with an important phase of research and study. Knowing the period, the specific era, is always very important, as well as the architectural styles and sociological aspects of the characters while trying to find the right mood or tone for the project. It helps to be accurate, to find its soul, and also to establish what the color palette will be. Then some preliminary drawings of the set are made, and at that point, I usually like to make a miniature model of it. That is very helpful to express ideas to the director and to the producers.
A model is also a good tool to visualize the actions of the actors that are described in the script, and it clarifies the work of the cinematographer by adding light to it. Many revisions on the project are often made also to fit the budget, allocated for it, and that it is inevitably always lower than what would be required. Then the final drawings are made, and even if some cuts and some minor compromises have been made, at that point, all the forces are put together to finally make it come to life.
FD: How do you make this work in today's fast-moving environment, especially considering the pace at which production designer are expected to work? Do you utilize new digital technologies?
LT: In the last few years, productions have become a lot faster than it used to be, and for various reasons, there is always less time, especially for preparation. The production designer is often required to work at high speed, to make decisions very quickly, and therefore to be much more focused. On the other hand, amazing technological tools are now available, and they have opened the way to a lot of new potentialities, especially to experiment. For example, numerical control cutting machines are now commonly used in the movie industry. Today we can also rely on a range of sophisticated photographic printers for backings, wallpapers, flooring materials, etc. Digital drawing is infinitely helpful, for example, for multiplying patterns and complex decorations. I am also very interested in parametric design and its possibilities.
Another section of this profession is to work in synergy with the Visual Effects Supervisor. With them, you design the sections of the sets that are not physically built, but digitally created, and that need to be integrated in the overall look and design that has been established.
FD: I wonder if you have any recommendations for those interested in production design?
LT: For those people that are interested in Production Design, there are many programs or internships available. This profession requires the general knowledge of many subjects and topics, from the History of Cinema to Visual Arts, Architecture, Color Theory, Sculpture Furniture Design, Graphics, Textiles Materials, and many others. But I think that the most important skill to develop is a constant and persistent curiosity, and the desire to explore, to always try to see things from a different prospective. At their core, a production designer is a storyteller.
Production design is also a collaborative job that requires a lot of social skills and diplomacy, especially while trying to meet the needs of the director, producers, or the actors, often all at the same time. You never know what will be the subject of your next production, or the location for it, and so you need to be constantly prepared for new challenges. This is not only a profession and a job, but a way of living. It’s very stressful sometimes, full of ups and downs, successes and delusions, but, on the other hand, it makes you travel the world, meet many different people and cultures. Every time it makes you learn something new, and hopefully, it also makes you develop a more flexible and open mind.