Jacinta Leong is a Production Designer who enjoys the creative and collaborative process of designing environments for narratives. Her work on several movies looks ahead into the future - especially in relation to technology in society. She was recently the Production Designer on the film 2067; Art Director on Alien: Covenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Pacific Rim: Uprising; Assistant Art Director on Star Wars Episode II-III; and Set Designer in The Matrix, among others.
We've talked with Leong to get to know her thoughts on the connection between films and architecture. The following interview explores her beginnings and inspirations, as well as her work process in the era of digital tools.
Fabian Dejtiar (FD): You told me that your background is in architecture, and it has served you well in your career as a production designer. What inspired you from architecture? How important is architecture in movies?
Jacinta Leong (JL): When I was twelve years of age, I was in a theatre musical “The King and I”. The set designer of that production was an architect, and it gave me the idea, “She studied Architecture to design these theatre sets, so I could study it too, to stay in Theatre AND have the discipline to fall back on”. It was there that I made the link between Architecture and stage design. Another twelve years went by, and I graduated from University. By this time, I was more interested in Film Design.
Architecture has been defined as “the process, product, and the art and science of planning, designing, and constructing edifices of any kind for human use. Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural symbols and as works of art”. With that in mind, Architecture in movies tells the Audience where the setting is.
Architecture is for people, it’s for us to live in. It surrounds us everywhere we look and tells us about our culture and community, making us feel many things as we react to certain spaces. Designing sets for films is the same principle – designing for people; in the case of films, we’re designing for the Characters.
FD: Your work on several movies looks ahead into the future - especially in relation to technology in society: Star Wars, Matrix, Alien Covenant, Pacific Rim Uprising, and recently 2067. How did you design this future? What were your references?
JL: It is interesting how the future is portrayed differently in different movies; Writers, Directors, Production Designers have different visions of what the future looks like. And that’s the beauty of our creative Art of Filmmaking.
Film can tell us how things are, and it can also tell us how things can be.
Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III were designed by Gavin Bocquet. His aim was to keep the visual spirit and identity of all the previous Star Wars films, and of course, ensure that the Director George Lucas approved everything. This was important for continuity of what was a significantly established world – or in this case, Galaxy! As design ideas and technology had evolved since Episodes IV, V, and VI, there was certainly an evolution in the design with Gavin as Production Designer. I was Assistant Art Director on II and III, and as a crew member, this learning environment was an extremely saturated one – I learned so many things each day. I would receive sketches from Gavin and draft the Construction Drawings for the sets. I’d also receive sketches of Vehicles from Doug Chiang and Ryan Church.
The Matrix is a fantastical story about illusion by directors Larry and Andy Wachowski. In The Matrix, there are two worlds: the real world, and The Matrix; which is a computer simulation. Production Designer Owen Paterson told me that to distinguish between the two worlds, The Matrix has a green tinge to it. This had an influence on the color palette and was apparent in the Scenic work. The Matrix was laid out on a grid, and the interiors were formatted to grids, as seen on the walls and floors of some of those interiors – to convey a sense of artificial control.
From Geof Darrow’s concepts and Owen Paterson’s Design ideas, I was tasked with drafting the hovercraft – Nebuchadnezzar Main Deck, Cockpit, Dorm, and the Government Building on The Matrix. Then similarly, on Matrix II and III, I continued on hovercraft – the Mjolnir, Logos, and Vigilant; and some Zion sets and Props. Being set in the far future, the hovercraft was hundreds of years old, and the history of various metals, being patched up, replaced, and aged was a direction in the look of the hovercraft.
Alien: Covenant, was the sequel to Prometheus, also directed by Sir Ridley Scott. Production Designer Chris Seagers is very detail-driven, and it’s this detail that made the sets very photogenic. The purpose of the spacecraft Covenant was to transport passengers, crew, and equipment to colonize a planet far away from Earth. Its technology was the latest available to carry out its scientific mission. Made up of the Bridge, Med Bay, Corridors, Hypersleep Chambers, and the Terraforming Bay, it was an extremely complex craft – inside and out. Chris loaded the spacecraft with detail. This vernacular of the Future – a pristine and clean spacecraft - is in stark contrast to one of The Matrix hovercraft and some interiors, which were dilapidated, broken down. I worked on the Covenant Interiors, but there were also the Engineer’s Planet environments and sets. Of course, the Xenomorph is the menacing critter that was threaded through the story – unseen at the beginning, then revealed to raise terror and anxiety to the unsuspecting crew – as well as the Audience.
As a sequel to Päcific Rim, Pacific Rim: Uprising is set some 15 years after, and the Jaeger designs aimed to update the original ones. The Jaegers were said to have resembled tanks in the original film …heavy and powerful; the new generation of robots in Uprising instead took inspiration from fighter jets, thereby focusing on their speed and agility. The Pilot operations still depended on the two pilots’ neural handshake, however, in Uprising, there was a MagLev upgrade. The twist in the make-up of Jaeger Obsidian Fury led the design to a combination of high-tech materials and organic tissue. Production Designer Stefan Dechant ensured that each environment in the film - scrapyards, Santa Monica, Sydney, Labs, Shatterdome, Siberia, and Japan - had its distinct expressions. For some of the Jaeger interiors, we referenced anime.
The Director of 2067 – Seth Larney – already had ideas of aesthetics for the film, as it had been in his mind for well over a decade by the time we were in pre-production. I researched a lot about where Design, Architecture, science, technology, and medicine could be approximately 50 years from now. The research was also allocated to City sizes, overgrown abandoned cities, pollution. That’s the academic part of it because I like to start off in reality.
It’s the reality and research which makes a futuristic aesthetic believable.
If something is too far-fetched, you risk losing an Audience. From having that foundation of reality, we then made creative decisions, influenced by – but not entirely driven by – locations, logistics, and budget, and our own sense of aesthetics.
The story takes place in 3 different time periods: 2067, the 2047 flashbacks, and leap to 2474. We started with the premise that due to poor environmental choices such as deforestation, industrial over-supply, and wasteful behavior, planet Earth’s Oxygen is polluted and unbreathable. Synthetic Oxygen is manufactured by Chronicorp and bought by those who can afford it. It is pumped into buildings. If you are inside buildings, you are in synthetic O2 air. But if you are outside, you must wear a mask and an O2 tank.
The design was developed with these parameters in mind. Plants and paper were to be excluded from all City scenes. Ergo -no timber; no vegetarian meals. The city scenes contained no green (with one exception: a smear of green paint from an artist’s brush). With this in mind, I collated images and references of the tone, color palettes, the look book – like a Bible of the Film’s Design.
Telling the story was one of the most important criteria. We generated Concept Illustrations, storyboards, diagrams, and Construction drawings. Seth loves ‘80s aesthetics and culture, and this influenced the design of the props and vehicles. We also liked the look of the films “Blade Runner 2049”, “District 9”. The general Design Process we followed was Research, Concept, Colour, Drafting; Build, Greens, Scenic, Set Decoration. It was not necessarily chronological as this list –all of these elements are connected and speak to each other.
There was a hierarchy in the society, and this shaped the Design, in a vertical direction: Corporate office in a skyscraper; Residents in Units; alley and bar at street level; and “lowly” tunnel workers underground. The City Layout also had to make sense of these spaces in relation to each other (in plan), with the added dimension of scenes taking place over 400 years apart.
For the Apartment set, I chose homely warm neutral colors and fabrics. For the Corporate Office (Chronicorp), there was blue with some silver. The Chronicorp Lab had metallic greys and blues which reflected the colors of the lighting. The Alley and Bar were grungy desaturated brown colors. All of these were carefully selected to ensure they contrasted with the reveal of the natural and stunning Forest Greens.
Costume Designer Oriana Merullo and I would meet frequently to make sure the sets and the Costumes worked well together. Oriana added accents of orange “livery” to the miners’ costumes, and this “livery” was also used in blue color in the Lab Workers’ coats. I loved this choice, because it was part of the same company, and this linked Chronicorp’s uniforms and graphic design. There is a scene when our tunnel workers walk into the Chronicorp Foyer – what a contrast their grimy dark overalls made against the stark cold of the metal and glass Corporate Interior!
FD: I noticed that you mix hand drawings and computer renderings while developing your ideas. How is your work process? Any recommendations for the new generations that use more digital tools?
JL: Thank you for looking at my drawings! My work process is generally a routine of using whatever tools are appropriate for the task. I usually have a pencil, pen, and sharpie in my belt pouch to scrawl and make notes. On my desk are grey markers for shading. I’ll do a brief sketch if that needs to be communicated immediately, then use AutoCAD and 3DS Max to model, draw, and animate.
My advice to the new generations using more digital tools is – the tools are a fantastic way to produce quality designs. Have fun with it. But don’t be limited by it. Although there are so many pluses for using digital tools, just be careful that they don’t drive your imagination. Your imagination should drive the tools.
FD: Building large physical sets seems to be a challenge nowadays with all the advantages of computer-generated imagery. How do you make this work in today's fast-moving environment?
JL: Visualising design is part of the process, and executing design is another. The power of digital technology can make both of these things happen in an efficient, streamlined manner. Most of our designs for Sets, Environments, Vehicles, and Props are modeled digitally. Art Departments use AutoCAD, Rhino, VectorWorks, to name a few programs; and Concept illustrators use software such as Photoshop, Maya, Z-brush Blender. Once the Art Department’s Set Design has been approved, our files go to the Concept Illustrators so they can set up their compositions; to Construction for CNC and 3D Printing; to SFX for their setups; to Rigging Electrics for their planning. Some Props and set pieces are 3D printed for R&D, modelmaking, or on-camera use, and our Graphic Designers send their files to be printed and or vinyl-cut by Sign and printing companies. We often send customized murals, signs, labels to these companies.
Some files are also sent to external vendors, such as Engineering companies, to be structurally certified. The Art Department sends files for Pre visualization (PreVis) to the vendors such as The Third Floor; our files also go to the VFX Department for Sets requiring VFX enhancement or extension.
FD: Your Art Direction has won an APDG Award (Alien: Covenant), three ADG Awards (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby, Mad Max: Fury Road), and three ADG nominations (Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Unbroken, Hacksaw Ridge). Being widely recognized, what is the next step? What new projects are you working on?
JL: I’m not sure about being widely recognized but thank you, and Awards are always good for the Industry and Crew. They promote camaraderie in our wonderful Industries.
My next step is to just continue growing and learning about Films. There is always something new to catch our eye, and I think that as Designers, we must share and learn from each other. Design encompasses so many strands – Photography, Lighting, Architecture, Graphic Art, Fashion, Sculpting, Industrial Design – these can be drawn upon when designing Film Sets. There’s Music and Editing too… Filmmaking is the only Art that includes all these Arts!
Time Lapse is an enjoyable hobby of mine and over the years, I’ve found it rather addictive. The software gives us the ability to make time elastic – I love dialing the controls to make the footage stretch and contract. I’m currently editing a Time Lapse for a recent Feature film I worked on. When the Feature is released this year, I’ll be able to upload the Time Lapse to YouTube, so please watch this space.