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'Wrinkle in Time' production designer has feelings about CG

Production designer Naomi Shohan explains how a film's visuals are conjured, and why she thinks digital visual effects may have gone too far.

Disney

With the wildly imaginative novel as its our source, the movie of "A Wrinkle in Time" was always going to be a feast for the eyes. But who's in charge of coming up with those lavish visuals?

I spoke to the film's production designer Naomi Shohan on the phone from snowbound New York to find out.

Starting out as a set decorator and prop assistant in the 1980s, Shohan has been the production designer on films as diverse as "American Beauty", "Training Day" and "I Am Legend". For "A Wrinkle in Time", Shohan worked with director Ava DuVernay to translate the vivid fantasy of Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 novel into reality, a process that involved a lot of computer-generated (CG) visual effects. Perhaps more than Shohan would like...

Q: What does a production designer do?

Naomi Shohan: Technically the role of the production designer is to organize the look of the film entirely. My job is to design everything in front of the camera that's not an actor.

What's the very first thing that you do when you start work on a particular film?

The first thing you do is to try to find pictures or make pictures that will illustrate what you're thinking. You compile a huge mass of visual reference you then discuss with the director so you can begin to go back and forth on what looks are working, what aren't working. Then it just snowballs from there, more and more and more images until you begin to then narrow it down.

What's it like adapting a book that's been a part of people's childhoods, when you're trying to give an actual concrete look to things that so many people have visualised in their imagination? 

The book is very much bound by the time in which it was written, which I believe is 1962, and the images are derived from the way people imagined sci-fi in that time. That's a long way from the film-going audience of today, so it wasn't possible to be literally faithful to the book. What we did instead was to be faithful to the meaning of each of those moments in the book and try to unpack them. For example, none of us really liked the idea of the kids flying around a centaur. It seemed really corny. And especially nobody liked the idea of IT [the story's villain] being a little brain in a room. I had to re-think them but be faithful to the sense of the book rather than to the letter.

Oprah Winfrey is one of the stars of the visually spectacular "A Wrinkle in Time".

Disney

Of the book's fantastic elements, what was the biggest challenge to visualise?

The Tesseract was the biggest challenge, and that is an example where I was not involved in the final design. That design apparently went on for the year following the end of principal photography, while they were editing and doing all the set extensions and so forth. Somewhere during that year Eva came up with the idea of this fabric of time, so time looks like flowing ribbons of fabric. 

Can you give us an example of how you translate themes and ideas into actual concrete visuals?

I think the easiest one to talk about there would be where the Happy Medium [one of the film's characters] is. Happy Medium is obviously kind of a joke name, but it means balance. So we were playing with ideas of balance and I thought everything in the case should probably be unsteady, they would have to find their footing. In the process of accumulating visual reference, there was one picture that I found of a cave somewhere in the Southwest or Mexico where there's these giant, enormous crystals, and in this photograph you see tiny little people like ants walking under them. We began to think that maybe these crystals would be the thing for balancing, and kids would have to make their way into the cave by sliding down and balancing on crystals. Most of that didn't get into the film, but the idea of balance stayed, and they're teetering on these crystals. Then we wanted this to be a scene that showed it's a positive thing to find your balance so the color is very warm and glowing.

Do you illustrate the design yourself or do you delegate to a team?

I have a large team of illustrators and also set designers. What I usually do is a combination of what I call scribbles, just sort of perfunctory drawings to explain what I'm thinking, and then give that to them to do more illustrations. 

How do you collaborate with other departments, like costumes? 

Costumes tends to be mostly conversations about themes. It's not under my jurisdiction but you try to keep in really close touch about your development so that we can make sure everything marries. We keep in touch about the sets as they're developed, and I see the costumes as they're developed, and we try to make sure that they compliment each other. 

Are you on set during filming?

I'm always there to open a set, and I'm always there before we open the set to discuss the blocking with the director and the director of photography. Once they're filming I'm usually moving on to the next one to be shot. I don't hang around the set.

With things like visual effects and digital set extension, how has the job changed in the past few years? 

I have to say something before I go into this. I have some pretty strong opinions about this and I wanna be careful what I say. But I will dive in and hopefully you won't make me sound too ridiculous. 

No, absolutely. [We've presented the conversation as transcribed, with minor editing for length and clarity.] 

Sometimes visual effects comes in a little bit later in pre-production. In the case of "Wrinkle in Time", [the] visual effects [team] was there at the same time as I was. I try to lay out everything about the look of the movie and illustrate it so that by the time my job is finished at the end of principal photography, visual effects has a really good map of what they're about to do. These things have all been decided and hashed out in pre-production and production while I'm still there, and when it's handed over to visual effects they are carrying it out. That said, in the process of editing the film, some things change -- they might decide to lose a scene, add a scene, abridge a scene, and visual effects may need to step in along the lines of the design that we've already established and add a few things I may not know about.

And how do you feel about that?

I hate it. [laugh] I mean really I just think what stands between me and running the whole show is a lack of relationships with all the visual effects companies, and also making a film is such an enormous amount of work. So you do need a visual effects supervisor. But in the perfect world, that person would work for me [laugh].

With today's digital visual effects, it seems like there's no limit to what you can put on screen. Is there anything you can't do?

We seem not to be able to restrain ourselves from going too far. [Laugh] I don't think it's a question of the programs or the technology as much as it is that there's a style to digital effects that's become really uniform, and not in a good way, I would say.

Is that a particular film you're talking about, like superhero movies or that kind of blockbuster?

I think the tendency that I fight against and that we did fall into in post-production in "Wrinkle" with Orion is to make it too big. To make the matte painting too vast, because you can. You don't always need to see a million miles into the distance, I would say. Sometimes it's better not to. So I think, and this is just a stylistic quibble that I have, but I think it's the fact that we always see a million miles into the distance. It's making things look too ordinary now. 

Are you happy with the way "Wrinkle in Time" turned out? 

I'm going to see it tonight [laugh]. I saw it in a voice-over studio on a small screen while we were having a conversation at the same time. It looks pretty good, I was pretty happy. 

What drew you to such an effects-heavy production? 

I got to design planets. What could be more fun?

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