No matter how engaging the characters or how intriguing the story, for a project to be successful, it must have an equally dynamic setting. This is true for films, games, commercials...you name it.
Set design encompasses the worlds of art and architecture, and the results are often a hybrid between the two disciplines. Here, Tino Schaedler shares his personal journey that has led to some amazing work. An architect, his career took a turn and led him to film design, where he has worked as art director for digital sets on numerous productions (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Catwoman, V for Vendetta, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Golden Compass,
Rooted in architecture, my design career has charted all avenues of the entertainment and advertising industries. I have designed digital and physical sets (and sometimes a combination of both) for feature films, commercials, and print campaigns, as well as live events and interactive consumer experiences for brands.
I got into digital set design in the late 1990s while working at well-known architect Daniel Libeskind’s firm. I was already embracing 3D as a design tool back then, but I knew very little about set design and had no clue that it would be a career path for me. After working for Libeskind, I wanted to focus more on 3D software because it was such a powerful tool and a way to do design differently.
During those days, avant-garde architects, such as Hani Rashid and Greg Lynn at Columbia University, who were pioneering the use of 3D tools such as Alias PowerAnimator and Maya. I wanted to master this software, so I applied for a government grant from my native country, Germany.
But instead of attending Columbia, I decided to attend film school, in Vancouver, British Columbia, to learn visual effects from its original heritage. I then stepped back into architecture, to extend my own education of 3D software in this realm.
Bridging the Gap Between VFX & Art Departments
In Vancouver, I became acquainted with an architect who was using Maya. He recommended me to an art director friend, who soon after offered me a job on the film
Catwoman. At that time, no one in the art department used software. They were all working by
hand – which is crazy. Software was mostly being used for backgrounds and characters, yet no one was bridging the gap between the art and VFX departments.
Meanwhile, visualizing backgrounds, like cityscapes, was new territory, but art departments in those days didn’t know the CG side of design, so the artists weren’t building with 3D tools. I saw a niche. I went back to Europe and eventually got hired for Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, working closely with Production Designer Alex McDowell. He was pushing new tools in the art department, such as designing 3D environments that could work on a stage or as a digital extension. This also helped when it came time to hand off deliverables to VFX companies working on the film.
I went on to work on the Harry Potter films, where I began trying to streamline the transition between the art and VFX departments. Today, it’s more common for art directors to work in tandem with VFX supervisors, but back then, they didn’t want to interfere with art departments, as it could impact profits.
While films likeGladiator and
The Lord of the Rings were making the transition between these two worlds, most were still being made the traditional way: The art department would draw plans by hand, then send them off to post houses to build in 3D. The disconnect here was that production supervisors were usually already off the job by then. The other problem was the disconnect between communication and language.
OnHarry Potter, we started to establish methods of communication between the art department and the construction department, which could then read those drawings and build the sets. We were together while the sets were being built. The VFX departments, however, still had a temporal disconnect. They were doing work once the production designer was off the job – plus, they didn’t understand how the building process worked. They could look at the work of a carpenter and understand it, but wouldn’t necessarily know how it was conceived.
Back then, movies contained a mixture of miniature, digital, and location sets, and even matte paintings – and in the end, they all had to look seamless on the screen. But if something was built on a stage, for example, artists had no control in extending it. So the designs were limited in terms of how the environments looked.
Present Landscape of 3D Tools and Filmmaking
Today, it’s a completely different scenario. Things are way more seamless than they were at the turn of the millennium. We hand over the tech drawings to the CG guys that we used to give the carpenters, and the drawings are now built as 3D models. With the commercial sets I work on, companies on both sides are equipped with 3D tools. For a Calvin Klein project, I didn’t do 2D drawings, but rather just handed 3D models to the builders and to the post guys. The construction and CG worlds are converging! In general, things are more cost-effective, too.
On the filmmaking side, ever since James Cameron made Avatar, we are seeing new technology washing over from the video game world that is enabling filmmakers to navigate through 3D worlds using a camera interface. Before this, directors sat with CG artists and directed these animations. Now they can use an iPad or a real camera with motion sensors to bring 3D worlds to the camera and move within the digital space. The ability for directors to do this has not only revolutionized previs, but also enables filmmakers to plan shots in a completely different way.
Often now, animatics are done in previs, and filmmakers can even previs an entire movie. This is especially effective because all the shots can be determined ahead of time, resulting in the streamlining of the set builds. While this workflow is ideal, it is not always followed. That’s because filmmakers don’t want to be limited. However, previs helps minimize potential challenges, especially for complicated shots. Now they can be nailed down beforehand, instead of having to do hundreds of takes and reviews.
I believe we will continue to see an increasing convergence of the digital and the physical. For example, Joseph Kosinski used a big set for Oblivion. Every-thing was a digital extension. The ultimate goal seems to be LED walls with 3D images projected on them. Maybe in the future we will have spaces equipped with new types of LED to perfectly project a 3D world, and the physical set could be inside of that space. Overall, the future will be more immersive and more integrated.
of My Craft
Without question, my architectural background has proved invaluable in the execution of digital sets. It gives me a design foundation to understand proportions and detailing, and how everything works within the space.
At the same time, with today’s powerful digital tools, branching out into new worlds of filmmaking is possible. They enable previs and animated camera paths to custom-tailor and reshape sets in a specific way, making it possible to look at the set in ways that were not possible in the past.
I constantly generate ideas by looking at other people’s work, which is the beauty of the Internet and our digital world. An image might spark a completely different idea in someone else. I also read books and magazines, investing in my growing library.
Ultimately, I am more of a digital type of person, looking and assembling, seeing a visual clue that sparks a vision and making it your own.
The storytelling aspect of my experience working in architecture is ultimately why I ended up in film. I have never thought of space as a neutral shape or volume that is outside the dimension of time. I have always thought of space as choreography. Walking through a series of images is like a film to me, and that is why, on the flip side, I approach architecture with a cinematic eye.
Because of that, film was an easy transition for me. Now when I do event design for a client, like Nike, I look at the story. I’m not thinking about space; I am seeing the consumer journey, and that is the theme that ties together architecture and film – and any other type of spatial design. Creating spaces and visions gives me great satisfaction.
I have had great personal and professional satisfaction designing spaces. Here are a few suggestions that may help others in this endeavor. Try to explore. Be open and intuitive. Dive in and create. That’s what it is all about, immersing yourself in the process of design.
Tino Schaedler, an established production designer, art director, and trained architect, moves seamlessly across a number of disciplines – from event design and architecture to commercials and film, where he has a long list of movie credits to his name. Currently he is head of design and a partner at Optimist Design.
“I have never thought of space as a neutral shape or volume that is outside the dimension of time.”