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A big-budget film like the futuristic action thriller Total Recall, due for release this summer, would no doubt provide plenty for an art director to sink his teeth into, but even veteran Patrick Banister, whose credits include Shoot ‘Em Up and SuckerPunch, was in for a few surprises when he realized just how much set building would be involved.
“When we first went through the script, knowing the size of the film, you’d think that the more fantastic action sequences were going to be digital,” he says. “You’d think they’d all be done in green screen environments.”
However, it turned out that director Len Wiseman was intent on practical shooting, and Total Recall required hundreds of sets, the construction of which Banister, as an art director – along with production designer Patrick Tatopoulos and supervising art director Brandt Gordon – was responsible for overseeing.
“We ended up building a lot of things that we thought at the beginning we never would. We built up Pinewood Studios to the rafters,” Banister says. “There’s a lot of anti-gravity, there’s guys on wires. We ended up building some sets that rotated around our actors, so technically that was a big challenge.”
For example, in one scene lead actor Colin Farrell fights about a dozen assailants while the camera rotates around the action. “That rotating camera move was all done practically, there’s not a virtual camera flying around there, there’s no CG in that shot,” Banister says. “It was pre-vised and then it was a really complicated process to do it, with cameras on superslider rails flying through the set. And setups had to be rigged and de-rigged over three days to get all the different moves of these cameras. That was something we had to figure out with [director of photography] Paul Cameron how the hell are we going to do it.”
Banister also turned to Cameron to help him meet some of the other particular demands of the futuristic film. In many of the scenes, interactive video screens pop up in front of the characters every now and then. “From the beginning, it was important for Len that these graphics that appear in front of people are not just floating in mid-air, they have to have a light source, and that was important in conversations with Paul Cameron,” Banister explains. “So there is a piece of material or an object that these things would come from, not just appear in mid-air and disappear as if by magic, everything had to have a reasoning behind it being there.”
Art directors and production designers begin their tasks in pre-production – analysing the script visually, designing and supervising all art work, preparing a schedule of set construction – and they often liaise with other departments, especially special effects, property and locations departments. However, an art director’s collaboration with the DOP is instrumental on any project. “You have to take lighting into consideration when designing sets; you can’t forget about lighting. Lighting makes the set,” Banister says. “There’s obviously practicals, the actual light sources you see on camera, and then there’s how you get light into the set if it’s being lit from off camera.
“Sometimes the DP will say, ‘I want a really strong top light here,’ or, ‘I’m going to have a problem if you’re going to paint this set a certain tone because the light sources I’m using are going to flood out certain details,’ that kind of stuff,” he adds.
Prepping with a DOP in advance saves time on the set and prevents clashes. “A lot of the time in camera tests we’ll chuck up wall textures and colour palettes and that kind of stuff. Not only for us to see with actors in front of it, but also to give the DP an idea of what he or she might be looking at on the day,” Banister continues.
Such preparation was indispensable on Total Recall, and, according to Banister, involved a lot of camera tests with Cameron. “A lot of tests with different practical bulbs and fluorescents and Kino Flos, which was helpful not just to him, but really helpful to us in nailing down what Len had been talking about in terms of the look of the film,” he says.
Banister adds that he particularly appreciated Cameron’s working method when it came to designing the more complex sets. “One of the big things when you’re designing sets is there’s always ceilings and how you’re going to bring light into sets which don’t necessarily have practical lights. So he was very helpful in developing this whole system in one of the sets where there’s a big rotating camera move around Colin Farrell as he’s battling these police guys,” Banister recalls. “And that was difficult because you saw a lot of the ceiling because it was a multi-level set, so the trick was to find some way to create something which fit in well with the set but was also practical from a production standpoint in terms of being able to remove or open up ceiling panels to be able to get lights in quickly. There was a lot to do on that scene and not a lot of time to do it. That was one of the elements he was really helpful on.
“He was great to work with,” Banister adds. “He was really helpful and approachable.”
When the sets were being built, Cameron and his gaffers were on hand to give feedback. “That’s important when you’re developing sets because you really try not to build more than you’re going to see. And Paul was pretty good at telling us, ‘I really don’t think I’m going to see past there,’” Banister says.
Although Total Recall is famously futuristic, Wiseman and Tatopoulos wanted to “create a world which was set obviously in the future, but not obviously futuristic,” according to Banister. “So we were very aware that this is a world that at one time was the world we are living in now, even though we’re a hundred-odd years in the future.”
To make the future world still recognizable, the art department opted for a setting that mixed today’s buildings with more surrealistic ones. “What we used as the basis for one of our sets was Habitat in Montreal which was built in ’67, so at the time it was very futuristic. And then there were other sets which were totally fantastic. We used much more organic shapes, curves and what seemed to be futuristic materials.”
The art department needed to not just create this world, but communicate these ideas clearly to the DOP. “On my end I think it’s my responsibility to be as clear as possible about what is happening with the set, whether that involves having to build a model or build maquettes of sets,” Banister explains. “Some DPs like to see a model; it just helps them get their head around the space a bit better. It’s up to us in the art department to communicate what our vision is and then to listen to what they have to say about it. The earlier you can involve a director of photography, the sooner you’ll get them thinking about the set.”
Of course, Banister relies on his drawing skills when trying to convey his vision to crew members, and he says, only half-jokingly, that his pencil is his most important instrument. “It’s the ability to draw, whether on the computer or by hand, to portray what the spaces are going to look like for the DP and the director and everybody else,” he says.
Although an art director also has to manage the art department budget and schedule of work, Banister prefers to put the emphasis on the creative process. “You can’t always put budgetary constraints to the forefront; you won’t end up with a very good product,” he remarks. “And you also want to push the budget to the very limit to get the best out of the resources you have.”
Reflecting on what his job means to him, Banister says, “It’s different every day. Some days I feel like I’m in the United Nations trying to solve a conflict between a grip department and a paint department and a set dec department. Other days you’re trying to figure out how to rotate a half ton spaceship, and other days you’re trying to figure out how big a nest of bones should be for a baby dragon to live in. It’s always different.”