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Innovation and Optimism – How the Pandemic Has Crystalised and Reaffirmed the Essential Contribution of Production Design

The Jury President for Production Design on what can be learned from a year of creative collaboration in content creation

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Kati Haberstock is the Director of Production & Business Affairs at Mekanism and is a 25+ year veteran of the advertising and film industries. She has run VFX & live action production companies, and has produced projects across all platforms where stories are told. Haberstock is the Jury President for Production Design at the 2021 D&AD Awards. Here, she tells us about the positive learnings and changes that have come about through her industry having to radically adapt to an unprecedented year.

For content producers in the ad world, it’s hard not to feel as if the movement toward producing work in the ‘digital’ realm has been hastened and pushed inexorably forward by the conditions imposed on filmmaking under the dark umbrella of COVID-19. 

With the first stages of a global lockdown in 2020, and the guidelines not yet set for how working with actors on location or in a studio could be safely accomplished, the immediate solutions were largely editorial. Repurposed existing work or stock and archival footage mixed with graphics and type and VOs and music to carry the messages dominated the advertising landscape. The results, unsurprisingly, were remarkably similar in look and tone.

The next wave of work was spurred on by inventive minds at home in lockdown. These early efforts were necessarily quite handmade. There was a fair amount of stop-motion, as well as creative directors, directors, cinematographers, and production designers employing their families as ‘talent’, when and where humans were required.

"The next wave of work was spurred on by inventive minds at home in lockdown"

Graphic designers, tabletop filmmakers, and in-camera animators were leading the early charge. For the most part, this kind of work can be turned around in a similar time frame to live-action, so it was expedient as well as inventive. The added benefit was that the work was generally light hearted and uplifting at a time when raising the audience’s spirits was sorely needed.

With travel out of the picture, and office attendance discouraged, working from home became the new normal. Zoom/ Webex/ Hangout/ Meet/ choose-your-video-conferencing-platforms, were the order of the day for the exchange of creative ideas as well as logistics, and everyone started to get comfortable, if that’s the right word, making decisions remotely. Thankfully, one of the clearest and most positive outcomes of working under the constraints of the virus has been the greater trust that developed between clients and agencies and production companies, and those strengthened relationships have perpetuated.

As time passed, the most natural inclination for brands and agencies struggling to find larger scale, more dynamic, and more long-term solutions to an uncertain global future was to look toward CG, animation, vfx, digital interactive, and even gaming collaborations for bold campaigns to advertise their products and services.

Digital-first strategies thrived. Agencies and content production shops, especially the hybrids with digital DNA, moved to the head of the queue for brands, along with top vfx studios. The digital revolution in content that had been predicted to eventually dominate the marketing landscape got a huge shot in the arm, all puns intended, from a globally transmitted virus. ‘Viral’ advertising was taking on new meaning.

"The digital revolution in content that had been predicted to eventually dominate the marketing landscape got a huge shot in the arm"

Now, you may be wondering what this look back at the past year in advertising production, one that we’re all more or less familiar with from our own experiences, has to do with the craft of production design, and D&AD’s annual celebration of the year’s best work.

The answer to that question is that despite an industry trajectory toward digitally created imagery, the demands of working remotely, as well as the time and financial hurdles of producing within COVID-19 guidelines to protect the health and safety of casts and crews, brands and creative agencies and content production partners have nonetheless collaborated to make some truly remarkable work in live-action. 

It seems that what had been missing from the creative solutions that emerged during the earliest stages of the pandemic was humanity – literally. The antidote was the return to live-action filmmaking, with actors, and art directed settings, and the scale of crews to support them, but it was painfully clear that none of this would be an easy task.

"The antidote was the return to live-action filmmaking"

With greater degrees of difficulty than ever before experienced in creating visual worlds for cameras to capture, for actors to inhabit, production designers have risen to the challenges of remote creative collaboration. They’ve embraced the most advanced visual technologies and melded them into their architectural and decorative artistry, designing and building everything from the transparently familiar, to the historically recreated, to the wildly surreal and futuristic. In the process, their best work provided physical life and breadth and humour, familiarity and imagination and ‘wow’ to the stories being told. 

While the focus of D&AD Awards is the recognition and support of creative excellence, the lessons from this past year suggest that it is equally important to celebrate the dedication to craft, and none more essential than production design. With that in mind, there’s one particular story that I think deserves sharing.

"Great production design is invisible, or it’s not. It’s minimal, or it’s overstated."

Our agency Mekanism had a shoot last May, a small thing and fully remote, but we were all getting back under way and confronting the new realities for production. With all the stores and rental shops closed due to COVID, the production designer, leading a two-person team, drove around town for hours in a frenzy, borrowing items from friends all over the city, scavenging in order to breathe life into one simple scene. When the shoot was finally finished, the designer literally broke down in tears from exhaustion. That image has stayed with me.

Great production design is invisible, or it’s not. It’s minimal, or it’s overstated. It’s colourful, or monochromatic, grounded in realism, or wildly imaginative, organic or plastic. Great production design is in fact all of these and more, because most simply it exists to serve a creative idea. It is the art of creating a place for a story to exist, and those stories, the creative ideas can come from anywhere.

While the pandemic provides a unique context for framing creative excellence over this past year, in the end, as with every year, it’s all about the work. Here’s a brief look at a few examples, across a broad spectrum, of the brilliant work that’s been designed and created during this most challenging of times.

"pulling off all this feature film scale and polish safely under strict lockdown regulations in pandemic ravaged Los Angeles was nothing short of a triumph"

Cadillac’s Super Bowl LV spot ‘Scizzorhands’ from Leo Burnett chose the tried and true path of adapting a Hollywood classic to adland, so it might be easy at first glance to dismiss the production design as simply an homage to Tim Burton’s imagination. Consider, however, the challenges for designer Maia Jovan of reinventing a new list of visual comedic gags to serve director David Shane, and recreating Edward’s (Johnny Depp’s) look embodied for the adaptation by Timothy Chalamet and his world. 

The attention to detail was so striking that Wynona Ryder, updating her role in Burton’s original to play Edward’s mother this time out, reportedly had a near “out of body experience” when seeing Chalamet in costume for the first time. Designing all of the locations and environments to fit seamlessly with the vfx flourishes from Framestore, and pulling off all this feature film scale and polish safely under strict lockdown regulations in pandemic ravaged Los Angeles was nothing short of a triumph.

Volkswagen’s ‘The Wheel’ from Johannes Leonardo is remarkable as a truly creative collaboration between the worlds of digital design and practical in-studio art direction. The Mill’s creative directors Jose Montiel and Wes digitally designed a series of zoetropes, 19th century animation machines with spinning wheels, all depicting the history of the motion. These digitally designed kinetic objects were subsequently 3D printed and constructed in situ on set for director Sam Brown to capture in his darkly modern art directed live-action setting on location in Prague.

Oculus’ ‘First Steps’ a collaboration between the in-house creative team at Facebook/Oculus and TBWA/Chiat/Day/NY, is essentially a POV film in the manner of the Oculus VR experience. Director Ian Pons Jewell takes us on the wildest of rides with outsized cinematic scale. Shot in the Ukraine, the three minute film, production designed by Robin Brown, spans familiar contemporary sets, a Jurassic World aftermath, the D-Day invasion, living dead Zombies, a Star Wars landscape, and a gamer-rendered urban combat environment. 

The live-action work is all seamlessly tied together with brilliant CG worlds and characters from the Mill, and one can only imagine the immensity of the filmmaking challenges, under the best of conditions. In the Summer of COVID, and under strict safety guidelines, what designer Brown and director Pons Jewell and their teams have pulled off is nothing short of miraculous.

The conclusion is that production design in 2020 proved itself not only to be resilient under duress, but expansive. What’s more, production designers and their art departments did it all under the new mantra of health and safety first. The remarkable achievement is that this was all accomplished without compromising their devotion to craft, nor the commitment to excellence.

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