26 October 2017

The Art of Illusion (or the Magic of Film Production) – A guest blog by Wendy Laybourn

“Sadly, too many students come out of education thinking that production is all about the headliners – performers, producers, directors and cinematographers – and are totally unaware of the number of people (and range of skills) it takes to produce what we see at the cinema or on television.”

Film production, as anyone who has ever worked in it already knows, is all about creating an illusion out of very basic ingredients – scaffolding, wood, paint and plaster. As if by magic, these ingredients get put together by the most creative, talented and ‘ordinary’ group of people. By ordinary I mean down-to-earth and hard-working, because their skills are very extraordinary indeed!

From the Floor Runner to the Director of Photography, these creative people can take a bare sound stage and transform it into whatever the Director wants, from ancient Egypt to the surface of Mars in order to entertain a cinema audience.

Like most of us who are getting a little past their sell-by date, I’m very passionate that these expertise be passed on to the younger generation, so that we don’t lose any of the tricks and techniques of the trade to history and the UK maintains its highly regarded reputation in the global film marketplace. Sadly, too many students come out of education thinking that production is all about the headliners – performers, producers, directors and cinematographers – and are totally unaware of the number of people (and range of skills) it takes to produce what we see at the cinema or on television. It’s up to all of us who work in this industry to make sure that they have access to the best possible information.

I made that passing on of information my mission in a formal way in 2009, when I first began publishing Network Nine News, a quarterly magazine aimed at young filmmakers focusing on the skills and crafts involved in production. Over decades in the industry prior to that I learned by osmosis, mostly chancing my luck and hoping that no-one would catch me out. As well as a certain creativity, I had an aptitude for all things technical and quickly picked up the ins and outs of printed circuit boards, cameras, editing equipment and so on – but oh, if only I’d had someone like me as a mentor when I first started, how much easier it would all have been!

For the two years I was producing Network Nine News, I had the pleasure of having contributions about working in the Art Department from my friend, renowned Art Director, Terry Ackland-Snow. Terry has over 50 years’ experience in the industry, having worked as Art Director on blockbusters including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Aliens, Batman and several Bond films, and as Production Designer on TV Series such as Soldier, Soldier and Inspector Morse. In 2001 Terry retired from production and set up a very successful short course facility, Film Design International (FDI), effectively a ‘finishing school’ based at Pinewood Studios where he could share his extensive knowledge.

Quite importantly a great many of Terry’s students over the past sixteen years have been young women, and around 80% of his UK-based students have gone straight on to work in film art departments.

A couple of years ago Terry asked me to help him write a book to complement the FDI courses. Obviously I agreed as it would be an ideal opportunity for him to bring together his knowledge and experience, and for us both to share our passion for passing on this knowledge of traditional film practices to a new generation. In effect, we hope that the book will be an encyclopaedia of all things to do with the Art Department and an essential training manual for anyone wanting to make a career in the industry for many years to come.

We all know that the fast-moving pace of technology means things are constantly changing but the ethos and skills behind filmmaking remain the same, and that’s what we have tried to communicate within the book. I’m very proud to say that The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television was published in September this year and I hope that it will be an inspiring and practical resource for future generations of filmmakers.

Guest blog for WFTV (UK) by Wendy Laybourn.

The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film and Television is published by The Crowood Press and available to purchase here.