I am fascinated and inspired by movies and the film industry and particularly by the use of computer generated imagery (CGI) and how it is increasing being integrated into film production in a more and more seamless manner with each new film.
I recently had the opportunity for an inspirational talk with Scott Chambliss, a prominent Hollywood production designer who is an alumni of Cal State East Bay and a native of Tracy. Chambliss has been responsible for production design on movies that include Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Mission Impossible III, Salt, and Cowboys & Aliens, and he just finished work on the upcoming film Tomorrowland. He began his career in production design working on the television show Alias with J.J. Abrams.
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Production design is the process for creating the overall look of a film or television show or other visual media. Production designers used to be known as art directors, and they are increasingly important for films today and have a major influence on the creative process. They work closely with the director to bring the film to life and help tell the story visually.
Production design is fascinating because it integrates many aspects of art and many different media, including drawing, storyboarding, painting, sculpting, materials and textiles, and computer graphics – including everything from 2D and 3D graphics to motion graphics to highly advanced and realistic animation. It includes the scouting and selection of locations for live sets, the creation of virtual sets using CGI and green screen techniques, and the integration of live and computer-generated sets to produce a seamless and believable result.
I was able to talk with Chambliss when he visited the CSUEB campus in April, where he gave a talk on his work and presented a screening of the film Star Trek Into Darkness. He talked about his journey from Tracy to Hayward to Broadway in New York and eventually to Hollywood, and all the various jobs, both artistic and not, he had along the way. At Cal State, he used to design costumes and sets for University Theatre productions and one of his early artistic influences was Watteau, an 18th century French painter. Chambliss talked about the process of creating the visual concepts for his films, getting them approved by the director, and working within the budgets. He showed his design sketches that ranged from the bridge of the Enterprise to the weapons used in Cowboys & Aliens. One theme he talked about was balance. For the Star Trek reboot he needed to appeal to new fans while not alienating the die-hard Trekies. For Cowboys & Aliens he had to balance the Old West setting with the advanced alien technology. But his goal is to always be true to his own vision and not be influenced by what he thinks other people want to see.
When we spoke briefly after the public talk, I asked Chambliss how he decides when to use “real” sets versus when to use computer imagery. He does prefer to use live sets whenever possible, but often needs to augment them with CGI. For example, the bridge of the Enterprise is a real set, but most of the displays are computer graphics. In addition, for scenes that are grand or epic, often the foreground details are filmed live, and the background is generated digitally. The key is to make it all a seamless and believable experience for the audience.
This experience was inspiring for me in two ways. First, it showed me how someone from humble beginnings and a graduate of Cal State East Bay can rise to become a prominent and creative force in Hollywood. Second, it informed me about the world of production design, a discipline that integrates many different aspects of art to produce an imaginative but believable result to delight and entertain people.
By Brandon Powers