Creating the Mid-West in Jersey: Ken Adam and the Art of Production Design

     |    Saturday June 9th, 2012

By Andrew Horn

In the first part of the interview with Ken Adam, we talked about the relation between the production designer and the director, and now we get to the role that the designer plays in the film itself. Coming from the analog world, his experience still has resonance in the ever increasing transition to digital.

Q: Wasn’t there, or isn’t there, always some flux between the credit of Art Director and Production Designer?

It varies all the time of course and it’s such a flexible situation. Remember in Hollywood things were different. I mean, you had a supervising Art Director for a studio, and I’m talking about the old studios and Cedric Gibbons [at MGM] and people like that. They had to receive a screen credit as Art Director on a film even though somebody else probably designed the film. And also when I started in Hollywood I think even the unions didn’t accept that the Art Director made his own sketches because they had illustrators to do that. But I didn’t like to work that way because even if my sketch was just a rough scribble the size of a postage stamp – ok that’s exaggerated a little bit – but I felt I had to do it, you see, and I had sufficient muscle at the time that I was allowed to do it, particularly because of the Bond films.














Q: Would you ever do story-boarding on a film, like Menzies, or like Saul Bass did when he designed the shower sequence in Psycho?

Sometimes, but I find story-boarding is a really very much a specialized form of design. What I try to do is, even on films when I didn’t do my own story-boarding I insist that the story-board artist use my technique, or style of drawing, in the story-boards, so that it didn’t jar from my designs for the settings.

Q: Do you use computer imaging in your designs?

I don’t do that. I use, or have used, cgi when it was necessary, like what in the old days you would have called matte shots or something like that. Like on the Bonds you’ve got a special effects unit working completely independently and they have to be fed with story-boards and know exactly what to shoot, you know? Which are provided by the Art Department, by the Production Designer. On all major pictures that I did when we had that sort of thing you had to feed the effects guys with the information.

One is in a very flexible period right now because the danger is that visual effects people take over the design of the film. To me, if I would consider working on a film nowadays, the most important thing has always been the script. That is the backbone and the bible. OK, on the Bond films it didn’t always work out that way. But on films in general that is the important part.

And on films which are done almost entirely by the visual effects people, since that is normally in post production, the production designer runs the danger of losing control. Because the production company never wants to pay a production designer after principle photography, but the visual effects people work in post production. It should be worked out before hand, and normally it is worked out before hand, certainly in my experience, and I’ve certainly had bad experiences where you get a phone call months later: such and such doesn’t work and what have they done, and then you have to sort it out again. It should be the responsibility of the production designer but… it doesn’t work that way, it just doesn’t.

So we’re going through another strange period at the moment. But also the problem is that the production company wants to relay on stunning visual effects to make their picture successful but it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. The two parts are very closely related, and so it should be, but in my opinion there has to be one man in charge of the whole thing, you know, the visual interpretation of that film.

But I don’t think cgi changes anything because I think the most important thing is the story. I think cgi has expanded things but I think there is a danger that it takes over. Not only for the designer, but also for the actor. Because I was brought up more in the theatrical school, and actors I worked with like Brando, and I worked with Olivier and Harvey Keitel and they value the atmosphere I create for their setting because the setting was designed to suit the character they were playing and if they felt completely at home in that setting you can say it improved their performance. Today when you have to perform in front of a screen and you often don’t know who you are performing with it’s a different technique and as such it has certain shortcomings and dangers.

Q: How does production design work in realistic settings?

I am normally involved in the choice of locations and you try and find the most interesting locations for whatever the script calls for and I also, and that I learned from Kubrick, I always photograph locations with various lenses to see how it composes and so either you go together with a director to the location or you go yourself and show films footage or stills, it’s a very important part of production design.

Q: How much manipulation of the location would there be?

It depends, I don’t think you set out to alter it, you may influence the shooting of it by the way you have photographed it. And then if you have to build a house or something well you adapt it to suit the location or the location has to suit whatever you to build or create.

But you know a movie like In & Out is a good example because nobody wanted to leave NY, neither Kevin Kline or Scott Rudin or the director, Frank Oz, and they wanted the mid-west to be created in NY. So I was spending day and night, practically, going through every bit of New Jersey, Connecticut, you name it, and it became like a jigsaw puzzle, shooting one bit here another bit there. Vietnam was shot right in the middle of New York, in the Bronx, you know, and it may be a different form of production design but it is production design. You know the Oscar sequence we staged at the Lincoln Center in New York and the interior in some university theater in the area. I was attracted to the script, I thought it was very funny, and then found out my job suddenly became very, very important.


Q: How did you get into this in the first place?

My family came from Germany, from Berlin, and we were refugees. We emigrated to England in ‘34 and my mother kept a boarding house with a lot of people from all over Europe. One of them was a Hungarian painter called Gabor Pogan who painted the Hungarian restaurants around there and was also a friend of the Kordas who were the sort of principle filmmakers in this country. And so they told him don’t paint restaurants, get to know Technicolor photography and he and Jack Cardiff were the first ones to become Technicolor cameramen.

I was fascinated by Gabi and he introduced me to Vincent Korda. I think I was 15 or 16 years old. And Vincent said to me if you want to be an Art Director in films then I think a background in architecture would be very useful. He was a painter originally but he said I think that the way things are going now that an architecture background may be more useful. So then I studied architecture, though I never wanted to be an architect.

And then the war came and after war it was very hard, and very difficult to get into the union because you couldn’t get into the union unless you already had worked on a film and you couldn’t work on a film unless you were already in the union and just by chance, my sister was working at the American Embassy and somebody came in and asked if she could provide him with some props for one of the early American productions in England and she said yeah but I also have a kid brother who just came out of the RAF and he draws very nicely and he wants to get into films and that’s how I got into films.