Production designer, Felicity Abbott APDG, whose credits include ABC’s Logie-winning drama My Place, the celebrated feature Bran Nue Dae, Julien Temple’s Rose D’Or-winning film-opera The Eternity Man and Michael James Rowland’s The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce was accredited by the APDG at the inaugural awards in 2011. Here she talks about her work, in particular, her work on The Straits.
What type of preliminary research did you have to do on The Straits?
I was fortunate to have a considerable period of research prior to the start of pre-production. I spent a week in Far North Queensland and then visited many islands in the Torres Strait. I took hundreds of photos during this time that informed the palette, character and style. Palette underpins the very essence of visual narrative and requires a disciplined approach to sustain its logic throughout the project. There is a certain poetics at play in the design process through which the palette seems to arise quite naturally. I discovered the key colour and texture reference for the autumnal, earthy tones of the Montebello interior in a bunker on an uninhabited island in the Torres Strait. From this I developed a distinct palette for each of the three environments: Cairns, PNG and the Torres Strait.
What were the main challenges for the art department?
Filming in remote locations has both advantages and challenges. We were fortunate to be based in beautiful Cairns for four months and the community was very generous and supportive. Nonetheless being a remote location, set decorator Tania Einberg and property master Peter Malatesta and their team worked tirelessly to connect with locals to source what they needed. Occasionally we found we had to bring particular things from interstate. With a large ensemble cast and many locations, requirements for properties and set dressing were considerable. The genre too meant that we never really had a quiet week in our shooting schedule, as there was always an event, an explosion or two, an arrow being shot into someone’s face, or a body to dispose of at the crocodile farm.
How big was your team?
We had a small core art department on The Straits as is not uncommon in recent Australian film and television budgets, more so here as the writers had come up with a really big story. The broader art department consisted of a full time armourer, marine and vehicle units and an SFX crew that were very busy for most episodes. The scale of the project meant that art director Sophie Nash and I were often in the position of taking on additional workload to support other aspects of the art department, particularly marine and vehicle units. Several local members of the art department were from the Torres Strait and they were invaluable in giving certain aspects of the design the ‘once over’ to ensure their authenticity.
What was the balance of built sets & found locations?
Logistics required that certain sets be built, for example the meth lab in PNG (pictured) that was blown up. In collaboration with the cinematographer and SFX coordinator, we developed innovative ways to achieve the many scripted explosions, shootings and prop stunts without taxing the already limited resources. Many of these were achieved in camera using set pieces and specific mise-en-scène, thus eliminating the need for digital postproduction. There are an enormous number of locations in The Straits, throughout Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait. We worked hard to distribute the limited resources across the many locations that had construction requirements. In order to sustain the logic of the palette, almost every location was treated scenically. The Montebello house was a key location that gave us an unusual scale that was more like a working studio than a domestic interior.
What did you learn from the experience?
The cultural fabric of The Straits allowed me to continue an investigation that began during MA Hons research at AFTRS, an interest in exploring how we subjectively experience “intimate” spaces as we daydream within them. The drama flows seamlessly from the quirky to the quotidian, at times magically real and others the depths of darkness and it was important to convey this sense in the design. I took inspiration from the traditional art, stories and dance of certain islands, also contemporary printmaking and its content. On a practical level The Straits was a very ambitious project, ten hours of action-packed screen time that placed considerable demands on the art department. The skills that are learnt from working on productions where the art department budget is compromised can dictate the extent to which you have the opportunity to extend your craft. This has to be carefully balanced on certain productions to ensure that one’s creative energies are not solely expended on managing the logistics of a tight budget.
Generally, how do you start your designing process or get into each different project?
I embrace the script whole-heartedly. Then I get excited. After familiarising myself with the narrative, I like to saturate my thought process with images. I take hundreds of photographs on location surveys, study the environment carefully; how people live, what colours occur. Then begins the meditative process of visualizing each space, how it looks, smells and feels, as It is exactly in the familiar objects, drawers and boxes in which our lives are contained. This level of detail underscores convincing visual narrative and adds dimension to the experience of characters inhabiting these environments.
How do you like to communicate your concepts?
I enjoy the rigorous debates with directors and cinematographers that occur in initial conversations about visual style. This is an essential part of the process before defining ideas with drawings, images, palette and visual references. The Straits required that I develop a visual style that balanced the objectives and ideas of three individual directors and we worked intensively to define the three ‘looks’ of Cairns, PNG and the Torres Strait. I use pre-visualization techniques and digital mock-ups to communicate ideas quickly. The technology need not be particularly sophisticated; it’s all about clear communication of the idea. We begin this process in the art department, with key members contributing to the development of the palette, texture and style of each set. I pushed to have graded camera tests done in the main set of the Montebello House, which was a wonderful opportunity to refine palette, texture and furnishing choices before the shoot began. Also it gave the cast the chance to inhabit the space before the demands of the actual shoot, which can add another layer to finessing the design process.
What are some of the best things about being a designer?
Design is in part an alchemical process that draws on many influences. I enjoy the challenges, joys and adventures and the synthesis of disciplines. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work in some extraordinary Australian locations: Broome, Broken Hill, Tasmania and now the Torres Strait islands. I recognize the influence and education I received under the guidance of Stephen Curtis at AFTRS. He encouraged all his students to rise to the responsibilities of facilitating a team and to promote the creative contribution made by production design to the collaborative process. I strive for the art department to be a dynamic and happy place to work. The hours are long, the task always great, but if we can enjoy the process and feel an essential part of it then it makes the time spent meaningful.