Portrait of a Production
Designer - Ged Clarke
Ged - Emmy Awards - New York 2017
What is your early memory that inspired you to design?
I have a few early memories that may have had a bearing on my entering a world of design. When I was 4 years old, I often visited my two uncles in Stockport who between them, owned two Vintage Lagondas, a house of antiques, a huge collection of Books, Films, Toys and who always had a nostalgic eye for the past, so I was very aware of how Automobiles and Sporting Equipment were designed to suit the time. I loved visiting their house and my Grandparents Shop in Stockport, which were a wealth of visual treats.... all harking from a distant past. Old Fountain Pens, Radios, Fob Watches, Medals, Sporting Trophies, old Photographs and Paintings, Letters and Postcards with old stamps, cigarette holders, Spectacles, Binoculars, Playing Cards, worn out pen knives, pencils.... Cabinets full of trinkets and ornaments, a cellar full of coal, together with shelves of old toys and advertising signs, a backyard overlooked by the Brewery behind a tall red brick wall, within which we played with an old leather Casey football, a cast iron mangle and washing lines with wooden dolly pegs, an attic stacked with Accounts Books, Diaries and Dossiers, Iron Stamps, Staplers, Hole Punches and Cameras..... always something to handle and play with. Both infused, to my sensibility, with a comfortingly musty smell of the past. The Streets of Stockport where I first grew up, not a stones throw away from L S Lowry’s Painted Streets and Factories, were all cobbled, where heavy Drays were pulled by Shire Horses from the Old Robinsons Brewery and the Steam Hammer puffed and chuffed all day and night. Even the Milk and the Coal were still delivered by horse carts. All the Buildings and houses were coated in black soot and I don’t remember anything in colour until one Summers day, when my Mother came out of the General Post Office with a Bright Red Umbrella and we crossed the Yorkstone pavement and cobbled road to her meet friend who had just purchased a Pink Isetta BMW Bubble Car. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen and my first introduction to anything in colour..... I’m sure the whole world was in black and white until that moment. Probably the most extraordinary thing I ever saw, was when one our teenage babysitter at my Huncoat Avenue home had a boyfriend drive by to pick her up in his brand new Red 1960’s E Type Jag. It was more like a spaceship than the old black Fords and sage green Rovers that passed for automobiles back then. It certainly caught my attention. Before I was 5 years old, I needed to have my tonsils out and entered Stepping Hill Hospital, with its old Victorian tiling and half painted eau de nil walls, terrifying shiny sharp chrome syringes in kidney shaped Bowls.
Crisply laundered Nurses, who were so strict and even slapped me across the face, when I couldn’t stop crying for my mother......and that strong smell of antiseptic and carbolic acid.... never did I ever think I would one day be designing a Victorian Style Hospital, where all those memories came flooding back to me. The first time I saw my Father at work was in a little Drawing Office in St Mary’s Butts, Reading when I was six years old, just after we had just moved home to the South of England. He had his own Drafting Table, which had a place for all his propelling pencils, erasers, Technical Instruments in their purple velvet case and fine Rotring Pens. He sat on a tall stool and smoked Embassy cigarettes in a golden haze. He then changed jobs and moved to an Office in Cheapside, Reading, behind the Art Deco Odeon Cinema, where I saw Zulu, The Battle of Britain, Dr. No, The Charge of The Light Brigade and Sound of Music, to name a few. There were Drawing Desks and stools as before, but as kids we peered over the tables with huge Scale Models of Reading Town Centre, surveying the new Inner Distribution Road (IDR) Designs Before and After, in which the old Victorian Town would be transformed into a modern working 20th Century Metropolis. I always loved touching and looking at my fathers Drawing Instruments, Scale Rulers, Propelling pencils and looking over the Plans and Town Maps, he brought home. When 9 years old, I took a Scale Ruler to school and my form teacher asked if I had permission from my father. As I did not, he then used said implement on edge, to rap across the back of my fingers..... brutal, or perhaps just a normal Catholic upbringing. However, the most important early memory that truly inspired me, was when Powell & Pressburger’s 'A Matter Of Life & Death‘ was screened late one night on our new Colour Television, which had just replaced our old 60’s Space Age streamlined Sony TV...... a British film which totally changed my perception of Film Making and opened my eyes to Film Design.
After 4 years at Chelsea School of Art, I had prepared and intended to Study for an MA at Atelier 63 in Haarlem, Holland, but circumstances led me to having an Exhibition of work in a Gallery in Fulham, London in the late summer of 1980. I suggested the owner should consider using the Gallery in which he also lived and held huge social parties, as a Film Studio. A year later, he asked if I could come in and find a way to make money in any way I thought fit. Fulham Studios became one of the busiest studios in London within a year. It was 1981 and opened up not only a career for me in the Film Industry at the very birth of Pop Videos, but also allowed me the freedom to start designing.
Ged on set in Cape Town 2019
What icebreaker helped you to pursue your career in design?
There are a few Icebreakers that helped me pursue my Career in Design. The first was being given the opportunity to design a Japanese Set in the Pop Video for Andy Fraser (Free - All Right Now) - 'Fine Fine Line' at my Studio. Many Pop Videos followed, but the next great opportunity or icebreaker, was when a Producer friend of mine saw shots of the set I designed for a Barbers Shop for a Brylcreem Commercial. She showed it to an up and coming Director called Gerard De Thame and together we made many Pop Videos and TV Commercials, often shot in Black & White that were very beautiful, which opened doors in the commercial world and allowed me to start travelling. The third and most possibly important Icebreaker was when I was asked by a new rising star Director Tarsem, who had sought me out, to design a beer commercial with him in the UK, after which he promised I would make every future project with him outside the USA. It was that which really launched my career.
How would you describe your design work & where you find inspiration?
I find it difficult to describe my own design work, as I have been lucky enough to design in many styles and techniques of Fantasy and Fiction within Film Making, recreating moments in time from Pre Historic to the Year Million, covering Cultures from around the world, Ancient & Modern, great movements in Art & Architecture, Photography and Literature. I can certainly say my work is usually well researched, very Visual, Photogenic and Atmospheric, which hopefully conveys the truth of the story, through my designs.
I find Inspiration in everything from Art & Architecture, Photography & Films, Fashion, Travel, Literature, Nature and the world around me...... there is very little I am not interested in or Inspired by. I have a huge collection of Books and Magazines which I store on every bookshelf and corner of my house. I continue to expand my collection, plus pull and save Images I find through the Internet and Social Media.... Instagram and Pinterest seem to be the best right now, but I also follow various Podcasts and websites on favoured subjects.
Your Greatest Creative Achievement
I guess my greatest creative achievement is unsurprisingly, the Feature Film I did with Tarsem... THE FALL. This was a project that I had been working on fairly consistently for over six years before it was shot. I first discussed The Fall in 1994 with Tarsem and learned how he hated Pirate Movies, but wanted to make this one about a Bandit. It was a story about Storytelling and how that has radically changed over the last 100 years with the advent of Film & Radio. We continually discussed what Sets I would need to design and what locations we might use around the world from our travels. I spent hours in book shops, spending thousands of pounds purchasing obscure reference books, from Missions along the West Coast of California, Medical Journals and catalogues to books on Spain, Brazil, Prague, Argentina, Italy, Rajasthan and India, Turkey, Cambodia, Egypt, on Deserts, Mountains, Old California, Old Hollywood, Orange Growing, old advertising, Cowboys, Stuntmen, Asian Armour and Weapons, Butterflies, Cartography, Old Movies and Transport of the period including Trains, Cars, Trucks, Palanquins and Carts. I visited National Museums, Hospital Museums, Art Galleries and Exhibitions. I accumulated over 27,000 images by the time we began to shoot the first scene. To give you an idea of the process, we were shooting a commercial in Jodhpur for Mastercard in 1997, when I decided to get a haircut at the far end of the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel, where we later shot many sequences for The Fall. Next to the Barber Shop was a little book store in which I found an obscure book of black and white photographs on Ladakh. It was an expensive book, but it revealed a world of new locations which would be perfect for the project. The first plan was to find an old Hospital in Spain, but that proved impossible, so I set about designing all the Interiors, which we planned to build on Stages at Buftea Studios, Bucharest. Tarsem made the decision to self finance The Fall himself and called me up in 2003 to see if I was prepared to earn virtually nothing for the best part of six to eight months to make it happen. That turned out to be nearly two years of my life and reduced my once healthy bank balance to zero, with mortgage, bills & school fees. However, I do believe it to be the best two years of my Film Making Life & hope the results of that effort will stand the test of time.
Other projects worth a mention would be the Award Winning Smirnoff – Message in a Bottle, receiving the Grand Prix at Cannes amongst many other awards. Tarsem had suggested he might pass on this project, unless I had a good idea how to stage it. It was written as a Pool Party in Los Angeles, but I suggested we make it in the Studio on a Cruise Ship.... and the rest is history. The other Commercial I am very proud of is Hennessey – The Cyclone, about the first Black World Champion Track Cyclist Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor. I had to redesign a Velodrome to look like Madison Square Garden 1899 together with a full team of Racing Bikes that could pedal up to 40 Kmph. All the original bikes had to be built from scratch and shipped from England to Lviv, Ukraine in just over two weeks. Again, the level of research and work that went into that job was intense, but thoroughly rewarding.
The Logitech Commercial in which I designed, built and dressed a WWI British & German Trench with No Man’s Land, shot at night in the frost and snow for the Truce of 1914, was also a highlight. There are many other projects I have been proud to have designed, including the Emmy Nominated Docu/Drama YEAR MILLION for National Geographic. I have been fortunate enough to design a wide range of sets covering subjects as varied as ancient Egyptians, Romans and Incas, through Medieval, Tudor, Georgian, Victorian periods, from Art Deco, Mid Century Modern to Contemporary design, with every conceivable Eclectic, Minimal, Futuristic, Fairytale and Fantasy settings, in just about every conceivable destination from China, Canada, Peru, Morocco, Iceland, Vietnam to Ireland and London with over 50 countries and cultures around the world. To have been lucky enough to have worked in many Film Studios, Cities, Jungles, Deserts, Forests, Moors, Plains, Mountains, Glaciers, Arctic, Lakes, Oceans, Rivers, Canals and Streams, Cities, Towns and Villages, Palaces, Castles, Grand Houses, Architectural Monuments, Caves, Waterfalls, Dams, Grand Hotels, Boutique Hotels, Beaches, Private Islands, Rainforests, Cafes, Derelict Houses and hovels, Skyscrapers and Mines, Race Tracks, amazing Homes, Gardens, on Period and futuristic Trains, Trams, Trucks, Racing Cars and even once in my own house, when we couldn’t find a location. Aside from that, I have also been privileged to work with some of the most wonderful and fascinating creatures and people on the planet.
Ged - Extra on THE FALL Opening Scene 2004
And, finally what was the best advice you were ever given?
Your final question as to what was the best advice I was ever given has stumped me. Not because I have not been given good advice, nor ignored any given, but for the life of me, I cannot think anyone ever said I should do something I believed to be anything I wasn’t already doing. I certainly had many suggest I didn’t do certain things where I pressed ahead and did them anyway to fortunately find it was the correct decision. The only Advice I know and can honestly say I can recommend, is to try and learn something new everyday. Be like a sponge to all things, for you cannot know enough about this world and to never be surprised when asked to create something you know nothing about. Knowledge is everything.
For anyone considering taking up the role of a Production Designer in Film, here is my take on what the job entails. A Production Designer must understand how to take the writer’s work, the director’s vision, and the producer’s plan to synthesise into a visual story – To create the Visuals, Sets, Locations and Style for a Movie or any Film Project.
The role of a Production Designer is quite unique and important in that the whole look and style of a Film will come under their control, from the first reading of a script through Research, Design to Realisation, whether it be Concept Design, Planning, Set Building, Location Dressing, Model-making, SFX and CGI for the whole colour and tone of the film.
A Production Designer needs to be engaged at the very beginning of any Film Project, to be able to create the look, style or period that relates the story in any setting.
A Production Designer is not just the head of the Art Department, but must also understand all aspects of the Film Medium, such as the Cinematography, Costume Design, Lighting, Direction and Production, to be able to make the visual language created, suit each scene.
It is through the creativity, organisation and knowledge of the Production Designer, designing environments, that the Director and Actors can bring the script to life. For each project, a Production Designer takes the Writers script, the Directors Vision and the Producers Plan to create a visual world.
A Production Designer needs to be a Master of Art & Design, Architecture, Interior Design, Photography, Style & Fashion, History & Period, Graphic Design, Culture, as well as having Drawing and Drafting skills, to be able to allow his team of Art Directors, Concept Artists, Draftsmen, Set Decorator and Prop Buyers, Construction Managers, Carpenters, Painters, Plasterers, Sculptors, Scenic Artists, Graphic Artists, Modelmakers, Propmen, SFX and Assistants to understand and translate the world of the Production Designers Vision. A Production Designer must be an Historian, a Futurist and fully understand Contemporary Life & Culture. To create a Set on a Stage or Location, Man Management is almost as important as the creative process.
If I have any advice for anyone who may wish to become a Production Designer, I can only suggest that Hand Drawing is the core of all Design and Conceptual Visualisation and that to be able to draw is, in my opinion, the best way to be able to show yourself and present to others, a world you may wish to create.
I have tried to find new ways to tell a story, to visualize that which is written. To continue to learn, develop and research all things. To create and design a new world, one has to know and understand all things within that world.