Scott Bird APDG, designer of the recently released film Escape from Pretoria in conversation with emerging designer, Courtney Westbrook.
In relation to the film Escape from Pretoria, how did you find your way into the world of the apartheid era in South Africa? Do you have methods that assist research on this film and others?
Escape from Pretoria is a film shot in Adelaide in 2019. It is based on the true story of the escape of three men imprisoned in South Africa in 1979 for their support of the anti-apartheid movement and the ANC. (And available now to rent on your preferred VOD supplier)
From the initial indication that I was being considered as designer for the project, I began my research of 70’s apartheid South Africa. Even before I had my first talks with the director, I was trying to come up with my ideas of the texture, colours, feel and reality of the world of Cape Town and Pretoria in 1979. There is always going to be a Day 1 of shoot, and never quite enough time before that to get everything done, so I don’t want to be regretting that I didn’t make use of every moment I had to prepare, should I get the job. I like to go into selection interviews with a good knowledge of the subject matter and ideas about what I think we could do. Those who know me know that I don’t like to be caught without something to say!
On this project the director, Francis Annan, wrote the script, had visited the real locations in South Africa and had been in planning for several years, so there was a good explanation in his script of what it was he wanted. He outlined very clearly the shooting requirements and the physical layout and size of the sets and he and his wife had drawn very comprehensive storyboards detailing every shot of many scenes.
Francis also provided a lot of reference on films and television he liked and had clipped frames of shots similar to what he wanted to achieve. He also had covers from magazines of the time, photographs, and a wide selection of fine art images from Caravaggio to Edward Hopper.
When presented with a trove of references like this – and there were many, many files – I tried to cull it down to a few index images to represent the concepts I thought the pictures best represented. For the above I thought they were about strong directional lighting, cast shadow, and chiaroscuro. (I also liked the quite unhealthy green glow of the reflected colours…) Other groups were about colour, texture, ageing, period details etc.
I think most designers prefer to steer away from referencing other films and I concentrated my research on images from the era and particularly the work of David Goldblatt, a South African photographer who had documented his country for over 70 years. Very fortunately, there was a major exhibition of his work at the MCA in Sydney at the time I began researching and a fantastic catalogue of the works in the exhibition. We also had the benefit of the source material, Tim Jenkin’s book Inside Out, which included pictures and illustrations of some of the ‘key’ (pun intended…) features of the story. We also had access to the man himself. Tim Jenkin, the writer of the book and one of the real escapees, was very helpful, answering questions sent to him by email. He also came to Australia to observe the filming and was available to look at props and items we had made and offer his advice.
Colin Gibson APDG said in his talk with Jacinta Leong APDG the other day, the top ten results on your google search are what someone has paid for you to see! While we are always going to derive the majority of research from the internet now, I try to come at the searches from many different directions, otherwise I just keep turning up the same information. And I like to go outside digital references to primary sources as much as possible. I use the internet to find contemporary books, magazines, and newspapers. A copy of a South African travel magazine from the time gives a massive amount of information in the advertising and articles around a picture that you would otherwise only find as a bald image without context on someone’s “Pinterest” board.
Did you find it challenging or helpful to create designs that are based on the real-life events?
I really enjoy the research part of the design process and of course it is essential to provide the structure of the design scheme. When I was working for Tony Pratt on The Pacific, every drawing and dressing plan had to be supported by contemporary references. Every type font, door handle, light fitting, chair, switch cover or architrave moulding had to be demonstrated to have been possible for that character, at the time and in that place. It really reinforced for me an understanding of the aggregation of tiny details to create the right look.
But there is always a worry about getting it right, especially when the actual characters are around to critique the outcome. In the Pretoria scripts, sometimes Francis had written the schemes and props as being slightly more complex than the reality. Tim, when he arrived was very pragmatic in these situations, often saying that things, while not exactly as he had made them, could well have been had he started with the same materials to solve the same problem. (For example the shelf trim edges and rubber band apparatus we designed to transfer notes under locked cell doors.)
The descriptions in Tim’s book are quite matter of fact about his situation. He does not tell you how bad things were, but just describes them and leaves the reader to picture how dire the situation was. Reading the source material was at times astounding and often a little depressing.
What was your initial process to prepare yourself and your team for the first day of filming?
Firstly I looked for the best heads of department. I like to select the core team of art director, set decorator, construction manager and head scenic artist. Once they were in place we met up in groups and individually to discuss the references, drawings, colour and materials boards and ideas I had compiled. I trust them to contribute their skills, ideas and solutions to the many problems and to find the additional people to achieve the best outcome.
I always try to answer all questions as quickly as possible. I use a white board by my desk to illustrate answers in detail. If I am not getting the result I want, I am not explaining myself properly!
It is also very important to search out and keep up with changes; to the script; to the locations; to the drawings; to the budget; to the director’s requests; to the schedule. Finding all this information and distributing it in as timely manner as possible is essential for the most efficient path to being ready for Day One.
You had an incredible team on this film, especially in the Art Department. Could you tell us about your collaboration with Lisa Brennan (Set Decorator), Erica Brien (Art Director) and Mariot Kerr (Costume Designer)?
As I said earlier, I consider the art director and set decorator to be two of my most important collaborators in the art department. (Followed very closely by the graphic designer… Thank you Daniel Willis!)
I work with Lisa as often as I can, whenever she is available. She is a wonderful contributor of ideas and detail to the designs. Having a great set decorator takes away the worry of having everything ready and right on time. Having worked together in the past is a huge time saver. Knowing each other’s strengths establishes an easy communication short hand. She knows my feelings on timber colours for furniture for example and I know what she gets or suggests will be what I wanted when it turns up on set!
I am always astounded and gratified when a set is being dressed and all the little details between what you have asked for have been filled in. I like to have someone who can see the complementary things – not just get what is on the list. Despite being a fairly sparsely dressed film, I am happy that everything used was meticulously researched and right for the look of the set.
A good decorator also knows how to run their team. Our set decoration department was efficient and happy and turned out amazing work, often with very tight deadlines. The dressing of Pirie Street in the Adelaide CBD for the opening sequence was a precise military manoeuvre. Together with Erica, the art director, they timed it out to the minute. We only had access to the street from 6.00pm the night before filming with a 12-hour deadline. Erica managed to schedule all the departments, construction, graphics and sign installers, SFX, scenic artists, vehicles, dressers, props and the Adelaide council to all be ready right on time. And then turn it all back around again in half that time that night after the shoot!
Erica, like all good art directors, was across all the details of all departments. It was far from easy thing to do as the process was very spread out, with our huge studio build being done just outside ‘the zone’ at the Holden Factory out in Elizabeth.
Keeping track of this was a big and difficult challenge, but again she managed it, with a bit of an organised push, to be complete right on time. I am always re-assured when the art director and decorator can launch at full speed from the outset and I knew I could rely on them to get it done.
Working with Mariot, who was our costume designer, is always a pleasure. We talk early on in the process, almost as soon as she starts to discuss the colour and texture palette. I provide her with paint swatches and material samples for the sets, and she in turn provides me with material swatches so I can brief the art team about what the main costumes will be in each set and location. Mariot is always interested to see what we are planning so that she can harmonise (or contrast) the costumes with each set. Conversely, when she is ahead of us with her designs, I can make decisions for the set based on what she is planning. But because we have discussed it at the outset, we are always within the design parameters we have already established. On this production she found for us a picture that became our key reference for part of the opening street explosion sequence.
What works best for you when communicating your ideas to your collaborators? Particularly, your process with Director, Francis Annan and other HOD’s outside of the Art Department.
I found the practicality of dealing with the director on this film was different from my usual experience of working in television. You are both available during the pre-production period, and I, as designer, was not trying to deal with another team in pre for the next episodes. So access to Francis was easy to arrange as he was very engaged with the design process and would come to the art department most afternoons.
Francis had a background as a DOP and he was very well prepared for knowing what he wanted to see through the camera. I found the best way to communicate with him was through 3d models and full-scale demonstrations of distance. We had marked out on the floor of the art department a scale of distances so I could go and stand there to demonstrate for example, 15’ or 4500 (we seemed to jump backwards and forwards between metric and imperial) so he could see it and understand it with his knowledge and eye for camera lenses.
One of the most important people to keep informed on the sets and locations is the DOP. On this film it was the very lovely and talented Geoff Hall. The more you can tell the DOP about what they are going to get well in advance, the more chance that it will be in their shot consideration from the outset. Geoff is very appreciative for a heads up on the prac lights you are going to provide and is very helpful with information about what he needs to achieve his additional lighting for the set.
With his knowledgeable input, we were able to achieve some great effects in the main cell wing corridor with a combination of blue plastic tarps and interchangeable clear and textured polycarbonate window panes. Depending on the shot, we could get a diffused blue sky feel or swap them out to clear and get hard ‘god-ray’ type beams to show up in the atmos pumped into the space. Keeping the DOP informed is the best way to get on screen value from the sets you have built.
Was the entirety of the filming captured in South Australia? Could you give us examples of some sets that are locations and some that were built? What were important changes that were made to the locations and what were the reasons behind needing to build?
Apart from the stock footage at the opening of the film, everything was shot in and around Adelaide.
Both the upper prisoner wing and cells and ground floor admin corridor were sets built in a factory space at the decommissioned Holden plant in Elizabeth. We had a look at the actual cells at the Old Adelaide Gaol, but because of the blocking and camera access requirements, the real thing was not going to work. And we ended up shooting in an unblackable warehouse with all its problems as there was no space big enough at Adelaide studios to fit the set into.
Francis had worked out very particular timings for the duration of shots and would walk up and down our marked up art dept floor grid to say how far he thought they would get at the speed he wanted them to walk for the duration of the shot he was planning. Consequently, the set tended to grow and grow in length. Not that I was complaining – I love a big set with great perspective!
The design of the end wall with the entry gate to the upper floor wing was another example of the set design catering to the shots Francis wanted to get. He wanted there to be at least 3 steps from the top of the stairs before the guard would appear at the grille gate. This made for some interesting problems for a shot he wanted later where the camera was mounted on that gate as is swung open the first time they opened it. When we had to match the cell wing landing and gate up on the first floor we had to add more rostra so we could float the wall when required and have the camera body and operator swing out beyond the set.
Getting the two storey feel in the blocking involved building a fairly major prac staircase attached to the administration corridor wing. There were matched cuts between the two sets to bring them from the upper gate down to the “Lion’s Den” admin corridor.
The cell build was a combination of real brick and ply flattage. The real brick was used for the two hero cell front walls as we were going to get very close to these and have a lot of interaction with the window unit and I didn’t want there to be any give as he pressed up against it to reach the outer door lock with the crank.
We built within locations to achieve the prison woodwork shop, the canteen, shower room, visiting rooms and even the court which was a strip out and re-dress of Port Adelaide council chambers, adding the dock and segregated public gallery area.
The prison yard, which was shot at Old Adelaide Gaol, was not without its problems. The area was grassed, overlooked by huge old camera units which had to be removed and no fencing or guard tower. The guard tower did double duty as the one overlooking the yard and the gun tower being built outside the gates.
What do you love most about your career as a Production Designer and do you have any advice for upcoming creatives who want to pursue this path?
It was quite accidental that I ended up at AFTRS at the end of 1981 when they ran their first year of design training. I was a graphic design student and not very happy doing press advertisements and annual reports, and so I strayed over to the film school at Swinburne and offered to design costumes and sets for the film students there. When AFTRS announced their design course, Swinburne asked to send students up on secondment to take part. Kerith Holmes and I were selected, because I don’t think that they knew what else to do with us…
We were given a crash course in film design by lecturer Dennis Gentle over the Christmas break and then expected to take on the AFTRS student films as they returned for the 1982 year. At the end of our time we went out on job experience placements, during which I was offered a job with the Grundy Organization as an assistant art director to designer, Tom Lingwood.
What do I love about it? I have always enjoyed the short-term nature of the projects we do. The contract environment suits me. To be completely immersed in World War 1 nursing for six months and then move on to 80’s billionaire excess, Chinese gangsters, hi-tech government spying, then to apartheid South Africa suits my restlessness. The few times I tried to go back to a permanent job, I went completely insane.
What I would say to upcoming young designers is, don’t make the mistakes I made! I spent far too long just taking whatever was offered to me next without too much discernment. I did a lot of very crappy game shows early on, and while there are things to learn from working on the designs for The Price is Right, you don’t have to do it three times for three different networks…
I was nearly 40 before I realised that I needed to go back and work for designers who actually knew what they were doing – to learn about what a designer actually is. I left doing Sale of the Century, sit coms and the like to work as an Art Director for lots of different designers for nearly 10 years. From each one I learnt a lot about many aspects of being a designer. I learnt about temperament, bravery in your vision, scale, detail, dedication, documentation, and so much more. Still, on day one of each new job I don’t know how I am going to get everything done, but when you break it down, all your experience comes back to you and you do get it done, somehow…