Interview with Rennie Watson

How did you begin your career in Production Design? 

I started as an actor and when I was going through acting school (Theatre Studies at NMIT) was always the student that preferred to be building the sets and making puppets for my class. It’s funny how you don’t see what is right in front of you. I was acting for a while before deciding to go to film school at Swinburne University to study directing. Everything I wrote had a heavy emphasis on the look of the films and what wacky sets and props I could write into the story. The stories were genuinely rubbish themselves (laughs), but everyone seemed to love the worlds I was creating. Over the years my peers were seeing my designs and started contacting me to be the production designer on their films.

What attracted you to the role of Production Designer?

I love the challenge of making something new and the process of working out how to create dynamic spaces and worlds as believable as possible. I have always loved fantasy or epic space opera films like The Fifth Element 1997 and Star Wars. I have a soft spot for films like Pans Labyrinth 2006, and any films that you need to create a whole new world. I am very intrigued by the hands-on crafted aspects of these films, false perspectives, and tricks of the eye. I like to know how things are made so I can use these methods or expand on them in my work. Prior to Lost and Found 2018, I created a few commercials with the director Andrew Goldsmith (Goldy) and I found that every ad had a gimmick of some sort or an out of the box prop or costume that we could make. 

Was there specific research/training you did before diving into designing for animation?

I learnt on the job. As I had the trust of Goldy through previous work, Lost and Found was my first animation. I set the benchmark high (laughs). We were set up in the same co-working space previously at Oh Yeah Wow where they made a lot of animation and unique content. With this, I was fortunate that I had a good team that I could ask questions. At the time I was familiar with materials, so a lot of the learning came from testing shots with our animator, prop maker and character designer Samuel Lewis. 

I had just got back from a holiday in Japan, so a lot of my design research came from my photography. With a few holidays to Japan and watching a lot of anime, the world of Lost and Found felt comfortable to me.

What was your design process?

My process involved creating mood boards, sketches, a basic floor plan and 3D render in Sketchup so the team could start planning shots within the space as I continued to design. In pre-production we designed a range of comedic movie posters for promoting the film that had a word play on the posters that we were recreating. We found it was a great way to engage audiences early on and generate excitement for the film.

Goldy, Bradley Slabe (Co-director) and Sam produced a range of storyboards which helped with my design process to know much we were seeing in shot. At that stage I was creating Photoshop renders of the space and starting to source. Our team had regular production meetings to involve all departments and keep up with the forever evolving nature of stop motion animation. 

One of the directors and I had a small debate over creating a sushi train on the benchtop. As it was on the border of the storyboard visuals, I thought it best to plan for more than what the camera might see. I find that as a designer you need to always plan to see more than the planned shot. If on the day the camera is pulled back slightly you might end up with a metre or more in the background that now needs to be dressed. I would rock up on set with crates of Japanese props to fill in any blank spaces. At one point we even used the crates for dressing with some added food parcels.

What was the biggest challenge and in what ways did you problem solve?

Designing the set and then having a conversation of needing to raise it up a metre for animating purposes was a big challenge in such a confined space. The ceiling height was quite low. For stop motion animating, the process can be very harsh on the body, so all the sets needed to be raised to bench height. After knowing this, the plan was going to be designing hatches that Sam could pop in and out of. As this can also be harsh on the body, we ended up having 4 floor pieces that connected together that could go wide or tight depending on the shot. That gave Sam access to always be able to reach the puppets. We also had a few extra small pieces of flooring to join in any back corners if needed. The whole thing was hard to be honest but extremely rewarding. 

Was animating water tricky? 

Yes (laughs). Sam and I experimented through a lot of tests. The poring of water was quite simple due to using a fine acetate however the other ways in which we needed to represent water took more thought. The surface water within the tub was a gel in custom made sacks. We wanted the freedom to move the puppet around the tub so we put the puppet in tubes that the Fox could sit into without getting covered in gel. As we viewed this scene from beneath the water the lines created from this tube container were covered with layers of gel and perfected in post.

Did you shoot chronologically due to your puppet “getting wet”?

We tried. Because our puppet got “wet” with clear araldite to create drips on its yarn we had to have multiple puppets. We ended up having perhaps six Knotzilla in various stages of assemble and about four of Fox. We had to have dismantled sections of Knotzilla as he unravelled, for example his head and tail. We did the last shot of Knotzilla’s tail unravelling about six times to get it correct. Each time with a large turnaround.

Could you talk about your process as the Production Designer on this film, and how you interacted with a fairly large-scale team in a short film sense?

Even though the credits looked quite large, it was a condensed team. Many of our team had two or three roles. I think we had about four to five people on set at any one time, so on filming days I was essentially the “Art Department”. 

The character design was already finished prior to hiring me. The director had previously created a picture book and rewrote it for the purposes of making this film. The book had three different stories and originally, we were going to make three animations. Two and three are not on the horizon (laughs). Since the characters were already designed within the book in terms of fabrics (crochet), shapes (dinosaur and fox) and colours (green and orange), I designed the film around them. I did the APDG Mentorship program last year with Jo Ford and she mentioned a concept of finding a fixed variable and designing with that in mind. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was incorporating this idea into how I work on many of my projects. Now that I have become aware of what I was doing, I purposely work this concept into my process of designing.

What was the duration of the film-making process? 

No-one apart from Samuel Lewis had previous experience in stop motion animation so collectively we didn’t fully grasp the time it was going to take. The film was funded by Screen Australia and I think I was originally commissioned for eight weeks for the design and build. The whole film took about two years to complete (laughs).

There was an overlap in pre-production and production dates so we decided to utilise half the studio space for the film set the other half as a construction site so we could still build set pieces and props for following shots.

After realising that the film was going to be an ongoing job in-between other gigs, we agreed that the fridge would always be full of beer and we could play video games at lunch time. 

Perhaps the films turnaround time would have been quicker if there was no video games (laughs). 

I admire the way you have articulated on your website the way you prefer to create effects in camera rather than leaving it up to creatives in post-production (laughs). 

The director Goldy works at Pixel Studios in Melbourne as a VFX Supervisor so from the start we had a plan for post. We also had VFX Supervisor, Dave Abbott around as much, if not more than me working with the crew. I love the process of making everything practical, and most of the design was handmade even if counter, sushi, windows, floors, and shelves. Having said this, I also love a director that knows when and where we need to plan for post-production. It saves time when knowing that you don’t need to struggle to problem solve the thing that may not work practically. 

Lost and Found was predominantly shot in camera. There were a few shots involving glass that was created in post such as a scene where Knotzilla looks through a pair of glasses and a scene where the mobile phone was cracked. Controlling reflections can be quite hard to do practically so these shots benefited from post-production. 

I built a blacked-out space as best I could but as it was a co-working space you would always get some sunlight through windows that creeped onto our set. This made it difficult to control to overall light from day to day. These levels were altered to create consistency in post.

Oh, and rig removal! As we had lots of flying or suspended objects, rigs needed to be removed in post. There were rigs to hold up a tail, an arm, or even string. I think nearly every shot had rigs made by Samuel Lewis.  

Do you have any fun facts about the film?

I had made a lot of paper props like menus; however, many lightweight objects were removed due to it being difficult to keep them in one place for many months. We used foil inside or on the back of soft props so that they could be manipulated incrementally whilst being rigid and heavy for animating. For example, there was foil stitched into the blanket when he throws it off.

There is a wide shot of the Zen garden which involved lots of cheating with different levels of dressing. This was a much-needed shot to show the distance between the two puppets and how far Knotzilla has to travel the save his love. The distance provides enough time to be able to increase the climactic tension of Knotzilla unravelling as he weaves in and out of the stool legs. The stools needed to have the supports removed for the action to be successful under them. We had to keep reminding people to not use the stools during the film breaks. When we had a wrap party someone finally attempted to sit on one of the stools and it collapsed (laughs). I did warn them.

Where do you see yourself in the future? What would you like to create?

I would absolutely love to design a space opera. At the moment I am really interested in behind the scenes footage of shows like the Mandalorian and I would love to be a part of creating something so visually rich in its handmade approach. I find it intriguing to learn about where the handmade meets new technology. 

I love horror and action films where they use as much physical effects as they can. It makes for a fun set and lets you learn every day. Who knows, perhaps a feature length animation where I could live in a studio for two years and have a creative team just building and creating sets with me. That would be cool.

Thank you, Rennie Watson.