A two-time recipient of the Art Directors Guild award for “Excellence in Production Design,” Brad Ricker has brought to life a large number of outstanding movies in his 30 year long career, including 2004’s The Terminal, 2010’s Inception, and 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. He graciously allowed Lift-Off some of his time to talk about his passion for his job, working on Inception and showed off a great wealth of knowledge and wisdom that would be invaluable to anyone starting off in the film art world.
When did you first decide that you wanted to pursue a career as a film art director and what were the first steps you took in making it a reality?
I have always been interested in filmmaking. I directed short films as a kid. Early on I admired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Dr. Strangelove. I studied art, semiotics, film, but had never realized design for film was something one could do. After school I found myself in New York, an artist who really wanted to be a filmmaker. I needed a job and friends suggested that I should art direct. I had been painting, doing photography, and had studied some architecture with the intention of going into it professionally, but knew nothing about art direction. They said I’d be a natural. Around that time, Blade Runner and The Road Warrior came out, and I realized these were worlds created for films. I looked back on the films I had admired and realized an art director/ production designer (one term superseded the other) had shaped the worlds on screen. It suddenly made sense to me that my skills- which were practical because I could make things, and visual because I could imagine things- might be useful in a medium I adored. I studied drafting for theater, working on small shows with demanding sets for little money, and watching films with new eyes. I worked on friends’ student films at NYU and ended up getting the art direction award (they thought I went there!). I worked on Spanish Language commercials with an interesting group of Latin American filmmakers. This led to designing my first feature, Candy Mountain, which was directed by Robert Frank. After moving to Los Angeles, I was fortunate to work with Production Designer Peter Lamont for more than a year on his first two films in the states. Early on, I got to learn from a legend.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
It is amazing to me how quickly we go from rough ideas based on imagined realities to very detailed and convincing environments that look more real than the buildings in which they’re constructed. To bring a story to life, working with the director or the production designer, creates shared purpose and excitement. Working with the set designers, the construction crew and painters, to achieve a convincing imagined reality is a great pleasure. I think the Art Department is one of the coolest places to be.
Do you have a favourite genre of film to design for, and does that differ from the films you enjoy to watch?
I love to design and art direct sets that are fantastic and not what you see everyday. Things that don’t exist. But I like them to be grounded and seem completely believable. It’s fun to do things that stretch reality without breaking it; that convince you that you are in a place that just doesn’t exist, except (within) that film. Or a film based in reality like Moneyball, which happened in a unique world we did not have access to. We had to make it: conceive, design and build sets on stage.
I love watching comedies. I haven’t worked on a comedy lately, but maybe when Cheney comes out next year I will have… It will be dark but hopefully funny too.
Your more recent films have been in the superhero genre. Did you grow up liking comic books and is it then more difficult taking on board not just the production designer’s vision but also the original artist’s?
I was never that into comic books growing up (when I was a kid I was more into Lewis Carroll and Tolkien), but my cousin was, and I remember his obsession. I read his comics. I have no comics collection (except for R. Crumb) but I love graphic novels. Comics have become a bigger part of our collective mythology than ever before. They seemed cornier then. Now they are treated quite seriously and it’s more interesting.
I liked Batman as a superhero, partly because he has no real superpowers; only obsession, intelligence (and) big money. I liked Spiderman because he was a hero that was never appreciated. He was a kid, an outlaw, misunderstood. I like the heroes that are grounded in a bitter reality. But on the other end of the spectrum the more bizarre and humorous Marvel movies have been wonderful! And the mythology is getting deeper. Oliver Scholl brought me onto Spiderman: Homecoming and Suicide Squad. He’s more of a science fiction aficionado than I am, so I felt I could help build up what was most real, and literal, like a story that actually happened. I tried to think of it as though we were telling a true story. “It seems incredible but- it happened to me…”
You’ve done some production designing yourself. Out of production design and art directing, which do you prefer and why?
I love both, and what you learn from one applies to the other. Production Design is about inspiration and Art Direction about strategy. But honestly you need a lot of both in each job!
A Production Designer works closely with the Director to create a visual environment for them to tell their story. The Production Designer uses research, concept illustrations and set models, which are made by or for the Art Department. An Art Director runs the Art Department, Set Design, sets, stages, budgets. They also communicate closely with Construction, A.D.’s and the Producers to support the Designer. Ideally there’s a lot of artistic collaboration too.
What has been the biggest hurdle you have faced on a production?
The Budget is always the big hurdle, no matter how big or small the show. You always have to go to the limit of what’s possible and not over the limit of the budget. You want to get the most you can to the screen. You have to design without worrying about costs, and yet you have to figure out how to achieve the most you can with the budget you’ve got. It actually gets creative. It can also be painful to make a sacrifice, but worth it to get what’s most important.
Do you have anything to say to those that are looking to become producers and set the budgets of future films?
Dear Future Producers:
When you read the script, imagine the world it takes place in. If that world is not outside your door, if you are telling a story that takes place on another planet, or in another country, it will cost more than a story about a runaway in your present day city, who steals a car and robs a convenience store. Budget more for stories in places you are nowhere near. Some scripts require creating an entire fictional reality. Concept work takes time as well as money. It could be the ancient past, the fantastic future, or an alternate present reality.
There’s a popular theory that Inception is a metaphor for filmmaking and the characters represent different jobs: Cobb is director, Arthur is producer, Ariande is the screenwriter, etc; but there was no character designed for the art director.
Well, Inception is about a group that creates an illusion of reality. If it were an Art Department I would see Cobb as the Production Designer. I see Arthur as the Art Director. He is trying to make Cobb’s vision work, to understand and implement it. He’s laying groundwork, finding and altering locations, all the time watching the clock. Ariadne, the “Architect” would be a Set Designer. She understands less the reason for what they are doing (maybe she wasn’t allowed to read the script?) but has the most responsibility to make it a thoughtful and convincing fictional reality that can be inhabited.
Do you think that the majority of audiences gloss over the work you do?
Yes, I believe most audiences have no idea what we do. Ideally they are completely involved in the story and think that what they see is real, at least in the moment. Even I sometimes watch a movie and find out later that what I had assumed was real was of course a set!
Inception was an amazing looking film though. How much research and then physical labour went into making that a reality? How did it compare to the workload of any of your other films?
I was involved from start to finish as Supervising Art Director, and Guy Dyas was the Production Designer. It was very demanding in every way. When I read the script twice the first day I felt I got it. It was absolutely amazing. Figuring out how to break it into meaningful parts and locations and sets was one of the most complex things I’ve ever had to do and I was proud to be able to do it. It was complex and I tried to straighten it out into a comprehensible story to everyone around me. Not everyone on the crew was even allowed to read the script. It was secretive. But some who did read it were confused. There are so many parallels- so many elevators, bathrooms, workshops, places that are neutral zones for transitions, but so important, that needed to be distinguishable. They existed on different levels of reality. It was hard even to figure out how many elevator buttons to put in the cab. What floor is the beach on? Limbo? Which limbo? Guy’s wife, Dominique Arcadio, is a wonderful researcher with a great eye and did research that formed a sort of visual mood board we drew from like a well. Much of her research came from books and libraries- the internet was not adequate for many subjects.
Christopher Nolan believes strongly in making as much as possible practical and to avoid relying on Visual Effects until absolutely necessary. We had to design and build complicated moving sets that were combined with Special (physical) Effects rather than Visual (computer) Effects. It increased demands on our department but it really paid off. People would be surprised how much was practical. The Penrose Steps- built real, figured out and drawn by Dean Wolcott. The train in the city streets, built real. Rain towers were hung all over downtown L.A. streets for the chase. Because it was a worldwide production, Guy had to travel and work on location for a long period while I maintained our core art department in Los Angeles. We had our hands more than full. And there were daily discussions of the works in progress across many time zones. Another Art Department was in London to work on European locations and sets that were built there, particularly our Special Effects heavy sets shot in early production. Designs for the rotating and descending corridors, drawn by Josh Lusby, the bullet train, the plane, the Penrose Steps, the Japanese Castle(s), the city battles and chase, the city train, The snow fortress, all came from L.A. We were a small group of art director/ set designers. The Train was built in a vacant lot on a diesel truck chassis. It actually drove down Spring Street in downtown L.A. the night before shooting. In our first discussions I assumed it would be partially done with Visual Effects. Not for Chris Nolan, I was told. I realized it should match the real train on a location in their dream level, at the tracks where they lay their heads. That dictated the type of train. It was so real an alarmed cop panicked when he saw a train in the street and was shouting “You can’t drive that here!” He thought it had left the tracks. The part that is most notably Visual Effects dependent is the folding Paris cityscape. But the transition to it was built on a tilting gimbal. I think people don’t realize how much was cleverly built. It was a very demanding show, both mentally and physically, but even at the time I felt it was important. And what’s more fun than working on something you believe could be great?
If someone wants to pursue a career as an art director, how would you recommend they go about it?
Learn the crafts that are used in the Art Department. Learn the skills you need to be a Set Designer, a Model Maker, a concept Illustrator, Graphic Designer, a Decorator. Or learn some of the skills those people need you to have so that you can assist them. Don’t just learn programs- learn history, scale and proportions. You need to get into a job to really learn (about it).
I often tell people that, when you are looking for a job, tell the friendly person just a level above you what you want to do next. Hopefully they will send some of the work your way that they have to turn down because they’re too busy already working. Stay in touch with the most busy and talented people you meet.
What would your top three tips for up and coming art directors be?
- Start everything early. It’s probably already late now. Don’t let construction wait for drawings- it can cost nearly as much as building a set. Watch your budget.
- Learn digital media that the art department depends on. But also pick up a pencil and sketch whenever you can.
- Communicate with all the departments on a show and learn what each one does. Ask questions and try to understand the whole production. Have respect for the other departments’ points of view. Be a good listener.
This has been great! Is there anything else you want to say to the up-and-comers in your profession?
We have the honor of being called the Art Department, because of our background and skills. But this leads to a misunderstanding. Art is a loaded word. Some might think that we as Artists want to indulge creative impulses. “Art for Art’s sake.” What if we were called the Fictional Reality Department? You might be more inclined to believe that we’re a team working to bring the story to life. That name doesn’t sound as good though, does it?
Interview by Reece Mawhinney. (Images courtesy of Legendary Pictures, Marvel Pictures and Brad Ricker.com, in that order)