Interviews with Industry

Felicity Abbott, Production Designer on UPGRADE & Ladies In Black

Having been awarded the Fox Studios Australia Award for Excellence in Design in 1999,  it is no mystery that Felicity Abbott is a very talented and accomplished production designer. Lift Off spoke with her to find out about her personal influences, the role of a production designer, and her experience of working on Leigh Whannell’s action amd sci-fi blockbuster, UPGRADE. 

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?

I have always gravitated toward the arts. I studied classical music, completed a fine arts degree and have been an avid watcher of cinema since I can remember. The work of the great production designers Ken Adam and Alexandre Trauner inspired me to study classical production design. I was fortunate enough to train at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney, Australia and later La Fémis in Paris, France. When we’re passionate about something, our learning is open-ended. I have been fortunate enough to engage with some extraordinary projects over the past 10 years, but I feel as if the journey has only just begun.

Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry?

Vincent Ward’s VIGIL and Geoff Murphy’s THE QUIET EARTH were significant films when I was growing up in New Zealand. I must have watched THX1138, (the first feature from George Lucas) a dozen times as a teenager and was fascinated by the screen craft. I watched every ‘foreign’ film I could get my hands on and was greatly influenced by European cinema.

For an outsider, what is the role of a production designer? What day your day to day consist of?

The production designer is responsible for creating the visual narrative or ‘look’ of a production. I work closely in collaboration with the director and cinematographer to design the ‘world’ and setting in which the story takes place. The production designer is the head of the art department and I work closely with the set decorator and they in turn supervise the creative team that realise the practical detail in each set. Each day is different, but is always unique and varied, with ongoing creative and practical issues to solve.
You’ve worked on many notable projects, such as Chasing Satellites, Alex & Eve, and The Eternity Man, to name a few. How do you choose your projects? Do you look for anything specific in the script?

I prioritise the team and the opportunity to create new worlds – the creative collaboration with the director and cinematographer is paramount.

You also worked on Upgrade which premiered at SXSW earlier this year. How did you get involved with this project? What drew to this film?

UPGRADE was the first time I have worked with Leigh Whannell. I was drawn to the script and the opportunity to work with Leigh who is an accomplished writer/director and actor. He has written a dynamic narrative that sits at the interface of high and low technology, so it was immediately appealing to me as a world to visualize. I was thrilled when Leigh asked me to design UPGRADE. He is very generous in his collaborative approach and we worked very closely to achieve a result that is unique.

The film looks very dark in tone, did you draw inspirations or influences from any other films/content?

Leigh always described this world as ‘near-future’ and he clearly articulated the vision that he wanted to create. In terms of the visual style, it’s a reality that we understand from our contemporary experience, with an enhanced view of current technologies rather than a departure from life, as we know it. We see both the old and new world and the real-time impact that technology has on human life. It’s dark, but also sculptural, beautiful.

Did you face any challenges working on this project?

Designing UPGRADE was a revelation for me as my first experience designing this genre. I found the process exhilarating and full of complex design challenges, as every aspect of the world had to be considered. My team and I were able to design driverless vehicles, future-houses, tech, weapons, drones and nano-bots. I am ready to do more!

You also worked on Ladies In Black, based on the novel by Madeleine St John. Very much opposite to Upgrade, this film is set in the late 50s/early 60 and looks very warm and gracious in tone. What attracted you to this production?

Working with Bruce Beresford is like a master-class in filmmaking. Ladies In Black is a significant Australian story that is very dear to my heart. I was able to create the world of bustling post-war Sydney set in the fashion section of Goodes department store in the summer of 1959, which we built at Fox Studios in Sydney Australia. I love the unique challenge of period film and this was an exceptional design opportunity – they don’t come along every day. It was a joyous experience from start to finish. I hope that it’s a film that audience’s will love.

From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one film, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?

I find the transition between projects relatively straightforward as such have worked on a broad range of genre and period across film, television and live performance. The methodology is similar, the inspiration varies depending on the context, but the process is similar. One chapter closes, another begins.

When coming aboard a project, how does the process generally work? What is the general working relationship and process between the production designer and the director?

The production designer is often the first creative on board after the director and initially there are lengthy discussions of character and environment, exchanges of ideas and references. These conversations often centre around tone, place and palette and it is the role of the production designer to establish the visual language in conjunction with the cinematographer.

What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?

UPGRADE was an exhilarating project and a significant challenge. Working with such an extraordinary crew and talented cast as Logan Marshall-Green and Betty Gabriel was an absolute pleasure.

What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a production designer would be to an outsider?

It consists of very little glamour, lots of very hard work, long hours and pockets of extreme fun.

If someone wants to pursue a career as a production designer , how would you recommend they go about it?

Observe and document all that you can. Study – whether through a course, or within the industry itself – both are equally valid. Seek mentorship from a creative that you respect. Aquire as many practical skills as possible – this will give you the best chance of employment within the art department. Most importantly, be kind, tenacious and strive for excellence.

Thank you for your time!

UPGRADE will be showing in UK cinemas from August 31st.