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Production Designer Adam Stockhausen on Crafting the Worlds of Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg

Written by on March 28, 2018 

adam-stockhausen

If Adam Stockhausen does the job well, you won’t notice — and he’ll have made Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Steve McQueen, and Noah Baumbach happy. The production designer’s CV is among the most enviable and, per the Academy, acclaimed in contemporary film, but this year is an especially notable month, seeing as it does the release of Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Having seen one and seen material from the other, surely there’d be a lot to ask… except for the fact that this interview was conducted at Camerimage in November, months before either even screened. But more than a good overview of how those directors do what they do so well, the following details his alternately painstaking, exhausting, and, sometimes, invisible contributions to the art.

The Film Stage: Do you have a “production design” eye for everywhere?

Adam Stockhausen: You’re kind of looking. It’s either in terms of how the place is either really interesting or, in this case, not so interesting. You’re always looking around; but then also just details. You see bits and pieces of amazing things.

I wonder if people are self-conscious about having you over.

I hope not! But it’s not even really that. It’s more… well, sometimes it is that a little. [Laughs] But also, last night, I was looking around, and [Pulls out phone] there was the most amazing stairwell.

Where is that?

It was just right here! It’s, like, next to us. There’s stuff everywhere. It’s amazing.

I’m usually only in Europe for this festival, but, each time, I think about how people who live here are probably sick of the day-in, day-out. I say, “Oh, this building is so cool” — even if it’s just a building.

It’s cool, isn’t it? My favorite: have you seen the building with the big typeface on it? It’s on the river, and it’s so cool. It has this gigantic, 30-foot-tall… it’s so beautiful! But it’s fun. The gold duck that’s on the building across the street from us? It’s so great!

You just showed me pictures for both things you referenced. Do you take photos of every building you like?

Yeah.

Does it often work into your job?

Often. Always. Always. I mean, it does in an incredibly literal way with Wes. We’ll go around, we’ll go scouting, and we’ll find amazing stuff, and I’ll go back and get it, bring it, and put it on the set — the actual thing. For Moonrise Kingdom, we scouted this amazing house in the Narragansett Bay called “Clingstone.” It was built upon a rock and had the most incredible details; there was this ping-pong paddle with these paddles that were all faded from the sun, and we got a ping-pong table and paddles and put them in the movie. Those kind of details are so exciting, and it’s nice to go grab them and use them. But also in a more broad way of just getting inspired by your general surroundings and letting it bleed in and inform the stories — and become the primary inspiration for a lot of them, the visual design.

Do you find yourself still doing work on Widows and Isle of Dogs, even thought they’re in post-production?

Widows is in edit right now, so it’s pretty quiet from my end — they don’t really need very much. There will probably be a little bit of additional photography, would be my guess, and I’ll get back involved for that. Isle of Dogs has ongoing questions and small stuff as it finishes up, but that, too, is getting done.

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Talking to Robert Yeoman last year, I was told they were already well into shooting. I feel a little sheepish saying this to the person who does it, but I sometimes get stressed-out just thinking about the process of a stop-motion film. It sounds exhausting in a way I can’t compute.

I do, too. But it’s important to know that I wasn’t really there for the actual animation process because I was with Wes at the very beginning of the film, looking at images and sketching through various, different sets for the film. Then Paul Harrod came on and was designing through the animation process; then I went off, because I was getting ready to do Ready Player One with Steven. So I feel the same way you do: it totally stresses me out. [Laughs] But it’s an incredibly complicated machine. It’s amazing and impressive, and every time I would go and visit the set, it’s kind of overwhelming what they’re doing. It really blows you away. I just found it inspiring. I found it really inspiring to watch what they were doing and see the different states of animation on 30 different sets all at the same time. It was really unbelievable.

Do you know how many seconds per day they tend to get?

I don’t know the exact number, and it depends greatly on how many animators are working. Each set-up is going to get approximately this — and then, depending on complexity, it could be a little above or below. Then there’s a multiplier factor by how many different people are going at the exact same time. It’s shockingly small, though — that I can guarantee. [Laughs]

What was looked at for Isle of Dogs?

Kurosawa, like High and Low. We looked at loads of Japanese films. Just the whole catalogue, really.

How often are you on set for a live-action feature?

Every day. My typical day on a shooting day would be that I would open the set in the morning — so I’ll be there before call in the morning. “Open the set” is kind of just a term for being there when the shooting crew arrives. Because every set that you go to, I’ve been there with my people for days or weeks or whatever ahead of time getting it ready, but then the actual day, when filming occurs, I’m there for that as well. Then, once they’re up and running, I’ll stay there through at least the first couple of shots, and then I walk away, and go off and visit the set that’s shooting the next day. Then I will probably swing by the art department or construction shot or both, and check on things that are coming multiple days out. I’ll go visit another location that shoots in three days or a week or whatever — in a much earlier stage of its process — and ask questions there. Meet with the painters at that location; go back to the location for the next day’s shooting, meet my set decorator who’s there, finishing that up. Work on all those things, get it ready.

Hopefully the thing that’s shooting the next day is actually done, and I’m visiting the thing that shoots the day after that — with the goal being to take photographs of it early enough in the day. Then I get back to the original set where we’re shooting and I stand around and annoy everybody. In-between shots, I’m like, “Hey, can you look at my computer? I’d like to show you photographs for tomorrow and the next day and the next day.” I say “annoy” because it actually does annoy them sometimes, when they’re trying to focus on one thing and I’m there literally annoying them, but it’s actually great because, if you can manage to do that, then everyone’s on the same page.

My goal is that everyone is walking onto set every single day feeling, “Yeah, I saw pictures of this. I knew exactly what I was getting. No surprises here. If there was an issue, we fixed it.” And sometimes things comes up. “Oh, God, I didn’t realize. Can you do this to fix it?” And that’s not a problem; it’s just normal if you can get it in time to work through anything that will come up. If you do, then boom — and you try to avoid “boom.”

I found a quote about working on Bridge of Spies that got at something I’ve always wondered about Spielberg: you made note of how fast he shoots, perhaps evidenced by how many films he has coming out. I’ve heard that he gets very shark-like. Talk about the intensity of that — even if you’re very good at your job, is it, “Oh, I have to keep up?”

Yes. Literally. We’re working on Bridge of Spies in New York, and we shot 30-something days before we came to Berlin. It just moved so quickly. The amount we shot at that speed was really head-spinning. So you take what I was describing about what my day was like to get ready for the next day. That’s one thing, when you’re just in this bizarre-looking room today, another tomorrow, and one at a time, slowly and methodically. Bridge of Spies: we did a day where we were shooting at a park in Astoria, where he’s painting the bridge and cars are going by.

Then we moved to do the hotel, where he gets arrested, and the cars pull up to the hotel; that was deeper into Astoria. Then we moved from there to Dumbo, where we did a shot of Abel coming out and walking down the street — all in one day. That was a lot of scenery in one day. Trying to stay in front of that is like a steamroller coming in: as fast as you possibly can. It’s intense. At that point, I’m doing all the same things I described — it’s just running.

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What do you think it is? He has a number of collaborators (e.g. Janusz Kamiński) with whom there’s a shorthand. Maybe it’s actors rehearsing, not doing a lot of takes.

I think it’s all of the above. But it’s also incredible decisiveness about, “This is the shot. We’re going to do it from here. It’s going to be like that, that, and that. We’re going to do this and probably need this to turn around, but we’re not going to need these four other things. These are the shots. Go.” Janusz goes and everyone goes, and, of course, there’s an incredible team of people who are just totally at the top of their game. They all click in and boom — it all happens, and it all happens very quickly. In all respects. From the decision-making of what the shots are to the execution, it’s all seamless and it’s all fast.

Can you confirm if Isle of Dogs’ title is a pun?

You’ll have to talk to Wes about that. As in… similar to the actual island?

No. “I love —

“Dogs.” Oh. You should call Mr. Anderson.

Maybe he has Google Alerts that will direct him here. I’d like to hear about the difference in creating objects for animation. It’s not just size.

It’s funny, because I’ve been working on Isle of Dogs, which is animated and stop-motion, and Ready Player One, which is computer-animated — but also an animated film — and you could answer the question the same way for both, which is: you can’t, unfortunately, just grab real objects and use them. I can’t say, “I love that fire extinguisher; let’s put it in the movie.” You can say, “Do you like that fire extinguisher or one of these 20 others?” You say, “We know we need one. Let’s look at the history of fire extinguishers. Let’s pick some really interesting ones and find one we like.” The difference is: you can’t just go grab it; you have to make it. So either you’re making a tiny little version of it, by hand, painstakingly; or, just as painstakingly, making a 3D digital file of it and custom doing it. So we did that on Ready Player One. The objects are very “designed,” but executed in a fundamentally different way.

How proficient are you with 3D animated design? When did you get into that realm?

“Proficient at it” is difficult to say because, I mean, I’m proficient at it now in that I certainly know how it works, and I’m able to talk about the different aspects of it — with executors of the different aspects of it — proficiently. I guess I kind of learned on the job with that. The stuff that’s going on in Ready Player One isn’t common enough now that it’s everyday; it’s still pretty new. We were definitely having some discussions on that film where it was like, “Well, that thing you were talking about doing — this film did it this way, and this film kind of did a similar thing, but they did it this way. This other thing that you’re talking about, I don’t know if anyone’s done that before.”

So it’s not like there’s a huge standard practice space for any of this stuff, and I think I got comfortable with it right along with everybody else. But then I should say, in terms of the actual process, these people — and I mean the illustrators working for me, and animators at ILM, and environment artists at ILM — are incredible, and the technical stuff they can do on the computer just so, so does circles around everything that I can do. They’re really amazing artists.

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When you’re looking at visual effects in both nascent and completed forms, are you observing on a theater-sized screen? You often hear technicians express a preference for that. Is that the case for you?

It is. You look at things… I think the quick version of that is, “You look at things on the best screen you possibly can, in the best situation you possibly can. So if the best thing you have is a computer screen, at least try to close the blinds and get the glare off your screen. But I end up seeing stuff on all different-sized screens, and I’ll be in reviews and looking at stuff on my computer screen or on a large computer screen or whatever when I’m on the road and joining remotely. At other times, I’ll be at one of the vendor’s locations or in a room with the director or something like that, and I’ll be looking at something on a bigger screen. It’s for sure better on a bigger screen, and then I try to pay attention to what the differences are. I go, “Well, I looked at that last week on a small screen. Now I’m seeing it on a big screen. What am I seeing that’s different?”

And try to keep in mind those differences next time I’m looking at the smaller screen so that I’m not fooling myself or not responding to phantoms that aren’t really there, or make them into a list of notes like, “Huh. Not sure. Will have to check those details next time I’m on the big screen.” But you’re always kind of crouching around, because life isn’t perfect where you walk into a screening room every day and there’s a magnificent… so you’re always trying to leap around, look at it from multiple sides, and be aware of what you’re missing.

This relates to the fire extinguisher: a pet peeve I have is seeing a film set in a certain year, and every period-specific thing looks like it was brought the previous day.

Like things look brand-new and sparkly? Yeah. It’s tough.

Do you have particular pet peeves?

No, I mean… I do and I don’t. Yes, there’s stuff I see, and yes, I can’t stand when there’s the brand-new cookware that’s clearly never been used. Sure, it drives me crazy. But I will say that my experience watching films… if there’s 1% of that, for me there’s 99% of being kind of overwhelmed with the amazing work that other people are doing.

You probably pick up on things others just won’t.

Yeah. And it’s amazing. I see good work and just get completely energized by it. Overwhelmingly, that’s my experience. So, no, I’m pretty easygoing.

What are some things about the processes of Anderson and Spielberg you might only know from intimately working with them? How they behave, operate on a set.

I don’t know what’s known and what’s unknown. We were talking, just now, on the process of making Bridge of Spies, and how fast Steven talks about. I know it’s talked about, but I don’t know how widely it’s talked about, working with Wes and the careful arrangement of these frames — just the process of looking at it in a storyboard sense, then finding it in a more-developed sketch, and an even more-developed sketch, then mocking it up and seeing it, and being there with Bob Yeoman — putting an actual lens on it, seeing if it works, move it again.

Oh, one really particular story: there’s this sequence in Moonrise Kingdom where we are introduced to the Bishop house for the first time, and it’s a series of these tracking shots dollying through the first floor of the house, then the second floor of the house, then a whip-pan to look at Suzy. That whole sequence, even though there was a set for each one of those pieces, was a whole set. Pulling back was a set. Pulling up was a set. Going left-right was a set; going right-left was a set. And it was really an amazing process of, first, a million sketches and a million ground plans with a little camera, a line, and a turn, and building it up into sketches, and really rough animatic, and then when you start building it and it’s all really rough — unpainted, raw plywood walls where we’re laying out the footprint of what we’ve talked about in the sketches and lining it up.

Then you do the same thing, and now you get out a real lens and you can kind of slide along and see if it’s working. And we made a lot of changes because an actual lens just behaves a lot differently than the little lens tool in whatever program you’re using to handle it; it’s just different. Those in particular, we said, “Nope, can’t see the ceilings; they’re too high.” So we chop it all down, and slide the ceilings down before we paint it and finish it and get too far down the road to make a change like that. That process was sort of curated, and each of those frames was really fun and enjoyable — an amazing thing, before you get to the final shot that everybody sees in the movie.

As a big fan, I find it frustrating when people say one movie is just like the last. You can tell there’s a lot of thought.

Some people are saying that because he has a visual style, that represents a lack of effort? Really?

Because it’s recognizable, that means it’s not distinct.

I obviously beg to differ, but…

Isle of Dogs is now in limited release and Ready Player One opens tonight.


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