Just because a film has a great story or an A-list actor behind it doesn’t mean that it's going to be a winner. With multiple departments contributing to the end product it seems most successful productions result from the ability of the many different players in the game of film to come together and create a unified vision. When it comes to the visual aspects of a film, TV series, commercial or music video, the environment that is laid out before us comes down to the creative skill of the production designer and their ability to guide the art department towards carefully executing their vision.
Production designers like Yihong Ding use their artistry to create each and every set we see in the scenes of a project, a challenging feat that requires someone who is able to see what the director sees for a story and figure out what's needed to make it happen. Ding began her career back in London where she designed sets for stage productions, an incredibly challenging task considering the fact that there's no room for a second take. She was later accepted to the renowned American Film institute (AFI) where notable art directors like Andrew Max Cahn (The Hangover), Todd Cherniawsky (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) and Joseph Garrity (Waiting for Guffman) also attended.
Over the last few years Ding has production designed an impressive list of films including Slut (Festival Trophy Award winner at 2014 Screamfest), Mira, Mal De Ojo, Five Dollar Meal, Maria Bonita and Like Son, Like Father. Ding has a unique take on designing the sets for a production. Heavily influenced by colors, she uses them to create the mood of the story, and she does it exceptionally well.
Beyond her creative vision though is Ding's understanding of how to actually create the sets for a production—because let's face it, coming up with a grandiose outline of what you want means nothing if you don't have the tools, or the budget, to make it happen. As an art director, Ding has led multiple productions to success like Henri Charr's documentary A Man Before His Time, and recently multi-award winning director Ryan Velásquez's film Drowning, as well as the upcoming series Chasing Life.
Ding's experience as both a production designer and art director has helped her see from multiple perspectives how to create the best sets for a project, and that's one of the reason we chose to interview her about her work. To find out more about what goes into the work of a production designer and art director, as well as some of the tricks of the biz that you probably never would have guessed, be sure to continue reading below.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
YD: I am from Shanghai, China. I got my bachelor's degree in London before coming to LA to do my master's in production design at AFI. Later on I found out that I was one of the last students that they accepted to the program that year; and I think I am incredibly lucky because this move changed my life completely. I landed in LA the day after my 23rd birthday, and since then I've been working as a production designer.
So how did you first get into production design and what led you to this path?
YD: I have a theatre background, and during my time studying in London, I got the chance to work on the film Short Straw as a production designer, where my job was to dress a messy road trip car. That was my first job as a production designer, and I fell in love with the job immediately. I also designed the set for the theatrical production of "Noah’s Ark" at a theatre in Wimbledon, UK where I had to design a huge rainbow and part of the boat.
Can you tell us about how you approach your project from the time you're hired on to design a production through the time of filming?
YD: It always depends on the story. Different story could have different angle and strategy to approach it. Some common facts include color, tone, lighting, and texture.
Usually, when I am reading the script, I will start developing an image in my mind. After finishing the script, I will start searching reference photos. And then my picture palette starts extending.
Communicating with the director is important too. A good director will usually approach me with a look book, which contain basic ideal of how they picture the movie. And I will start filling more detail bass on the look book. Occasionally, I will suggest a total new ideal about the movie. But it is always depends on the conversation in-between the director and me.
Personally, I've always found that color plays a huge role in my design progress. When I was designing the film Mal de Jo, I used the color red as the element to indicate that the character was changing. The story is about an Peruvian-American girl’s relationship with her visiting Peruvian grandma. The two start of by not understanding each other, which leads them to get into a huge fight. But eventually, they both learn to accept the differences between them.
There was a huge fight in the climax of the story, and so after talking with the director, we decide that we would slowly add the red element when the grandma comes into the young girl's house. I decide to use red because it is a color of alarm and anger. It is a reflection of the girl’s emotion. And after the fight is over, the red disappears again.
Can you tell us about some of the films you've production designed so far?
YD: The film Slut has been the most challenging film I’ve done so far. I designed a broken down two-story farmhouse for this movie, which we ended up building on a stage later on. In the story, one of the characters falls from the bedroom on the second floor, hanging himself to death on the living room ceiling. There were many different ways to approach this, but I wanted to give the director and the cinematographer the best option to shoot this traumatic event. We decide to do the whole stunt using a set that my team recreated to look identical to the whole interior of the two-story farmhouse on the stage.
We built the whole living room with a breakaway ceiling, a hallway with a staircase, and a bedroom with the breakaway floor on a platform. We had to build a separate puzzle breakaway floor piece so that it could be replaced with the real wood piece when we were done doing the stunt. It is very interesting when you have a chance to build something from scratch. The whole structure started from a photo that I found online-- an abandon empty living room with a moldy green color on the wall. My director and I both fell in love with this photo and decided that this would be the main inspiration for the film.
The movie made it into a lot of film festivals including AFI Fest, Scream Fest, Las Vegas Film Festival and others.
Mira directed by Amanda Tasse was another interesting movie I did. It’s a very character centered story. The film is about a young marine biologist named Mira who gets a bit too ambitions with her work and ends up getting herself into dangerous territory. The creature she studies in the story are known as immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii), a species of small, biologically immortal jellyfish found in the Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan. It is the only known case of an animal capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature, colonial stage after having reached sexual maturity as a solitary individual; although, in nature most of the Turritopsis likely succumb to predators or disease in the medusa stage, without reverting to the polyp form. What Mira and her boss do in the film is breed them in the lab and find out how to keep them steadily reverting back to their sexually immature point.
Mira herself has temporal lobe epilepsy, which causes her to have seizures constantly and short terms memory lost. Her medication does not adequately control or prevent all her seizures. When she has a seizure (15-30 seconds long), it causes short-term memory loss of events that happened 1 to 3 hours before the seizure. And that is why she had a very personal connection with the Jellyfish, because she believes that finding out the secret behind their immortal life cycle could somehow save her life. That is why when she finds out that the government is taking the funding back and shutting down the project, she wants to make sure that she could prove the connection before the deadline. But she doesn’t realize that she went to far this time, and it almost costs her her life.
We ended up filming at an empty lab on Catalina Island, and dressing the lab into the jellyfish lab for the story. For the production, we had a lot of challenges. Shipping all the set dressing on a boat was one of them. We had a weight limit and most of the stuff was made up of fragile lab tube and glass. My art director and I had to pack them very carefully and make sure we rented exactly what we wanted because there was no room for waste in the budget. Finding the jellyfish tank was another challenge. They were all costume made and very expensive; I almost had to build them myself; but luckily we found a person that was willing to rent 3 to us for a really great deal. That was a lifesaver.
To See the Sunrise from director Xu Fang Ting is a sci-fi film that takes place in a dystopian futuristic world and revolves around two girls who have been planning to escape from the underground totalitarianism society. And one day, one of the girls gets the final gate key that could lead them to freedom. She tells her partner immediately however what she doesn’t know is that her only friend is thinking about betraying her. The whole movie happened in an underground control room; and, after talking with the director, we decide to go with a bit dirty sci-fi style for the movie, with a grey-colored room that gives the overall feeling of claustrophobia. I designed the room in sketch up and we hired a studio to build the room for us. The film is still in post-production.
The film Like Son Like Father from director Lin Wang is a fair tale story about two orphan brothers, Sammy and Bobby, looking for their father who they've never seen before. They go door to door and ask every man one question: Are you our Dad? Dave, a middle-age single man, feels for the kids and invites them in for a nice meal. When the connection is made, Sammy and Bobby start to suspect that Dave is the Dad they are looking for. Dave opens his heart to the boys as if he is their father. Sammy asks Dave one last question, the only clue their Mom left them before she dies: Do you love us more than money? "I love you guys more than..." Before Dave finishes answer, the boys suffocate Dave in cold blood...
The movie is shoot on 16 mm with a 3:4 aspect ratio. I talked to my director and we agreed that we didn’t want any vivid colors except for the blood and toys for the two boys. We found a house location that had a layout we liked, but the furniture was too modern and nice for our story, so we redressed the room with lower class furniture. The boys live in a tent, but the one we had for the shoot was green so I sewed burlap over the tent to make it appear white in order to keep the color harmony. The movie is doing its festival run now.
Can you tell us about some of the commercials you've production designed over the years?
YD: "KOD 2015 Opening" is a commercial I did recently. It is a commercial for Street Dance World Cup, which broadcast in 8 different countries. Because of that the client wanted to see 8 countries represented in the commercial. Finding locations and adapting them to look like those placed was my main job. Some of our main sets included a Russian home, German bar, Chinese street vendor's stand, Japanese classroom, and an LA Dance studio.
"Diomany" is a lingerie brand that I did two commercials for. The clients wanted to emphasize the luxury, passionate and ornate style of the brand. We had two locations: The beach and the Hollywood Castle. I made a fake sand castle from foam board so that it could remain well maintained during the shoot. In the castle, I suggested that the talent could have an English afternoon tea party, and the client really likes the idea. So I bought about 5 boxes of dessert pies, cupcakes etc., I also art directed a commercial for "Microsoft Outlook app", and production designed a commercial for "LUVS."
They are all very different, what made you choose to participate in these projects?
YD: It always ends up coming down to the story-- if I can feel it, if it touches me, then I will do it even if there is less money and a very small budget.
Can you tell us about some of your work as an art director?
YD: The business with art directing comes down to logistics. Organizing the art department is a lot of work. You need to schedule when to pick up the props, how many people you need for certain days; and always think ahead in terms of what is coming next, because you always need to be prepped for the next thing. I art directed a series called Chasing the Dream that will be broadcast on QQ.com next February. It was a challenging shoot, since we didn’t have a big budget for the production. But the story is pure comedy. People sometimes think comedy is easy, but it’s actually pretty hard especially for props, because everything has to be particular with specific items, otherwise it won’t be funny. On top of that, the decoration should generally maintain a warm and happy color. We had to be very creative with a lot of the stuff. For example, once we have to cut out some clip art shapes and put them on the wall to add more color to the locations. In fact, we did it a couple of times, and it worked really well on screen.
The whole shoot lasted a month. I helped the production designer looking for props and location scouting during the prep, and when we started shooting, I'm responsible for keeping everything organized and making sure that there is nothing damaged and lost.
How do art directing and production designing differ?
YD: An art director focuses on how to achieve the look. They are the second hand to the production designer. Their main job is to keep the production designer focused on the design, rather than getting distracted by practical problems. I enjoy being an art director too, because I think it is necessary to know how to make it work as well. And it helps me to be a better leader when I am a production designer. You don’t want to make your ideal design sound ridiculous so it helps to work as an art director because then you know what is achievable.
Which role do you prefer?
YD: I enjoy being a production designer more, since that allows me to design the entire film, and it has my personal mark on it. Being an art director doesn't give you a lot of space for designing.
If you had to choose between production designing for film, television or commercials—which one would be your favorite and why?
YD: Film for sure, because I like a good story. That has always been the core of my passion. I like television too. But the industry is so fast paced that you usually won't have enough time to focus on the design. You always get more time to really analyze the story in the film industry.
Why are you passionate about working as a production designer?
YD: Because it’s so fun! It is a combination of an artist, an interior designer and a detective. Yes a detective! Sometimes I find myself assuming I am the character in the story and questioning how I would dress my room. It’s a very interesting cross gene job. You get a chance to know so many different people's lives and gain knowledge from around the world. And most importantly, a good story! A story that makes people laugh, cry or think. That is what has been driving me to doing this.
Can you tell us about any of the challenges you've faced on your way to the top of the industry—or any memorable "aha" moments where you felt like "hey this is the key to success"?
YD: Haha, if I really have to list one, then it would be "connections." Today someone might be a PA working for you, but tomorrow they could be the person who wants to hire you. And it is happening to me right now.
What have been a few of your favorite projects so far and why?
YD: This a really hard question because I like all of them. I have to like a story to be able to design it. That is just my principle. If I really have to choose I'd say my favorite projects so far are Slut and Mira. I worked on these projects for a really long time, which I think is the main difference from all of the other projects. For Slut we spent almost a year from preproduction up until the final release. Mira was also quite a long process. Another reason is probably because I am always interested in female character focused stories a little bit more than others, simply because I am a female and I think this industry should have more female voices involved. I’ve seen it happening more and more often now, and I hope this trend keeps growing.
What would you say your strongest qualities as a production designer are?
YD: Organizing and my unique color sense. People have been approaching me saying how much they like the tone of the movies I've designed, which made me realize I do like to use a lot of bold color choices. It’s not saying that I like vivid color, but I think I have my own taste of what colors should be put together to support the story.
What projects do you have coming up?
YD: I have a sci-fi feature coming up, and I am really excited about it. We are still in the pre-production phase, talking about the look of the project etc. The movie will be directed by Max Minkowitz and produced by Nate Jaxon.
I will also begin shooting the film Rodeo in December, which will be directed by Stephen Phillips and produced by Sarah Kambara.
What are your plans for the future?
YD: In the future I would like to continue working internationally, especial between China and the US.
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
YD: Oscar award! Kidding. It will be great if it happens of course. But I really like this job, and as long as I can keep going I am happy with whatever coming to me.
What kind of training have you done, and how has it helped you in your field of work?
YD: Hmm…. I would say that I learned to survive in a super competitive environment-- because that is what the last two years at AFI looks like. I think that changed me a lot in terms of how I react in social situations and how I represent myself.
It's definitely helped me in this industry, because it is very competitive, lots of people want to do your job. What makes you special enough that the producer will want to hire you? How much can you make them trust you? That is what I learned from AFI, and I believe it turned me into a stronger person.