From designing sets for films and television series to commercials and music videos, Production Designer Hank Mann's work spans the gamut. With massive commercial campaigns for global companies like Ford, Audi, Crayola, Crystal Geyser, Converse, and Dannon, music videos for multi-award winning artists Nickelback and Sarah McLachlan, and the films Repeater, Kill Kill Faster Faster and Nova Zembla under his belt, Mann has carved out an unparalleled place for himself in the entertainment industry as an internationally renowned production designer.
While the creative side of Mann's job as a production designer, at its most basic level, could be compared to an interior designer in overdrive as they have to liaise with clients (and the director) to make sure everyone's vision is represented while also bringing in their own creative spin, the managerial side of his work is a whole different can of worms.
When it comes to film crews, the production designer heads up one of the most overworked crews on any production, the art department. From building practically every set we see in a production, often from scratch, to striking the sets under incredible pressure from time constraints and little room for L & D (lost and damaged items), the production designer not only has to communicate his vision and ensure that all of the right items have been picked up and put in their proper place for the shoot, but they have to manage their crew so effectively that everyone is ready to move onto the next set so the production doesn't stall. Oh, and then there's the budget. The production designer is responsible for overseeing that their department doesn't go over budget, an easy misstep when considering that many of today's filmmakers want to go over the top with their production, but a misstep that Mann is careful not to make.
Mann is most well known in the industry for his work as a production designer for commercials and anyone who knows his work doesn’t have to question why-- they know the answer, and it's because he's downright incredible. Having designed over 200 commercials over the course of his career, even viewers who think they haven't seen Mann's work, probably have, they just might not have realized that he was the man behind the man. If you can recall a highly popular, over four million views on YouTube caliber of popular, Go Daddy commercial starring none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme or Discovery Channel's Primetime Emmy nominated series Before We Ruled the Earth, then you've definitely seen his work on screen.
To find out more about Hank Mann's work as a leading production designer in the industry, as well as some of the most important tools of the trade, make sure to check out our interview below. You can also find out more about him and watch a few clips of his work through his page on the Sesler website, the agency that currently manages him.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
HM: I was born in Perth, Australia, but my parents are from England, and we moved to Canada when I was 5. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto. For school homework I would sometimes make Super 8 stop motion animation films. Unfortunately, my teachers were not too impressed receiving a 2 ½ minute film of Mr. Bill and Spot explaining the history of Canada instead of a written research project!
So how did you first get into production design and what led you to this path?
HM: In high school I was always involved in theatre, both as a performer and a technician. This carried on into university where I studied film theory and sociology (communications), yet also did several theatre and film production classes and extra-curricular projects. I focused a lot both in and out of class on set design for theatre, and after graduating with my BA from Queen’s University, I moved to Vancouver to pursue a career in film and television.
After five years climbing the ladder working as everything including a production assistant, locations p.a., ALM, TAD, 3rd AD, 2nd cam assist, dresser, buyer, props assist, and a decorator, I was offered my first job as a production designer / art director on a commercial with a UK director for the Ford Mondeo, starring David Duchovny. The commercial required me to design, and manage the building of, an American style diner on the side of the highway in the middle of “nowhere”. The trick was that it needed to be designed with a retractable roof to allow for the crane to move up and out the front window and out onto the road. Needless to say, I learned a lot very quickly about being a production designer on my first job as one!
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? What elements do you consider when coming up with the overall design of a project?
HM: It depends on the project. Every job has it’s own unique structure that is revealed as soon as I read the treatment and script. For example, the L’Oreal spot with Evangeline Lilly required a large modern set where the camera and actor could move about freely. I set about to design a modular set with abstract pieces on wheels, so that throughout the shoot we were able to recreate the background, giving us lots of different looks. My approach was to dive right in and build a computer 3d model, which I then could work with the DOP, directors, agency and client to show the countless alternate ways our set could be filmed.
Conversely, the Go Daddy spots with Jean Claude Van Damme required authenticity. For the bakery and florist sets my initial approach was to research as much as possible, visiting real locations and reviewing online sources and then extracting the most interesting and iconic bits to then combine into our stage set builds. Following that, I then had to accommodate for the stunt wire rigs to be hung over the entire sets and run through the ceiling. It was only after all this initial research and sketches did I then start the 3D render process.
What did your work entail as the production designer of the films Revisited, Kill Kill Faster Faster, and Repeaters?
HM: Kill Kill Faster Faster and Repeaters were both challenges as my budgets for each of those features was the same as a 3-day location commercial shoot. Constrained by finances, I chose to put a lot of initial resources into establishing a colour hue for each character so that regardless of how little money we had, at minimum there was a common tone the creatives (the DOP, costume designer, hair and make-up, set decorator, props, even special FX) could all work towards. So when, for example in Repeaters, we cut from a scene in Kyle’s room to Sonia’s room, there is a distinct move from a dusty, earthy look and feel to a rich vibrant purple artistic tone. Kill Kill Faster Faster also had the challenge of being set in New York, yet we were filming in Rotterdam!
How about the TV series Before We Ruled the Earth that you did for the Discovery Channel, what was the process like designing for the series?
HM: Before We Ruled The Earth, is a two-part docudrama narrated by Linda Hunt which features the challenges faced by early human history, all the way from Homo Ergasters hunting the saber tooth tiger 2.5 million years ago to Paleo-Indians hunting bison only 8,000 years ago. The process for designing the show involved an incredible amount of research and rough sketches. For example, I had to create a Cro Magnon village deep in the forests of Vancouver Island, shelters made from woolly mammoth tusks and hides high above the tree line in the Arctic, and re-create the insides of the caves at Lascaux, France with their Paleolithic cave paintings. I wanted to avoid the cheap stereotypes that can arise from weak anthropology, and I made it a priority that the design of the sets, wardrobe and props all had as much detail and personality as time and money would permit us to do.
Can you tell us about some of the commercials you've production designed over the years?
HM: I've been the production designer on a pretty long list of commercials over the years; but, to tell you about a few—for an Infiniti car commercial I had to make a snow avalanche land on a car, for Go Daddy I built sets that integrated wiring Jean Claude Van Damme doing stunts, for Audi I built a yurt village on a mountain top in 60 mph winds at -5 degrees Fahrenheit, for Snapdragon I created multiple sets across multiple locations in addition to doing studio builds and for Benjamin Moore I built a fake box store paint department in the studio.
You've also production designed several music videos over the years, can you tell us about some of them?
HM: For Nickleback’s video for “How You Remind Me,” I was asked to create a “dirty modern” feel. So I designed a modern bedroom and bathroom set and a bar set, all with straight lines and then contrasted them both with deep scenic painting, accenting the cinder blocks and textured bar walls, the result being a “messy clean” look. Usually I’m doing either crisp clean modern, or dark and dirty, so it was unique to marry the two. For Grant, Lee, Buffalo’s video for “Testimony,” I had to decide what a car looked like when a body lands on it, and then guide one of my crew on a forklift to crush it just right. That was fun!
They are all very different, what made you choose to participate in these projects?
HM: The projects that come through Vancouver are always very different, so I have been forced to learn many different styles and techniques. In Los Angeles a production designer will specialize into a niche field such as period pieces, sports movies, or science fiction, because there is enough volume of projects in each field being made to support niche skills. In Vancouver I have been fortunate enough to have experience in all those genres. I have found the diversity of experiences on all the projects over the years has made my problem solving skills quite acute. One day it’s designing a yurt village to be built in the mountains, the next it’s designing a kid’s bedroom circa 1981. I like that.
If you had to choose between production designing for film, television, commercials or music videos—which one would be your favorite and why?
HM: I would prefer film and television - in the process of production designing I really get into the characters – their history, their successes, their faults, their stories. Film and TV allow for a complete submersion into a character’s life.
Commercials are great in other ways – I can work with Academy Award winning DOP’s, and earn a decent living.
Why are you passionate about working as a production designer?
HM: It’s a very unique and creative way to make a living in an industry filled with other unique and creative people.
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"?
HM: For the most part I feel very fortunate to have had quite a few supportive mentors and peers along my career. That is something I cannot stress enough to anyone looking to get into the business – it’s a collaborative effort - one is surrounded by people that can help you in some way, either now or in the future. I make it a daily goal to be graceful to everyone on set and remember their name, and find out what their goals are, and how they got to this point. For example there are certain producers who manage to put great teams together because of how much they respect their crew, and thus are respected. There are others I am never available for now, because of how horrible they were to me when I was a production assistant.
What have been a few of your favorite projects so far and why?
HM: Some of my favorites include production designing a commercial for Arby’s where we shot in Cape Town for 5 weeks, and I had to make everything look American; Burgher’s of Vancouver, where I got to work with Denys Arcand; for Tyson Foods I got to create a kitchen set that broke apart and flew away to reveal another kitchen. I like working on sets, which involve rigging and moving parts.
For Subaru I created a massive tornado-like storm on a bright sunny day-- explosions, flying boats, wind and rain. I like that level of special FX and movie magic.
What would you say your strongest qualities as a production designer are?
HM: I can handle budgets and people as well as I can handle designing a kitchen. Production design is also part project manager of the project and thus I will be successful as long as there is solid communication between all my crew (props, special fx, costume, set decoration, picture vehicles, greens, etc.,). I nurture this. Likewise, I always keep a clear eye on the budget, as no matter how good a design is, if it can’t afford to be made then I’d have wasted a lot of precious preproduction time and money.
What projects do you have coming up?
HM: I'm currently working on commercials for Lysol, PetCo, Nissan and Realtor.com.
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
HM: Entertain people with a great project, which they will remember forever and turn to as a piece of reflection, understanding, learning and fulfilling laughter. Also, working on a film or TV show I can look back on and be proud of in a global sense and know that I worked on something that mattered.
What kind of training have you done, and how has it helped you in your field of work?
HM: As I mentioned earlier, I studied set design for theatre, where there are a lot of risks taken, as well as experimenting. I find myself adding those layers to film sets, to always reach for a step or two beyond what one would expect something to look like.
Computer stuff is all self-taught. When I started Production Designing I was doing all my drawings and plans with watercolors, pencils and protractors. With the arrival of the Adobe Suite, and a few years later 3d software such as Sketch Up I had many late nights (pre You Tube tutorials) learning keyboard shortcuts and what the difference between Clone Stamp (S Key) and Healing Brush (J Key)…and then some. Every year now there is ever expanding software available to draw and pre-visualize sets, it’s all very amazing and incredible tools to use for my work. However, at the start of every job I spend time with a plain piece of paper and a pencil, to freestyle initial ideas.