Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and education.
My name is Tino Schaedler. I am based in London and I work as an art director for digital sets in the feature film industry. My background is in architectural design, which I studied at the University of Hannover in Germany, UC Berkeley in the USA and the Berlage Institute in the Netherlands. After graduating with a BA and MA, I worked three years in the offices of Daniel Libeskind and Barkow Leibinger. At the same time, I was teaching at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin. The academic work with the students triggered a desire to deepen my 3D skills for design purposes. Hence, I decided to do a one-year diploma in 3D animation and Visual FX at the Vancouver Film School. This cross-disciplinary move opened up new professional terrain for me, and I got my first film job on a Warner Bros film as a digital set designer in 2003.
Almost right after you started to work in the industry, you were involved with 3D modeling and rendering. What experiences and projects in your education helped prepare you for this? Is there anything you wished you’d learned in advance of your start into your career as it relates to visualization?
The digital revolution in architecture was at its early stages when I started studying in ’93. I learned drafting by hand… completely analogue. Consequently, all my presentation drawings were done manually at that time. Learning perspective drawing that way definitely sharpened my understanding for composition of spatial representation. Looking back now, I think it makes you understand the underlying principles of perspective.
An advanced class focused on the nature of architectural representation. We analyzed drawings by architects, such as Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Daniel Libeskind and others. Through this analytical process, I learned a lot about the correlation of design and its representation. Later, while I studied in the States, I was lucky to get into the first so-called paperless studio at UC Berkeley. This was my introduction to 3D modeling and rendering. We used FormZ. It clicked with me right off, and I was fascinated by the new possibilities.
I could’ve learned more about artistic principles. I never developed an observing artistic eye for natural lighting, the physics of surfaces, etc. I learned all this on the job. I am currently reading a book by Leonardo da Vinci called ‘A Treatise on Painting,’ which is fantastic for this.
Tell us a bit about how you started your career in Architecture and how your career evolved within the Architecture industry.
I did various internships in architectural offices during summer breaks while studying. This experience prepared me for the professional routine. Before doing my thesis, I worked 6 months at Daniel Libeskind’s studio. This internship got me the first job with him. The atmosphere and intensity working there were pretty much like design studio at the university, which meant long hours, working on weekends but at the same time inspiring projects and meeting lots of interesting people from all over the world. At Libeskind, I adopted some handy techniques to bridge between 3D modeling and physical model building. All this was based on FormZ.
My second professional experience was with the Berlin-based architects Barkow Leibinger. I headed the competition team. Every two to three months, we cranked out a competition entry. My job was to design in dialogue with Frank Barkow and Regine Leibinger, coordinate the team and do all the 3D work. Both Frank and Regine were quite specific about what rendering style they wanted, and we had long discussions about the nature of architectural representation.
With a relatively short career in Architecture, what did you like and dislike about the industry and what prompted you to make the transition to that of a digital set designer in the visual effects industry?
Studying architecture was fascinating, and I wouldn’t want to exchange that experience for anything. The professional life is different, though. I think the problem is that architecture education feeds the image of being a superstar designer. Most students coming out of architecture school expect to be up there at some point in their career. The professional reality is far from that idealized image. So we wake up at some point, realizing our expectations were much too high. I didn’t want to work long hours and weekends and not get any pay-off for that. And I’m not talking about money. It’s the appreciation that was missing, because everyone expects architects to be ready to suffer. I paint quite a frustrating picture, but to be honest a lot of my colleagues have to go through that struggle on a daily basis.
How did you decide upon the Vancouver Film School and what skills did you learn there that have helped you transition into feature film?
My goal was to learn Maya and use it for architectural design. Consequently, I was tempted to go to Columbia University in NYC. Since the mid-’nineties, Columbia represented the most progressive academic approach to architectural design, and the likes of Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid and Jesse Reiser were teaching at the school. On second thought, I decided against Columbia because I realized I didn’t want to adopt an established use of Maya. It seemed more challenging to go back to the roots of the software, which is in film, and make the transfer myself. So I decided to go to a film school. Vancouver Film School offered the best program. I needed a quick and intense curriculum focusing on Maya and also covering the basics of visual FX. I was seduced by the idea to use this expertise for architectural presentations.
I have spoken to several others in the industry who’ve made a similar transitions from Architecture, and they related how they’re able to do more “real” architecture in their entertainment-industry roles than they were able to do in their careers as actual Architects. Why do you think this is; and was this the case for you as well?
‘When Goldfinger was released people were asking why a British film unit had been allowed to shoot inside Fort Knox when even the American Press was not allowed in.’ The interior set of Fort Knox was completely made up by production designer Ken Adam. Still, the audience took it as reality. It touches on the way we relate to film and film reality. What I mean by this becomes clearer when we consider Jean Baudrillard’s definition of a hyperreality, where simulation of reality and reality are merged within a hybrid reality. I once read an article about a man whose memory of World War II was partly revealed to be directly taken out of a film. Our memory tricks us sometimes, and we weave parts of other realities into our own subjective one. We all have preconceptions of places we have never been to, just through seeing documentaries or films. Film and other media shape our image of the world. In that sense, the reality of film certainly is an extremely powerful medium; and, as illustrated by the Fort Knox example, film sets sometimes seem more real than reality.
For the people in the Architecture industry who are contemplating a change in focus of their careers, either from that of design into visualization or moving into the digital film design arena, what advice would you offer?
You will need a lot of luck to land your first job. And this can be very difficult since the film industry is quite an exclusive club where it is hard to get a foot in the door.
It’s important to have a passion for your work as well as the endurance to go through phases when things aren’t going well. I remember that it took more than four months after my first film to get a second job. That was frustrating and managed to provide me with a lot of doubts. But I was convinced I was on the right track, and that paid off.
The third thing one will need is a well-balanced combination of artistic, technical and social skills. The latter is important: every six to twelve months, you’ll work within a new team so you have to integrate well. On an artistic level, you’ll need very strong design skills, preferably in architecture or product design. It’s important to have a sensitivity for space, proportion, composition, light, texture and surface finish. These design skills should pair up with profound knowledge of 3D and Visual FX. This means, on the 3D side, to know a high-end 3D package like Maya, XSI, 3D Max or Rhino – bearing in mind Maya is the software of choice of the moment in the film industry. Certainly, you need to know Photoshop and a compositing package like Shake or After Effects. This all sounds like a lot and might be a little overwhelming. But don’t be discouraged. You’ll be able to learn on the job. You just have to throw yourself into it.
Tell us about your various positions in the entertainment industry. What experiences have helped you to arrive where you are today?
My first job was as ‘digital set designer’ in 2003. After three films, I moved up to become an ‘art director for digital sets’. This is a new title we established for ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’. Owing to the increasing amount CGI in film, there was a need for a person who could do artistic supervision for digital sets. For this position, it’s necessary to speak both languages of digital set creation: the design language of the designer as well as the technical language of post-production. So my dual background was extremely helpful to fill this job.
For those who may not be familiar with what an art director for digital sets does, could you elaborate on your position and what it entails?
My position is located within the art department of film productions, and I work hand in hand with the production designer on the design of digital sets. Later in the production pipeline, I’m the hinge between post-production and the art department, supervising the artistic aspects of digital set creation.
At the beginning of the design process, the designer indicates to me a direction where he wants to go with the design. He might give me reference images, an illustration, a sketch or a plan and section to start with. We use lots of animations and renderings on various levels. In the earlier design stages, we do schematic animatics and renderings to decide on the overall approach. The focus is on general volumes, shapes, composition and proportion. I like to set up animated camera moves in Maya and design through the perspective of the camera in motion. This dynamic approach takes account of the nature of film sets, which is a choreography of unfolding volumes rather than static space.
Once the general direction is set, we focus on atmospheric aspects, such as lighting, texture and surfaces. During this stage, the renderings and animations become more elaborate. I have to decide what is appropriate for the job and what level of detail the illustrations/ animations need to show.
Once the design is set, I prepare all the data for post-production. This is quite an interesting process, since there’s no established way of handling this. I have to decide what brings across the design idea best and leaves no question unanswered. For Harry Potter, for instance, we had a huge digital set with an incredible amount of detail. Instead of modeling it as a fully detailed version, we approached it the way post-production would do. So we modeled one full version of the set very exact but without any elaborate detail. Then we assigned to parts of this model specific shader colors and made a text annotation indicating the reference file name. All reference files were modeled in three degrees of detail from high to low. Breaking the scene down like this created a kit of modules allowing the post-production artist to use the right degree of detail for each shot.
Since entering the entertainment industry, you’ve worked on an impressive number of films. Can you tell us a bit about those projects and which you’ve enjoyed working on most?
I think I’ve enjoyed every project I’ve worked on so far. I definitely loved working on Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. Tim Burton’s films are always a treat from the design point of view. He has an incredibly rich vision. There was so much inventive stuff in that film. I worked on the TV Room set, some of the machines in the Inventing Room, the Glass Elevator, some of the Oompa-loompa gadgets and the Administration of the Factory.
Inventing the Room - The Glass Elevator
The ‘TV Room’ was my main set. We chose quite an interesting approach for design and realization. We conceived the design in 3D. Throughout the process, we did various animations and renderings to study spatial aspects, lighting and other design parts. Each module of the interior walls was modeled to fullest detail and then output to an IGES file, which was then given to a CNC company. They fabricated all wall elements out of Styrofoam and delivered them to the studio for assembly.
The Flavor Tree Machine and the Bubblegum Machine were done in a similar way. The only difference was that we used a digitally-driven thermo-metal bending process, in this case.
On ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, I worked on ‘The Chamber of Prophecies’. The set is an endless series of shelves holding glass spheres, with the ephemeral prophecies inside. For this set, we used quick playblast animatics to explore parallax dynamics that couldn’t be studied otherwise.
The Flavor Tree Machine
The Bubblegum Machine
We also used animations on Potter to design a time-based set: a magic door emerging from a wall in the ‘Room of Requirements’. A few years ago, this would have been designed by doing a few still frame illustrations and then leaving it up to post-production to fill in the rest. When we started designing the 30 seconds choreography, we realized how many parameters come into play. How do the stones of the wall make space for the emerging door? How does the wood of the door become visible, and how does the iron strap work build up? We developed up to ten different versions throughout the design phase, each coming closer to the final version showing a nicely tuned time-based choreography.
On ‘V for Vendetta’, I was in charge of the ‘Conference Room’. This was a built stage set, fully conceived in 3D. The designer wanted to be clear about the mood on stage. Through extensive rendering studies of light and textures, we realized that we simply needed to build a conference table, video screen and floor to achieve the spatial illusion. The stage walls were covered with black curtains. Through the lighting, they fell into darkness, which saved us a lot of money for the building of set walls.
‘V for Vendetta’ - The Conference Room
What do you find the most difficult aspect of your position?
CGI was formerly defined as a domain of VFX, and therefore the design was predominantly done in post-production, with little control by the art department. Since the amount of digital sets in feature films has increased drastically in recent years, production designers realized they have to claim artistic control over this creative asset. This means established work pipelines demand profound modification. The film industry has a long tradition and is sometimes reluctant and sluggish when it comes to changes. Since my job position embodies this revolution, I sometimes struggle to convince others of new ideas and ways of working. It is important to be really sensitive and not to give others the feeling that these changes threaten their position but rather that they’re improving workflows.
Who are your mentor and role models and whose work has influenced your own the most?
I’ve been quite lucky to work with some of the finest talents in the film industry and to have learned something from every film. Of the designers I worked with, Alex McDowell and Stuart Craig influenced me most.
Alex McDowell, the designer on ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, is probably the most progressive-thinking production designer in Hollywood. His ideas on how to integrate digital technology in the design process and how to merge them with traditional techniques have set the standard. He is a mastermind who constantly pushes the boundaries, searching for improvement. Alex realized the potential of pre-vis animatics for design purposes and established this technique as part of the set design process.
Stuart Craig is an incredibly talented designer. He has an amazing vision and is probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He is a true English gentleman. Stuart taught me a lot about respecting and motivating your team. He gives everyone the feeling of being quite important, which makes working for him pure pleasure.
Another production designer whose work I truly admire is Ken Adam. I can relate to a lot of his approach to set design, which is very architectural. I don’t mean this in a spatial way but rather how he uses abstraction as a means to strengthen the illusion of reality. I also love Adam’s style of sketching. It’s a very dynamic stroke and quite expressionistic in its use of light and shadow. I hope to find a way in the future to do renderings having the same quality and sensitivity. A question I ask myself in this respect is: How would Ken Adam use the computer if he were a designer of my generation?
How do you see the role of a digital set designer evolving, and are any advances or changes in the Architecture industry helping in this evolution?
This dialogue happens on different levels. Firstly, on a design level: I think Architecture has always been a great source of inspiration for film, and vice versa. Film has been the field of experimentation for architectural visions that could not be built or not yet be built. So new ideas in architecture inevitably find their way into film design. Alex McDowell, for instance, consulted with Greg Lynn, among others, for Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’.
Secondly, there is an exchange on a technological level. Techniques such as cnc-milling or rapid prototyping, which architects started using in the mid-’nineties, are becoming a standard in film set fabrication.
How do you see Architectural visualization evolving, both in Architecture and the entertainment industry?
First thing to ask is what the visualization is aiming at. In film as well as in Architecture, it is used for design purposes as well as representational use. For both, I see a tendency towards animation. The inclusion of the dimension of time is extremely powerful and opens up new ways of visualizing design aspects not possible before. Technologically, things get more accessible and incessantly faster. We no longer need a render farm to compute animations. Progressive film productions such as James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ now use video game engines for real-time rendered set simulation. I think Architecture will soon integrate this technique as well, because this truly opens up the possibility to design into 4D.
What type of projects would you like to work on in the future that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to work on?
There are many things I’m excited about. It’s always great to have an opportunity to work with inspiring directors and production designers on stimulating projects. I would love to work with Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze. The latter is currently working on a feature film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’…if you ask me for a dream: I would’ve loved to design this one!
Otherwise, I believe in cross-disciplinary work, and the digital revolution definitely opens up new possibilities for film designers. It enables us to work in the gaming industry, do video art, do our own films or jump back into architecture. I’m always curious and am anxious to try something new, and working in film gives me the flexibility to do so.
What have you learned in your role as a digital set designer that you think would most help those currently doing visualization in the architecture industry?
There are a few things I can think of. First of all, working with concept illustrators helped me quite a bit. They have such a fantastic vision, and their advice enabled me to see and observe our surroundings differently.
I also believe that working in film shaped my cinematic vision. I have a better feeling for camera work and scene breakdown into different shots. This is quite a useful bit of knowledge for doing exiting architectural visualization going beyond the fly-through. In this respect, I would like to recommend checking out Joseph Kosinski’s work. I’m sure some of you know it or have heard his name. He’s done some amazing short films. (www.josephkosinski.com).
Another aspect tying into the cinematic vision is the dramaturgic nature of film design. Unlike architecture, film sets are designed to support the storyline and they are perceived through the guided lens of the camera. Once this is understood properly, it can offer a new take on architectural design and visualization. Architects like Le Corbusier or Bernard Tshumi touched on it in theory. But I can’t think of any built examples that incorporate this idea to its fullest extent.
If you had it to do all over again, what would you change?
In retrospective, I think I’m quite happy with how things evolved. There are a lot of skills I’d like to have or would like to improve on. I’d like to have the incredible artistic skills of a concept artist; I wouldn’t mind being able to write scripts or have the cinematic understanding of a DOP or Director. But then again, I am able to work with all these inspiring people. It isn’t possible to merge all these skills into one person, and that’s not what it’s about. It comes down to being a good team player and enjoying collaboration.
One thing, though, that I would like to exchange is one year of my architectural professional experience for a year in a post-production company. That knowledge would be very helpful for me.
Thank you for your time for doing this interview. Do you have any parting words of advice for our readers?
I guess it’s important to find the thing you’re passionate about. Everything else will subsequently fall into place. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to put in a lot of work and effort. But ideally, it doesn’t feel like work, and you’ll always enjoy it. Learn to trust your intuition.
Thank you for featuring me on CG Architect. The site has been a great source of inspiration and information for me over the past few years.
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