While it is true that a film’s director, lead actors and occasionally its producers, are the contributing individuals that receive the most attention and praise in the media, so many departments contribute to the making of a good film.
From the expert eye of the cinematographer to the costume designer’s ability to create a wardrobe that drives the style of the characters and the art director’s ability to create sets that fit the story, it is imperative that every department understands the end vision for a project and contributes accordingly in order to make a film one to remember.
Over the last few years leading art director Haisu Wang has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with in the international entertainment industry. Not only is a creative design visionary whose innovative approach to art direction has helped many productions cut costs thanks to his efficiency, but he also has the rare and necessary ability to see a story from multiple perspectives. His impressive repertoire of work, which includes hit films such as Contrapelo, Day One, La Bella, and Panacea, as well as fashion films for Roberto Cavalli and the new ABC series The Muppets, reveals Wang as one art director whose able to adapt his vision to perfectly fit a wide range of projects.
Wang art directed two films, Contrapelo and Day One, which were shortlisted for the Best Live-Action Trophy at this year’s Oscar Awards. He also recently did the art direction for the ABC TV series The Muppets, a highly anticipated return of America’s favorite Muppet cast to network television. And, in the same way that the Muppets have transitioned into modern times, Wang has transitioned the approach to the production’s art direction.
In fact, his highly skilled approach using digital technology and mock-ups to previsualize the set created an effective way to test out what method and measurements applied in the actual construction would provide the DP and puppeteers the most freedom. The importance of this is proportionally epic as it allowed them to do their jobs without being contained to a small area in order to remain out of frame while the Muppets work their magic on the stage.
To find out more about this incredible international artist make sure to check out our interview below; and to see his work on screen just tune into The Muppets on ABC!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
HW: My name is Haisu Wang and I was born and raised in China. My father was a mechanical engineer and my mother was an accountant in a hospital. Running around in the Chinese medicine room and staring at the countless blueprints hanging on the wall led curiosity to become a part of my nature.
I practiced Chinese calligraphy with my grandpa since I was a kid and also learned how to make shadow play puppetry with him, and I think that set the foundation of my path in art. I became interested in design for gaming, film and animation in high school, and it was at that point when I installed MAYA7 on my computer and have been doing CAD work ever since.
At that time I could not find a good college for gaming design in China so I chose industrial design but I never gave up on my dream and improved my computer aided design and computer graphic knowledge during those college years.
I joined the best VFX company in China called BASE-FX and worked as a visual effects artist and junior technical director there for 2 years. I was lucky to get to work on few really well known Hollywood film and TV shows such as The Pacific, Board Walk Empire and I am No.4, and the team won three Emmy Awards for those projects. During those two years I got a glimpse of the Hollywood film industry and decided to come to America to continue pursuing my filmmaking dream.
So how did you first get into art directing and what led you to this path?
HW: After I left Base-FX I decided to go to Hollywood to further pursue my filmmaking dream. I went to AFI to study production design and art direction for film and I met a lot of professional filmmakers, which helped start my professorial career as a Hollywood art director.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve art directed so far?
HW: I have art directed many high quality films over the last few years, which have established my artistic approach to stories and my ability to manage my team. A few of the ones that I’d like to talk about most are Contrapelo, and Day One, and the series The Muppets.
Contrapelo recently made it onto the short list of the top 10 films nominated for this year’s Oscar Awards for the Live-Action Short Trophy. It is the story of a proud Mexican barber who is forced to shave the leader of a drug cartel. As he faces the man who is destroying his country, he is confronted by a difficult decision: to become a killer, or to let this man continue to kill. By the end of the shave, the barber will find out that he and the capo are not so different.
Because the story is located in a small town in Mexico in the 1990s, the main challenge was recreating the Mexican barbershop’s interior and the abandoned travel agent office that served as the hideout for the leader of the drug cartel in a sound stage in LA. I had to gather a team in a short amount of time and build these sets in two weeks.
My computer skill was the key to meeting the challenging deadline. I was be able to use 3D software programs such as SketchUp and Vector to work quickly and generate a 3D previsualized models for the key crew members such as the producers, director and DP so they would be able to understand the design of the set and start design blocking for the acting without the set being built, which saved the production a lot of time. Meanwhile I created the construction plan based on the 3D model data and handed it off to the construction crew to build the set pieces. This CAD work flow not only helped the production save a lot of time and money but it also played a key role in helping the whole team achieve seamless visual communication. The 3D model instructed the construction crew and helped everyone get on the same page with the production designer and myself without us having to be around the construction mill all the time and spend time explaining all the little details that would normally be hard to catch on a traditional construction drawing.
I art directed the well known ABC TV show The Muppets for the preproduction and the first four episodes. The set that I designed and supervised are all the permanent sets such as the ‘Up Late with Miss Piggy’ late night show stage set, the production office area for The Muppets’ set, Rowlf’s Tavern, and the concept design of Kermit’s house.
Designing sets that really felt as though they were lived in by those Muppets was a really fun and challenging journey for me. I was honored to get the chance to work on this iconic American puppet show and dive into the history of the Muppet show where I found out so many interesting behind the scene stories.
When I first got the call from production designer I was kind of shocked as I never thought that they would want to hire a foreign artist to work on a show that contained so much American culture in it. I remembered that I had to watch a lot of 1980s Muppet show recordings almost every night and tried to design sets that felt believable for those Muppets and also of course for all the Muppet fans. I was one of the few young art directors in the industry that was able to use VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) technology on film and TV pre-visualization. During the preproduction I was be able to design the set and make the 3D models in SketchUp and import it into my own developed app which let the director pre-visualize the set with an iPhone or iPad. By holding the iPad he could spin it around and see the digital set like he was inside of it, which helped the director understand the space and most importantly, show this space to the puppeteers so they could easily be able to figure out where they could hide themselves while they were controlling those Muppets during action.
Desiging sets for Muppets was quite an interesting challenge. As we all know, Muppets are played by puppeteers. Only designing sets for the action of the Muppets without enough concern about the space for puppeteers to hide and move would cause trouble. Normally the solution would be to rise the wall up higher than normal with a 40-inch steel deck so that the puppeteers could walk “under the ground” that is why if you look at the old Muppet show carefully you can barely see the floor. But this time we were dealing with long hallway and a big talkshow stage, which made it really difficult for the DP to avoid the floor from deeper space. I spent a lot of time figuring out the floor layout design of the production office set and the miss piggy set. I built a lot of 3D models of 4’ x 4’ and 2’ x 4’ decks on the computer and designed the layout of the decking floor movement and then designed the set wall based on the decking plan. When we actually built the deckings we put wheels underneath so that it could be easily move around to create a tunnel for puppeteers to walk around in the foreground and always have the decking floor in the background. In a way, we really designed another invisible set underneath the actual Muppets’ set.
Day One is another project that got onto the shortlist for this year’s Oscar Awards for the Live-Action Short Trophy. Day one was inspired by a true story about an Afghan-American woman on the heels of a divorce and joins the US Military as an interpreter. On her first day of deployment in Afghanistan, her unit searches out the remote house of a bomb-maker. When the bomb maker’s pregnant wife goes into labor, the interpreter must go beyond the call of duty to deliver her child.
The production designer of this film, Benji Cox, hired me to work on this project to help him to design and build the Afghanistan house set in the desert 30 miles away from LA. One of the main problems of this set build was the uneven ground conditions in the desert.
I was able to use my digital skill to analysis the topography of the desert location and create a 3D model of the real location and then help the designer design the set in my 3D location replica model. During the construction period I supervised the construction coordinator based on my digital location data and set design data, as well as planned the construction schedule and budget. The set would have been really hard to build in the desert without my digital skill and construction planning.
Have you art directed any commercials?
HW: Yes, I have worked with Buzzfeed for a KIA Soul commercial. I have also production designed a few commercials for a Chinese smart phone called OPPO. Art direction for commercial is fun but not really my favorite type of work. Because the nature of commercials don’t really entail strong storytelling, You normally end up spending a lot of money creating pretty pictures that don’t really have another layer of meaning in it. My passion is always creating an environment to help storytelling which is more important in Film and TV projects.
They are all very different, what made you choose to participate in these projects?
HW: Yes, they are completely different projects and I actually quite enjoy working on different stories in different genres. The beauty of art directing is that you get to change and learn new things during projects. It feels nice when you get the vision of the film right away after you’ve read the script. But often the vision could be unclear which is the part that actually attracts me. Doing research for stories and characters is like being a detective. I normally spend a lot of time doing research and choose the reference images carefully, print them out and put them up on my wall. At the beginning you may not know what exactly your direction is but after more and more images show up on the wall, you slowly grasp the gist of the visual direction. By the time the whole wall has been covered with the right images all of the sudden you realize that the tone of the film is there. It is just like detective finding the truth.
Why are you passionate about working as an art director?
HW: I grew up surround by blue prints and legos. Being able to create and design something and then making it come alive has always been my passion since I was a kid. I remember I had a book about the wonders of the world when I was a kid and I still believe that was key that opened up the door to my career path. I was always passionate about architecture around the would. It is wonderful for me to see and understand how people from different region build their houses so differently.
As an art director I need not only design and generate new ideas but I also get to figure out how to build them. It is such a rewarding moment when you walk into the stage and see a spacecraft seat in there just like the one you designed on your computer. I also really like to see things in a spiritual way. To me, being an art director is really like being part of the Hindu Trinity– you play the role of Brahma, the god of creation, at the beginning of the project design by designing how you want the world in the film to look. And then you move on and become Vishnu, the god of maintenance, you make sure that the sets are well maintained and make sure that they are delivered on time for the shooting schedule and if parts of the set have been broken you need to find ways to fix them to make sure the shooting schedule goes smoothly. After the principal photography is done you turn into Shiva, the god of destruction. You have to strike the set pieces, and recycle or restore them for the potential sequel movie. After all that you come back to the sound stage again and it looks like nothing happened. Some people may feel a little bit sad about striking the set, but I think it is beautiful to see the whole process of an idea that exists in your mind being created for a moment and then disappearing again. Just like a comet. If a comet was flying on the sky all the time you may find it quite annoying.
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”?
HW: Really I have to say no matter what project it is there are always challenges that I have to face, and personally, I would rather use the would “achieve” than “success”.
I have been working with so many talented people and have learned so much valuable knowledge from them. I’ve been inspired by them and realized that the key to achieving greater things is to really stick to your word. By sticking your word you create an image of honesty and capability. On a higher level I like to talk to myself about my goal and stick with my words in my heart. By doing that I believe that I gain control over the future. This is not only my work ethic but my life ethic.
What have been a few of your favorite projects so far and why?
HW: I have been working on many projects and frankly I’ve really enjoyed every one of them. There are painful moments for sure and I sometimes do wonder why I’m doing this, but the power that keeps my heart passionate about what I am doing is all the people that I am working with and the unique stories that I’m able to tell to the world through cinema. My favorite project in terms of the story itself , the people I have worked with and the result of the final film would be Contrapelo.
I was a really great working experience with the team on this project. The production designer Aashrita Kamath really trusted me and always invited me to the meetings with director and producers and let me show my ideas and solutions. I was also able to fully use my digital assist design skill to improve the efficiency of the work we did. In terms of the crew, I was super lucky to have a great construction crew that was really enthusiastic about the new technique that I presented to them and followed my supervision precisely.
It is not surprising that the final film did so well and made it into so many festivals. It is so rewarding to see that people enjoyed the film that we made and remembered the story that we really want people to pay attention to.
What would you say your strongest qualities as an art director are?
HW: My knowledge of computer assist design would be the most valuable skill set for me to have in this industry. I started my career as an visual effect artist which led me to realize how important it is for the future of the art department to transfer from the traditional design process to a much more powerful and new way of working to approach your ideas and imagination. I was lucky to have been trained in the traditional ways as well so I understand how construction drawings get done by hand and how stunning a hand drawing could be. The common issue of young artists in the modern art department is a lack of knowledge of how sets are built in the traditional way. I have friends who’ve told me stories of young artist who can draw a beautiful photoshop image but could not do a decent sketch by pencil. In the transition period of this craft, I believe I can be the bridge of the traditional craft and new technology to let experienced artist work with young enthusiastic new blood.