Production designer, François Audouy, started out as a digital hero in an analog world. See how he incorporates his diverse life experiences into his work and learn how seeing a miniature X-Wing Fighter at a young age helped shape his career.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What made you want to work as a production designer?
Growing up as a child, I always wanted to be an artist, and I loved to draw. I would draw and doodle constantly—always scribbling away. I also loved movies, and it wasn’t until high school that I discovered there was a job that combined both.
Was there a moment early on in your career that you thought “this is what I am meant to do!”? An “aha!” moment, of sorts?
A family friend named Bob Shepherd managed a visual effects company in the San Fernando Valley called Apogee. They were half the team that created the effects for classics Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. After a visit to their studio, seeing a real X-Wing Fighter miniature in the lobby and meeting their on-staff art director, I was hooked and enchanted by those who created imaginary worlds for films. Later, I got my foot in the door as a graphic designer and illustrator, and found my niche to be that I was fully digital at a time when very few film artists worked exclusively with computers.
You recently worked on the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is your creative process different when you are trying to recreate a historical time period versus a purely imagined landscape?
As a designer, I think it’s important to adapt to each project and each director. My creative process onVampire Hunter grew from my very first discussion with director Timur Bekmambetov—to visualize a world that was grounded in reality, and so the project started with a tremendous amount of historical research. I think it was an interesting choice to approach a film with such a surprising concept with utmost respect and seriousness.
Can you tell us a little bit about what a typical day on the job looks like?
What I love about my job is that every day is different, and I don’t stay still. The constants are that I always check in first with my Supervising Art Director who is my anchor, to gauge the day’s priorities. If we’re shooting, I have to open the set at call time. Then I’ll make the rounds with construction, as they start their day very early, and give input on the sets that are in various stages of completion. I also make sure to check in with my design staff—my researcher, set designers, illustrators, art directors—and make sure everyone is in sync. On top of that, I have to fold in time for scouting and regular meetings with the director and cinematographer. It’s never boring!
How did you become involved with The Exchange? Have you had any particularly interesting, or favorite, interactions with us?
I first heard of the Exchange through a mentor of mine, Production Designer Alex McDowell. In 2007, as his Art Director, we collaborated with Physicist Dr. Jim Kakalios to explore the strong science grounding in the seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which we were tasked to translate into a film. It was a remarkable journey as Jim helped influence the back-stories of several of the main characters, which in turn influenced the settings and the world that was imagined. He helped provide a internal logic and plausibility to our process.
Since you work in the entertainment industry every day, when you go home are there any shows or movies that you particularly love to watch? Any that you professionally admire?
I love stories that are set in worlds that draw you in by their originality and surprises. I seem to be drawn to films that challenge us to imagine alternate worlds, either set in a fantastic, foreign, or historical setting, where we can experience the particular closed narrative in a film, but then the setting stays with us as a place where you can imagine the characters continuing their lives. This year, I thought LIFE OF PI did a particularly fine job of taking us on a journey though an evocative world.
At what point in the filmmaking process does it become clear that you need advice from a scientist? What are the advantages of working with a science consultant?
My own experience is that every narrative can benefit from the feedback and collaboration of experts. What I find interesting is that non-movie professionals will give honest reactions to the material, based on their experiences and areas of expertise, which can help feed my own imagination. I’m always looking for new ideas, which often start small and sometimes from just a conversation. But small ideas can evolve into original moments or details in the designed world.
What is the most difficult part of your job? The most rewarding part?
The biggest challenges for me are balancing the constraints of time and resources, with the appetite for the visuals; but I find that when there’s urgency and limitations, it forces you to make more creative decisions and keep forging ahead. For me, the most rewarding part of the job is finishing a set and seeing that it works properly for the choreography of the camera and actors, to tell the story in an interesting way.
We read in your profile that you are a big advocate of immersive design. Can you explain to us a little about what that means and how you use it in your work?
Over the past 15 years, I’ve witnessed an evolution in the design process as we have shifted from analog design tools to digital visualization software. Early in this transition, the obvious advantages were the ability to share assets and more easily revise and refine them to create an additive, non-linear design process. As designers have become more fluent in the technologies, the benefits have grown to create an immersive design experience where filmmakers can interact and manipulate the narrative world. What we’re seeing are animated films and virtual production projects influencing the workflows of filmmakers, because you can’t make these films any other way—you need to visualize the imagined world, and then prototype those ideas that feed the narrative, in order to see what works and what doesn’t. This new thinking is influencing the very way we think about design’s relationship with storytelling, and empowers us to tell better stories in worlds filled with internal logic and truth.