Technological Advancements And Production Design In Film: An Oscar Nominee’s Perspective

Oscar-nominated film production designer, art director and all fountain of filmic knowledge David L. Snyder has quite the CV. With a career spanning from the early ’70s through to present day he’s worked on the likes of the infamous Super Mario Bros., cult classic Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (excellent!) and was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the timeless, beautiful masterpiece that is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

During this time cinema has, of course, changed significantly – CGI advancements have lead to effects-heavy blockbusters by the bucket load, 3D has cinema goers shelling out in their droves for plastic spectacles, and HD digital is slowly but surely pushing films shot on 35mm into the annals of cinema past.

Snyder recently wrapped on the production of the teaser ‘Prologue’ for Aether, a new science fiction movie in development, with the ‘Prologue’ itself (AKA Proof of Concept) being used to gather support and interest in the full movie. Take a look-see at the production in depth here. In his role as the production designer on the film, David is responsible for realising the director’s vision and creating a believable world for the film to exist within. The man himself has kindly shared his thoughts on his work in Aether and beyond with me, in particular looking at how technology has changed his craft:

– The Aether ‘Prologue’ has a very rich visual style, with a melting pot of colours and styles coming together cohesively. How did you approach the design, and what can we expect to see in the expanded universe of the feature film?

When we have decided on the locations for the various settings, as it has nothing to do with Planet Earth, I will begin with found natural environments and elements for design inspiration and expand our best of Aether Prologue into what we are aiming to be monumental, arresting and insane.

Aether: Rise of Specter
Aether: Rise of Specter

– As someone who has vast experience working on films, in particular, films made before CGI became so prominent, how does the way you approach production design differ now compared to films you made pre CGI? With Aether being a science fiction film there is, of course, a fair amount of CGI used in the ‘Prologue’, does this change the way you approach your work?

Prior to the digital era in feature films and Television (for me 1974 – 1991) Art Department design concepts for settings, decor and props were charcoal drawings, Magic Marker sketches and watercolor, oil and acrylic production illustrations. These were the standard means of presenting ideas to the director, producers and in some cases creative types at the major Hollywood studios. Once approved, pencil / graphite on vellum paper, the so-called blueprints / working drawings were hand draughted (UK) drafted (US) over days, weeks even months due to constant revision over budget and schedules. Beginning with Super Mario Bros., even though we were still designing with standard techniques, we began a process of scanning and digitizing the art department output in spite of the fact that most hardware and software was fairly new and expensive. Having previously worked with Albert Whitlock at Universal (In God We Tru$t), John Dykstra at Apogee (The Woman in Red), and Douglas Trumbull at EEG (Entertainment Effects Group (Blade Runner & Brainstorm) the techniques in photo-chemical 35mm and 70mm really hadn’t changed much in its use of optical in-camera and laboratory created special effects. (Note: the term Visual Effects came in use with Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner etc.)

Blader Runner
Blader Runner

My approach to production design really hasn’t changed for me in theory, only in application and technique. Instead of delivering ideas and concepts in lovely paintings and drawings you could hang in a gallery, we now create images that actually end up in the final film. The software available to us is at such a high level of resolution that we hand the files off to the VFX Director / Producer and they become integrated into the mix of what goes up on the screen. On some massive VFX-heavy films we will have a full-time position of Visual Effects Art Director whose job it is to liaise between the Art and VFX Departments to maintain a seamless marriage between the live action elements and VFX/CGI including set extensions, green-screen and background plates. The most notable change over my time in the industry is speed. No more waiting for dailies, fewer re-shoots, instant decision making on the floor with high resolution monitors including instant temp compositing of elements that could be continents away.

Regards Aether, like any of my films, I have no personal style I impose on a film. My job is to turn words into pictures based on the vision of the director in concert with the Director of Photography and myself. My involvement in Aether came about due to this opportunity to be involved in creating a unique take on science-fiction. It was not intended to be a Blade Runner knock-off and nothing like Demolition Man. Following a 30 minute telephone conversation with (co director) Drew Hall and producer Scott Robinson I was convinced Drew had a vision and Scott was going to see to it that it was realised.

I was delighted to be at the dawn of all this in designing a film starring and directed by Bob Hoskins (Rainbow, 1996). It was the first all-digital-to 35mm feature-length theatrical motion picture photographed by 2-time Oscar Winner Freddie Francis, edited by Oscar Nominee Ray Lovejoy. We all came from film backgrounds and we did it when no-one in their right mind would have imagined it would become the industry standard.


For more on the first film ever to be shot in High Definition digital, Rainbow, scrub up on your film history here. For more on Aether, check out the official website to join the growing numbers in the Aether’verse, and share your thoughts in the comments below!

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