Set Design and Props: Interview with John Lavin
Set design, so, we'll talk about working with an art director, set designer, Art Department. As you may hear in film sets, or especially like larger commercial jobs, we talked about this a little earlier. You saw the sketches and the mock-ups that John made for some of our shoots. Research, again, it's really the same for all these roles. You gotta do your research and you've gotta be able to communicate clearly what it is that you're going for. But an art director, especially, just like with any other role, but I think what they do encompasses, visually, a bit more. There's a lot of opportunity to collaborate with an art director. So, we're gonna bring in John Laven, who is an art director that I work with on a regular basis, who is working with us on these mysterious shoots that we keep talking about.
So John, maybe tell us a little bit about, you have over 25 years of experience, and you guys, this is not the first time working with Keatley, correct?
worked together several times. John and I worked together kind of a lot. I work as a... It's a little confusing. I work as a production designer when it's a film. Often times, it's called an art director when it's a commercial. Sort of depends on the size of the job. In general terms, the art director is the one who hires the crew that's in charge of the sets and the props. And if the job is small, then you are the person who does the sets and the props. In a job like this, it's a one person Art Department. So, it's me and I'm doing the sets and the props. And in a bigger job, it would be the one in charge of the crews who are doing those things. Basically, the things you're looking at that aren't, the things on screen that aren't the actor or their wardrobe is sort of what is my lookout in general. And on a job like this, he comes to me and says, "I've got this project, I'm working on this thing. "Here's what we're gonna be needing," and we sort of, we tend to do a little exchange of pictures and kind of like, here's something I've seen that I kind of like. I sort of like this about that, and I like this about that, and if you could sort of, if we sort of met somewhere in the middle, and it became a third thing. You know, what would you do? So many things are determined by budget and sort of scope and scale of a project.
And I think for me, personally, my favorite part is when we're in person together. It's one thing when you're on email and communicating, but we talked about roles and things like that, people being out of town. But for me, I think it's best when we get together because John can just throw, you're just spitballing. John throws something out and it sparks something else. I'm like what about this, and he's like, oh. And I think it's just kind of building off each other and that's like a great situation when you can kind of get in that place and both kind of start firing away on different ideas. And a lot of times, like John said, it's based on budget and we have to problem solve, and sometimes it's like, what do we actually want this to look like? I don't always have the ideas, sometimes I need help. So, it's a creative partnership in that sense.
It's fun and it's... I mean, I'm sort of the belief that anybody, you can solve anything with a pile of money, but none of us get that opportunity very often. And usually what you have to do is be resourceful and say, here's the kind of thing I'm after. Here's the sort of, you know, here are the things we need, here are the marks we need to hit. Where could we go with this that would be interesting? Where could we take this that would be an interesting way to sort of present this idea? And I sort of look at my job as just like, I'll just start generating, you know, tossing 'em out there and seeing what works. I just generate a lot of possibilities. What if we went this way or this way, and you start responding with, no, I really want it to be more like this or more like that. And then, we sort of respond and shape it as we go.
I think we can talk about, even yesterday too, what happened. We did our wardrobe fitting and we fit the first three people. We got to the fourth and we didn't have anything to work with. I hated everything that was available. I think John agreed, like, it just didn't look like anything we had discussed. And so, we had someone go out again and try to find more stuff. Not to anyone's fault necessarily, like, timing, budget, maybe what's in season, what's available. I totally understand finding kind of strange, usual vintage pieces that feel nautical. It's not exactly something you can just find on any shelf. So, we got to a point late last night or yesterday evening where we were like, okay, we have to problem solve. We've gotta maybe go in a different direction, or we need to come up with a specific idea to fix this right now. And so, it just kind of became, like, John was wearing these bright orange coveralls as he was painting. We were thinking about wardrobe, but seeing him in there, I kind of started thinking, well, maybe we need to go uniform. Maybe a uniform will allow us to just do a portrait and not worry about what the person is doing in there. Because before, we were very much depending on an action and we were depending on wardrobe, and we don't have that anymore. So, we had to start brainstorming. It just kind of became this back and forth. What if she's holding a harpoon. I don't know if we have time to make a harpoon. Well, what if she's holding a radio. And then like, oh, actually we have this. Maybe we could do that. And then eventually, it came to this final idea that we landed on, but it was just kind of like a back and forth.
And a lot of it is just, you know, it's not just a call to a prop house. It's more like, how do we figure out what we've got and what could you get in this kind of, you know, we've got to get this by tomorrow. We're both working tomorrow. So, how do we do this in a way that can, you know, what can we sort of rally quickly? And, I think the solution, we don't have to talk about what it is if you wanna hold off. But, the solution we came up to is kinda nice. And to me, that's the satisfaction of this kind of work. It's when you get to sort of solve a problem in a clever way that, I mean, that's where the fun is.
I think one of the first times, maybe the first time I worked with you, was on this big music video set. I think that was probably the most extreme example, but I think one day were were like, we need the sidewalk. We're shooting in a warehouse, and, we need, like, a 25 foot long sidewalk. John was like, okay, we'll figure it out. It was like, we need a lion cage. We need this big lion, and it was like crazy. I learned so much from that shoot because it's like--
We had a stuff going on.
What was the sidewalk made out of?
That was a concrete sidewalk that we had made that I think we were able to get from another shoot.
It was actually concrete?
Well, it's plywood.
Oh yeah, it wasn't solid concrete.
No, it's around the edges. I mean, I can talk a little bit about this kinda, but it was like mimicked to look like it. The thing that we, people who do what I do, are always dealing with is how, like really understanding how things look and really looking at them. Like, understanding the world visually because you can mimic everything you have to do. You don't have to use the actual thing. If you need a brick wall, you don't make a brick wall. You use the fake brick from Lowe's and you do things to it to make it look plausible. And you know, there's sort of a lot of tricks that people, we art directors use all the time that are sort of how we get around it. I can talk about this-- (mumbling)
What did you make? They made this huge telephone pole. Like on the sidewalk, we were making an urban street, and it had, I think, one or two telephone poles. It looked like a real telephone pole.
Yeah, that was pretty good, actually. We did this wall and it was just made of flats. We sort of work in, instead of using walls, we used flats and they were like a four foot wide, 10 foot tall, very lightweight, framed wall. So, you never would make a wall out of sheet rock like you would in a house. You make these flats and then you join them together and seam them to make bigger walls. And so, we just had this. But, it needed to feel like the outside of a building. We ended up making brick lines with gray tape. We painted the wall that color and then just lined it with gray tape and did all the brick work like that. And, it had kind of a nice, sort of fakey-real look to it. Then, we made the sidewalk and then we had a telephone pole that was like a Sonotube, one of those big concrete forms. And then, we cover that and stuff in a bunch of, uh, a bunch of like gig posters and things--
Do you remember the material it was on that made it look like wood?
It was paper.
It was paper?
Just like wrinkled up?
Yeah, like, wrinkled up and sort of scenic painted. Some of this stuff is stuff that, like, there's real tricks to it and other stuff is stuff that's really accessible. One of the things I was just gonna show, I brought my little show and tell. We talked about wanting a porthole on one of the walls. If you price portholes, they're like $2500. I mean, a porthole is, like, a thing (laughs). They're made of brass, they're super heavy, they're a big deal. I made this one, which, you know, it ain't a real porthole but it's gonna work on camera, out of stuff that I just found at Lowe's. The back part of it is a Lazy Susan, and then the front part is like a vent flange, I guess, and these are just hardware plumbing parts. This is a cabinet latch, and these are toilet seat hinges. Then, you hang a picture in it, stick it on the wall back there and it's a view to the outside in a boat. Oh, and then, something I love is hot glue. Painted hot glue looks a lot like a weld, or you can make it look a lot like a weld. That's a trick we're using on this shoot a lot, the hot glue weld. We do what we call shape shopping. My friend came up with the name. It's where you go to the hardware store, big box store or whatever, and you're just looking for, like, I know what I'm looking for. It's not what that thing is. You're just walking through the store looking for shapes. I've been to that store a million times, but I was going looking for, okay, I need a ring. It's gotta be a ring, not a circle. It's gotta be a ring that's somewhere in that ballpark to be the base of this, and I found that thing, and then, okay, now I need something to set that on to give it a little bulk. It's gotta be a circular something with a little dimension. Could it be a frisbee? I was looking at frisbees, and that's a little round. You know, you just sort of find the thing. Now I need a hinge, so you're just finding things by shape.
Is this something that, with this shoot, you send over a list of potential props? Or are you, like, when you are going back and forth on this particular shoot, did you say porthole and then you come up with how to solve that?
No, not in this one.
Conceptually, how does that work?
I think it's--
It's more of a, you know, we're after nautical, we're after things that feel like this, and then it's a little bit of John hearing, well, I know that I could provide this or that. I know that this is something we could come up with. Some things are specific and some things are more like... There's a lot of back and forth. At some point, it's more me saying, you know, we could get a porthole, I'm sure we could put one together. We could have that on one side. I remembered we had, just on that discussion, it was like, well, should we do a couple? Should we do one opposite each other? You were sort of like, no, I think one makes more sense, let's not, you know, and we sort of had that kind of thing. Maybe it's something about that size that sort of balances the picture but it's not the same thing. It's a lot of back and forth.
I'm curious if you are always thinking about props even when you're not planning a shoot. So, if that's part of your process too in terms of--
I'm not so much thinking about props. I think, sometimes I'll have an idea, but I mean, I really lean heavily on this kind of stuff on John. My focus, and I think my strength, is more like character building and thinking about the people and the emotion and the general feel of something that I want. And I try to communicate it as best I can, like the feel and what is important to me. We have one of the sets in the rowboat where I think we both had kind of different views on it. One is not better than the other, but it was really important to me that it felt a certain way, so I've gotta communicate those kind of things. But you know, like I said with the seagull and all that kind of stuff, again, we talk about communicating. Maybe you would prefer, I don't know. Sometimes maybe you want, you can speak to that, people to be very specific, but for me, until John says, you know, you need to work harder, I like to let and have him bring things in 'cause I feel like it elevates what we're trying to do. Really, props is not my strength.
I think the reality is, this kind of work is collaborative and you find... I work with all kinds of different people and all kinds of different sizes of projects and all kinds of different sort of principles that are making the call. Everybody communicates differently, you know? It's more like... It's more about finding, sort of, when he says this, does he mean that, or is it something, you know, what is he saying? With John, I think we've got a nice rapport and a pretty good understanding. There are more that we sort of hit than we miss in terms of understanding where we're going with things. I think you just sort of find how, I mean, they're a gig, you know? We're sort of facilitating their gig, so it's about finding the things that work for them and trying to get clear on what it is they're trying to achieve.
Do you, Laven, have props everywhere at home? Do you have a props shop? What is your process like working with so many different people?
Yeah, there are five of us who share a shop in Seattle and we do have a big prop room that we use, then there are other people that I don't share the shop with that are sort of on my speed dial. We're constantly sending things to each other and saying, "Does anybody have a life sized seagull "or know where I could find one?" We sort of, you know, put out the word and try to figure out how to find a thing like that. But I think, you know, the reality is, most people aren't dealing with jobs of that scale. I think it's just more a question of, you know, how would you do it if you're not? It's about you sort of finding your resources, knowing who your collaborators are. You can find and make a lot of things, or if you know somebody who's handy, they can be doing that with you. You can find a lot of the stuff you need to put together.
And I think simplifying too. If you can't do a lot, don't try to do a lot. Do a lot with a little. Like, how can you make something simple feel bigger, if bigger is what you're going for? I think there's ways to do that, and I think we're gonna do that in some ways here. Like, some of the smaller sets, we're trying to give a sense of scale, but ultimately it's just a few different items that we're working with.
Yeah, and there are tricks to that too that we can maybe talk about another time too. Embracing the fake also is, like, a real important thing to consider too. If you're not gonna make something totally legit, totally real, okay, I'm in the Winter Palace or whatever, then embracing the idea that it's not is a nice way to approach it. There's a lot of people working in that kind of world where clearly the whole thing is made out of cardboard and you can tell it's made out of cardboard, you know? It can be interesting. It doesn't have to be expensive to be interesting. It doesn't have to be lux to be cool. There's lots of ways to approach that stuff, just choosing the material that fits what you're able to do.
Speaking of cardboard, we saw some still pictures of the model that you put together earlier, but I think we actually have it here in the studio.
Yeah, this is my high tech rendering of the room.
Talk to us about what's going on and why you came up with this. What was the challenge that came from you, Keatley, that prompted this?
I think, again, there's some kind of complicated angles going on here. It's not the kind of thing that John or anyone wants to build and find out it's not gonna work, so I think it just means putting in the effort to make sure that we're, again, saying the right things. Like John said, we're communicating as best we can but I think the first round, I think it was probably to the scale we talked about but then I realized, like, the back feels a little too tight, so it was opening that back up. Again, the more you can do in advance, the better. Otherwise, if you show up and you're like, we're shooting right now and that is not big enough, there's not a lot you can do at that point.
Yeah, to take a step back, we're basically trying to create this foreshortened room, exaggerated perspective of a room. And I just needed to see how it's gonna actually go together so I just made it to scale out of pizza box cardboard just to figure out, what do I need to build to make this work and then how will it actually go together? What holds that ceiling on, and do you need to slant the floor too? It's basically like a knuckleheaded little model to kind of say, if I put together pieces like this, could I make this thing stand up, could I make this thing work? Then, what do I need to do to take the next steps?
I have kind of a twofold question. One is, kind of, what is your background? And then, as far as, like, what brought you to where you're at now as far as, did you go to art school or is it something you've learned as you went? And then, when you're a photographer and you're starting out and you're building all these sets on your own, where would you direct us to go to for resources? What are things you have in your wheelhouse to draw on?
Thanks. I did go to art school. I come to this from the fine art world. The funny thing about being a production designer or an art director is that people all come from different places. Some of them come from theater and have theater backgrounds, some come from film, some come from art, some come from construction even. (mumbling) There's not a lot of people who come to it from eduction, you know, from a degree. But I got a fine arts degree, a graduate school in fine arts. I was a painter. My path was sort of like, when I used to live in New York, I worked at an Urban Outfitters doing the display stuff and then I worked at Barneys, which is a store there, doing window display, so I kind of came from doing window display into the sort of photography world, from photography into video, video into film, commercials, and I sort of never left any of them behind. I do all of it still (mumbling). Just sort of as an aside, I take the approach that I would rather live here and work in as many different areas as possible than to sort of pursue one part of that, you know, in Hollywood, and be the guy who does this kind of film. I like the idea of doing a lot of this stuff. And for me, it's a pleasure to work on a real small job or a little video or an indie film or a big production or photography. I like mixing that up. As for you, I mean, I think, like I said, trying to be creative or find yourself, you know, if you get into a big enough project, it's gotta be collaborative, it just has to be. People don't do these things on their own. You've seen the list of names at the end of a film. I mean, there are hundreds and hundreds of people involved in some of these projects, even the small indie film that takes place in, you know, it's like three people talking in a room for two hours, you still have a hundred people involved in it, you know? You need to collaborate, you need to sort of get out there. If your project is interesting and fun, people want to be a part of it. People want to do stuff to help. I think there are ways. If you're doing interesting stuff, it doesn't have to be famous people or a huge budget. It just doesn't. If it's interesting, people wanna help out with something like that. Your network of friends probably has everything you need. If it doesn't, go to the Goodwill (laughs). And if they don't, go to Home Depot. I mean, I really do think you can do most everything you need to do with your own resources.
I think again, it just means, like, unless you're really great at that particular skillset, you're not gonna be able to just all of a sudden, "Here John, make a seagull and make it look real." I just remembered thinking about this the other night. I had a studio years ago when I was out of college and I didn't know what I was doing and I didn't have any expenses so I could afford it, but I had this little studio and actually, I'd forgot, I did build a set and it was just a floor, eight by eight, with two walls and a window. I think I'd seen something in a magazine and thought it was really cool and wanted to experiment with set building. I painted it myself and tried to make it look aged and it's terrible. It's like the ugliest, worst thing. But I mean, it was a start, and it was a good experience. I used it for a lot of different shoots. I practiced in it and learned a lot of lighting and stuff but I think if it's something that you want to do in terms of creating an environment, or even like we saw earlier, just putting two sheets on the wall and bringing a chair and a nightstand into it. If you're close enough. It's harder to sell a whole room in wide angle, but if you're close enough and it's a vignette, you can pull off some really cool looks and ideas just by like John said, just resourcing what's around and using your own furniture and stuff like that.
Some of that stuff, you can suggest a sense of scale by how you compose your set too. You can use a small set, but don't bunch everything in the middle. If you hang, ah, what's a good example? If some of your stuff is hanging off the set, you know, like, let's say you've got an eight by eight wall. If some of your furniture just hangs over a couple of inches but you catch it in the very edge of your shot, well, that's gonna suggest that the world continues after that. If you're thinking in terms of suggesting larger spaces, you don't need a large space to suggest a larger space. If you hung a picture, you know, if you're trying to be in a mansion or something and you hang an oil painting and the bottom of it is here, you're suggesting a much taller room, you know? Even if you've got an eight foot wall, you hang it as if it's, you know, you put a wainscot chair rail at the five foot height and you've suggested a bigger space. Some of that stuff is just, like, try to--
It's a good suggestion.
Yeah, you suggest it. You don't have to show everything, you indicate something and you suggest a bigger place.
I think that just comes back to the theme that we're talking about this whole time, John, is that there's no excuses in terms of you can make something out of anything but you just have to get to it and get thinking about it and get in there.
From my world, it's a lot about sort of finding the... Forcing yourself to think visually, training yourself to think visually, so when you're thinking, okay, we've gotta do nautical, nautical could be a lot of different things. You could be inside or outside. It could be boat or not a boat. It could be water, you know? When you think, like, what can you do for a quick turnaround and not a lot of money, we ended up on a couple of these thinking in terms of, well, it's like a steel ship. Obviously we're not bringing in sheets of steel, but the surface of a steel hull is basically like a flat surface with a weld bead. So, boy, that's something I can do on anything. That's something I can do on any surface. So, you get an inexpensive, easy surface to work with, put a hot glue bead on it, paint it over a couple of times, and it starts looking like a steel wall. You're thinking about, like, what tells the story and how can I bring that in?
Another question for you, Laven. What particular part of this whole process is most sort of gratifying for you? Is it being on set, building the set, resourcing the interesting props or bringing something that wasn't originally yours to life? What is the most exciting part for you?
Yeah, it's some combination of those. I think it's super fun to... I kind of love what I do, and I love the projects I work on. It's a pleasure to get to do this for a living. I love the people I work with. It's a lot of fun to just sort of (mumbling) be able to do stuff like this. But I gotta say, particularly I kind of love the thing where I say, "You know what I made this out of?" It's just this and that, and that's a lot of fun. That sort of gives the most specific kind of satisfaction, being resourceful in coming up with something like that. I like that a lot.
And Keatley, for you, what's the most gratifying part for you of seeing things like the set come to life from this little 3D model?
Well, I think aside from just getting to create with really cool environments, it's the excitement of seeing, kind of like John said, from my perspective, it's seeing something come to life that I couldn't do on my own. It's just this excitement, it's almost like Disneyland in that sense. You walk in and all of a sudden anything becomes possible and it kind of opens up your mind. And so, you know, I've learned a lot through that process, whereas before, I just never would have thought that you could make a telephone pole out of a cardboard tube or something, you know? It just kind of expands your mind and it's exciting. There's a rush, I think, to collaborating and seeing this kind of stuff happen and feeling like you're problem solving. And also realizing you're not alone. Like, you don't have to do all this alone, you know? There's a lot of excitement that comes from that as well.
Let me just add one other little thing as a resource that I should remember. Lots of times people will rent things. We've been talking about how you make things and take that approach to things. But a lot of times, people will rent stuff and they don't necessarily have a structure for renting things and they're not a prop house, but lots of places will do a thing where you say, you know, I'm doing this photo shoot, I'm looking for this thing, this is perfect, but I don't have the 800 bucks for it or whatever, some nice antique or something like that, would you rent it? Sometimes people will, sometimes people are set up for that, and if they're not, an approach we take a lot is to say, how about if, basically, I buy it, I pay full price for it, and then when I return it, you give me 80% back? That's a way that even somebody who doesn't have a rental setup can oftentimes, if it's not a big chain store, they can usually deal with something like that and just say, oh, okay, sure, then you're ultimately just paying me 20% for the thing, which is a reasonable rental cost, and you get that beautiful antique thing that you would never buy or could never hope to have. You'd get that for a pretty reasonable cost and then you get it back to the store and they're like, "Wow, we just made 100 bucks on this without even "having to lose it for more than a day or two." Some of it is about being resourceful that way, and that happens in our world all the time where we rent stuff. Some of the stuff that we're using here is rented in that same way, not from people who are set up to rent necessarily but just because you sort of wanted to use that thing and made that deal. We're gonna use a rowboat, you know? It's this charming old rowboat, but we're not buying it just for this photograph. We went to the Center for Wooden Boats and had a negotiation and talked to them about that.
It can even be something as simple as, like, if you're out, let's say you live somewhere with water. Last year we were at a beach around here and I saw someone with a rowboat, not even thinking about this shot. It's one of the pictures I sent to you for the rowboat we were looking for. I took a picture of the rowboat and got their number 'cause I thought someday, it looked so cool, I may wanna photograph it. It can be very, you know, off the cuff like that. There's a picture I don't think I've shown yet. I threw together a set years ago and we just got everything except for the wood paneling from the free section on Craigslist. Then, as soon as the shoot was over, we just donated it all to Goodwill. I mean, it takes time, and you may have to get a truck or something, but you've gotta put in that work if you don't have the resources. There's definitely ways to make it happen.
The first thing is, go straight to Google Images and just sort of say, alright, he's talking about a nautical shoot, (mumbling) what is nautical stuff? You know this thing, but it's just like, let me start getting a bit of a visual encyclopedia at hand. What are some great things that are also achievable? We can't bring in freighter, okay. But maybe we could suggest a metal ship. Maybe we could bring in something, you know, I made a big fake anchor for a job once. Nobody could've even moved that thing if it were real. You go to Google Images and you just start kind of saying, well, what are those things? Then you can kind of get a sense of, ah, okay, there's anchors and ropes and wheels and seagulls and you know, little boats. I do a lot of looking at Google Images and getting my ideas, starting to shape my ideas that way. That's helpful.
Can you talk a little bit about what's sort of your idea of the length of time for this particular series of four shoots that it took to put this altogether between the two of you?
No, I've lost all sense of time. (laughter)
That stuff is usually determined by budget, on my end of things. In jobs that I do, it tends to be a producer oftentimes giving me a call and saying, "You've got this job, "and our budget will allow for," you know. "It's a three day shoot and you've got four days of prep, "and then one day to wrap it out." That's usually, they're sort of determining it more than me. But in this, it's not a usual-like commercial project... A couple of weeks ago we started talking and got some initial ideas underway. I didn't really do any of the heavy lifting until just a few days ago.
We did have a different concept before that we were talking about for a while, so there was that, but I think, yeah, some of that we were able to kind of pivot and bring with us. I don't know, it was maybe a couple meetups for an hour or so and a few emails back and forth and then a couple phone calls. That maybe took place, like you said, over a couple weeks.
Probably from my end of things, just a handful of days.
I think, again, that's where you can really save yourself time by doing that research, 'cause if you start, and I'm guilty of this too, it's hard, but if I come to John and just have some vague ideas and still have to figure it out for myself, it's gonna take John and myself a lot longer and it's gonna cost more because it's not figured out. The more you can figure out upfront, the less time it will take, ideally.
Yeah, it's like a bathroom remodel or something. If you know what you need done and are really clear that this is the tile we're using and this is where we're gonna put it, I mean, that's gonna cost you a whole lot less than if you're deciding as the contractor is there working. If you're actually hiring crew, they're all contractors and you might wanna think of them that way (laughs). The more you're changing as you go, the more you're deciding as you go, it can make it a bigger deal than it would need to be.
Well, Laven, I know you have a lot of work to still do. We're still working on sets in the other studio next door. Do you have, before we kick you back to work, do you have any final thoughts for people who are kind of back to the DIY resourcing props on their own that are the photographers themselves?
Just that it is doable, it really is doable. (mumbling) You can make this stuff happen with stuff that's easy to find. Just keep in mind that you don't have to do it all, you can suggest a lot. You can suggest a lot, you know? You don't need a rain machine if you've got somebody holding an umbrella. People can connect visual dots. I think you can suggest a lot without a whole lot of money.
Awesome. Now, I know we've been talking about these concepts and the nauticals and we haven't seen it. We're gonna see some things later in the day, maybe some sneak peeks. What are you gonna go back and work on?
We decided late in the day yesterday to reconsider the floor of this room, of this set, so I'm working on that.