We see millions of fictional worlds in films, television shows and music videos. As an audience, we judge the innovative work by simply looking at the final cut. But do we know anything about the people who create those fictional worlds and how they do it?
Argya Sadan is an architect who currently spends her time designing the worlds you see on-screen. She belongs to a creative group of people who work on creating the backgrounds of different scenes you see in films and music videos.
“As a production designer, I’m building new worlds for each genre and project. I work with developing the setting, the characters and their backgrounds through visual aspects. That’s what got me excited.”
She developed an interest in the world of film while she was doing a fellowship with Make A Difference – A non-profit organisation working towards providing quality education and development to children in shelter homes.
“I was their public relations fellow in Bangalore for a year. I worked with writers, designers, videographers to create content that helped spread awareness about the cause.” Her work with people from different backgrounds and professions was exposed to several untold stories that needed to be shared.
“Before I took on the position to head the team, I was part of that team as a designer and it was mostly the collaboration with all the volunteers involved, that opened my eyes to inspiring stories waiting to be told.”
Argya’s first production was that 2015 film, Supernova, where she worked as a production designer. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these terms, “A production designer is the head of the art department and they hire the skilled crew to work with them on these projects.”
When we watch a film or a documentary or a television show, we simply see the end result in front of us. The audience isn’t aware of the complicated steps that are involved in translating the words in a script to the video.
Today’s story tries to break down the moments behind different scenes from some films, and a music video. But before we begin, let’s understand how she converts those words into sets.
“We collaborate with the director and the cinematographer. Starting from the script to developing the mood and tone of the film based on the genre.” As a production designer, “I work with the art department to research all parts of the script – characters, incidents that take place and possible locations.”
“We present the direction in which we intend to go, through concept illustrations and models. We move forward with the design process by relaying drawings to the construction team, working with props and set decoration to source our requirements based on budget and scheduling. All of this is in the pre-production stage. Even during production, the art department is on the set, ensuring every element is placed in the frame that supports the narrative, and adds to building the world and characters.”
The first picture shows a still from her thesis film, Little Darling, which won the best student film award at the Bangalore Short Film Festival this year. In the film, “Our lead is a courtroom sketch artist tasked On screen, with sketching a copyright case when he begins to suffer strange flashbacks.”
Based on the director’s personal experiences, Little Darling tells the story of a sketch artist who finds himself recreating memories through sketches which bring back forgotten traumatic memories.
The scene – he is trying to recreate sketches from his past and understand them.
Behind the scene – “the art department was scrambling to get the sketches ready.”
“We had a sketch artist on set who had to sketch live as we shot scenes to be right sequentially. Continuity between the sketches could not have any errors and would have to be matched to the animation in post production.”
Before the crew got on with their work, the room was a simple home office with a large table in the middle. “We dressed this room up to look like a studio the character moved into after his divorce.”
They worked with everything the character’s narrative would require to create the perfect fictional world for him. “We brought in drawing supplies, sketches and his work-necessities to set it all up and support his work as an artist. A grown man on a futon added more to the dejected phase in his life.”
In the picture, the room is compact, “bare and provides feelings of loneliness and compared to the house he left where his wife and child still reside.” To set the tone of the scene, “The color palette was controlled and discussed very early on to add a layer of surrealism as he transitions from real life and animation through the film.”
“This image is from a short film I designed earlier this year, called Displaced.”
The film is going to premiere in a couple of weeks, and is about a Syrian refugee who is confronted by her father before her first professional fight.
The scene – Ameera, a Syrian refugee is training before her fight. “Her trainer is motivating her before her first pro fight.“
Behind the scene – “Our biggest challenge was getting those heavy lockers down to the space with very little crew because of our budget constraints and making it through service elevators in a historically old building.“
The scene was shot in a 1920s basement locker room. “It was surely not period appropriate for us but we wanted the texture and feel of the underground spaces so we brought in period relevant lockers and converted the existing space.”
The true test of creativity happens when there are budget limitations and according to Argya, this, process of finding hacks during a shoot, happens all the time. “I haven’t been on a show yet where limitations like these don’t crop up. We might be able to work on a large budget, but we will encounter a different set of problems.”
She has worked on all kinds of films and part of her job is to co-ordinate with different departments working on the project. She says that it’s all about “working our way through it in a smart and efficient way.”
“There aren’t many times where every part of production flows smoothly. There are several departments and so many moving parts that it’s difficult to assess all of them during preparation.”
Another still from Displaced, the scene depicts the relationship of the protagonist with her father.
The scene – “We had to recreate Syria, post bombing, in an alley to establish Ameera’ s relationship with her dad.“
Behind the scene – “It was quite a fun bit, where we made this war zone work by bringing in disposed building materials, waste and stacking them up.“
The film was shot in Los Angeles. For capturing different elements that were required by the narrative, she and her team worked on recreating the effects of a war zone. “We sprinkled baby powder and sand in the background to create the effect of ongoing war and chaos.”
The moment was shot in the back alley of the location where they recorded the locker room scene. “For this scene we fixed the frame and placed the elements in, to get the feel. There were a few signs in Arabic – like common Syrian store signs in the mix,”
Portraying a war zone on a budget can be a challenging task to accomplish. And, “that’s why, we had to decide on the frame of what we would be seeing before dressing the set.
The sound and editing in post-production definitely helped portray it better.”
The next two pictures are moments from a music video she designed, for the husband wife duo – GNL Zamba and Miriam Tamar, called Dunia Ni Matembezi.
Shot near Joshua Tree National Park, Dunia Ni Matembezi is a Swahili proverb that means ‘the world is walking.’ The song depicts the rite of passage of leaving home and the music video portrays stories one will come across while exploring the outside world.
This being her first music video, her experience was different from that of working on a film. “Where we have a script to work with, here it was about what the artist needs to convey the true meaning of the song better.”
“It was fun for me as a designer because it was stylized with Afro futuristic elements and lots of colors and textures to play with.” Her work behind the scenes involved sourcing props like carpets, lanterns, cloths and other materials the video required, from antique stores.
“Some were bought brand new and aged to make them seem more relevant. We even had a painter make custom abstract backdrops and graphics to impart knowledge as the traveler’s journey through the desert.”
The final image of this story is from the ending of her first music video. The journey ends with all of them gathered around a fire after having traveled together, beyond borders. The song shows a journey from the eyes of a schoolboy who meets pranksters and vagabonds who teach him about discovering the world through the five senses.
“The bonfire with them playing different musical instruments around it together portrayed the warm experience they shared.”
The costumes in the video were designed to support the characters, who represented each of the five senses. For example, The woman in the image, “She represents taste and smell like flowers and food.”
“Zamba, the rapper, is the optometrist. The dancer for music and sound , and the puppeteer would relate to the sense of touch.”
Another aspect of designing the scene was showing the different cultural backgrounds. “I would say that in general, we had African influences because of where the music stems from. But, I wouldn’t say that the characters are from different backgrounds. It‘s shown in the design elements used for example, the mud cloths.”
Even though she doesn’t directly work with costumes, Argya has to constantly communicate with the designers to bring all the elements together in the final video.
“The positioning of each frame is done specifically to capture the background in a certain way. It might be the natural landscape but it is part of the locations we scout to support the visuals.”
As a viewer we only see the final cut. The scene that was captured in the frame doesn’t show us the work off-screen. Our criticism about plots, acting, scenes, moments or general production doesn’t consider all that work.
Since she has worked closely with the creative aspects of film-making, does she feel that the quality of stories we see is gradually declining?
She doesn’t! “There are always amazing stories waiting to be told and the right kind of people are working towards telling them.” But she agrees that some good stories do get lost in the mix.
Even though she doesn’t have any favorites, her influences include works by directors like Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson. And for the music video, she still doesn’t have any favourites but videos by artists like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Sia, and Coldplay have helped her.
“I really think these artists try to keep it as creative as possible. I could never have a ‘favourites’ list honestly. I don’t do favourites. Never have in my life. I think it’s restricting to have just one single influence.”
For her future, she says, “My plan is to keep doing my best and try to get on bigger and better projects as things move forward.”
And to viewers like us who now have some knowledge about the work behind the scenes, she says, “Enter a theater with an open mind, every time you go.”
This was just a glimpse of her professional life. Follow her to know more about the creative work she does.