Production designer Rick Heinrichs speaks at USC School of Cinematic Arts.
April 21, 2015.
As I ran toward the school, I glanced down, and stopped short. I was supposed to change into my white Jack Purcells. But still had on my ragged Converse. I could run back to my car, but classic American in a worn moody gray? This could fit into a few of his films.
“If anyone would approve, it’s Tim Burton’s production designer,” I reasoned. That, and nobody really cares what shoes I wear.
I was about twenty minutes early, but figured students would be eager to hear from this speaker, so I hurried on.
It was a presentation by Rick Heinrichs, Academy Award winning production designer. Professor Rene Bruckner was teaching CTCS-469, “Battle of the Stylists – Tim Burton vs. Wes Anderson.” The nice thing about a school like USC is you don’t just study the films, you can learn from the filmmakers themselves.
Mr. Heinrichs put thought put into the presentation, with prepared slides, clips, and an outline.
He didn’t take it for granted that we’d know his background. Which I liked. Other guests have done this. If not past info, then present (I am so and so and I do such and such) and I think it’s good practice, especially in this age of “googling,” establishing what you think the audience should know.
He began as a fan of comics and cartoons. Taking them seriously as a form of art, expression. He studied at School for Visual Arts in New York, mentioning Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman.
A panel from I believe a Frontline comic splashed across the theater screen in bold black and white. I should have taken a photo, because it looked really cool.
I don’t know a ton about comics history—I would describe these comics as satirical, political, sexual—without being underground. Grownup but defiantly not. This was a time when the Comic Code Authority was formed, after comics were being burned for their corrupting influence. Comics were not the mainstream they are today.
I’m not sure if he studied directly with the two artists, but they’re important names in annals of comics, Eisner’s lent to a prestigious award for excellence in comics each year, Kurtzman was an artist and editor, associated with Mad magazine and other EC titles.
Mr. Heinrichs commented on learning about use of lines, negative space, minimalism—the graphic nature of cartoons.
He continued his studies at Calarts where he met fellow student Tim Burton. When someone at Disney deemed Burton’s designs as too flat, Heinrichs proved they did translate into three dimensions, creating sculptures and puppets of the characters.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure would be their first feature together, Heinrichs as animated effects supervisor. I haven’t seen all their subsequent collaborations, but my favorite of the ones I have would probably be Batman Returns, Heinrichs as art director. Their first production design collaboration was 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, which would be screened following the Q&A, and their latest was 2014’s Big Eyes.
Other directors he’d worked with and the experiences he talked about were the Coen Brothers–The Big Lebowski and Fargo, Joe Johnston—Captain America: The First Avenger, Gore Verbinski—two of the Pirates movies. Next he’ll be production designer on Star Wars: Episode VIII, directed by Rian Johnson.
One of the anecdotes I found interesting was how Verbinski wanted effects to be in-camera, necessitating sets be built in a way that would make that possible. [I think the physics look better. And I like the idea of trying to do things optically rather than with VFX. (Not very environmental of me. . . ) Nolan tries to have everything done in camera if possible (anecdote from a DP panel featuring Wally Pfister). ]
After the prepared presentation, he took questions from the students.
Before any of this, when I first came into the theater, I had spotted Mr. Heinrichs and asked him if he’d be okay with being photographed. He hesitated, and I added it was okay to say no. But he said it was fine. And I ran off to the front and center seat. I try not to take too many photos these days at such things. Sometimes, no matter how upfront in the beginning and discreet during, people react–with curiosity or opinions or smiles, which I don’t mind, or suspicion. (Frankly, it can be an excuse to have some sort of interaction, positive or negative, with people who are bored, which is the opposite of what I want.)
But I do enjoy it as an opportunity to practice. And I was pleased when he stepped from the podium, addressing the students from the stage. He spoke loud enough without a mic and it was easier for the audience, instead of swiveling to the corner of the room.
The light was very low, lower than usual even because it was run differently than the usual screenings and Q&As.
But I thought, this is someone who went to art school and knows how to be interesting without being artificial. He—during the presentation, and Mr. Foley—before his panel, were the best at working with the camera. More than actors I’ve photographed. I do go over who I think is best and why, maybe to know what to do if ever in that situation. (Mr. Catmull and Millstein were really good at not flinching; I was in my seat but my seat was really close.)
Well. If it’s not ideal lighting, I thought it was different. And I don’t mind natural, light source motivated high contrast. One of the DPs whose work I admire is Geoffrey Unsworth.
As I’ve mentioned before, I do hear from people who glance at my camera, up the ISO (it goes no higher) or have a longer exposure (it’ll blur from my hand or subject’s movement or blowout the details because of the high contrast and this is not film). There’s a lot of noise here, too. If I mess with the curves too much, the blacks look splotchy, the colors muddy. As for flash, I wouldn’t consider it unless it was a close friend and I had discussed it beforehand. So, where budget can be a constraint, such as in horror or noir, it can push a look. And then one can try to find style within that. That’s a fancy way of saying work with what you got.
Oh, but my initial worry about my shoes?
I thought—without merit—look, I’m like the cool kids.
I looked through some photos online, and they didn’t necessarily look alike in current or older photos, but thought you could buy these two being brothers.
Okay. I’ll finish/edit this later or continue in another post. But need to get a little sleep.