Production Designer Joseph C. Nemec Talks Changing the Color Palette, Working on a Smaller Budget, His Career, and More on the Set of RIDDICK

     June 18, 2013


Production design is a crucial but often overlooked aspect of filmmaking.  It’s the production designer’s job to take what’s written on the page and bring the setting to life, often trying to make miracles happen in a very short amount of time.  While visiting the set of writer-director David Twohy‘s Riddick, I got to participate in a group interview with production designer Joseph C. Nemec.  He talked about the challenge of doing the film entirely on soundstages with little prep time, trying to use warmer colors to try and differentiate the sequel from the previous installments, adapting to script changes, collaborating with Twohy, and a lot more.  Hit the jump for what he had to say.

Before going any further, if you haven’t yet seen the trailer, I’d watch that first:

riddick-vin-dieselQuestion: What kind of planet and coloring are we dealing with here?  The last film had a lot of blue and gray to it.

JOSEPH NEMEC: We are on a planet.  We don’t say exactly what it is.  Our skies will have broken skies, broken sun, broken moon and there will be a lot of atmosphere. Most of our lighting is warmer. So we tried to stay with warmer colors to try and get away from some of the Chronicles look and to have a different look that was in Pitch Black as well.  The only blue I have used in the entire film is a little bit of detail inside the private chambers. Everything else has been in warmer colors.  Most everything on the weigh station sets are in ochres, and even the greys are warmer greys.  The blue on the ship is a warmer midnight blue as opposed to a colder blue.  So even though there is some blue there, it all has gone to a warmer look than the colder colors that were used in Chronicles.

Did you work with the costume designer to make a color connection, because I noticed that some of the costumes they were wearing like plaids, almost like street clothing.  Do work with the clothing designer to make sure that these clothing is similar [to what you’re doing]?

NEMEC: In the very early days, there was a lot of collaboration and sitting down and talking about things with David, Simonetta and myself.  Passing on to her to what I had seen as far a colors and concepts. My thoughts about costumes and those were partnered and affected by David Twohy.  Then this was the kind of project where so much had to happen so quickly that we spent a fair bit of time in the early days talking it was a lot of “we just got to get going”.  And we kept checking in and I would come down seeing if we were still working together with our palette and those kinds of things, and we were.  I didn’t spend as much time with the costume designer as I might have if we had a little more time to do it.

We were speaking with the creature team yesterday and they were saying that there were finding more and more there was much more compressed time to this.  Do you find it is going the same way?

NEMEC: Yeah, this was a schedule that was a little bit ambitious to begin with, and then we went through a number of scenarios where our original approach of part location, part stage in Saskatchewan went to, all on stage in Montreal.  In the doing of that, we lost a better part of four weeks of prep time. So when I came back in January I came into this facility and there was nothing. No toilets, no electricity, no power, nothing, and we had to shoot in six weeks. That row of toilets was there, but nothing worked.  Nothing was there.

So this is a smaller budget that Chronicles but there is a lot of landscapes, a lot of creatures.  I was just wondering what were some of tricks you and David have tried to pull off to get the ambitious scope on a moderate budget.

vin-diesel-image-riddickNEMEC: I started out with the design of what the environments would be and then I worked back from that of what I would call a “kit of parts.”  Then the sets are used with that kit of parts upside, backside, rightside, leftside, frontside. So everything on this set is a mix of the badlands, the mineral pools and the mud flaps and a little bit of stuff from the promontory sets.  I brought everything in and it looked like a pig’s ear at first and then went and went in and did what I wanted to do with the colors and textures and I think it will be a nice looking set on film but the time David Eggby finishes lighting it.  So that was the only way I could get close to the scope of what I wanted to have and what I wanted to give David and so far everything has looked different and unique and not like we’ve recycled anything.

I see in the physical areas here some big green screens here.  What is the breakdown of CG in this film?

NEMEC: There is going to between 800 and 1,000 visual effects shots in this film. Whether it is 60/40 or 70/30, I’m not sure.  Maybe closer to 70/30. There is a lot of stuff inside the weigh station, a lot of page count that helps. Every time you are outside, it’s hard not want to be in a bigger space. Of course, the problem we had in there was the row of columns running down the set. We turned one of them into what may have been a crane gantry stand.  That helped.  There three more that have green and black wrapped around them.  So there will be times when they’ll have to sort that out.

Is it difficult?  You mentioned before that all your exteriors sets are interiors.  As you said you are going to have to use digital elements to complete a lot of them.  Does this become difficult for you as a designer because you come into this as you create the look, the aesthetic, you know what you want to see. You are here throughout the filming.  Then it gets done and it get sent to maybe a bunch of other people to complete and they will be adding their own bits and pieces to it.  Does it become difficult as the original designer to maintain your aesthetic or when you wrap, are you done?

riddick-vin-diesel-dave-bautistaNEMEC: Well, sometimes more so than one would like.  There was a lot of research was done of what I felt the look was and again that was partnered with David Twohy.  We made our agreements, and then my designs were done with what I wanted the final picture to be.  So I’m on location and I’m in this space and this is what I need for the scene to be shot but all that information is out here. But all that information, all the pictures, all that kind of stuff. I’ve been working with the visual effects people from the beginning, and I continue to download that information to them.  I continue to give them copies of the research.  I’ve spent time in there with them talking about our world and how we get from point A and what the geography of this place is.  So my hope is, like the window I was showing you earlier on the ship, I want that to be right what I think is right for the set, and not somebody else going “well I think I will do this”.  There is a certain asymmetrical approach to that window and it needs to be carried out rather than someone to go, zoop! Zoop! you know a very symmetrical solution.  So my hope is that has been done and I’ll make my plea again at the end to have some access and influence.  You mentioned Ironclad earlier, I was able to do that and have some influence later on about what some of the bigger shots were.  I did some of my own renderings for that.  So hopefully there is some direction that they are following correctly.

Can you talk about how you became to be a Production Designer?  Did you go to school or was it apprenticing?  Or is there a standard way?

NEMEC: I was a practicing architect of associate partnership at a firm in Los Angeles, and I was doing theatrical lighting design and one of the guys in the office bet me 50 dollars that I could get a job in the film industry.  I bet him 50 dollars that I couldn’t, because I didn’t know anybody and didn’t know anything about designing for movies.

How long ago was this?

NEMEC: Ah 34 years ago.  And I got an interview and silly them.  They hired me.  I took a leave of absence from my architectural firm and never went back.

Which film was this?

NEMEC: First film was In God, We Trust. A Marty Feldman Comedy.

What do you look for when, I it about being a very knowledgeable architect or design? Or is somebody really good at storyboards?

riddick-vin-diesel-throneNEMEC: One of the things when you study architecture is that you learn a lot about volume, and you learn a lot about spatial relationship.  That’s not something that you learn as an illustrator or as a concept artist.  You don’t really learn what space is about.  That being said there are some fantastically good designers don’t know squat about architecture, but they know the right kind of people that do know something about architecture, and so through that team formation, there are still some fantastic things that get done.  So, I think it’s more about seeing what you want the picture to end up on the film. For me this has been the best kind of architecture, because its not the same thing.  I’m not doing residential houses everyday.  I’m not doing an office building every day. Who knows what I am doing?  That’s what is so exciting about the job.

After all of your years in the business, and all the projects you have worked on, if you had a dream project, a aesthetic that you’d like to impart on the film, what would that be?

NEMEC: People have asked me that question before. I’ve wanted to do period.  I’ve had a chance to do that.  I’ve wanted to do space and I got to do that.  I’ve wanted a chance to do cowboys and I’ve had a chance to do that.  I love the deco-nouveau, I’ve had a wonderful chance to a film with that.  I think for now, just a great story, a great script with something interesting to do.  Just go have some fun.

Besides Pitch Black and the Chronicles of Riddick, what were your points of reference when you were figuring out the visual style and environments?

NEMEC: To not look like Pitch Black and the Chronicles of Riddick.

So what did you draw from?

NEMEC: I didn’t have a specific thing in mind.  I just knew what I didn’t want it to be. I had a script and I just started going through seeing I saw through a lot research began to speak to me about what I thought would be the right place to put this.  Then, I started feeding things to David.  I think I was very much in line with what he was thinking about, because we were able to focus pretty quickly.

riddick-vin-dieselDid he give you anything to guide you along?

NEMEC: Well there’s always that collaborative process in the beginning where you are both sharing your ideas, you both bring your ideas, and you are both listening to one another.  Investigating things and such, that is something that should be including and embraced, or if it should be put aside.  You get back over to this way. There is always that, and even when you go through with it, you are still collaborating.  I feel like I have been given a lot of freedom to bring to the film a lot of what I thought it should have and he has been very supportive.

I’m curious, if either by budget restrictions or script changes or myriad of reasons why things change, if there something that you were designing that you couldn’t end up building that you were disappointed that it fell apart or fell through?

NEMEC: Well, there were script changes but we never lost the core of what the environments were.  There were a couple of other elements that we wanted to have that we weren’t able to keep in the film.  There was a whole other character that, apparently a CG generated character became too many digital effects shots to be afforded.  There was a whole another sequence with Riddick and a thing called a tryox that we had that became for the same reason quite a big hit with digital effects and creature effects, and stunts that got dropped.  But for most part, set-wise we were able to do them.  I think the thing for me the biggest thing for me is that I would have liked the private chambers be twice the size it is. It’s sort of a private chambers-ette for me.  I would liked for some of these sets to be larger, but because we are doing so much CG extension, in the end it will be quite fine.

With your experience, for example on this film do you make an acknowledgement, a commitment ahead of time to the crew that you will have something done on time? I mean what if you are not?

NEMEC: There is no “not” option. That is not an option.  The not being ready is not an option.  It’s been a lot of 7 day weeks. It’s been a lot of 14 or 16 hour days.  We have a lot of sets and it’s been a real dance to keep the company going.  I have 5 days to tear this down and make it into a whole another environment.  That is Saturday morning at 7 o’clock.  That is when we will be starting and it will be a lot of 12 and 14 hour days till.

riddick-posterSo do you manage two teams of people? I mean on swing shifts?

NEMEC: We have had some of that. There were some days earlier on that there were three 8-hour days, and we divided that up.

Is this typical of the type of work you have done? Has it been more stressful, less stressful?

NEMEC: Stress is a relative term, and it can happen in all types of ways.  This is not typical, but I have to say it seems to be happening more frequently. It’s moving more towards typical unfortunately.  It seems that there is perception just because you can send things instantaneously through the spaces, there is that thinking that film should take that time as well.  It still takes a certain amount of time for things to happen. It still takes a certain amount of time to saw a piece of wood and paint on a wall.

To go back to something we were talking about earlier, you only have a certain amount of time on the front end.  It must be frustrating at times to know that you this amount of time and they got this amount of time on the back end doing post-production digital and so forth and so in a way they almost seem to take it off the front end to put on the back end.

NEMEC: Well, I don’t really know what their schedule is.  I don’t really know what the release is.  I know they have a number of the same budget challenges that I have. My time has been pressed down for the last 4 months, and theirs is coming. So my turn is about over on that and its about to pass the mantle on to them.

Do you oversee any of the post-production?

NEMEC: I’ll try to continue to have some influence in the post-production, and the look of things but I won’t be overseeing.

Being that there are so many sci-fi movies, there must be some pressure to not have it look like other sci-fi movies right?

NEMEC: You do run that risk and you do try and do something different.  Rocks are rocks and caves are caves, and so, for me, a lot of this is try and learn to work with the architecture and keeps the background interesting and visual, and that there is a certain amount of visual energy in some of these sets which helps.  I think with Riddick’s character, who is not a super energetic except in the fight sequences, I’ve tried other environments to keep enough interest so that subliminally, when you are in the audience when everyone is watching the film, there is still some energy going on. 

Riddick gets released September 6th.  For more from our set visit:

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