Interview with Jim Aiken – Art Director on Out Of Focus

James Aiken was interviewed by Colette Finkbiner, writer/blogger with Three Horizons Productions – Summer of 2012

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Jim Aiken, Art Director on Out Of Focus
Jim Aiken, Art Director on Out Of Focus

As time rolls along ‘til the first screening of Out of Focus, I have had the opportunity to interview Three Horizons Productions’ own Jim Aiken. Mr. Aiken served as the film’s art director/production designer. For the casual moviegoer, production design is not something that is normally given a thought. You just accept the choices that have been made and go with the story, action and march to the denouement. Therein lies the power of production design, especially when it is done well and as part of the visual formula calculated by the director, the cinematographer and the production designer. Working within this incubator of visual acumen, filmmakers like Mr. Aiken brings us viewers the world of the characters by furthering the verisimilitude of the physical world of the characters.

Mr. Aiken graciously explained his vital role.

What is production design and art direction?

On a film project, you have a production designer who works closely with the director and director of photography and sometimes the script writer to create the entire look, feel and vision of the film. They bring their own interpretation of the script based on their vision of what they see or the vision of the writers. It is the job of the production designer and the art department to help create that stage where they’re going to shoot that film.

So it’s like a pyramid? You have the director who brings the vision and the storytelling together as well as working with the production designer and cinematographer. Is that correct?

Yeah, it’s really a collaborative type of a process that goes on there. I guess it is a pyramid. It’s a very structured type of situation on a film set when you get down to who is in charge and whose vision it is. Some directors are very adamant about what they want and don’t give the art director or production designer much latitude to put their own visual stamp on it. But other directors are very open to allowing the entire team to contribute to that. I’ve worked with directors who come from totally different perspectives. I think the project itself determines the approach. You might have the same director with totally different approaches project to project.

As far as Out of Focus, from what I am hearing from cast and crew, Remi is very easy to collaborate with?

Very!

How was your role on that shoot?

Out of Focus was a first for me as an art director/production designer. We shot on a schedule that put it more in line with a short feature. We shot two weeks. For a short, that’s an awful long time. There was a lot of work and effort especially because of the special effects that were going to be added in post-production. There is a lot, technically, going on in that film. I think we had about 11-12 different locations and a few of those had to be built from the ground up. We built three or four of those in studio as the locations didn’t exist, or were more cost effective to go ground up on those.

Jim Aiken on the set of Out Of Focus
Jim Aiken on the set of Out Of Focus

So, as a production designer, do you have a part of the collaboration with the director as far as location?

Oh, sure, absolutely. I don’t think there’s ever been a production I didn’t work on that I didn’t have to get a clearance from somebody – whether it was the location that I found or somebody else found that I think would work, or, if it was going to go ground up, everybody wanted to know what it was going to look like. There is a very close collaboration with the other two key visual positions that are keys to creating the film, the director and the director of photography. It’s my job to create the stage based on what they want to do. The director and director of photography can take that location and create all kinds of magic, depending on the camera angle, the lens and clearly the needs of the script.

Now as the production designer, say there’s special effects, I guess you have to make accommodations for that. Do you have a say in the digital effects department?

When it comes to conceptualizing what is done in the pre-production phase, yes. I will often have to build a set to accommodate what the post production team needs for CGI; green screen, etc. Occasionally, definite lines in the environment; rooftops, horizon lines or buildings edges, can be utilized and cut off or shot where they’re going to build the CGI on top of it. Most of those decisions would come into pre-conceptualizing the project while sitting down with the special effects team ahead of principal photography.

What were the special effects in Out of Focus?

There were a lot of special effects. We had hired a special effects artist, who, after we had wrapped up principal photography, was not able to complete the project – he was out of the country and for whatever reasons, personal reasons, it wasn’t going to work out. So Remi had to find another team who had to come in and base their visual effects on an environment that they didn’t have any control over. It prolonged the post- production process quite a bit.

Everybody approaches visual effects differently. There are the tried and true methods like green screen, which we used very little of by request of our original VFX artist. It was a very difficult process to throw in a different visual effects team. The results were not quite up to par and when Remi finally realized the effects we were achieving weren’t working, she did the right thing which was to find someone who could do it.

Would you consider that one of the biggest challenges to filming Out of Focus?

Oh, absolutely, no question about it. As far as principal photography goes, we didn’t run into anything different than any other production I’ve ever been on. When we finally wrapped up principal photography to the point we are at right now, just weeks away from screening it, it was the more challenging aspect of Out of Focus.

What was one of the more satisfying aspects of Out of Focus?

Jim Aiken smoking up the set of Out Of Focus
Jim Aiken smoking up the set of
Out Of Focus

It’s got to be the team we worked with – Remi, Luis Bohorquez, who’s the director of photography; Allen Forbes, who acted as the executive producer on this project. The team that all of us put together – we put a great crew together on that shoot, and we did it based on the recommendations of three or four of us who had worked with people on different projects because we had a very minimal budget, a very tight schedule. We did a lot of 16-18 hour days, in that 14-day shoot that we had. And without a team of people willing to work together and the manner that we did and the respect was right across the board, from Remi right on down to the people like the production assistants to the people who were responsible for keeping everybody hydrated and fed. It was really one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with and still is.

Fortunately, I was able to view a short that Mr. Aiken recently worked on: The Lost One.

The Lost One was a very powerful piece. What you do, I assume, is bring that visual idea or tone of what the director wants to capture in the film. For instance, in The Lost One, you look at the inside of the main character’s home. Everything looks nice and neat and orderly. As the story unfolds, we realize something’s going on with the main character. One scene he looked in his spice cabinet, and, instead of seeing rows of spice containers, he sees medication bottles. Things start deteriorating.

Exactly. Adam Watson, who wrote and directed the screenplay, actually based it on a relative’s experience. After conversations with that relative, he somewhat based it on fact. But it was largely a creation of Adam’s. It is his interpretation of what was going on with Alzheimer’s. So, he had some very clear guidance for me as a production designer but then gave me quite a bit of latitude to just go and create the environment. There were two switches; he (the main character) has memory of what his life was like prior to his wife passing on. And then the reality of what the audience eventually sees – which is none of what was going on in his brain, which was pure fantasy and illusion, brought on by the disease. And Adam wanted a very striking contrast – the flowers are alive, the flowers are dead. We kind of went both ends of the spectrum. There really wasn’t much in between.

What else have you done since Out of Focus?

I also worked with J.P. Scott on Everything’s Eventual (check out J.P’s recent interview). I have worked on some commercial projects. I worked on Suspicion with David Dilley. The last feature project I finished was Coyote Requiem. There are a couple more scenes to be shot for Coyote Requiem and then they’re packaging it up for film festival release.

Do you have anything else besides Coyote Requiem coming up?

We are working on The Kiss right now with THP. We are in pre- pre-production at this point. It is a serial killer/psychological thriller involving two very fanatical artists. Both who obsessively believe they can achieve the unobtainable, which is to find absolute perfection in their work.

What do you find to be one of the most challenging aspects of your work?

I’m not sure I would call it a challenge. The immediate goal I have is to glean the vision that the director and the director of photography already have based on the script and, working with them, coming up with the visual feel, the color palette, what sort of tone they want to express.

Jim Aiken breaking glass on the set of Out Of Focus
Jim Aiken breaking glass on the set of Out Of Focus

What is your education and training?

I guess you could say I came to film production through the side door. Most of the people I know who work in this industry on the production side, graduated from one film school or another and transitioned seamlessly into the field. My education and training prior to becoming involved in film production was all related to art and graphic design along with quite a bit of exposure and experience in live entertainment and theatrical types of performance. But, it was actually through my work as a commercial voice over talent that I began my journey towards film and my work as a production designer/art director.

I worked with Luis Bohorquez while doing a voice over for a documentary. I worked with Luis on a lot of projects. We created a TV show pilot that we tried to sell. That particular foray into production led me into the film world. Luis hired me as a line producer, which led to art direction and production design. My background was advertising and art in college. Next thing you know, I’m hired by Remi [Vaughn]. Word of mouth is your best calling card in this field. I was hired recently by Jason Lehel to work on Coyote Requiem, and he is an Academy award-nominated director. Now, I’m also one of the principal characters at Three Horizons Productions.

What is your favorite movie?

That always seems, to me, to be an impossible question to answer. As soon as I make the futile attempt to narrow my choices to, let’s say, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, someone says “yes, but what about…”, and names any one of the other hundreds of other films on my list by Coppola, Lean, Scorsese, Hughes, Kurosawa… and the list goes on and on. There are so many great stories translated to film and so many incredible film makers responsible for the visual telling of those stories.

Is there a particular genre you like?

I like the supernatural, the thriller. A good story, though, transcends genre.

Do you find different challenges with something out of the ordinary?

It comes down to that conversation with the director and photography.

Is there one filmmaker you have admired?

There is a lot going on in film now. I appreciate CGI. I like the subtlety of production design. David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago. I like those great, big giant epic types of film. Also, Bridge on the River Kwai.

What kind of advice would you give somebody who is interested in production design?

Jim Aiken taking photos on the set of Out Of Focus
Jim Aiken taking photos on the set of Out Of Focus

The visual representation. My advice would be to watch a lot of films, to watch the color palette. Be aware of the environment you’re in. Go watch live theater and watch how the lighting affects things.

Stay tuned for Mr. Aiken’s contribution to cinematic production design when Out of Focus is released into the film festival circuit. His seamless and powerful artistic vision supports the foundation of an epic story – light versus dark.

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Three Horizons Productions is a team of independent filmmakers who want to develop, acquire, and produce multi-media projects that showcase inspirational themes, compelling stories, and provocative characters to entertain or educate international audiences. Three Horizons Productions, located in Arizona, has a global outreach.