103 – Nathan Crowley – Production Designer – Chris Nolan Collaborator

My guest for this second episode of May 2024 is production designer Nathan Crowley. If you don’t know his name, you will definitely know, and most likely love, his work..

Nathan is an incredibly talented artist that is able to create amazing worlds on screen. He’s also a great guy and very easy to talk with. We had a great conversation just a week or so ago. It’s avery fluid chat, but we do cover a few of the milestones in his career. Starting with Spielberg’s Hook and finishing up on Wonka and Wicked. With much chat about Chris Nolan’s films in between. Enjoy!

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SUMMARY KEYWORDS

work, film, design, production designer, move, designer, world, set, build, years, art director, chris nolan, ai, special effects, nathan

SPEAKERS
Nathan Crowley, Jamie Benning

Weirding Way Media…

Jamie Benning  00:46

Welcome to Episode 103 of the Filmumentaries podcast. This is Jamie Benning here talking to you from not home but the East of England Norwich to be precise. I’m up here visiting my parents. What films have been shot here. Four to five years Andrew Hague’s great film, Avengers Age of Ultron. I think there was some of that here. Never Let Me Go. Star Dust atonement Die Another Day. Full Metal Jacket, where the Norfolk Broads doubled as paddy fields in Asia. The Dambusters parts of all those films anyway was shot in this county. And in fact, the latest film that today’s guests worked on was parts of it was also shot. Hear more on that in a moment. Thanks to all of you that now support the podcast by Patreon if you’re one of the several 1000 People that don’t support the podcast, but do listen to the podcast, I just make this a short plea to donate basically a tenner in the UK just over a tenner to support the podcast for an entire year, I really do need your support. This takes several days a month to make two episodes. They are days that I’m not working on my normal freelance world, so I need to kind of earn the equivalent. So I know there are quite a few 1000 of you listening to this out there. Despite this looking and sounding like a reasonably big podcast. I hope it does. It really is just me and my laptop here. So if I can’t make it financially viable soon, I’m just going to Well, listen, it’s not going to get to that stage because I love doing it. And I know you want to do the right thing. If you’re listening to this, and you enjoy my work, just consider, you know, throwing a tenner at me $12 That will cover for a whole year’s worth of episodes 24 At least 24 episodes. Right and that’s the begging Okay, back to today’s episode for my guest on this second episode of May 2020. For its production designer, Nathan Crowley now if you don’t know his name, I mean you should, you’ll definitely know and most likely love his work. I’ll just list a few films here from his IMDb behind enemy lines. Insomnia, Batman Begins The Prestige The Dark Knight John Carter, The Dark Knight Rises interstellar Dunkirk, the greatest showmen first man, Tenet, Wonka. Nathan is an incredibly talented artists that is able to create these amazing worlds on screen. He’s also a great guy and very easy to talk with. And we had a great conversation just a couple of weeks ago now I’ve been last week actually think it was last week. It’s very fluid conversation. But we do cover some of the milestones in his career starting with a Spielberg film, and finishing up with his latest film that I mentioned above the part of which was shot in Norfolk with some chat about Chris Nolan films in between, of course, I mean, he couldn’t miss those off of his his filmography. So here’s my chat with production designer Nathan Crowley and I’ll be back at the end for a bit more jabbering on. Nathan, Can you trace back the moment in your life when you decided I want to be involved with movies or I want to be a designer or was there another path that you took?

Nathan Crowley  04:11

Yeah, I came to it sort of very randomly and haphazardly. I can trace exactly the moment when I realised this is where I wanted to be. And that was my very first film I go hard as a junior set designer which is a draughtsman on hook my very first job. I walked into what used to be the old MGM Studios, which at that time, were Columbia Tristar is now Sony. And I walked through the main gates and I walked past I think it was stage 27 or 30, which is one of the big old MGM stages and looked in the door and there was all this water rushing out. There was a ship the size of HMS Victory bit Having been built on that stage and they built a tank and they were trying to float it. And there was chaos. And there were people running around and carpenters and painters and seanix and camera people. And they realised the weight of the ship, it welded itself to the stage floor. They couldn’t get buoyancy of it. I mean, and it was just one of those sort of, I realised I just suddenly leave them by people. Because they were trying to do something, just sort of fantastical that, you know, no one’s built a ship. You only get to build HMS Victory wants. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so I realised it’s like, oh, wow, this is this is exciting. And I mean, I’ve been on a different path. And I’d studied well, fine arts or John Cass for a year, which is I think it’s gone now on the art school, was in all gay east, or White Chapel is opposite Whitechapel art gallery. And then I’d gone to Brighton art school, or as part of the Polytechnic back then to study interior architecture, which is a sort of as sort of a sort of collective for 3d Everything. I’ve worked I, I could always draw. My father was an architect. So I, you know, I learned to drive I could always get jobs in architecture firms. But it’s something I really didn’t want to do. I guess I thought after Sir John Cass, I wanted to sculpt. But was a bit concerned that I’d never make any money. So I went down to Brighton, and I always been on this path. And I got a job at Brighton, for architects. And then, you know, this isn’t the end of the 80s. And then that Black Monday here, and I had, I just bought myself a flat in Clapham and borrowed to the hill as one of these, you know, having gotten my first job and interest rates doubled. And suddenly, there was no work. And so I was one of those, I would say, the, the end of the Maggie Thatcher era where we came out and no jobs, no money, sent the keys back to the mortgage company. I was one of those people and got on a plane, I had friends who were in LA, and I just went off to LA. You know, because, because everything gone wrong. And I started working, I started illustrating to some architects there in LA, I had a lot of friends and moved there. Because the thing about the end of the Fauci era, a lot of our generation had gone abroad. Because, you know, there was there was nothing left. So, you know, it’s funny, a lot of my friends went to Australia, Australia was easier because it was they had the sort of under 30 visas America was harder because harder get visas so I went there and I just happened to I literally went into a bar opposite Paramount Studios called smalls, which was what used to be a famous virus probably, I don’t know it’s still there and bumped into a guy who was brightened with gold Joe Hodges who was like we had a drink and he said, I remember you used to build crazy furniture and art school and he said they’re looking for draws people up here and the on on hook, I’d see if I’m getting an interview. So he did and I walked in and and then I sort of I just haphazard, I didn’t know you could get jobs and film and didn’t seem like, you know, growing up in London Film seemed like, like, you’d have to be a member of the royal family to get in.

Jamie Benning  08:56

Yeah, and I guess there was that sort of, it is a word nepotistic side thing as well where you know, and rightly so, you know, happens in happens with butchers. It happens with bakers, or not when the film industry but, but it is one of those industries that people are kind of desperate to get into. And I think people I’ve spoken to, like through the 60s 70s and 80s have often said, Oh, it was my uncle, or as my father as my grandfather, or my father did a favour for somebody who worked in the industry, and they brought me in as a kid. And so to get in, you know, without one of those tickets was quite something, wasn’t it? Really?

Nathan Crowley  09:30

Yeah. I mean, I but I didn’t really know. I mean, I sort of gone to art. And, you know, I think I’ll just need to get jobs. So drafting for architects seem to be, I don’t want to be an architect. I was a bit lost to be, you know, but we all have to work. And so I think, you know, I didn’t really understand that there were there was an art department and there, you know, it was actually something that, you know, they hired people for who did an array of things And so going to LA where you hang out with these friends and working a bit. You know, it’s very cheap in LA back then it was like, you know, there were no bills rent was was cheap. So it was, it was like a third the price of London. So it was it. I mean, it’s not like that anymore. And then so it seemed like the obvious thing to do Sony didn’t have to wear socks. And so yeah, I just fell into it. And I when I walked into that studio, I knew immediately that I’d found something I want to do. It was Norman Garwood hired me, the designer who did Brazil and the Princess Bride roles are saying about so he, he, he was great. He said, Yeah, I’ll give you they’ll give you a shot. The good thing about America as they give everyone a chance, you don’t have to be a family member or don’t have to have the connection to give you a chance. So if you fell, I kicked you out very sort of blunt that way. You’re only good to keep you. Do

Jamie Benning  11:07

you think being a Brit carry carried a bit of a cachet then as well, for people like I was, I always get this thing for Americans, they think there’s a certain level of sophistication of a British man or British woman like in the industry. I get it all the time. You know, when I travel? People hear that? And well, maybe not maybe not since Brexit. But do you think there was a bit of that then as well? You know,

Nathan Crowley  11:28

definitely you show up and they think, you know, they they think you know more than you do? Yeah. Which is often the case. The truth is that they know much more than we do. We just have this accent and we speak well. Providing they can understand that. Yeah,

Jamie Benning  11:47

so you bring something different, don’t you? Because you’ve been brought up somewhere completely different to them, which is ultimately alien to them. Yet, you still have the shared language. So yeah, I think I think just being in that situation sort of being thrown into a big I mean, you’re, you’re on a Spielberg film day one, right? Yeah. Did you? Like a fish out of water?

Nathan Crowley  12:08

Yeah, of course. I mean, they had me northern army, and It’s sink or swim culture, you know. And it’s like, he said, you know, the art director, Tom Saunders, who ended up I worked for as the he became a designer, very shortly after that. He just threw me in on Tinker Bell’s oversized stuff, you know, have sets had to be oversized, because he was fairly size. So we had to build everything huge, you know, so that Dell was scale. And, of course, I’d been trained in metric and I had to switch to Imperial. So I really had to, like, I really had to, like, I had to knuckle down and get on with it. And but it was, you know, it was definitely I think, you know, I, I sort of this realisation that summer, only quite recently that I realised, I really do, I think in three dimensions, I always thought everyone thought and, and can imagine in three dimensions. So if you’re talking about space, I can open a wall, go through it, and I can change something I could spin around it in my head. But I had no idea for a long time that everyone didn’t have the ability to change things three dimensionally in their brain. And that was that was how I realised that that you know, starting in hook was like, Yeah, I can see this side of the ship, I got it, I can see where it is. I don’t have to be in front of it. You know? So it’s interesting,

Jamie Benning  13:32

isn’t it when you have that realisation that you can do things that other people can’t do, because we do kind of grow up in that school system where sort of everyone’s roughly on a par, right? There’s somebody slightly better than us, somebody slightly worse than you. Or maybe you’re at the top. But yeah, I remember. I think George Lucas said something like he was amazed the first time he met somebody who had no imagination whatsoever, like couldn’t believe that that somebody like that existed, you know, it just kind of shocked him. So it is a bit of a sort of an epiphany moment, isn’t it and also being able to identify it as an advantage that can then take you on this path. I mean, the next thing that appears I think on your IMDB is Deep Space Nine, which of course is a huge series. So you’re going from a Spielberg movie to a huge, huge gradually between

Nathan Crowley  14:19

Yeah, I think get a credit for it. But I spent 11 months on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Did you Yeah. And Norman Wow. Walk next door to Dante Ferretti that designer. Coppola was the starting up Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And he said, he’d said to me, you don’t know anyone here. I said, Nope. And he goes, I’ll go and get your job next door. It’s they’re making Dracula, and he did. So I have him to really thank and Joe Hodges, and he went to Dante and it was hard in Dante’s art department, and Dante unfortunately left the film And the art department sort of cleared out. So in the interim I was I was put with second unit and Roman Coppola. So we did all the second units down. So I spent 11 months on set second unit, which was the best, literally the best film school I can ever imagine, because it was all in camera practical effects. I actually learned how to make films. For those 11 months, it was a massively intense core. So if you remember the opening sequence, says that was all ours and all the shadows and moving shadows and hydraulics and the upside down rats and Pepper’s Ghost thing and the wolves in the circus tent. And that was all we’re off in second unit. Sort of. I mean, it was it was at the time, I had no idea how lucky I just got, I do put it down to luck to get a job on hook as your first film and then to go into second year Bram Stoker’s I, because I still use all those in camera effects today. So

Jamie Benning  16:02

it’s interesting, you say the word luck because it comes into Converse so many conversations I’ve had with people who’ve been in the film industry over the years. But it’s also something about just being open to those opportunities, isn’t it? Like you’ve arrived in this new country, you’re amongst new people, some friends, you do know, you found your way into this industry. And it’s just, I think some people just don’t see opportunity. I’ve a conclusion I’ve come to over the years that some people may be offered the opportunity. And they may turn it down because they’re fearful of it. They may not even recognise it as an opportunity and seek something else out instead, you know, they’re still trying, they’re trying to leapfrog to the next stage, when really, you know, like you said to be in a film like that, you know, on a film school with an amazing director. I mean, I think of like, you know, work imagine, like, I can’t even imagine like working alongside like, eco Ishioka, like the costume designer and stuff that just like, one of the most iconic designers in the world just blows your mind. Well,

Nathan Crowley  17:00

I mean, it was it was it was really enlightened time for me, because it was like, I found the right place, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, they wanted to do in camera, which I didn’t realise was everything to me, because, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s full of tricks. And it’s interesting, and it’s more fun.

Jamie Benning  17:21

So, and it’s set you on a path, hasn’t it? Let’s face it. Totally, that

Nathan Crowley  17:24

that film. Suddenly, I was terrified of Francis Ford Coppola, as you would be if you were 23 or 24. Yeah, well, and yeah. It’s funny we’ve had, we actually had a long meeting about megalopolis a few years ago, and it was like, I felt like I closed the circle, because it was like, I could finally talk to him. You know, on an equal level, though, yeah. Not sure I’ll never be equal, but at least I could, like, I could suggest things that he hadn’t thought of. So it was nice. It was a nice circle to close. But that film, you’re right. It’s like the luck is, Norman asking me, Hey, do you want me to get you a job? That’s where it’s, that’s, and that’s where it ends? Because it’s like, and you’re right, you have to fall into it. I mean, it’s much easier that age because you got nothing to lose, you know. So I mean, you really won’t see alternatives. Go back to England. And, you know, get in there with John Major.

Jamie Benning  18:25

Yeah, yeah, you may. I mean, you made the right decision.

Nathan Crowley  18:28

And you’re Michael Botello. Whatever. You don’t want to tease. Yeah, those were dark days as they were over Brexit recently. I hadn’t seen those sort of dark days until recently, I think in England. But yeah, so the opportunity was there. And then you really got to get on with it. And if someone tells you got to do something, you got to figure out how to do it.

Jamie Benning  18:50

And so were you in the Union straight off the bat. They’re like, once you’ve done hook and stuff. Did you manage to get into uni at that point? Yeah,

Nathan Crowley  18:56

well, they could only harm me because the universal law had burned down. That was not this last time, the time before. And they hired all the draughtsman off the union wrists. And so it was open, they were accepting new new people. So not only got a job on hook, but the production manager got me in the Union at the same time. So the fortune of that is immense. Which is IRC local 800, which is such a good strong union, but you know, they paid well, which was like the other shocking thing I still remember going to meet my deal with a producer and I won’t tell you and he was like, I’m just gonna pay you union scale. I don’t want to hear it. Don’t say a word. And I was like, I was like, Yeah, I’m totally. I’m totally a totally happy so the big dog barking Can you hear that? No, no, I can’t. Okay. No. So I went in to see the producer and he was really, I didn’t even say a word. He was saying you only gonna get scale, union scale don’t complain. I don’t want to hear a word. And I said, I don’t really care. I just want a job. Yeah. And then they tell me how much it is. And I was like, really? I like, that’s amazing. So like, only in a month in a way or one week, there was a month in London, and I went to my friend Joe audios and said, I can’t believe you guys get paid this. Money. He goes, I don’t get paid that, I guess. I guess that was scary. Yeah. I mean, I mean, things have changed, unfortunately. But I did like the fact that, you know, it was a living wage. Yeah. And I think as a 20, I was probably 24. And she, as a young person, a young man or young person, you got to get a living way you’ll pay your rent and your bills and have some money, you know,

Jamie Benning  20:55

sounds like you were in the sweet spot there with La being pretty cheap at the time, working fairly plentiful. I mean, it and also just feeling that you’re valued. I mean, I’ve worked for some big clients over the years, and they scrimp and save to the point where, you know, I’m now thinking, Can I live? Can I continue to live doing what I do? Because, you know, they just, they now want to go to the new generation and pay them nothing.

Nathan Crowley  21:22

Yeah. Which is like, it’s like, Come on, guys. Like we can we can afford to pay young kids a decent wage, you know, so it’s like, you know, I grew up as a Quaker family. So we were all quite liberal. Saying that anyway, yeah. So I was thrown into second unit, and I had to produce all these sets out of whatever I could get my hands on. And so it was, it was during those days, I had seen Docs. So if I needed like, I needed temples or something, I could go down and figure out a bunch of columns I could add to from the scene doc, and I go, you know, they still have the old studio system. So you have that carpentry shop, and a metal shop or graphic shop all in a line. So you go place the place, and you try and put a set together. And they have the drapery department. That’s all gone now. But you could it was very good the studio system because you could go down the line in the warehouses and and get what you needed and then get some crew and assemble it. And well Oh, yeah, it was great. I mean, it literally after, I think it was they were just dismantling it in that in the next 10 years even had a scenic department with the big rollers where they paint the backings. I mean, it was it was it was kind of a magical moment where I got to experience the old Hollywood system just before it disappeared. I mean, there was old days like they’d call me in because I was second unit and say oh, we we need to do a photo shoot down on stage 15. With the actresses can you go down and bring some sceneries I’d go get some walls, the grips would move it because that was their job once it’s been filmed. And you go down there, it was like Helmut Newton was taking the photos, so and he was like, it was like, this is man, I’m standing next special in you and say, What do you need? Crazy, isn’t it?

Jamie Benning  23:15

To be in those situations, and also just sort of realise that you’re a part of it now. Like, you know, yeah, I mean, I’m sure there are people like around you now who are starting out again, Jesus, Nathan Crowley, he did this. He did that, you know, you weren’t for Chris he was.

Nathan Crowley  23:30

It was like, yeah, it was really. So I’m sort of fill the best thing I ever did was sending the keys of my flat back to the mortgage company. So he

Jamie Benning  23:39

thought that could be a positive move. I mean, it’s the same thing, isn’t it? Yeah. Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  23:46

So really, you know, the question is, Should I be thanking meaning sad? You know, let’s

Jamie Benning  23:51

not go. Let’s not go that far. What what, what is the sort of distinction between art director and, you know, production designer? Because I’m actually making a documentary at the moment. And if, you know, I’d like to actually invite to come and interview you at some point. I’m doing a documentary about Joe Alvarez, the production designer who worked Yeah, was in close encounters. Joe’s got his amazing archive of stuff like he’s, yeah, he’s he’s got everything, like, even stuff before before he started and he sort of went up through the ranks, you know, and he was our director, and then he was production designer. But I’ve never really got my hands on what the difference is or if it’s or is it just a sort of renaming of the role because it started to encompass more than it did before.

Nathan Crowley  24:38

Yeah, so this? Yes. So the old term for production designer in the studio system was our director or in Cedric Gibbons de supervising art director. And then he will add art directors under him. And so the art director used to be so if you look at all credits for In the 60s, you’ll see Quincy productions on the you’ll see art director. And essentially, that’s the production designer. Now, the difference now and then the assistant directors, which are now the art directors, so, and that, that that title was brought forward, because I think it was Menzies or someone, he took on more, because the effects suddenly became practical effects first, and then, you know, slowly films, chains from the sort of studio production system, you go to stage, you go to the backlot, you revolve you. Instead, you were trying to find out different ways of how to do things, you were sort of reinventing practical effects, and you had to do it in the art department. And then eventually, visual effects came in and special effects and took over and the special effects were always there. But they, they were like, explosions and fires and bullets. Yeah, so religion design sort of became this thing. And the reason it’s called production, because it’s this sort of over overseeing of this arm of several different departments. So we under me is set their props construction. And with construction, you get all the metal shops, the plaster as the pain as the scenics. And then we also, we have to govern location, we don’t run their department, but we need to be with them to decide, you know, because you’re look, you’re trying to figure out the look of the wholesale, which is the environment is set in or the world you’re trying to create. And all these things, you have to run a visually, all these other departments, you don’t have to manage them, but you visually have to run them. And to a certain extent, I like to run visually special effects. Because a lot of those big rigs we build to move sets, like if you’re turning a sour, I need to know, I want to know how we’re going to turn I want to tell him how I want him to move or the floor moves, or you want to. And so and then with visual effects, you have to inform them what everything should look like, because you’re often gone. And you have to So it’s this sort of umbrella of all these departments that, you know, we take on. And we really have, we are responsible for the entire, you know, environment design of everything. So obviously the cinematographer deals with all the lighting, and that’s a major thing. And then we don’t have anything to do with the costumes, but we have to interact with them. And then the CG world is a relatively new thing. But if you’re doing it in camera, you need to like, you’re gonna need to talk to the scenics, you need to talk to special effects, because you might have a moving back, and you might have a spinning backing or, you know, so everything has to be built into the set or into the location. So then if you go on location, which you do quite often, often with Chris, who are going grow by we grew 500 acres of corn to Interstellar. Yeah, so I’ll go with locations, we’re going to find a filmer. And then it’s like, yeah, you learn how to grow corn, which I think is sort of exciting because you go and sit with the farmer, you get involved in his life. And then you go to agriculture school for a week, or you know, on and off and you you learn a bit and then you try and plant it. And he’s I mean, you’re asking him to do it. But the process of being outside and interacting with everyone is, is I find Xi find it exciting, you know, so

Jamie Benning  28:27

when I was I was going to be my question, do you prefer the control of the studio environment where you’ve kind of, you know, you’ve planned it down to the nth degree or do you like that kind of outdoors location, scouting, picking a location and kind of working within the parameters of that location? And maybe finding some things you wouldn’t find elsewhere?

Nathan Crowley  28:47

Yeah, I mean, I kind of like both. I think combining both is the ultimate like, wicked that we just finished I grew 9 million tulips in Norfolk with a farmer called Mark

Jamie Benning  28:59

Yeah, cuz I’m the Norfolk because it might my mum and dad are out there just interested to know Yeah,

Nathan Crowley  29:03

it’s right on the less the border. Right. Right. And right in that middle that look not nearly that’s the Chelsea tractor area. What’s that called? The Hogan is further north man just around. So I wanted to build it right. actually say that but you know, I’m saying I do. I do.

Jamie Benning  29:26

Know, I don’t I’m not one of those people. Yeah, the movie gang. Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  29:32

So we found a farmer who’s a flower farmer. And he knew he knew but still I needed the, you know, I need the end no trees, because it’s Munchkin land munchkin. Halsey and trees on like arteries. They’re circular, just in case you’re wondering. And so I need notaries I needed to be right on the wash there, you know, and so I could have big skies and tulips. So Mark A lot of his crown weirdly, this is what you learn a lot of his crown lands. So you’ve got to meet, meet the crown estates, who actually are pretty good at helping out. You got to plan these things and, and so it’s a big deal. But it’s also is it was exciting to go through the winter and see everything grow. And yeah, the farmer Marty used to send me videos of this horrific wet weather out there. And, and he has him like keeping an eye on all the tulips I mean 9 million all different colours. So we sort of planted the whole lot and it was just and then you build the backlog. You build a munchkin village on the backlog. And then, you know, to achieve this stitch visual effects Pablo, who you probably know has to stitch things together. Yeah. So. So as your Willie John shoe came out, they are they are sinking the village into the landscape, which means when you’re running towards it, you don’t see and then you you suddenly is revealed to you. Right, and that and then we could ramp back up in the backlog, and we could get the reveal. And then Pablo had to stitch them into the Aerial. And, and so yeah, it was it was like, that’s exciting. And I mean, the question is, obviously asked, like, Well, why don’t we do CG tulips? And it’s like, because it’s not the same. I think the audience, the audience can touch reality. And they just move differently.

Jamie Benning  31:33

I think I saw one line I liked that you gave in an interview I saw yesterday, I was watching. You know, with CGI, you’re saying with CGI, we go there when we realised what we when we’ve worked, what we can’t do, you know, we can do it practically we’ll do it practically. Which I think is great. Because I think you know, and I don’t want to talk down VFX at all, because I know a lot of people that are very skilled in that area and do some really great work. But at the end of the day is just a tool, isn’t it to achieve something I mean, obviously budget comes into it all sorts of aspects come into it. But there is something about that. Tangible reaching out and touching not only for the audience, but I’m sure for the for the actors on set as well. You to be able to interact with their environment and you know, your work as well. I often think that one of the things that your work isn’t necessarily in the public consciousness because it’s supposed to disappear your work, right. Yeah, you know, you’re not necessarily supposed to notice it. But one of the things it does, of course, that a lot of people don’t realise, I think is that it can inform character so much, you know, I just think immediately of like Joe Ellsworth like building quints shack suddenly and the boat, you know, making this ridiculous boat, suddenly, you know who that character is? Yeah, along with the performance and everything. Your work is really foundational for so many things. And also, it’s kind of a sandwich, isn’t it? Production Design in a way?

Nathan Crowley  32:59

Yeah, I mean, I, I’m with you, it’s like, you know, we you know, the other thing is, you know, sometimes if we’re lucky, we get to create our own reality. That means if you’re doing fantasy, if you create something that everyone believes that’s reality, now, then that’s what this looks like, you know, so you know, which is like take tars and Interstellar though the robot tars is like to find a new shape the robot designers in across the board. And so to find something that would fit his character was very difficult. And so you know, you get to do you get to do all these wildest things, and then the actors come in, and then if you build it for real, or you build as much as you can, or go to a high, they get in character, and they steal it. And they, I can see it on them, they like change in, in the reality. And so if you give them like the wizards head, we just, we just did the puppet dead head was all it was all puppeteer and mechanical, and it could express itself and could come out and talk to our actresses, you know, and you could scare them as well. And yeah, you know, I am on, you know, 15 foot John head, do these curtains, you know, with a knife, you know, so, you know, and then when they come in, they’re in all of it. And I feel like it helps them with performance. And then, of course, I mean, the joy of visual effects, is we can now do stuff we can do, or they can fill in the gaps. So if I, which isn’t, everything is at all. So you know, I mean, you spoke to Pablo like Pablo needs real photography to inform his visual effects. So it’s like there lies the foundation of practical set building, is if we can build enough to inform the visual effects then it’s Gonna look better. So the join is going to be good as you can take the join lines up to 35 feet on a backlog. It’s tricky. And with that comes cost because the higher you go the more expensive yeah, there’s all these factors at play in but but yeah, visual effects is a tool and you’re a team like visual effects, special effects art department, construction, we’re all a team we all have to get on to make it better. And it’s all Yeah, I just had the fun in between warm or wicked I had the funnest fantasy. I haven’t done anything. Like these kinds of films since hook and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So it was, I feel like I’ve sort of in terms of the beginning, which is, I mean, I’ve no complaints about the middle thing with Chris No, Link. We did some amazing things.

Jamie Benning  35:56

Absolutely. You know, talking about tars a moment ago. I mean, such a ballsy design, I mean that. I remember the first time I just I saw that. And I just instantly said, That’s brilliant, because I’ve never seen it before. And be initially you think it makes no sense. And then you see it move and you just go, Oh, my God, it makes perfect sense. Because the thing is about design, I guess. I mean, I’m preaching to the converted here, obviously. But you know, for me, the thing about design is, not every piece of design is cohesive in our world. I look around me now. And there’s things that don’t really work and things that are really cool and sleek and things that are clunky. And that’s what I’ve always loved about your work. It doesn’t feel like it’s just, here’s here’s a world that feels like it was created by somebody. It feels like a world that’s created by lots of people. As in the word live live. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Nathan Crowley  36:51

It’s not photowall there’s like, oh,

Jamie Benning  36:53

yeah, I was thinking like James Klein’s work in the Creator recently. Like there’s some really cool tech in there. And then they’ve got those stupid massive big translator things that are like a giant Gameboy. And you kind of go well, that’s a bit. Well, actually. Yeah, there is really shit design around you know, you kind of put up with it, don’t you? You know, we still haven’t made a good toaster yet. Let’s face it.

Nathan Crowley  37:17

That’s funny. I never thought about that.

Jamie Benning  37:20

Don’t work. Yeah. Yeah. Guy say that to me once he came up to me at Hotel is a McLaren guy. And he said, he said all this design, and we can’t even get a toaster to work properly. So well. That is faster. He said it is faster than our car though.

Nathan Crowley  37:40

That sounds like a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comment. You know what I mean? It

Jamie Benning  37:44

does? Yeah. You know, I’ve been reading a bit of Douglas Adams to my daughter, actually. So maybe it’s sent in? Yeah. Because really, your job is about convincing people that the characters are living in that world.

Nathan Crowley  37:56

Well, we, as you said, we I call it we have to go silently into these films. If you don’t notice us and you accept it, then then I think we’ve done our job. And now there’s obviously many schools of design, some believe you have to like, show off. That’s a that’s an unfortunate word, but be glamorous in some way. Or maybe there’s story suits there. But, you know, when I’m trying to convince someone that there’s a robot, and we’re on on the Ranger, and we’re about to go through a wormhole that somewhere around satin, I kind of got

Jamie Benning  38:40

it all in Avenue. Yeah. Well,

Nathan Crowley  38:42

and there’s danger to it. I can’t have a robot that’s gonna solve all your problems. You know, so. And also, I mean, one of the, I think one of the cleverest thing we did and I say we because I’m always working with Chris from very early on the design is all the spaceships we put NASA you know, we put NASA colours on them, the black and white and the tiles, and the, you know, all the shuffle we made them feel like a shuffle. So you’re looking at the Ranger and it’s got two horns and it’s sleek, and it’s wide. It’s docking with a space station endurance. That’s these pods. There is also a clock. There’s also themes in there and you got the lander, they’re all They’re all they all look like NASA because they’ve all got the heat tiles and the white you know, they’ve got that white top surface on there got NASA windows with the framing with or to make them you know, air tie. And and so hopefully you kind of accept it you go as it always is, whenever you just sort of you just go with it. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do is this like we’ve we’ve got to get you to a black hole and the visit to the Tesseract so we have to get you there. It

Jamie Benning  40:01

was it feels right, though it feels like an evolution of what you already know, doesn’t it’s yeah, you kind of accept it as Oh, that’s where we’ve got to by this point. Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  40:10

It’s also I guess the word is nostalgia. You have a memory or a nostalgia of it. And if you can tap into that, as a designer, it’s like allows the audience to go with you. And now, a lot of designers don’t agree with that. They want to hit you with something completely new and throw in your face and want to knock your socks off. You know, that’s not that’s The brilliant thing about design, there is no sort of right or wrong.

Jamie Benning  40:41

Yeah. I mean, I can understand that to a certain extent, working as a sort of gun for hire. As you know, you were saying before we were recording, you want your work to stand out to future employers, but you also have to serve the story. And do that part of the job as well. That must be a really sort of difficult balancing act.

Nathan Crowley  41:00

Yeah, well, kinda. Never, never, never really felt like I’m always sort of had this massive, naive optimism.

Jamie Benning  41:11

Well, that’s great.

Nathan Crowley  41:14

But it’s like, oh, yeah, I think that’s died from going to LA and going into a bar and getting a job. You know, I feel like, yeah, something was show up. And, you know, I’m Touchwood. But, yeah, I mean, yeah, I guess you, you know, I, you know, I bumped into some great directors along the way. And who I’ve worked with, who, you know, who, you know, I continue to work with, and it’s just been, it’s been a pretty great journey. So, hopefully, there’s more of that. Yeah.

Jamie Benning  41:54

Well, am I right in saying that I read somewhere that you knew of Chris Nolan is when you were a kid, like did you grow up near each other? Yeah,

Nathan Crowley  42:02

I was in Islington. And he grew up in Highgarden when we first met we had no idea he was on vicious road I was down on the fence and three was probably means nothing to most people. But I know what my best friend Halston the two doors down from the Nolan’s but Chris was five years younger than us. So and so we were there. Were always at Austin’s house and, and I who would know that the kid next door who’s five years younger than us was Chris Nolan. So we knew of his older brother, but you know, his older brother when we were teenagers like to like to thump people. So we stay away from them.

Jamie Benning  42:43

It’s funny, though, that, you know, you sort of came out came out of similar stables and then you know, crossed your path again, although, you know,

Nathan Crowley  42:49

on tech, the end of my street and Islington was the Puppet Theatre, where Joe Wright was a baby when we were teenagers. So he was five years younger as well. And his dad used to run the puppet theatre, which was brilliant. He’s got there was a kid. And he was down the road there. I mean, you know, you just don’t know these things useful. Yeah.

Jamie Benning  43:10

Yeah. I remember when I first met my wife, who lived in Crouch End, and I came out for front door one morning and walked up the road. And I just said morning to this guy, and I thought I knew him and it was Simon Pegg. And then I went into pageants. And Peter Capaldi was in there, and I came out, and Annie Lennox will pass me and London. Yeah. What am I doing down south? Yeah, you’re the wrong path. Yeah. So that first film, they were Chris was insomnia was it? It

Nathan Crowley  43:39

was, yeah, he just finished memento. And he sold it, and it would be released. And, you know, had it I mean, he was getting a lot of notice. And then he took a studio, some insomnia with Warner Brothers, and then he needed a designer and I went to meet him. And I got the job. I mean, he was probably interviewing a few people, but we got on pretty well straight away. So

Jamie Benning  44:05

do you have an agent at that point? That’s kind of putting you forward for these projects. Yeah, just like a connection through someone I

Nathan Crowley  44:11

know. I had an agent. She put me up for the interview. And then I decided to still remember vividly knocking on his apartment door. You know, they weren’t they weren’t who they are. Now. They were living quite frugally in Midtown somewhere. And I’m not talking to door there’s Emma and Chris I went in and had a long chat a cup of tea. And I kind of brought I always like, the dude on long preparations. I have talked to him about the ideas of this sort of this endless day. You know, that is Alaska. And so yeah, we got on really well and it’s like this like when you grow up. It was like then we get connected in that meeting is like a joke. he’d made the following on vicious road on his street. So really? I said, That’s hysterical. Because I know that is I know all those houses, like, and yeah, so we got on and we went up to Canada. I don’t think you’d ever built any bigger sets like you know I always I started by building big sets so I kind of well actually I mean there’s a we’ve skipped a long way to Chris Nolan but there’s a thing Yeah, of course I was I was there’s a big sort of build up to going to work for Tom song as the designer is his art director on brave on Assassins a few other films. Mission Possible too. And then I John Woo. Yeah, yeah, Joe Woo. And they went on to Ireland on Bray farm. And I was I was feeling like, I needed to become a production designer, because I kind of wanted to do my own thing. And they didn’t really have any designers in Dublin. And they had a lot of small films going in. So I just stayed basically, in Dublin. I left la for three years and moved to Dublin and I got to work with Barry Levinson came in Josh Joel Schumacher. Alan Bakula was only an art director on that, but he’d arrived Dawn Willis, and, you know, IV psych, became a designer there and then eventually moved back to the States on a film with an Irish director, John Moore on behind him in lines. Yeah. So I got to go back to LA as a designer, so. So that’s, I mean, it was another sort of, I guess, it’s another sort of optimistic naive move to think I’ll just stay here.

Jamie Benning  47:21

I always amazes me amazes me about you know, people like you that work as production designers or visual effects supervisors is you have to sort of become experts on so many different worlds, so many different genres. What an amazing job, a lot of people go into work. And I mean, I met with some friends of mine from I haven’t seen from school the other week, and they’re in the same jobs they’re in just after they left school ones in banking, ones in computing, and it hasn’t really changed a great deal for either of them. But you know, the job that you do you know, you’re in different countries, you’re inventing your set designing for Star Trek series, you’re set designing for John Carpenter and I mean, it’s it’s kind of insane that you have to become an expert on all of this stuff. Is that something that you really relish you like? You don’t you go proper, deep dive headfirst straight into these, these worlds and immerse yourself? Yeah,

Nathan Crowley  48:13

kind of, but it’s exciting change. You know, I have a, I can’t really sit still, I think they have a name for that. I can I so it’s very exciting. Like, I mean, we could do it here. It’s like it’s, I find that you can get lost in the in the day. And that’s like, you know, the things so long as you when you’re younger, it’s nerve it’s stressful because you it seems like an impossible thing to do everything you know, and then of course, what you learn as an older person is that you just tackle one thing at a time so and then you loot you park things when you when you’re not sure you just park it and move on you know and so you kind of do some that you do know Yeah, yeah. Or just something you want to do. And you park the stuff that’s your brain can handle and you don’t no point sitting there spinning. But yeah, so I really I love that sort of trying to connect it’s like a giant jigsaw visual jigsaw puzzle and it was like I was saying earlier the fee the 3d thing in my in the head where I can actually manipulate something in 3d to try it without I really like and so weirdly when 3d When we got 3d programmes like Maya and modo Rhino, it was mind blowing to me because it’s only something would move as fast as your head you could spin around objects and change it so the the technology when that arrived, it was like, oh my god because the pencil I’m already moved on the minute the pencil touches the paper. So to find the programme is very hard to learn. That could move with me especially When they invented the 3d mouse where you can spin around and navigate, it was like, Oh, this is this is truly a joy. And then of course, they invented 3d printing, which means I wasn’t stuck in. In my to the computer screen. I see them. And do

Jamie Benning  50:18

you have 3d printers around you net? Like, have you got some in your place now? Have you? Yeah, I’ve

Nathan Crowley  50:22

three automakers down in my basement. I use up 17 When I was mad for it. But we used to print miniatures because it was like, Yeah,

Jamie Benning  50:34

because it was furniture industry. It’s kind of died almost by then as well. They weren’t ready. Yeah, it’ll make us around. Yeah. Well,

Nathan Crowley  50:42

I mean, it’s fantastic. You can try shapes. I think it was on interstellar that it was like, Okay, I’ve learned this 3d programme. I use modo, which is designers programme. And then I went to Chris on the beginning, when we were in early stages, we work in his garage, which is now in our room, which is now our house is slowly grown from his old two car garage. And I said, I’m going to use a 3d programme to design the film, I really want to try it. And he said, Well, I just got given this 3d printer. It was like, well, let’s plug it in. Let’s give it a go. So we used to do lots of ranges, like can we find the shape of the ranges drop down? Do it in 3d. And it was like I don’t know how to find the right button depressed.

Jamie Benning  51:30

Printers though. Sorry. Yeah. Before you had those printers were you kind of doing like the thing that I hear from a lot of ILM folks, which is the kitbashing thing you know, just sort of joining model kits together just to get something tangible and physical three dimensional in your hands. Yeah. That’s

Nathan Crowley  51:46

how we did the Batmobile is me and Chris in his two car garage. I used to go to Toys R Us and Scylla shopping shopping trolleys and anything that seemed right. And then we used to go down to Home Depot and buy shit. Or I always say we can’t do that anymore, because everyone knows in the years, but back then it was easy. That’s how we did the Batmobile. We there was no drawing and tobacco bill until after we designed it. And then there was a drawing. So the the, the the actual design of it is, was done in five models. I wish we call the mark one through side. So I I have a mark the mark four. And Chris has the mark.

Jamie Benning  52:33

I saw that I saw one of the real ones in where I was I was at Silverstone. I was working on the Grand Prix there and I came out of out of broadcast compound and it was parked in our broadcast compound. I thought what the heck are you doing there? I think yeah, just being driven around the track for for a show off. Now very cool.

Nathan Crowley  52:54

He would only go 90 miles per hour. 95 Maybe? Yeah, well,

Jamie Benning  52:57

that’s good enough. It’s gone. Chevy 350

Nathan Crowley  52:59

And so do

Jamie Benning  53:01

you get a real thrill those from going from you know, those toys batched together to seeing the kind of what the the team has come up with and and built? You know,

Nathan Crowley  53:11

yeah, I mean, the bashing toys only gets you so far. Right? The you end up with, you know, bandsaw and some plastics and you end up having to actually, that you get an idea and then you make you we used to make one half of it in plastics in Chris’s garage. And if we liked it, we then you stick it into Photoshop and duplicate it the other half and then you build the other half if you’d like it or you move on. But yeah, once you get it once special effects arrived, because they built it from the ground up. Special effects of brilliant because you’re like, the engineers, and it’s like, they they look they always come in and there’s lots of sort of, you know, they’re not aren’t as optimistic as we are. Which is good. And they’re like, they

Jamie Benning  53:57

know the reality of the situation. Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  54:00

They’ve got to build it from the ground up. So it takes a big it’s a critical wall built and his team. And I know

Jamie Benning  54:07

Chris Yeah, I interviewed him. What did he worked on? One of those must have been Oh, no, it was maybe it was Mission Impossible anyway. Yeah. He’s

Nathan Crowley  54:17

brilliant. Like they can make anything

Jamie Benning  54:21

very matter of fact as well. Isn’t he like? Done kind of Yeah, yeah.

Nathan Crowley  54:26

And I My thing is like I want I always say to producers, this like whatever you do, whoever the special effects guys make sure their last name is cobalt. Because he has a brother Paul, and Neil and so

Jamie Benning  54:42

on. It was Neil I spoke to Yeah, yeah.

Nathan Crowley  54:46

I’ve never worked with Neil only Chris. The Chris. They can build some stuff. So and their workshop is very exciting because it’s like crazy, metalworking and engineering and try Wingstop so yeah, so yeah, that mean the ban when he started building that from the ground up, and we’d go and see him and then it tested the rigs and because it has no front axle which is, which was part of the problem. Yeah, true. And so and that the the amount of suspension and the metal to keep that upright with our front ankle axle was very, very difficult because it because it also, you know, it had to run around Chicago high speed and also jump into the Batcave. So that’s all real. So I got to drive the Bama bill in the early days. And I mean, it was like, this is fantastic.

Jamie Benning  55:45

You’ve got the deep voice, you know, you could do the Batman impression. I’m sure you

Nathan Crowley  55:52

know, that’s been, isn’t it?

Jamie Benning  55:54

Well, you could do though instead, yeah, well, we now know which side you fall on. Yeah. But I would imagine though reading like a new Chris Nolan script, having worked with him previously, almost is of no advantage to certain to certain level, because each film he does is just another level of complexity, whether it’s in the story or in the, you know, the design that he’s looking for from you. I mean, that must be a hell of a challenge.

Nathan Crowley  56:20

It is it is usually he’s, he’s actually very patient. And he wants but he wants, you know, get invited in very early because he’s like, he needs the visual input about how things should look. Because it really helps him continue to refine the script. So but yeah, usually the I don’t understand the third act is usually like what interests I was like, sorry, we’re in the, we’re in a fourth dimension or configuration of a fifth dimensional world, you know, and it’s, like, created by who in on the event horizon is i What, what are we doing?

Jamie Benning  57:00

It’s like, you have to build Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  57:03

Which I have to build the Tesla rack, which is like, again, that’s a typical one where I’m gonna pop that over here and deal with, like, you know, it was like, how do you even navigate to sand? You know what I mean? Like, because we got to build a spaceship with all its instruments. So you got to fit. It’s like, oh, how do you navigate? But I kind of like that. But it’s like, oh, we better figure out how to speak to kids all about how, how we’re going to get to sound and how does that look on that on a dashboard, you know, crazy things like, but also when you’re scouting? I do remember I go scouting with Chris, you alone? I do remember. We’re on a united plane. And he was like, he was like staring at the gallery. And I think what are you doing? And he goes, I’m just looking at those controllers they bring out and it was like, I looked at them. I went, Oh, yeah. It’s like spaces about storage. And yeah, and so all the walls, we just we got to go to a scrap yard and get all the freaking trolley doors. And that’s the wall. There are no walls. They’re all compartments. So cupboards. Yeah. And so then we went up and we sort of like it’s like a we, we have a look at your trolleys and they’re very suspicious. Yeah. But, you know, that I think that’s part of the excitement of design is like, it says discovery. And, you know, and because the scripts are complicated, Tennant was like one of those very complicated scripts, which I’d say that was by far the most confused I’ve ever been. Because usually they you know, play out sort of traditionally. And then you get to something complicated or a device. And he says, I read it a few times, and it’s all becomes much clearer. Taylor was, was very old, because you have to see it from a point of view. Because if you’re pushing against time, you’re bringing time with you. And so therefore you are parallel with that moment in time, and it takes me a long time to understand the visuals of that

Jamie Benning  59:18

insanely complex. Yeah, yeah,

Nathan Crowley  59:19

entropy and like, reversal. And so you know, that. That was that? That was tricky because it sort of lives in the world of theory. Not that the Tesseract doesn’t but you know, we, you know, it was less complicated than 10. And even though Tennant was set, not on

Jamie Benning  59:44

Yeah, yeah. I have to say, what, what amazed me was like I got as a viewer, I got to certain points where I was like, Oh, I get it. Okay, I get it. And just as you think you’ve got it, there’s like another level another layer, and you’re sort of thrown into this You know, a moment where you just say, am I am I not clever enough to watch this? I mean, that’s probably what it’s like reading the script for the first time for you like, well, you think, Okay, this makes sense. And then you read the next bit? Oh, no, that, you know, I’m back to square one almost.

Nathan Crowley  1:00:12

Luckily, my naive optimism allows me to just go with it. And you just not ask, as well. Yeah, I’m just gonna soak it up. Some people have long list to come in and read script, I have a long list of really troubling questions, trouble them. But to me, it’s again, it’s like you sort of go with it. And sort of cinema is like, I can see that, but I can’t see this. But, you know, even like, I mean, I love some of the films you’ve made, like the prestige is one of my favourite. Because it is, it’s an illusion, you know, like, from the minute it opens. It’s like, it’s like, it’s just twists and turns. And there’s two of them. And they tell you that in the first 10 minutes, they tell you, you know that there’s a twin, and you know, you don’t take it on board, because it’s very, very clever. And I love watching that film. Yeah, it’s

Jamie Benning  1:01:10

a really good film. Yeah, again, it’s sort of revealed before you isn’t it in such a sort of tantalising way. I think that I’ve read something recently, if you want to be a good storyteller, like, verbally, you should sort of tell the end first like, because then people are all in, you know,

Nathan Crowley  1:01:27

tenant, tenant starts before it ends before it begins, you know, suddenly explosion of styles 12 Michael Caine tells you this, right, the beginning of the film, because there was an explosion somewhere in Eastern Europe and that styles 12. So it actually, it’s already happened. And, and the prestige I love because, again, Michael Caine says, Are you watching closely, you know, and it’s like, only, you know, I find all that just marvellous, I find that. Just, I’m talking like, I’m a fan. You know?

Jamie Benning  1:02:01

That’s the that’s the sense. I’m getting the thing. Like, that’s great. Because, yeah, there was certainly probably a period of filmmaking where it was just kind of jobs for the gods for the boys kind of thing. Yeah, it was. But it’s, it’s fantastic that this sort of second generation, third, fourth generation have a long it’s been of movie fans that are now creating the movies that we’re watching, you know, and have taken all of that stuff on board as they’ve grown up. And, yeah, now I think it’s great to have fans working inside the industry, because you’re doing it for you, as well as Yes. Yeah. But

Nathan Crowley  1:02:34

also, I mean, you know, I’ve opened a new door with the sort of musical fantasies and who would have thought that door would open?

Jamie Benning  1:02:43

Yeah, and easy.

Nathan Crowley  1:02:44

I’ve just woken me up really, it’s like, it’s woken me up to a design that I didn’t ever think that was something I could sort of be part of. Yeah, and I just like we just made Wicked The Wizard of Oz, you notice like, yeah, we get to do yellow brick road.

Jamie Benning  1:03:05

My doors are desperate to say they’ve seen the stage show like 10 times. But here’s a question. And so yeah, sorry. Sorry to interrupt. I’ve got if I say, when you’re creating like a world like Wonka and wicked, and even Batman, they’re worlds that people already have an idea of right. There’s already an a sort of an established world there. Do you see that as sort of restrictive in a way? Or do you see do you say, right, we’re going all out? We’re going to be different as possible. Like, where is that kind of sweet spot for you?

Nathan Crowley  1:03:42

I don’t, I don’t sort of think of it as like, what’s gone before what we’re going to do, I think of it as like, you know, okay, this is it again, it’s like, there’s no point like trying to compete with Gene Wilder. And, I mean, that’s just brilliant. You know what I mean? Like, I want to do that. And so we have to do all joyous fantastical bison direct elephant drives, he says, I want this to be whimsical. And I want this to I want to feel good. And, you know, so those kinds of words really helped me win his script, obviously elsewhere. So it’s like, yeah, let’s make this let’s make this joyous and like, complicated and I you know, with walger was like, I want to mix Europe together, you know, because you know, if you go to London and let’s fight Georgian and it’s so weirdly sort of that period is very sort of military in a weird way. It’s cold, you know, and then you go to Switzerland and it feels sake, you know what I mean? So it’s yeah, all the whimsical you need but it’s like, you know, it seems silly. Sorry, if you’re Swiss.

Jamie Benning  1:04:50

It feels toy town ish, doesn’t it?

Nathan Crowley  1:04:51

Yeah. It feels like it’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you know? Yeah. So then you got the Midlands, I’m old Belgium is pretty good. It’s got all the detail You need so you want this sort of whimsical detail this wondrous place where the great chocolate tears live. But I want to feel like it’s, it goes back to like, a like the idea of nostalgia touching on something everyone knows. It’s like we all learn to ride a bicycle, right? So you have a memory of going on down your street and everyone in the world has that memory. Yeah, well hopefully through and so if you can connect by the wheel turning or you know what I mean? So how do you do that with architectures like so I love archways and I love shadow that like you know, so it was like, Okay, I know how this should feel. I just have to combine everything. And you know, and the thing about Walker is you can like no one, you know your appearance. People would have fits if I’m gonna take the Charles Bridge, I’m gonna take my land, grand arcades, I’m gonna take the Romanesque. I’m gonna shove some John Nash colonnade, you know in front of it. Like

Jamie Benning  1:06:11

as you’re describing, colliding those worlds together, I’m sort of almost imagining Hayao Miyazaki kind of Ghibli world almost in the way that he takes sort of European influence in some of those like 80s 90s films like my Neighbour Totoro Kiki’s Delivery Service is another one where you, she’s on a broom flying over this town, and it looks like French, Belgian Swiss, German sort of all mashed together, but it has the sort of best elements of each but still feels right. You know, that’s the thing as well, isn’t it is making something feel right as well.

Nathan Crowley  1:06:45

Yeah. And that, but they all connect weirdly, I don’t know how but it seemed to. And that was that was, you know, that was so much fun to combine it on the design challenge there was like, because you want to feel like it’s sort of, you know, I know that the story is driven that the chocolate is evil, but you want it to feel like it has all this sort of history, and you know, this great. It’s gonna be this grid, the greatest experience ever. And of course, when he gets there, he’s not. He’s got to fix it. And so yeah, I mean, that was like, that was a different kind of fantasy, because you do a period film? You know, you do? Like, why have you said that we made the prestige in downtown LA. Yeah, we built one set, because we didn’t have much money. So we did it. That’s like saying to us, the New York backlog and, and, and then one, we don’t one set on a soundstage. But the rest was downtown, because it had all the theatres. So, you know, you’re sort of tasked with giving an impression of the period. So, you know, Craig Walker was to give that impression of his his time that he lived in with the theories I didn’t really care too much about the actual time was sometime in, you know, in the late 40s. To me, it was irrelevant Is this about creating this whimsical world that he had thought he wanted to be in since his childhood? So you know, the period thing is, again, it’s about silently giving everyone a feeling that that place is his reality. So which was, was a long words for me, January.

Jamie Benning  1:08:37

I’ve done I’ve watched a lot of your movies in the last couple of weeks. And I was sort of I said to my wife, I wish the real world looked like this. I wish people put that much effort into design in the real world. I was gonna ask you a question about. I’ve spoken to people before who worked in production design, and they talked about, you know, directors like John Carpenter, who would you know, the budget would be so tight that he would say, right, I literally need a room with a door here, and a door there and a window and the production designer would say, Well, what about on the reverse? We’re not going to see that, you know, and Joe Al’s famously tells this story where I think it’s in Escape from New York, if you’d have, if carbon to a pan like six inches to the left, you would have seen a cactus in the desert, because they built they didn’t even have a soundstage. I think building in the desert, do you prefer working for a director who has that vision so locked down? That he tells you he knows or you have that discussion to only build what is needed? Or do you prefer to sort of build a world that they can discover and improvising?

Nathan Crowley  1:09:39

Build a world and I can discover I mean, I think, you know, I think Sure, John Carpenter, Hitchcock would, you know, it was so precise that they can do that. I don’t think more than filmmaking. Yeah, the cameras used to be really heavy. Yeah, yeah. So there was there was, you couldn’t really move him. So there was an alias didn’t move. But now there are tools that allow us to like, do anything you want, including the lighting systems. So you, I like to create a wall because I want to put people there. And the act is there. And I think we’re Chris, he’s very precise, but he uses an IMAX camera, which is like, which creates is like, you gotta you got to make sure everything’s there. Plus, you might want to turn around, and it’s this all again, for him, it’s a voyage of discovery, like a lot directors it’s like, and know, you know, they might want to turn around. And if they do, or they might, there’s so many elements, like the sun might move in this direction, we got to turn around or an actor might, you know, say, you know, whatever, he doesn’t say I’d rather be do it this way over here. And, you know, there’s all these variables, so you just, you give them I like to give them a place that they don’t have to think about, and take that off the table. Yes. Now, sometimes with budgets, you can’t do that, like on the prestige, it was difficult, because we only had certain angles, we had limited angles, but we had to work within, because our budget was very low, 20 million below the line, which isn’t a lot to do that kind of film. But, you know, on bigger films like this, and they’re always budget problems on any level of so yeah, because you, you, you go to the budget level, you know, so and yeah, that, you know, that is your, you’re fine. It’s your choices. So you got to sit around a table and say, You’re gonna have five of the seven goals. Everyone wants seven, the seven. And you know, this is part of the poem production design. As I think John box used to say, you have to design the production, which means you make the choices like you go on vacation, because they, yeah, they serve the story. And they serve your themes, and you push them to locations for certain things. Because, one, they serve the stories too, you don’t want to build them because they that’s not buildable, or you you can’t do something else, you have to help them design the film by by showing them the way forward. So it’s and also you do it in selfishly, so you know that you have to down the road, you’re gonna have to make this stuff. And you say, well, we can get on location. Let’s go do that. And as you’re growing 9 million tulips and then you can only film in April.

Jamie Benning  1:12:41

Absolutely insane. That’s the thing is that I’m always struck by it. You know, I’ve been a movie nerd on my life ever since I saw like the making of Star Wars age four, or whatever it was. And I’ve always been kind of intrigued and obsessed with the lengths that you go to to achieve what you want to achieve in the movie. Like, wasn’t there that thing where you had to cut down like miles of road signs to fit the spaceship down the road? Interstellar I mean, it’s just, it’s just mind boggling. Like Robert walks on, Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know that to remove like 1000 TV aerials, because they’re all you just think that I’m just not one of those people. I don’t think that could see that as achievable. I just go, Okay, right. We’re gonna have to go somewhere else.

Nathan Crowley  1:13:30

But it’s born out of usually, it’s born out of a mistake because like the Ranger together proportions, right. I wanted to make it certain width, and unfortunately was wider than Icelandic road on the on the low loader. We’re going to move it overnight. Anyway, John, who runs transport out there who I’ve worked with many times, you’re on this. Harley bloke was like, it’s like, he says, oh, yeah, they do. Why to go down down the road, and I got shit. How are we gonna get it to the Glacia and he goes, he goes, I just cut the sign in.

Jamie Benning  1:14:10

Solve that problem later. Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  1:14:14

I put them back, you know? And, yeah, I like that. I’d love those. It’s why it’s kind of why I like a lot. I like a lot of the crew across the board, film crew because they’re real can do people. And it’s like, you know, then don’t look at the negatives of it. They look at it like well, we just give it a go. This is our this is my first spaceship. I’ve built so really the Ranger was, you know, was was slapped. We had to build a slightly small one to get to Iceland because it had to fit into a 747 cargo ship in parts so he could you know, it’s we did an 80% one to get it out there and for crane sizes to lift it in and out of the water and onto the Glacia and so you Your if you look at the film of the bank, there’s this funny little boss because the actors have to step into that when the waves come in, and then the door has to close. And of course at 80% doesn’t give you the head height. So it was like, there was a funny little box on there. And, you know, all those kinds of oddities that he’s like, wow, I probably get away with that. So,

Jamie Benning  1:15:19

yeah. But being able to visualise as you do in 3d must be such a valuable tool to sort of be on a location and imagine what you’re building in your head in that place.

Nathan Crowley  1:15:30

Yeah, it’s like, yeah,

Jamie Benning  1:15:32

it’s really sure in your brain. Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  1:15:35

It’s like so brilliant. And then now we now we have AI, which I can move fast to so but it’s very to D, which

Jamie Benning  1:15:45

is that good to your world? Oh, yeah.

Nathan Crowley  1:15:48

Yeah. I mean, how do I describe how I use AI? I’ve got it on my screen, I use discord a majority, but I use it the thing about design is you have to get through all the bad ideas to get to the good ones. And we are limited in the time we have in pre production. So you can get that over to get the tasks for instance, we have to go into all the humans through the humanoid robots and then through the all the star the Star Wars are to D to dustbin type, you know, non humanoid, all those the those two parallel to find TARS, he doesn’t sit in either. So we have to get through all of those. And we spent a long time like, trying to design humanoid and non humanoid robots to get to the decision is like, oh, it can be either. And the great thing about AI is you can now I feel like it’s like a time machine. I can jump through that very quickly. Because I can experiment with stuff I don’t want. It tells me all the nose. And then I know the nose

Jamie Benning  1:16:53

quicker. So you’re not leapfrogging necessarily, but because I’m part of getting to the point where you get the right thing is that you have gone through all the wrong things. Right. Yeah. You haven’t read anything up that process? Yeah, but I can do it. Yeah. Exactly. The process? Yeah. Yeah. Because I think that’s that’s the worry that people have in of AI in the creative world is that it’s going to take that sort of iterative process away. So the thing that you arrive at isn’t going to be what you would have arrived at if you taken the longer process. But maybe, is the difference which I mean, you might you could even argue that you know, I’m holding a pencil up here that if you did it with an Apple Pencil, that you’re sort of leapfrogging to certain Oh, you’re speeding up the process to certain extent.

Nathan Crowley  1:17:34

Yeah. But it was like 3d and a pencil. Like I said earlier, yeah, yeah, I could sketch this out. But it’s one view, and I want to see 50 views. And so I can roll around something. Ai, this allows me to move through all the things I don’t want to do. Like that, for instance, if you’re designing whatever, a Star Wars prequel or whatever, you know, what’s been before you. So you have to get over all your preconceptions. And, you know, all your, your geeky stuff, including all your hard departments, preconceived ideas of what it should be to get there. And so if we can leapfrog that and then start to develop it, from a further point in the, in the future, what would have been the future, because we are time crunched, you know, we get less and less time to prepare films. And so it’s in, you know, and once you start building it, because you’re running a big construction crew, it’s very hard to manoeuvre it into something you want. And, you know, you often end up with like, that doesn’t, I’m disappointed that I knew it was wrong. When I started, I couldn’t find the right answer. So I like AI. It’s just another tool. It’s like you said earlier, it’s another tool, and I don’t think it’s going to solve, it’s not gonna, I honestly don’t think it’s going to, I think it’s people are going to use it, to help them. And I just feel like it’s gonna be another useful thing. I don’t know where the film version of that it’s going. I mean, I do think it’s a sea change. I think it’s probably more than the CCed. I mean, I remember the sea changes when Photoshop came in. It was like, in the early 90s, it was like, what is that? And can you teach it? Can you teach it to me? And then 3d gaming and 3d printing gaming? You know, the effects gaming? So I think it’s just, it might be bigger than that all of those. And there might be a sort of sound to silence a sound moment, but I don’t know. Yeah, who knows? Right? Yeah,

Jamie Benning  1:19:37

I mean, I, you know, a lot of people in my part of the industry, you know, with editing stuff very quickly and getting it back out to where, whether it’s in sport or light entertainment. Yeah. And I think a lot of people initially thought that AI would jump straight in and start doing that editing for us. But one of the things I worked for a company called DVS, who make production servers like for replays and highlights and things, and one of the things they just introduced, which I was done demoing at NAB for them was frame interpolation. So turning a standard camera into like a three phase, you know 150 frame camera or more if you send it again, but in a turnaround that is quick enough to get it to where in time. Wow. But then But then you end up with an inherent blur. So they’re now working on a D blur for that. And I mean, it’s incredible. You know, so the other day some load of friends of mine who work in motorsport flew out to Abu Dhabi to work on some autonomous racing. And one of the guys that camera guys, he’s, let’s say he’s touching 70 for a very long time, and I said, I thought they were going to replace you first, not the drivers, you know, and it’s interesting where AI is going, not necessarily in the in the places that you expect. But yeah, you’re right. It is a tool. And I think people are just worried about the sort of abuse of it, aren’t they? Oh, there’s, there’s a sort of, I don’t want to use the word snobbery. But I guess there’s a certain feeling about the purity of our of that blank page and that pencil and having the boldness to start something, you know, from from nothing. I mean, but you’re working in an industry where you’ve got to do things quickly and make money, right, and make a great design at the same time. Yeah.

Nathan Crowley  1:21:17

I mean, weirdly, I, what I found is like when we when, you know, I’ve used it, to mix illustrations of things together, because I like bits of them. So I just blended them, and gives me something that is actually our work that’s blended together, there’s something new and oddly, the weirdest thing is, is the translation. Like, I feel like I need an old school art director to train because it’s very two dimensional. And it’s a feeling the AI thing is like, based on paintings and emotion and they’re there, they draw down. So to translate anything that comes out of AI into something physical, you need an old school art director who understands that translation period, which is that, you know, way way makes our direction, more important because you the old school, our direction is the journey from of making something and sculpting it in 3d from something that’s quite sketchy. So it makes it into rather than 3d is made is very precise, exactly how should look and with pre vism, all that stuff. Whereas AIG takes us back in one way and allows old school arbitration to become more positive, which is a process in itself, like a great old arbitrator, and confine the set and find shape and tone by making it and the, you know, that that art has lost over the years because of 3d. So, you know, things it changes. Everything changes everything in certainly, my my career has changed constantly. So this is another one. But at the same time, it’s like, it’s also exciting. It’s another exciting thing. It’s like, you know, because sometimes it’s like, oh,

Jamie Benning  1:23:19

yeah, yeah. You know, I think it’s always important as well, when you’re using AI is always to say, Please, just in case they do take over one day, and I genuinely do on Jet GPT. I’m very, very polite to it as a last question, because we’re, I mean, goodness, we’ve been talking for an hour and a half nearly. You mentioned like designing a Star Wars prequel, when you’re just sort of given an example back then. Is that on the wish list, like designing a Star Wars? Do you have a wish list? Yeah,

Nathan Crowley  1:23:48

I mean, I’d like to do what is my it’s funny, I always thought I wanted to do James Bond and a Star Wars in wiring. But of course, that isn’t what you want you want. It’s like, Willie, you’d like it’s like a door opening something open like a wicked is was such a design challenge. And I would equal it in the stellar I’d say wicked and Interstellar are the biggest design challenges I’ve ever had. And so I find those films fascinating. So I’d like to do a science fiction. I know I want to do fantasy and science fiction. I, I kind of I’ve sold I don’t need to do I don’t think I need to do a period film. But I say that but then someone did something about oil running in the Mexican Revolution. It was with Standard Oil. You know, that would be you know, that could be really interesting. So I don’t know I guess it’s Still, I guess I’m talking about design and story like it’s what I do now as I get older I it has to be a challenge. Otherwise I need to not have done something before. So as I always remember on Braveheart when we were doing the gaze of York, I was an art director. And we My job was the build the gates of York and the walls and also the battering ram with the help of special effects because it had to be pushed and stopped. And and so we built this road bearing room huge gates, I always remember Mel Gibson coming up to me goes Nathan, is this battering ram gonna work? And I can’t remember what I said it or thought it and it’s like, I have no idea. This is my first battering ram I don’t know. I probably stole it because I was too scared to say that to him. But I definitely crossed my mind is like, No, this is the first one.

Jamie Benning  1:26:05

Amazing. I mean, I think that’s a perfect way to end this conversation in a way not that I want to end it because I’m having a great time. But you’re sort of finishing with that same sort of optimism, like you know, who knows what might come along next that you had when you initially started in the industry. That’s amazing. That is, you know, it’s not driven you into the ground just yet Nathan.

Nathan Crowley  1:26:25

No, I’m really excited and I like I said, I’ve had the most chat one of the most challenging design jobs I’ve ever had in my life just recently and it just it woke me up much as interstellar woke me up you know, wicked has woken me out to the sort of joy of design again so occasionally you need a nudge so you don’t want to be the old fire in the garage saying oh, you need our to one time eight bolts

Jamie Benning  1:26:56

yeah and that’s our in I think that’s that November isn’t it?

Nathan Crowley  1:27:02

Yeah, yeah, it’s gonna be I mean it also like you said, I have three girls and one boy and the girls have always wanted my wife works in the US to do a musical and now we do it finally doing

Jamie Benning  1:27:20

amazing. I mean, God well, I yeah, I advise everyone to who’s listening just to go through Nathan’s list of movies on IMDb and just acknowledge the fact that there’s a lot of movies you would love in there and you would regarding your top 50 of all time you know I think what a career you’ve had and it’s still super strong and you know your rising to new heights so all power I think it’s great.

Nathan Crowley  1:27:47

Good to speak to you Jamie.

Jamie Benning  1:27:48

Yeah, you too.

Well, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Nathan. Great guy. Great chat really did feel comfortable chapter nice and really easy to talk to. And looking forward to speaking to him again. Hopefully we’re going to be interviewing a few production designers for our Joel’s taco. We’ve got some good news happening on that front at the moment. Can’t say anything at the moment but we are moving on we are moving forward. Coming up on the podcast I have ILM camera assistant Maryanne Evans, ex Lucasfilm fan relations officer and owner of the world’s largest styles collection. Steve Sansweet. The effects guru TyRuben Ellingson costume designer Aggie Rogers, and I’m still trying to get the big hitters. Ben Burtt John Goodson Joe Johnston, I’m working with the folks at Lucasfilm to try and snag them. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget I also have that three hour conversation that I recently had a couple of weeks ago with production designer Nilo Rodis Jamero, the second time we’ve chatted. Oh my God, so many great stories in there. Just that man’s had a hell of a life and career. Can’t wait to get that one out to you. It’s going to take some editing though. We take we did talk for three hours. Please support the broadcast if you can, or watch it collapse like a flan in a cupboard. Seriously, your support is needed, just a tenner go on. It’s a tenner. It’s like, you know, two two coffees and that’s for a whole year. Anyway, thanks for joining me and I hope you can do so for the next episode of the Filmumentaries podcast.


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