Interview by Cynthia Barlow Marrs SGFA Stuart Craig has designed some the most iconic films in recent history: Gandhi, The English Patient, The Elephant Man and Cry Freedom, to name just a few. Oh, and all the Harry Potter films. In addition to Oscars and BAFTA awards, Stuart received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 from the Art Directors Guild. In this interview he talks about drawing and cinematic story telling, and how, even after 40 years in the business, he can still be daunted by the blank page. “After all these years,” he says, “I would find it hard to draw without a story as a starting point.”
“My drawing for the last 40 years has all been story-based. I started as a fine artist, and wanted to be a painter. But very quickly I became interested in the theatre and design, and from there it was a very easy sideways step into film and film design.
The artwork I produce is not fine art, not drawing for drawing’s sake. I work to a brief; my sketches are like illustrations for a story book.
That’s the difference between fine art and craft. A fine artist can go anywhere with a work of art, and it doesn’t matter where he or she ends up. I can’t do that. I am bound by the need to tell the story, to deliver what the writer expects, what the actors expect.
The kind of craft I’m engaged in also involves a great deal of research in architectural history, art history, and finding a way to be expressionistic with it.
I’m an architect, but my buildings are all plywood and my sketches and plans are all technical drawings. I do rough plans and elevations and give them to a draughtsman.
It’s more craft than art. My drawings are an extension of the craft, though when developed by illustrators their skill occasionally lifts things to more sublime levels.
The kind of storytelling I’m involved in is theatrical. It requires things to be ramped up, exaggerated. So on quite a literal level I need a big landscape, something cataclysmic.
For inspiration I often turn to the work of John Martin, the Victorian painter who created huge, apocalyptic canvases with caverns, lakes and volcanoes. For down and dirty in the back streets of Whitechapel, I study the engravings of Gustave Dore.
I often start with a sheet of blank paper and without an idea in my head at all. Sometimes I’ll have a flash of inspiration, but it’s rare.
So I just make a mark, and rub it out; then make another mark, and add another, and then rub one of those out. It’s an incredibly faltering process towards something. In some ways there is a very basic, not totally creative beginning to it all.
Once I find an idea, I do a little rendering of it. It’s never powerful enough at first, so I take it to the next level, make it more theatrical.
I’m the production designer, but on a big movie like Harry Potter I may be responsible for 30 to 35 people; from the supervising art director, and a team of art directors and assistants, to draughtsmen and junior draughtsmen, and then on to model makers, sculptors and scenic artists.
The roughs from the designer go to the art director, who distributes them amongst the draughtsmen. The chief draughtsman does the main set, and the details – this door, that window, that mirror – go to the more junior ones. The drawings then go to the craftsmen, who turn them into physical sets and props.
It’s down that corridor, where all the workshops are, that the writer’s vision, the production designer’s vision, the art directors’, the tradesmen, all of it comes together.
The Carpenters’ Shop is full of the whine of electric saws and the smell of sawdust. The Plasterers’ Shop is a world of muted sound where men in white overalls mix the simplest of materials — chalk and water – and pour them into moulds to create architectural or sculptural forms. The painters add patina with water and shellac, letting gravity create wet runs of mould and fungus on masonry.
Across the corridor from these ancient crafts are the Visual Effects Technicians, younger men and women in their carpeted IT Suite. It’s like two different species unaware of each other, the only link between them being the film makers who use their services.
The castle exterior for the first six Harry Potter movies was a miniature made by craftsmen; a huge miniature that occupied a big sound stage. For the seventh and eighth films, it was decided that we would be better off embracing the latest technology. So the set was scanned, and the scan was used to construct a new digital model.
When the model was rendered with different textures, it was extraordinary. The detail was astounding, and made it possible to move much closer to the digital model than to the physical one. It’s fantastic to be able to change things with just the click of a button. Sets have a lot of repetitive detail, and now it is so easy to repeat something 50 times.
But the digital revolution comes at a cost, in terms of human skills. The carpenters, plasterers (mould makers), set painters, sculptors and others are asked to build fewer and smaller physical sets.
The virtual film sets are still designed by artists, but they are are built by technicians rather than craftsmen with coordinated hand and eye. It’s a trade-off. On the whole, the gains outnumber the losses. The public certainly haven’t lost out.
My professional life is architectural drawing, but my love and my passion is what I think of as real drawing.
For me the centre of drawing excellence in this country was the Slade, from the 1920s through to the 1960s and 70s. Stanley Spencer was part of that tradition. He was taught by Henry Tonks, the Slade Professor in 1918. Tonks’ successors include William Coldstream.
The Slade tradition was very academic. They revered drawing skills above all others.
Spencer was a consummate craftsman, but his work was filtered through his own vision.
One of my favourite Spencer drawings is a page from a sketchbook. It’s a schoolboy sitting in a chair, probably made with a 2H pencil, a most unlikely sort of thing to use. That drawing is so sensitive. You feel for that little fat boy in the class. I think that drawing succeeds on all levels. It has an almost religious intensity about it.
I’ve been saying for 40 years that I will sketch and draw in my leisure time. I should do it, but I don’t. Even though that is where my heart is.
You have to be unafraid to let your vision, your self-expression, be seen for what it is. That part is very daunting.
It’s been so long since I was a student at Hornsey. After all these years, I would find it hard to draw without a story as a starting point, without having that kind of prop. It was hard enough when I was 20! I’m sure that’s why I went off into the world of theatre at that age.
What kind of drawing would I feel led to do on my own? To be honest, I’m not sure. Now may be the time to find out.
Editor’s note: This is an edited version of the interview published in Glow Magazine, an online arts and culture journal based in Windsor and read around the world.
Jane Barnwell interviewed Stuart Craig in 2010 in Wide Screen, a peer reviewed open-access journal . One of her eye-catching questions was about light and its importance in the design process. “It’s crucial,” Stuart says. “Without light there is no form.” He always starts with a window (“You block the scene in your head with that in mind”) and he compares it to drawing the human face: “You start with the oval of the head and then the next thing you put in are the eyes, and it’s exactly the same with the set. My first doodle will be a rectangle of a window.”