Bringing film worlds to life: Interview with alumna Elaine Xu, production designer

If you have a UK Netflix or US HBO Max subscription, you may stumble upon a charming short film called “Dolapo is fine”, in which a young Black girl faces pressure to change her natural hair and her name. Goldsmiths alumna Elaine Xu (BA Design 2018) was the production designer for the film,  her second job in cinema and one of her many skills alongside curation, design consulting or marketing. But what is a production designer exactly, what do they do, and what kind of abilities do you need for it? Elaine talks about working in this field and others, and how her Goldsmiths experience helped her career:

Elaine on the set of "Dolapo is fine"
Elaine on the set of “Dolapo is fine”. Photo by Helen Murray, helenmurrayphotos.com

How did you become a production designer for films?

I’ve always liked building sets. My third year project at Goldsmiths was about cultural conservation, how to preserve intangible culture before it disappears completely, and the final presentation at the degree show was a Chinese Tea Ceremony installation. My tutor at the time was Nick Mortimer, who worked a lot in theater and provided me with a lot of knowledge on building sets. Production design for film was a surprise pathway.  When a friend asked me to work on the production design for a short film in Tuscany [Drowned, directed by Daria Kocherova], at first I hesitated because I didn’t have any experience in films, but I decided to give it a go anyway.

Elaine's display at the 2018 Goldsmiths BA design show
Elaine’s display at the 2018 Goldsmiths BA design show

I started having weekly meetings with the producer, director and cinematographer, and I soon realised that production design is not just putting things together, it’s also about project management, timing, seeing something through from scratch, putting something into physical being from what you’ve envisioned. I was lucky to have a lot of creative freedom on this film. I also learned that no matter how prepared you are, there will always be changes. I got most of the props before travelling to Italy, but when I arrived there, it was very different from what I had planned.

Sometimes there were less than two hours of turnaround time to completely change the content of an entire scene, in response to these changes (usually from the director) I had to act fast and make decisions on the spot. My Goldsmiths experience was very helpful with this, there were a lot of very fast paced projects where we got to practice problem solving skills and learn to be flexible! I was also on set during most takes to make adjustments and reset the scene after each take. Props needs to be put back in position, glasses need to be refilled, flowers being thrown on the ground need to look alive again…

Elaine adjusting props on the set of "Drowned"
Elaine adjusting props on the set of “Drowned”

I got my second job [Dolapo is fine, directed by Ethosheia Hylton] through the producer of the first film, Ed Cooper Clarke; he referred me when the production team were looking for someone. I was onboard very last minute after the original candidate pulled out for personal reasons, and as a result I had only one week to re-design everything, prepare and put together the prop list. We shot in a beautiful location, Hurstpierpoint College in Hassocks, but there were many things to deal with before it could be ready for filming. It was quite tough because I still had a full time 9-5 job in design and marketing at the same time, then 6 pm to 3 am I was making my prop list and buying props. Again, I think back to how grateful I am to the experience I had at Goldsmiths, I feel like I already experienced almost every possible scenario during the projects that I’ve done when I was studying there.

What is your process when you’re working on a film?

When I receive the script, I go through it a few times and I highlight/label a few things: characters, objects, movements (e.g.”she lit a cigarette”), descriptions of the surrounding space/room, if it’s day or night (Do we need practical lighting, lamps, candles? We need to show the room’s light source, even though the set isn’t physically lit by them). I would then section it out into different locations, and for each scene I would put together a mood board and add lists of props.

A snapshot of Elaine's mood board for "Drowned"
A snapshot of Elaine’s mood board for “Drowned”

With these, I would go to the director and the producer, and sometimes also the screenwriter, to find out if it fits their vision. For example, with “Dolapo is fine”, I had long phone conversations with the screenwriters, Chibundu Onuzo and Joan Iyiola. Chibundu wrote the original story and it was inspired by her own experiences at a boarding school in UK, so I asked her about it. Often, I could catch important details through these conversations and get a better idea of what the life of main characters should look like. I try to imagine what it feels like to be living in their world, this is a crucial part of my work. I have to think: if I was them, where would I be sitting? What would I be wearing? What would I be eating?

Dolapo's room, a work-in-progress set for "Dolapo is fine"
Dolapo’s room, a work-in-progress set for “Dolapo is fine”

From there, I start to make a list. I have a master prop list for each film, they are labelled by scene, and I also write down where each object is from. I spend a lot of time in charity shops, on eBay, on Facebook groups, I ask around in order to piece the list of objects together.  I take a lot of pictures as I go around shopping. It’s crucial to note down the item location on the master prop list, because when we finish shooting, many things have to go back. Dressing a set is different from interior design or arranging an event, because it is a stage I’m building for the camera and actors that has to look real, but not cost as much as the real thing! I have to think about the entire lifecycle of the objects I bring, even if I make something myself from scratch I would need to decide whether to sell it, take it down/apart or get rid of it afterwards.

A snapshot of the prop list for "Dolapo is fine"
A snapshot of the prop list for “Dolapo is fine”

A very small but useful detail on set is to bring a lot of gaffa tape. Cardboard is always useful as well, and big boxes, because sometimes you have to shoot in different locations and they’re not right next to each other.  So, from one room to another, from the student hall to the swimming pool, I put everything I need for that scene in a box, and carry the box to the location to dress the set while the actors and the camera people are getting ready.

I use a variety of skills I learnt from Goldsmiths, not just workshop skills. For example, there are a lot of copyright issues on a film, you can’t use what’s already out there in terms of posters, advertising, delivery labels, you have to come up with something different. It saves me so much time if making the graphics or web design is something I already know how to do and I can just get on with it.

Do you have a certain aesthetic as a production designer, or do you adapt to the film entirely? How much of yourself do you put into it?

Often producers or directors would claim that the film is based on their vision, but I’m always biased because as a production designer, when I see the film I can only see my design and how I’ve dressed the scene. But at the end of the day I think it’s very important to find a balance and respect the director’s opinion. Everyone on set knows to follow the director’s lead, which is one thing I really respect, so many people working towards one goal.

Elaine on the set of "Drowned" talking to director Daria Kocherova
Elaine on the set of “Drowned” talking to director Daria Kocherova

Looking at your website, your work so far has been quite varied, in different areas. Do you want to keep your options open, or do you intend to specialise in something going forward?

I position myself more as a curator, I’ve done a lot of curatorial work even when I was at Goldsmiths and it’s what I enjoy the most. It was never my goal to pursue a career in film, although it’s rewarding and I enjoy it. I would like to keep my practice broad, it’s good to learn different skills and adapt to different work environments.

At the moment I am working on an online creative community called Club Ambroise (instagram: @clubambroise) which runs live chats starting from March 4th every Thursday, with artists, designers, musicians, dancers, collectives etc. There will also be workshops, Zoom talks and offline events later on, and I am going to have conversations with other Goldsmiths alumni in upcoming sessions. You are welcome to get in touch if you’re interested in participating.

Elaine's display at the 2018 Goldsmiths BA Design show
Elaine’s display at the 2018 Goldsmiths BA Design show

Why did you choose to study at Goldsmiths, and how was your experience here?

I was accepted at an interior architecture course in Australia, but I wanted to come to London and be in a big city, so I applied for courses here. I’ve always been interested in space, curation, and connecting people, but I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to get into and I didn’t want to pick something that I would hate after three years. The decision making point was when I came to visit the campus during summer holidays, not many staff were around. Chris Price was the only one in the office, but he happily showed me the entire department, I felt very welcome. Goldsmiths gives a community vibe in such a big city. I picked design because the course syllabus encouraged students to explore different disciplines. Part of the approach was that you can keep your options open, you don’t have to narrow it down, you can do a bit of everything. It was so helpful because it really opened my mind about the possibilities we have. It’s not always about how skilled you are at one thing, but more importantly whether you know how to work with people, and who to contact to get what you need and see a project through.

When I was studying I was also running the Visual Cultures society, which gave me a lot of practical experience with connecting people and being in a curatorial position. For our Design degree show, I applied for funding to organise a panel discussion and invited industry people to speak about potential opportunities, I think these experiences were very complementary to what I learned during the course and helped shape my path afterwards. I really enjoyed my time at Goldsmiths.

What advice would you give to students starting the course now?

I know how difficult the situation is at the moment, but it would be the same anywhere, you might as well make the most of it. As a new starter, you may be confused about what you want to do and you may come in with the hope of Goldsmiths defining you, but that is not the purpose of the course. You will learn how to be flexible, open minded and adaptable, how to make a difference: what we can bring into the world that’s not already out there? And this can be applied into so many different fields, you can always find a position that you can fit in. It’s all going to make sense in time. Go with the flow and embrace this journey of being completely lost, exploring and pushing the boundaries.

All images courtesy of Elaine Xu