An animated film is the result of the creativity from many artists with their own, unique ideas, each with their role as being part of the many and diverse indispensable roles required for a large production team. This article will spotlight the role of the production designer in animation development.
Celine Desrumaux is a production designer working for several multi-award-winning feature films. At FMX 2021, she spoke the insightful story behind the creation of Over the Moon, a Netflix original animated feature directed by Glen Keane*, by focusing on her work as a production designer. We hear from Celine on her career and passion as a production designer to showcase the attractiveness and vision of being a production designer in the global animation industry.
*: You can read our special article on Glen Keane in 2017 from the link here.
Interview with Celine Desrumaux
Hideki Nagaishi (HN): You have been working for internationally-distributed animated feature films as a production designer in titles such as The Little Prince, Over the Moon and The Witch Boy. Could we hear about your creative responsibilities as a production designer for each film, in practice?
Celine Desrumaux: I’m responsible for all the art of the movie. I usually start really early-on (as soon as the project is greenlit by the studio), and I’m one of the last to finish, too. This can be a job of 2-4 years in total, per movie.
In the beginning, I’m responsible for what we call “the big picture”: I give the initial kickstart/inspiration for the design (what the overall design of the movie will be). I quickly assemble a team of artists around me (set designers, character designers, color artists) that will help me design the entire film. My team will be responsible for designing all the characters, all the sets, all the props, and defining the mood/ambiance of the movie. It’s what we call pre-production, and it usually lasts a year. As soon as we move into production, I oversee the computer generated imagery (CG), the process to translate our concept/designs into 3D (also CG). I review the modeling of the assets and, as lighting for the film begins, I do the light keys (painting over the 3D images) that will give information to the lighters on what the shot is supposed to look like. My job usually ends when everything is done in CG and we are color-grading the movie for different platforms (theatre, streaming platform, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.)
Over the Moon
HN: Could you let us know why you’ve decided to become a production designer among the many creative roles in animation production? What are the fun, rewarding and attractive parts of the role for you?
Celine Desrumaux: It kind of happened by itself! I went to a 3D school in France and graduated with the wish to become a director. After graduation, I made my own short film titled Countdown. Along that process I discovered how much I enjoy working on the overall art direction. During school and through various professional jobs, I developed some skills for lighting and color (it’s really useful to do a color script for a movie). I released Countdown in 2011, and this led me to my first job as color painter on The Little Prince. I evolved during the show and became a co-production designer. That was my first experience as production designer in animated features.
Being a production designer is a really interesting job and is a central piece of a movie. You need to wear several hats: be a good artist, be a good manager, and also be a good communicator. I really like to be part of the commencement of a movie, during the more creative phase of development. It’s really when you can pitch ideas and impact the story, you have time to explore and develop new styles – experiment! Being around a creative team is really inspiring: You keep learning from each other and it helps to nurture diversity and inclusion. The most rewarding part of the job is when you finish a project and you see that all the artists have progressed so much, it’s like being at school. We spend one, two, three years together and everybody grows a lot!
HN: On the other hand, what kind of creative difficulties have you experienced as a production designer so far, and how did you overcome them?
Celine Desrumaux: I think most of the difficulties come from communication. All the major problems that can happen on a movie are usually tied to communication. The lack of time to do a task can lead to a compromise between the final look and what was originally imagined. The best way to arrive at this compromise is through good communication with the director (What is the goal of this shot/sequence?) and the VFX supervisor (What are the tools we have and how long can we have to achieve this?). You always need to think that everyone is working in the same direction, to achieve the vision of the director in the best possible way!
HN: I would like to hear some tips on becoming a fully qualified production designer. What kind of things do you always take care of in the process of creating the visuals for each animation project?
Celine Desrumaux: Once again, communication is key. Having some artistic skills is important, but learning to listen to the director, and really understanding their vision is really important.
I always try to make each movie unique visually: I always try to challenge myself with new styles, references, surround myself with new artists, bring more diversity to the team in order to constantly evolve, and never put myself in a generic box.
It’s really important for a production designer to communicate and be good at breaking down a style, being able to explain how to achieve this style/design to others. It’s not about being able to do everything by yourself but really to bring a big team on the same page!
The second point would be to never forget about the big picture. Sometimes people nitpick and forget about the larger goal. Making a feature is a marathon not a sprint, and the movie needs an overall consistency.
Age of Sail
HN: I’m interested in how you could build your brilliant career as a production designer. In brief, could you let us know your journey towards succeeding in becoming a professional production designer? What do you think was the biggest turning point in your career so far?
Celine Desrumaux: Making my Countdown (in 2011) was definitely one of the turning points. I used this short as a personal portfolio of my color & art direction skills. Countdown got a lot of buzz on the internet and led me to my first job in feature animation on The Little Prince. I learned and grew a lot from this movie. The director Mark Osborne really supported me throughout the movie and gave me my first opportunity as a Production Designer.
Before Countdown, I was accumulating diverse experiences, gathering artistic skills, management skills, and communication. Production Designer was the job that allowed me to gather everything together as a whole.
HN: Could you share some advice for young production designers on how to get into new projects?
Celine Desrumaux: I believe there are never bad experiences. Even the smallest project can lead to knowledge and networking. Even though the first job might not be what you expected, you need to have faith that it will help you to get to where you want to be. You always need to believe in yourself, believe in what you can bring to a new project. Directors are usually looking for a unique vision, something that will make their movie stand out amongst the innumerable projects out there. Always bring your personality to a new project!
The Little Prince