Multiple Oscar nominee and Production Designer, Arthur Max, engrossed and inspired NFTS students with a recent masterclass, where he discussed his ‘visual sensitivities in design’ and his collaborative partnership with director and producer Ridley Scott. 

Arthur, who began his production design career in TV commercials for Pepsi, Nike and Levi’s before working on feature films such as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Se7en, delivered a frank and entertaining masterclass; looking back on his career and design experiences, followed by a Q&A with the students.

The session was hosted by award-winning cinematographer and Co-Head of Cinematography at the NFTS, Stuart Harris, who has worked extensively with Arthur Max over their thirty-year friendship.

(Still from Gladiator directed by Ridley Scott, for which Arthur Max won a BAFTA Award for 'Best Production Design')

Stuart begun the discussion asking Arthur about this childhood and upbringing, encouraging him to “take us right back”. Arthur; who studied Science and Fine Art at NYU before embarking on a leap to the UK to study at the prestigious Polytechnic of Central London on a Bachelor of Architecture Degree course and gained a Masters degree from the Royal College of Art, felt his Manhattan childhood to be “nothing out of the ordinary” - he wanted to be an artist, but his parents didn’t consider it to be ‘proper profession’.

He revealed that he took an interest in a wide range of things as a child; photography, film, theatre design, lighting and graduated with a job working as a lighting technician for the Woodstock Festival “From there, I worked at the Fillmore East - a little known band called Pink Floyd came into town and lured me to go on the road with them to design concert lighting”.

Arthur was, of course, talking of Pink Floyd’s infamous The Dark Side of the Moon tour, propelling music and performance towards a psychedelic style, featuring Arthur’s innovative creations of large-scale projections, liquid light shows, quadraphonic speakers systems, and even a 15-foot model plane crashing onto stage. Arthur advised the students how important it is to be present and interesting and to ‘have a go’. “I wasn’t always sure technically what I was doing, but I had a strong vision, an idea, a starting point. Always have a go, that’s what I say. If you don’t know how to do it, learn.”

(English Rock Band Pink Floyd, famed for their progressive and psychedelic music throughout the 60's and 70's)

Stuart asked him how he ended up working in commercials, to which Arthur replied: “In those days, if you weren’t in a union then you weren’t working on a film. The only thing around for me was commercials. Advertising commercials became my full time employment for the next decade. It gave me a real chance to explore, play and fail. I used lasers, holograms, lightings; I was having fun really. I mean, in the 80’s commercials had large amounts of money chucked at them; sometimes even bigger budgets than movies.”

Through his ten-year career working on top end commercials, Arthur built a close friendship and partnership with leading and revered directors David Fincher and Ridley Scott. It was these collaborations which catapulted Arthur into the world of feature film and influenced what he described as his ‘sensitive yet explosive’ approach to production design.

Arthur vividly discussed his creative process for working on neo-noir crime thriller Se7en (Directed by David Fincher), explaining: “There was a sense of total integrated, interdepartmental cohesion. We wanted details; details on details to create a world where nothing works; a dystopic reality. It started with crime scene photos, sketches, drawings, leading to story boards. It really was a playground for us to design.” Arthur was asked by a student about the compelling visual look of Se7en, responding: “The city is nameless. It could be anywhere. It was important we got the palette right. Browns, greys and rich blacks, etched with greens and the stark white of a flashlight, taking you through dark interiors and rainy, decrepit, aged streets; all back lit and dim.” He continues, detailing the rebuilding of ‘elaborate sets’ and real-life hotels; ripping up carpets, trashing walls and calligraphy painting of props which help to create the intensely claustrophobic, urban style of the film.

(Still from Se7en - Directed by David Fincher)

When Stuart asked about his methods, Arthur divulged that he prefers ‘boundaries and limits’ in order to work ‘authentically’. He continued: “When I work with David (Fincher), I like to set the parameters of the game, rules which help me to be specific and keep within the limits of reality. Everything must be coherent in style – shape language, texture, lighting, costume, colour, cinematography”. 

Stuart commented that these ‘rules’ seemed to follow him throughout his career, helpful in creating worlds that are ‘real’. Arthur agreed: “When I created the look for American Gangster (Directed by Ridley Scott), it really was like going home for me. I knew this place! I grew up in East Harlem in a Jewish/Italian neighbourhood.” Arthur again sought the design details in crafting the ambience of 1970’s New York; a city riddled in corruption and debauchery –  constructing the interior of a cramped corner café from an old dilapidated shopfront to resemble a ‘truthful New York’. His advice to use “truth and logic, a genuine reality” resonated with many design students. One asked: “what makes a good designer?” Arthur paused, smiled and answered: “You’re asking me? (!) I’d say a visual sensitivity to design and fearlessness. You need both of those things”.

(Still from American Gangster- Directed and Produced by Ridley Scott)

Twelve of the fifteen feature films Arthur has worked on, have been Ridley Scott productions, confirming a consistent collaboration that has yielded two Oscar nominations. Talking of director and producer Ridley Scott, he said: “Like a tiger, I just hold onto his tail. If you don’t hold on, you never know what will happen! The exceptional thing about Ridley is that he knows everything. He really does; editing, camera, production and design. He takes your good idea and turns it into a brilliant idea. He’s a visual genius.”

On 2012 feature film, Prometheus; a prequel to Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien, Arthur talked of designing a ‘primitive, visceral and stark’ set; steel pieces over 40 feet high, archaic chambers, biomechanical creatures, lit in a chiaroscuro style shadow and shot in pure 3D; filling and overflowing five stages at Pinewood Studios and on location at the base of barren stratovolcano, Hekla in Iceland. “We had to extend the stage because it just kept growing. It was well over 500 feet long.” When asked of his design process, Arthur replied: “I’d never done Science Fiction before. There was obviously a certain expectation from the fan base; audiences are more sophisticated in this generation of computers so I started the only way I knew how. I threw as many images as I could find onto the walls; covered them. Any idea, colour, pattern, influence; it went on the wall”.

(Still from Prometheus - Directed by Ridley Scott)

Stepping onto another Sci-Fi collaboration with Ridley Scott, Arthur recalls working on The Martian, being assisted by NASA and creating their own gravity wheel that mirrored Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It was vital that we were working and presenting real science, in botany, organic chemistry and rocket technology that’s actually credible. The NASA team gave us practical margins by which we were bound to obey the laws of the physical universe.” When asked about the challenges of recreating space, Arthur detailed: “The biggest design challenge was the rotating apparatus on the Hermes. What we wanted was the illusion of zero gravity. We looked at Kubrick’s gravity wheel in 2001: A Space Odyssey but we couldn’t figure out how they did it. We looked and looked and looked at his footage and we spotted there was a jump cut. That’s it! He goes around the back and they quickly cut, reset and film again. The cut is almost invisible but it’s there. We realised we were thinking 360 degrees, but what we needed was 180 degrees. We built a crescent-shape steel gimbeled apparatus on hydraulic control rigs and rotated it between shots which enabled us to explore speeds and movement without any juddering.”

(Still from The Martian - Directed by Ridley Scott)

Arthur summed up the session with: “That’s the thing about production design, you have to sometimes ache your head and be free with your creativity before it all comes together. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been allowed to play lots, to fail, to try again, to dig deeper, to have a go”.

For more information about the NFTS Production Design MA, please visit www.nfts.co.uk/productiondesign (applications are open until the 5th July 2018 to start in January 2019)