Raised in the small Ottawa Valley town of Eganville, Ontario, and with an education deeply rooted in Architecture, Philosophy and Science, BRENT LAMBERT has fourteen years of experience in the motion picture industry as a top Set Designer. Along with an impressive curriculum comprised of blockbusters, Brent also worked on the visual development and design of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour (2010 – 2011).
I caught up with him for an exclusive interview for WONDERLANCER (previously known as Wonderlance The Magazine & The MDM, as you know) when Immortals was released in DVD, and we talked not only about the movie but also about his experience and overall career as a Set Designer and his work as an editor for FEELguide.com. In the midst of endless interview sessions, he was very generous to provide us with great tips for those starting in his field of expertise.
THAN NILES: Brent, Immortals, like 300, is a grand, highly stylized story with some very elaborate and exotic sets, rooted in a reality that is not our own. How do you begin the process of designing a playground big enough for the events in a movie like Immortals? Sounds like a daunting task.
BRENT LAMBERT: It’s pretty big. You are really creating an entire universe from scratch. What happens is, you break up the script into each set and in the art department, which is a fairly big space, there are a lot of empty walls that you have to fill up. You break it up so each set gets its own chunk of the wall and you load it with reference photos and sketches.
The production designer has somewhat of an idea of what each set will look like, but you have to flesh it out. I always like to call it ‘a chicken and the egg situation’ because you have your dream and then reality and you have to navigate the road between the two. Where does this built environment end and where does the computer generated or visual effect begin? For example, on the shrine in Immortals: that was a tricky situation because we were developing this space that was in a constant state of change every day. It was connected to a visual effect of the Mount Olympus and another mountain and the Dam.
It can feel like you have all these flies buzzing around your head and you have to somehow pull them down and put them on paper.
That’s a big challenge. You work closely with the illustrators and they do a beautiful painting of what each of these sets will look like, called key framing, and the idea is slowly incubated over a period of a few weeks. I’d usually say that for a major set, if you’re lucky, you get about a month to really crunch out everything from sketching the details to the technical drawings.
THAN NILES: How has this project pushed you and your craft in ways that are different from your previous film endeavors?
BRENT LAMBERT: It is one of the most stylized films I’ve worked on. Working with Tarsem, the director, he was so close with Eiko Ishioka, the costume designer and Tom Foden, the production designer, that they sort of made up a creative family.
You have this team that has worked closely on all these different projects through the years and now they can hit the ground running and you end up being so impressed by this group of individuals that finish each other’s sentences and have all these different dimensions of creativity going on... You have Tarsem figuring out how to tell this very visual narrative story, Eiko doing these incredible costumes, Tom designing the sets and you have visual effects pulling out these magical environments. There are all these pockets of creative development going on and you’re in the middle, seeing ideas flowing. It is a pretty amazing thing to be a part of with all of these people creating something out of nothing.
THAN NILES: You have a background that is rooted in Architecture and Science, both very handy to your field. How do you find a balance between the methodical and mathematical requirements of set design and the creative aspects necessary for such a visually stimulating world?
BRENT LAMBERT: There is a science to it. I am in a strange situation. I have this little niche where I’m a traditionalist. I do a lot of the more organic or classically oriented drawings.
When working with some set designers who are dealing in 3d modeling and visual effects, you have two things going on: the creative side of design and then these incredibly sophisticated computers that are doing a huge part of the job too.
One of the challenges for Immortals was that Tarsem was very clear that he wanted as much of it built as possible because he is not a huge fan of 100% computer generated environments. Our job was to make that Immortals world as real as possible.
There is also financial benefit to that too. If you can build a complete physical set, with very little visual effects run off, you save a lot of money. I think it is something like $30,000 per second for visual effects. The more you can build, the more money you save. Because there are so many visual effects in movies like this one, you end up working closely with that whole department and figuring out a way to connect the digital and physical worlds.
Very cool things start happening, like the whole cliff in Immortals, that was something we built in little pieces but the visual effects people stitched it all together. You have an idea in your head of what it is going to look like but when you finally see it, it takes your breath away because it was all in your head up until that point.
Usually, the visual effects have their own little black room where they’ll have some completed scenes that you can pop your head in and see but it takes so long, that you have time to completely forget about how much work when into it, so, when you finally see it on the big screen, it is amazing the subversive environment you have created.
THAN NILES: Did you always know you were going to work in movies or did you just kind of fall into it like is so often the case?
BRENT LAMBERT: I went into my university career thinking I’d be an architect, but the more I dug into my education and the more I saw and experienced, the more that changed.
My first taste was in San Francisco. I worked for an architecture firm called Eight Inc. and we designed the first Apple stores across America around 2001 which was a great experience. It just was not for me, it didn’t feel right.
Architecture and Film are two totally different worlds. You can be on a design project in architecture for several years while in film you have these short bursts of: who knows what? ‘A couple of months ago I was sitting at home not knowing what my next film would be and now I’m designing for the Smurfs.’ That’s what I love. The world of architecture will always be an important part of my life but as a career I could never do it. I have total admiration for people who can do it.
THAN NILES: From the drawings posted on your website, it can be assessed that one does not gain that kind of artistic talent over night. What do you have to say to up and coming kids who are pursing a career in your field?
BRENT LAMBERT: Study architecture for one thing. The benefit of an education in architecture is that it doesn’t just teach you how to design, it teaches you how to think. If I hadn’t had that I don’t know how this would have worked out.
A lot of people come at this from many different directions but for me, my career in Architecture was invaluable because it trains you to think of many different things at the same time. You are thinking of plan, section, and elevation all at the same time. You are thinking about history, theory, and you’re telling a story as well. The best buildings as far as I’m concerned are the ones that are designed with a conceptual narrative that are for the most part, invisible to the people inside. My favorite ones are the buildings that tell a story.
There is a cinematic element to these spaces where they are an immersive experience just like a film. That’s where the beauty of film and architecture is alive. There is such a crossover between those two worlds as far as experience is concerned.
My thesis finished with more of a scientific architecture for an expanding universe with a mythology of the space program and a memorial to astronauts. It began the year before with cinema. I was interested in the idea of cinema and the city of New York and what cinema has done to imbed a mythology into that city. When you are walking around New York, you feel like you are in a movie. The built world in cinema has an incredible parallel development to the real world in the passed one hundred years, especially in New York.
Movies create these built environments but there is so much less restriction. I don’t know how someone can go to an architecture firm and design details of a staircase for a hospital. I would want to die but in film you can do anything you want.
The benefit of an education in architecture is that it adds a layer of complexity and sophistication to the way you enter those fictitious worlds and it gets on screen. The philosophy, theory and the study of narrative are hard to get anywhere else except a really serious architecture school.
THAN NILES: You started FEELguide.com in 2010. It is a feast of your and others’ projects involving everything from design and entertainment to technology and world affairs. What were your hopes for FEELguide when you started it and how has it evolved over the last two years?
BRENT LAMBERT: I heard an interview with Bjork a long time ago and someone asked her, “Why do you make music?” She said, “I hear this music inside of my head and the music that has ended up being produced through the years does not quite match what I am hearing in my head,” She continues, “I will never give up until the music that ends up being produced, the final product, matches exactly what I hear in my head.” I never forgot about that because I feel like through the years I have seen all these amazing artists doing amazing things and could see they have this thing inside them that they are trying to get out.
I always felt a little inferior to people like that because I was not even sure I had a voice that was something that I desperately had to get out. I did not find that voice until I started that website in September 2010. It helped me find it and it’s a collective voice of many different things. That site has helped me, not only come to conclusions about the world around me, but it has brought me that creative voice. I can finally say that I have that thing that Bjork or any creative individual has. I was always hungry to peel back the layers and find that voice and that was the goal. I don’t know where it’s going but my intuition is telling me there is something there and it works. As a forum for personal expression, it is more than I could have imagined it could be. All of the work I have put into it I have gotten back tenfold.
It has become like a close friend, actually. It has developed it’s own consciousness, personality; it’s own sense of self. It is almost like having a child: You cultivate it, you curate it, you nurture it, you infuse it with everything you are and see what happens. I am even more excited about its future now than I was when I started it.
THAN NILES: I have heard similar childbirth analogies used for making movies too.
BRENT LAMBERT: Absolutely
THAN NILES: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.