Mandy Actors UK

'It's about passion' Krypton set decorator Andrew McCarthy shares his TV and movie career story

Andrew McCarthy has worked as set decorator for a string of world-renowned TV shows including Krypton, The Crown, Black Mirror and Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin's new series adaptation Nightflyers as well as huge movies such as Transformers: The Last Knight, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Here he talks to Mandy News about how he got to where he is today, the realities of set decorating for major productions and advice to those wanting to work in the arts department.

2nd May 2018
/ By James Collins

Krypton, The Crown and Black Mirror set decorator Andrew McCarthy ANDREWMCCARTHY

Please introduce yourself, and tell us a how you got involved in film, TV and specifically the art department.
I'm a set decorator in the film and TV industry and I have been blessed enough to have been involved in some amazing projects to date such as Homeland, Safehouse, Transformers, Mission Impossible, Blended, The Crown, The Giver, Krypton.... to name just a few.

My initial involvement in the industry didn't follow the typical path. I actually got involved by pure chance. I was on holiday and received a call from my brother-in-law who was working on a film. He said they needed a carpenter for a couple of weeks to make some simple shelves for one of the sets they were doing. I thought 'why not?' as I was on holiday from my normal job and figured working outside wouldn't be that bad. The feature was called Ask the Dust and the set decorator turned out to be one of the best decorators in the world – Nancy Haigh (The Truman Show, Forrest Gump, Big Fish). The set was recreating San Francisco in the 1930s and I was blown away by the detail that went into everything. The set was built over two football fields and I fell in love with the industry almost immediately. 

I worked my butt off and, after the two weeks, Nancy asked me if I could stay on to finish the project. Of course I did. Once we had finished, Nancy pulled me aside before she left, and told me I had a real eye for this industry and I should give it a go. That was almost 16 years ago and I haven't looked back. 

I managed to rise quickly through the ranks and, I think, decorated my first film before I was 29. Life can sometimes give you some amazing opportunities and you just need to be brave enough to take them.

***** Check out our EXCLUSIVE interview with Fifty Shades Freed production designer Nelson Coates *****

How did you get involved with Krypton?
I first heard about Krypton in early June 2017 and got in touch with the production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil (The Illusionist, Snowpiercer, Underworld), with whom I had worked before. He was extremely happy to hear that I was available and we had some initial Skype meetings to learn what his vision for the series would be. Everything sounded extremely creative as, after all, you don't often get the opportunity to decorate a project set on another planet to one of your favourite childhood comic heroes. After a few meetings with producers, I started prep in mind July.

What is the process of working on each episode and what is the turnaround?
The process with Krypton is much the same approach that I take on every show I do... well with a few exceptions due to the nature of the project. Once we received the script, I would break it down into a point spreadsheet to ensure I am covering all the aspects that we have to cover and highlight other points that I had to discuss with other departments. 

From there, we would go into initial concept meetings with the director and showrunner to nail down what they may be looking for. After that, the designer and myself would start coming up with ideas on how to create the sets and props required. I then have to get a budget together which will go to producers for approval. Once that is done, we would get our talented draughtsmen/women to draw up furniture and set drawings for our fabrication and construction departments to start making.

All action props items (weapons, Kryptonian devices/tech etc) would go through a digital concept process to allow us to have detailed drawings for meetings with directors. As you can imagine, these props take huge amounts of skill and time to create so, once we start down a line, we have to ensure it's in the direction that everyone wants as there is little time for change.

Once furniture and props have been made, they are sent through to our paint department where our very talented artists will work on them to ensure they get the right amount of texture/look to keep in continuity with the rest of the world we created.

Turnaround was extremely tight.... each episode took nine days to shoot (excluding weekends) with an additional three days of 2nd unit that would be shot in conjunction with the next episode. All episodes were shot consecutively....so a lot to do in a very short amount of time... phew!!

What are the biggest challenges you face, both on this show and in general?
Well, for Krypton, as this was season one, we had to develop everything from scratch, taking into account the creative vision for the show and staying true to this new world we were creating. To date, Krypton as the world itself has only been explored briefly in Man of Steel and the original Superman movie, so we had a lot to create taking into account all the interiors and exteriors required. While we tried to embrace a few elements from those original films, the designer was very clear to make sure that everything we made – from set dressing items, props and the sets themselves – kept within the organic feel we were going for. 

If you look closely, you won't find many right angles in anything we created...all which makes the project all that more difficult for our teams to manufacture in the time we had. What we also went for, which added to the challenge, was ensuring that nothing we had on set was something you could just hire from a prop house or could buy in a store. Everything from the furniture, lights, bowls, glassware, technology, etc, had to be made from scratch or altered in some shape or form. I'm sure everyone can understand that this was one of the largest challenges we had, taking into account the time frame we had for each episode. 

I have to tip my hat to everyone involved but especially everyone in the Art Department as nothing would have been achieved without their dedication and incredible talent.

Challenges with other shows really depend on the nature of the project and where one is filming. What I can say is that no two shows are ever the same so you have to be extremely adaptable and quickly overcome issues when they arrive.

What is coming next for you in 2018 and beyond?
Well, I am currently working on a new series called Nightflyers which is based on a book by George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones). It's an exciting new psychological thriller all set on a Spaceship 65 years from now and will certainly have you jumping. Keep the lights on when you are watching this one!

We will be done shooting this by the end of May and then I'm due to start on a new project in June. I can't say much about the next project as final deals have yet to be locked off and I haven't signed any confidentiality agreements but as a hint.... it's all set "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...." Talks are that I will be the location decorator on this feature film which means I will do most of the sets around the world which aren't being built in studios in London.

What advice would you have for people wanting to get involved in the art department?
Passion and dedication are the major ones as well as understanding colours (what colours work with each other). Working in the art department isn't for everyone as it can consume most of your time. Expect many weekends and expect projects that overtake your whole life. Even simple things like seeing friends and family can be reduced to just a few times over many months. Degrees aren't always necessary as it's all about the energy and passion you bring to each project. 

With that said, the most successful people I have had the privilege to work with are individuals who can come to the table with some great ideas and are excellent at problem solving. Some of them have only done small projects – or sometimes nothing at all – but it was the eagerness of wanting to learn and asking the right questions which impressed me. Remember, you don't always have the time or budget to buy everything you need so do absorb the world around you and take notice of the small things. You never know when you may be asked for something which could be very similar to something you've seen before and with a little alteration, could be the winning piece.

Should you wish to get involved in the art department and, more specifically set dressing or props, I'd suggest that when you watch films or TV shows, start looking at the sets, props and dressing in the background. One of the things I love about decorating, isn't just making a room look interesting but rather character development. By this I mean that, in normal day life, everyone's homes are different to the next and each shows hints at their personality and interests. This is something I take into each film I do, which really helps the actors get into character. Small details can explain volumes about the character they are trying to portray.

From there, I would suggest some interest in, or background in, art as a must. Then I would look into speaking to other art department crew or production companies about internships. If you catch a break, then I suggest you give it your all. I remember the first project that I ever did. When the decorator asked me to sweep a set, I would run for that broom, not walk...!!!

If drawing sets/furniture is your thing, then I would suggest perusing a degree in architecture unless you are brilliant at Sketchup and other drawing programs. You just need to draw quickly as time is everything.

With all that said, I feel blessed to be involved in such a wonderful and creative industry where life never gets boring. One year I could be dressing a neanderthal cave and the next, working on a futuristic spacecraft.... who wouldn't love that?! I do love to travel and you get to see some interesting places in this world. 

Finally, probably the best thing of all, is the amazing and talented crew you get to work with. They really do become your new family. A special mention must be made to Rosemary Brandenburg (Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Transformers, The Island) who has been incredible helping me get the right contacts and for all the advise and referrals. Relationships in this industry are everything.

Good luck :)