'Learn your craft and a bit about everyone else’s' Skyscraper set decorator on unexpected chances
Twice-nominated for an ADG Production Design Award, Lin MacDonald is a set decorator known for her work on blockbusters Tron: Legacy, Tomorrowland, Night at the Museum, Star Trek Beyond and Dwayne Johnson's latest, Skyscraper. Her path to becoming a set decorator was anything but traditional. Lin studied English in college, but when her friend convinced her to take a drama class to get over her shyness, she fell in love with the arts and decided to change career paths. A year later, she transferred to a theatre program where she specialised in design.
Today, Lin boasts over 25 years experience in the industry. Here she tells Mandy News about the early days in her career, decorating Sci-fi sets and gives her advise for aspiring set decorators.
How did you get into set decorating? How did that take you into the world of film?
I started college as an english major with the intention of becoming a teacher. I was quite shy and a friend suggested I take a drama class to get over it. That’s all it took to hook me on the arts! A year later, I transferred to a theatre arts program for technical training, specialising in design.
I spent my first 10 working years in various theatres around the country as an electrician and a stage manager. I also did some lighting and set design, and toured extensively. In my spare time, I got a diploma in computer management and design, a relatively new concept at the time.
One day, when I was between jobs, a set decorator friend asked if I could come give her a hand computerising her warehouse. And, 31 years later, here I am – still in set decoration in film! And, I still dabble in computer programming!
How did you get involved with Star Trek Beyond?
I was actually in LA doing budgeting and early prep on another show when I got a call asking if I would meet with the Star Trek production designer, the late Tom Sanders. We met for dinner and he pitched me his ideas for the show, which were fabulous!
In his exuberance, he knocked his drink all over me and I went home with Perrier sloshing in my shoes! But, I was so impressed with him that when I was offered the job, I jumped at it.
What is the process of working on the show, from receiving the script to shooting the sets you have built?
The early days with the script can be quite tedious; doing breakdowns, meetings, endless budgeting! But, once you get through much of that, the fun begins! Coming up with ideas for sets in conjunction with the production designer, looking for materials to work with and prototyping concepts. Then, actually starting to buy and build for each set.
It is incredibly gratifying to see something that existed only in your head slowly become a reality! I have been really lucky over the years to work with wonderful crews that share my love of building so they often take my ideas to heights I hadn’t even thought of!
You also worked on some huge feature films, such as I, Robot and Tron Legacy. What is it like to work on features films like these, and how does it differ from working on a series?
Because of my theatre background, I love to build and create things! I usually choose scripts that fire my imagination. Believe it or not, I am not a fan of science fiction – but I find myself drawn to working on them because of the opportunities they offer. You find yourself imagining another world, or extrapolating what this one will be like in a hundred years or if a historical event had gone another way.
I also love doing period pieces – it is so much fun to do the research and then try to recreate things as they were.
I haven’t done a lot of series work in the last few years. They are fast-paced and often limited in their budgets. Because of that, there isn’t usually much time for building or creating. Last year I did Altered Carbon which I would have to say was the exception! While we did not have the time a feature film would have given us, some of the scripts offered tremendous challenges, and we pulled them off!
While series aren’t necessarily my favorite work to do, I have so much respect for those who do them. It takes a very focused individual who can come up with ingenious and creative solutions week after week for a long stretch of time.
What are you currently working on, and what are your plans for the rest of 2018?
Sorry, I can’t really go into my plans for the rest of the year. But, up until now, I have been spending some great time working on my house and indulging in my own pastimes.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to get involved in the art department, and to become a successful set decorator like yourself?
Be prepared to work hard and don’t be afraid to take chances. I was "tricked" into my first job as a set decorator! I was hired to be the assistant decorator. A week into the job, I was told the decorator was moving on to another show and I was to take his place with the blessing of the producers and the designer. If I had been asked right at the beginning, I probably would have said I wasn’t ready and turned it down!
Learn your craft and a bit about everyone else’s too. It’s not enough to just know how to decorate, you need to know what goes into the building, rigging and lighting of a set. And, things are constantly changing. You need to keep up with new ideas and technologies.
And finally, pace yourself. Working in film can be exhausting and demanding. Take time for yourself and your family and friends. Have hobbies and interests outside of film and indulge yourself whenever you can. It will make you a more interesting and creative person!
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