Pacific Rim: Uprising production designer Stefan Dechant on starting out on Zemeckis films and more

Stefan Dechant is a movie production designer known for this work on Kong: Skull Island, Pacific Rim: Uprising and Robert Zemeckis's forthcoming The Women of Marmen. Here he tells Mandy News how he started out – working on blockbusters Forrest Gump, Minority Report and Lincoln as an illustrator – and became a head of department as well as advice for production designers.

4th June 2018
/ By James Collins

Stefan Dechant Pacific Rim Uprising production designer STEFANDECHANT

Stefan, introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got into the film industry?
I got into the film industry because I saw The Making of Star Wars in 1977. When I saw Ralph McQuarrie’s and Joe Johnston’s work, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. As I grew older and left for college, that all seemed unattainable. I went to the University of Cincinnati to study graphic design but I didn’t really have a passion for it. I wanted to get involved with visual effects badly and thought somehow I’ve got to get into that industry. The University of Cincinnati at that time had an internship programme meaning that you would alternately go to school and go to work each quarter. Some of those were set up by the university itself but you could go and find your own jobs.

I was determined to make inroads with Industrial Light & Magic. I ended up getting an internship for JP Morgan bank in New York in their in-house design department. I was working on a Saturday when a freelancer walked in and asked me what kind of design firm I’d like to work at when I graduated. I mentioned that I didn’t want to be a graphic designer but wanted to finish school, get some letters of recommendation and go to USC and eventually work in visual effects. She mentioned Industrial Light & Magic and I said that’s exactly the place I wanted to work. She had a friend named Stuart Robinson who worked in the optical department there so she gave me his phone number and told me to call him. I called him and asked if I could meet him for lunch in two months time and surprisingly he said yes.

I bought a plane ticket, went out to San Francisco two months later and he took me through ILM. He introduced me to John Knoll. I saw Photoshop being used for the first time and they were still doing optical print work at the time so I got to look inside the quad printer and see how that worked. It was a historic piece of equipment. They used it for The Ten Commandments and what not. I got to see some shots being put together for Back To The Future 2 too. From there, I did a series of other internships. I also worked for Saul Bass who storyboarded for Alfred Hitchcock and did Psycho and Vertigo. When I worked there, they were working on the titles for Goodfellas.

I still kept in written correspondence with Stuart Robinson and met him for lunch again and he took me for another tour of ILM. That eventually led to an internship there and I was the first ever intern in the ILM’s art department. There was some cool stuff going on at the time like The Terminator but also some old-school stuff too like Hook and Star Trek 6. Which was all blue screen and optical compositing but you could see that digital was just around the corner. I got taking to Mark Depay, Steve Williams and Ty Ellingson and they mentioned that when Jurassic Park comes out we’re gonna sell them on a computer-generated T. Rex and that seemed pretty cool to me.

So I went back to school and decided that I wanted to become a production assistant at ILM on Jurassic Park. I convinced one of my professors to let me write a screenplay for the T. Rex attack. I read the book, wrote a screenplay and storyboarded it. For whatever reason, it didn’t seem I was going to be able to go back to ILM for my final internship so I contacted a friend of mine whom I’d met up there who was the art director on Jurassic Park and I asked him if I could be a production assistant on the film. He said that they don’t usually take any applications outside of Amblin but we have a computer that nobody knows how to use. It was a video toaster and I told him that I knew it inside and out. I then wrote a letter, along with my book, to Rick Carter, who’s a production designer. He responded two months later telling me he could offer me a job on Jurassic Park but for only $500 a week and I’d have to take a year out of school. I was working for free at ILM so I thought that seemed pretty awesome and accepted it.

I then called the company that made the computer and told them I’d just lied to get a job on Jurassic Park and needed a manual and someone who could teach me to use the software quickly. They set me up with a class in Cincinnati and a guy in LA to help me. When I got to LA, I would work during the day and stay up all night until I figured it all out. I finished that and still had three months left of school so I called the university but they told me that it was too late to come back. I hung up and then the phone rang again and it was Rick Carter asking me if I knew who Bob Zemeckis was and if I could composite him into a video of the Beatles. John Knoll had recently taught me how to use After Effects so I knew how to do that.

He then wanted to hire me for this movie that “wasn’t going to be as big as Back to the Future” called Forrest Gump and asked if I was interested. I was definitely into it, and broke at the time, so that all sounded pretty cool. I called the school up again and told them I just got this amazing job offer and wanted to do it. I luckily had a great counsellor who told me to decide if I was done with school or not. I think she was trying to guilt me in to coming back so I quickly said I was done! I started as a digital illustrator who could use Photoshop – which wasn’t being used that much at the time – and I could also animate in 3D. In the end, I grew this reputation as a specialist and that’s how I got in.

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It sounds like you’ve done quite a few jobs within the art department. What are the differences and challenges between the roles?
A concept artist or an illustrator is really creating the artwork that explains an idea, tone or mood. They work pretty closely with the production designer who oversees the overall look of the film. Underneath the production designer is the art director and they carry out the designs and implement them. When you’re a concept artist, you’re unbound. It’s all pure imagination and you start creating imagery. As I’ve mentioned, I was really influenced by Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings and Joe Johnston’s storyboards. When I was a kid, I had an 8mm camera that belonged to my dad but my parents never bought me film for it so I would always pretend I was shooting motion films. I think I was a frustrated filmmaker to begin with but I was always thinking about how to put shots together.

Rick Carter let me storyboard one scene on Jurassic Park and that was really special. I didn’t conceptualise it, that was all done by John Bell, but I drew the final frames. I didn’t really start storyboarding until Kevin Reynolds asked me to do it on Waterworld. Someone gave me some advice saying that if the director wants to collaborate with you, leave the art department and go and do it. By being a jack of all trades, I was hard to pin down and could take different roles on different movies. I started realising that there was this next generation of illustrators that could really paint and use Photoshop. I was getting away with pasting things together, collage stuff and people thought I was a genius. I figured what I had was experience and I could move into art direction but since I could also draw it was a good communicative tool between the two.

I then built this niche as an art director who was director-focused from working with directors a lot. That’s what happened on Castaway and What Lies Beneath, where I could storyboard with Zemeckis, but I could also work with another art director building sets and decide how many bathrooms there should be and things like that. It was a way to be an extension of Bob in the art department. In What Lies Beneath, Bob was playing the role of Hitchcock and I was playing the role of Saul Bass which I liked since I had worked with him. There seemed to be something circular about the whole thing. From then on, I started art directing more and more but I still illustrate quite a bit even as a production designer. I’m not that great at it though. I can get the idea going and then hand it off to somebody else. I’m in a role now that makes me a little more comfortable and things a little more facile.

Could you tell us a bit how you came to be a production designer on Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim Uprising?
I was a supervising art director on Oz the Great and Powerful and did the reshoots for them. What happened was the production designer Rob Stromberg had left to go and direct Maleficent and that put me in a wonderful spot where Rob had laid tremendous groundwork but I was still able to work with Sam Raimi as a ‘quasi’-production designer. People liked the film and my work and I was approached by an agency to say they wanted to represent me as a production designer. You have to wait for that break to happen. I then had meetings with directors on projects that hadn’t gone but I felt like something was knocking at the door. I’d worked on one other Legendary film as a production designer when a producer named Sam Mercer gave me a break. He and Simon Crane, a fantastic action director, were doing Hot Wheels and we started developing it as a movie but it sadly never got anywhere.

After that, I had a good relationship with Legendary and they asked if I wanted to come in to meet Jordan Vogt-Roberts on Kong. I met with Jordan and we clicked on a lot of things. I got a call from my agents telling me Jordan seemed to like me and I’m one of three people he’s interested in but he would like some imagery to see what my vision was. Without knowing too much about the film’s premise, I did five Photoshop pieces but I was trying to merge Apocalypse Now imagery with what I thought Kong would be like. I then met with Jordan and that got me the job.

It was interesting as Jordan had a very strong vision and already had illustrators he was working with and I wasn’t sure what my purpose was for a while. In my head I went back to The Making of Star Wars and Jordan was George in this case and he’s got Ralph and Joe working for him, creating this imagery. I can still be John Barry, the production designer. It was a way to put myself in a mindset that made me feel good about myself and the process. It was a tough movie but it was so cool. I took me to Australia and Vietnam with crews I’ve never worked with before. There were some old friends too, such as Steve Rosenbaum, the special effects supervisor, who I’ve actually known since the internship at ILM.

At the end of the film, Legendary got in touch with me again and asked if I was interested in Pacific Rim. At the time, I hadn’t seen it but I watched it and thought it looked cool especially the world-building but Legendary wanted it a little bit slicker and updated with a different look. I was up for it and wanted to keep the momentum going and so I started on it a couple of days later.

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How long was the turnaround for creating a world for Pacific Rim Uprising and what sort of challenges does making 100ft robots create?
It was an extremely challenging film. First of all, they wanted it all done very quickly. It was a time when things were very busy in LA so there were groups of people working on it all over the world. We thought that ILM were going to do the robots but they had not won a bid and usually don’t go down that road. I wanted to hire their art department and that way we could develop assets that didn’t have to go anywhere and could flow internally into their modellers, etc. We had a very small but proficient team at ILM that started cranking out Jaegers right away. We also had a team at Weta, who had done work previously on Godzilla, to start doing Kaiju.

At the same time, I had another team and we were creating imagery of what the world-building was going to be like. Sometimes, a studio wants to go into partnership with another studio to help mitigate the cost and reduce the risk. In this instance, Legendary very much wanted to be in business with Universal. So we had eight weeks to design all the robots, all the monsters and have a preliminary design for the set enough for it to be recognisable. That was a very short period of time and quite an extreme challenge. What else was challenging was figuring out the ‘new look’ they wanted.

First of all, I had never met Guillermo del Toro before but I wouldn’t want to do anything to offend him. You’re trying to move in a direction of a new director and his vision but be respectful of what came before as well. We started along that path and then very quickly went into world-building. I would say time was the biggest challenge on that movie. Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising are both massive operations with art departments in Australia, China and LA respectively and you need to make sure they’re all working together cohesively. In China, we were continuing sets that we had built in Australia so you literally have to go around the corner and make sure it all looks the same. You’re dealing with creatures that are 300ft tall and it’s not like the visual effects in the 1970s. Then you would do a painting or try to cheat.

Within the artistry of visual effects, you can get away with cheating when you’re putting something into an environment. When you’re doing visual effects, you’re really trying to get as many real world pieces together for verisimilitude. You end up hunting for the widest streets in Sydney thinking where the creator can slide down or land for example. It’s very difficult.

It sounds like such a fantastic challenge to get involved with on such a large scale…
It is! I probably can’t talk at any great depth about it but I went straight from there on to a Bob Zemeckis movie which was much smaller and intimate albeit with special effects. It’s been nice to bounce between a global project to something that’s on a smaller scale.

What else do you have in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
Right now, I did the Bob Zemeckis film The Women of Marwen and that’s based on a documentary called Marwencol about a photographer named Mark Hogencamp. It was pretty great working with Bob again and made much easier by this great relationship we’ve had since Forrest Gump in 1993. Going from seeing shots of Back to the Future 2 at ILM to being his production designer – sometimes you think life is pretty good. I’m a big fan of It’s a Wonderful Life and sometimes I just look around and it feels like I’m George Bailey! After that, it gets to a point where you’ve been doing this for three years straight and you feel like you’ve neglected your family so I’m taking some time off.

I’m circling a project now and doing a little bit of freelance work for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on their museum. I’ve also been helping out Rick Carter, who was my mentor and hired me on Jurassic Park, he’s been working on Star Wars: Episode 9. He’s overseeing the design but I can step in and help. I do feel very passionately about helping as many people as I can and finding new voices. That’s why I like the idea of your website as I believe in paying it forward and giving inspiration to people who want to get into the business. That’s really my role now I’ve established myself.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a John Barry, a Ralph McQuarrie or Joe Johnston, as those people are very special, but I can at least help and see if I can find the next one and help them achieve their dreams.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into the art department as a whole or a production designer and get to the standard you are at now?
There are a couple of things. Firstly, there is a lot out there now that wasn’t out there in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, there were very few books you could read to find out what a concept designer or an art director does, for example. I didn’t fully realise until I started working as one. Nowadays, there is a lot you can steep yourself in. Almost every movie comes out with a ‘making of’ book, as a feature on the DVD or periodicals on websites. Go into that and understand what it is and start doing it yourself. The advice I got from Doug Chiang when I was ILM, who’s in charge of design at Lucasfilm now, was to just take up a project and do it.

The project I made was the T. Rex scene for Jurassic Park to show I could storyboard. That got me a job. The second thing is to make a game plan. It sounds ridiculous but when I met that freelancer in New York and she told me she knew Stuart Robinson, I thought it was all about being in the right place at the right time. Then I thought “how many places can I be in for a period of time so that the odds are in my favour?” I was very conscious when I went to New York. I knew I couldn’t get a job in LA or San Francisco but if I was in New York then I might be able to meet somebody in the film industry.

In the end, that exactly happened in JP Morgan of all places! After the Jurassic Park project and being hired for the film, I really thought about it and made a game plan so I could figure out how I was going to meet people. That’s really important. When you’re young, you don’t know what you’re up against and that is a tremendous freedom.

So just go for it and be passionate, practice your craft, reach out to people and sometimes you’ll be surprised. Nothing should stop you. Your imagination is out there. There are people out there like myself who want to help. We’re all standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us and it’s important we create a platform for the next generation to come in and do wonderful things.