Grant Major, Academy Award-Winning Production Designer
by Shari Raymond – Legendarium Media’s GUEST Contributor
Grant Major is an Academy Award-winning production designer whose work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) has turned him into one of New Zealand’s most successful and sought-after production designers. Major gained further recognition for such big-budget projects as King Kong, Whale Rider, and Green Lantern, as well as earning an Emmy for his commercial work. In addition to international acclaim, Grant was bestowed the New Zealand Order of Merit for his contributions to the New Zealand film industry. On Major’s website, you can see more his work as well as incredible photos of the projects he has worked on.
How did you get your start in production design?
I was training to be a graphic artist. At the time, there was really no such thing as a film industry in New Zealand. After I graduated I got a job at a TV station and designed sets for TV programs almost right away, so I ended up staying in this job longer than intended. After working in TV for a period of time I then segued into film.
Within three months of getting a job [at the TV station] Grant Major education for Lord of the Rings trilogythey sent me to one of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands to design a TV film. I always enjoyed the outdoors, so it was a great [opportunity] for me.
I then went on to do a lot of period dramas, which were very popular in New Zealand at the time. I got a job with the BBC in London, which was a huge step-up for me and that was where I was properly trained in Set Designing, Set Decorating and associated crafts, this was a kind of apprenticeship into full Production Designing.
What is the difference between a production designer, art director, and set designer?
In the English and American systems there’s very much a career path where you have to learn certain things before you can ever consider becoming a Production Designer. To get into the Department it helps to have come in with certain skills such as computer programs like Maya, Revit, Photoshop etc. I would also also suggest an architecture degree or completion of a specialized film design course; I came into it prior to the computer age through Set Designing which I learned at the BBC — this is the architectural and technical process of drawing up a set for building and installation into the studio. I also learned Set Decorating there; a Decorator is the person who carries out all of the interior design, like choosing the wallpaper, colors, props and such that reflect the scripted character or dramatic moment.
As you work your way up through various jobs within the Art Department you then become an Art Director where you can oversee the development and construction of a part of the film design. An Art Director can oversee one or a few of the sets, while the Production Designer has responsibility for the ‘look’ of the whole film.
Bear in mind that in the commercial world some of that terminology changes. When designing advertising commercials I would be called an Art Director, but in the film world I’m a Production Designer.
Among many other awards and nominations, you won an Oscar for your work on the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having seen all three extended editions (my husband is a huge LOTR fan), I can only imagine the incredible amount of work that went into it. Where did you start in bringing Middle Earth to life? LOTR had a massive, pre-existing fan base of people who had ideas about what Middle Earth looked like. How did that play into your design choices?
The starting point was the books. Tolkien himself was a very descriptive writer, so among many other things, he wrote down the geography, mood, and feeling of a place in the story really well. So that was a great start.
And the enormity of the design job meant that I wasn’t able to do every single item of it by myself. I brought on illustrators who were the driving force behind much of the conceptualizing of the film; Alan Lee and John Howe had created illustrations of Tolkien’s stories for years. Having this weight of history on board was very good for the project.
The director, Peter Jackson, was a very visual guy and had a lot of ideas about how he wanted to do things so of course I had to take these into account, I then put my own imagination into the ideas as well as relying on every member of my design crew from calligraphers to photographers and graphic artists etc. Being the leader and also bringing the very best out from all these people is very much my role, filmmaking is a collaborative effort… and then it becomes your life, so by the end I really did know every nut and bolt of that story. Further, Tolkien had written other books that gave perspective to LOTR; The Silmarillion and The Hobbit were required reading.
As someone who started working on films before the rise of computer-generated images (CGI) and has since worked on some of the most prominent films with CGI characters, how has your design work changed in the computer age?
Yeah, it has changed a lot. But at the end of the day you’re still designing a film, there are fundamental changes in the way a film gets made because of all of that stuff but it’s still a creative world-building enterprise.
There was a time at the beginning of LOTR when I was building everything, nowadays there’s less of a need to build the entire set and so there are very few moments when everything is actually made. I am often designing for a green screen studio shoot where all the backgrounds are created digitally.
There’s also a conflicting issue with the digital effects. You often have to fight for control of the look of the film when you have the Production sub-contract out to digital companies these virtual environments. From a business side things have changed, but from a design point of view you’re still designing a film.
Conversely digital technology has opened horizons for world-building that were not there before.
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About Shari Raymond:
Shari Raymond is a freelance web producer and copywriter. Her blog, The Media Chronicles, features interviews with media professionals, and she offers web strategy and copywriting services at www.ShariRaymond.com.