Production Design Workshop: meet Alexis Ross
Look at this picture and remember this face. If you cross path with Alexis Ross*, offer him a cigarette and make him talk as much as possible, chances are you’re going to have a great time. That would be my strategy or should have been if I wasn’t a shy idiot. (alas, mother)
Anyway, I went a bit reluctantly to the Levi’s FilmWorkshop because it was sunny and hot day off, and the AC was broken in my car. (Important fact) The Levi’s Studio is a small and cosy place, with different stations where you can put your hands on editing, slow motions, equipments et caetera and a group of nice people ready to help you and answer your questions.
The Workshop was divided into two parts, in a very informal and organic way. Ross first shared a bit of his background and then took us to see “Street”, the installation he put together along with Todd James, Stephen Powers, Barry McGee, Devin Flynn, Josh Lazcano and Dan Murphy** for the exhibition “Art in the Streets” . With the help of a colored booklet we each received, he explained how the project came together.
A fair warning is required here: this article won’t give justice to the workshop because there’s a lot that cannot be put on page, especially during the second part. Ross has a priceless “British Wit”*** that makes him a great speaker but is very hard to render. I apologize for that and can only encourage you to rsvp to these free sessions. I did record the first part though, and did my best to edit it in a way that would convey Ross’ speaking style (it was noisy so I missed some parts):
“I never worked on films, strictly on television commercials. I’m probably not a great example because I’m not someone who takes Production Design pretty seriously. I take it seriously when I’m at work. Somewhere along the line I developed some kind of work ethic but it’s not something I aspired to be.
I grew up in Los Angeles and as far as Hollywood or the “Business”, I’ll be on that Culver City #1 Bus passing by MGM, and I would see those guys on beach cruise bikes delivering interdepartmental mail I guess. I used to look out the window and think ‘Goddam, how do you get a job like that? You have to be born somewhere or know somebody.’ It seemed like an unattainable job to have, the dream job. I didn’t think I was connected enough to work in any kind of entertainment field and I never thought about it much again, and really got into this quite by accident. I met a Production Designer and went to visit him on a set. He noticed that I knew how to draw and told me that I could get $200 per day drawing. At the time I barely knew how to get a job and I didn’t really trust this guy because someone said I could get a job at
didn’t get it for $8 per hour, and that was looking really nice. But I took a chance, and at that time they were paying for your lunches, your cigarettes and your Coca-Cola everyday… so they didn’t really have to pay me nothing, I would have signed up for that job.
So around 15 years ago I started at the bottom. It was me, that guy and a truck. Thankfully, because the job was small at the beginning, I got to learn how to build a set, clean a set and every inches of the Art Department really. If you’re young and it’s something you’re going after – I never said ‘Oh, one day I want to be like that guy, I’m going to be a Production Designer’ – make sure to always show up. I always showed up before anyone else and left after everybody else. I never got too worried. I never thought about how much money I was going to make. Most of the time I would show up and work for free just doing the stuff that were put in front of me. And that’s still kind of how I live today. Over the years the jobs got bigger, the sets got bigger and it expended. I learned to do what Production Designers do. No Production Designer has been great and forever a talented son of a bitch. He is really just a face man in charge of bringing a lot of people to work together and to carry out what the director is after, reading the script and coming up with ideas that would put that world in front of a camera. But it’s not just fantasy. You’re dealing with logistical stuff like the weather, a budget, personalities, and often time you’re trying to keep a relationship with a director who wants everything to be “amazing”. With time and money you can do anything, that’s one thing I learned. I can take this entire room and make it spin. It doesn’t do a lot of good though when all you got is $30 to make that happen. So much of my job ends up being conning people of asking to get the world of that $30 they happen to spend, speaking the language of reality and at the same time trying to respect and listen to their fantastic ideas.
Somewhere along the line they stopped paying for the cigarettes, which was a big blow. But the pay got a little bit better and I moved up the ladder by bullshitting the next guy. The next person who asked me ‘Oh you work in an art department, what do you do?’ I said ‘I’m a set designer’ –I had heard the term set designer. Each time I bumped the pay up $50. I got my next job for this guy as a set designer and all I got was a triangle I had borrowed from someone else and a mechanical pencil. I would took some drawings home and study more precisely how to do perspective rendering and how to make construction document. Once I learned how to copy that style I would say ‘I’m also a draftsman’. There is no formal training. I came across very few people that had gone to College for this field. It is really about how you bullshit the next guy along with putting hard work. I passed doors time and time again bullshitting people but I always tried to do the best I can. In an Industry where there’s a lot of people who wipe your ass and a lot of hand holding, people get jaded pretty dam well, so it’s easy to excel if you actually work hard, and don’t complain, and don’t say ‘How Much money do I get pay? My lunch came late!’.
This worked to the point where I started to work for a guy who liked taking naps. And that was really my big break because I had to become the face of the Art Department. Because my job was to make my boss look good, because if my boss looked good he was going to get hired again. And if he got hired again, he was going to hire me again, and we were going to keep working, and we were going to keep being able to pay the bills.
So I was able to tell the next guy ‘I’m an Art Director’. And you just keep going and going. It got me to here. It got me to the next Production Designer who told me in a very loving way ‘Fuck off, you got to run your own crew’. And that’s why I started my own crew, called ‘Majestic Persuasion.’ It’s not really common for an Art Department to have a name but I grew up writing graffiti, mingling in social clubs and I figured it made sense. I heard a lot of Production Designers talking about Modernism, Art Deco and every sort of styles that are on Wallpaper Magazine but I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about ‘touch of class’ and doing everything a little bit elegant… which again is just another sham. But one that kept working and so I keep going on and doing what people ask me to do and I never worry about the end result.”
Ross had printed some of the emails and sketches he exchanged with his acolytes to find out what could be done with the time and money they had. I can’t put the whole booklet, but here is the first (shortened) email he sent.
Dear Gents, There is a rumor floating around out here that I may be participating in your upcoming activities. One which I haven't paid a whole hell of a lot attention to. For two reasons. One, that I don't have much to do with "art in the streets". As you know, my interests lie in the area of napping and smoking cigarettes. Artistic pursuits in general are few and far between. Two, if you guys are really revisiting the Street Market, I don't see why you would want to add to a pretty well rounded trio. (...) Since I don't have much to offer in the way of art in the street whiz, I'll offer up the following. Here is a loose set design that I felt would give the three of you a starting point for your follies. Basically a typical Southern Californian two way street. Otherwise known as the corner of "Totally and Lame". Five stucco facades with interiors, sidewalks, asphalt, sign cans, billboards, a cinder block wall, 20'x50' backdrop and perhaps a human shit in the dumpster to "keep it street" (...) I'm afraid there is no deep idea to accompany this plan. Take it for what it is, just a simple piece of art direction. Let me know if this is of any remote interest to you. I will be happy to have a chat with my construction coordinator and peep the figures. Also feel free to dump this whole notion in a folder marked junk. Happy to go back to my day job of smoking cigarettes and expensive naps. Hope all is well with you and yours. Sincerely, -A.Ross Majestic Productions Local 800
Above is the sketch that accompanied the first email. The other sketches were sent back and forth between Ross, James, Powers and Fong. Ross emphasized that it was one of this rare occasion where he was dealing with artists with a vision (instead of clients and executives)
who were able to answer back with sketches, bringing a nice touch of creativity to what is otherwise a fastidious process.
Below is a video tour of ‘Street’ for those who won’t get to see it and the final sketch.
On a final note, the exhibition “Art in the Streets” won’t be showcased at The Brooklyn Museum due to budget cut back, which is a sad news that stresses how lucky we are to have access to it for free.*For those who wonder why there’s no link to Alexis Ross’s Wikipedia, Website etc. It’s because I couldn’t find anything substantial. Ross precised during the workshop that he never had a reel and when someone asked to see his work, he would simply tell them to talk to the person who referred him to them. **I hope I didn’t miss any names and will be more than happy to correct it if I did. ***Being genuinely funny and wity while remaining very serious