„It’s me, who brings people together as we build a fantasy world”
She became an art director, but she started as an architect, although she did not plan to work in the film industry. Life simply brought this to her. Today, she couldn’t even imagine what else she could do. We discussed the beauties and difficulties of her profession with Zsuzsa Kismarty-Lechner, art director.
Budapest Reporter: How did you decide to start an art director career?
Zsuzsa Kismarty-Lechner: I was originally an architect, and I worked in an architect’s office in the summer of 2005, when an opportunity came from my then boss’s former classmate, that they look for model makers for larger production, and since he saw that there were architectural models in the architect’s office, they asked if I wanted to do it. This was the movie “Eragon”, which is a book adaptation, with huge built sets. So this is how I got into the art department, where I spent three months, and in the meantime, I got to know other departments.
This is where I got an offer to the VFX department, where I was a visual effect modeler, where we build a dragon’s body from styrofoam and synthetic resin for the post-production. Then I went to sculpt, build small beetles and dragon armour for the prop department. In this film, I saw the work of most creative departments. In the meantime, I met the art directors of the film “Munich”, which was also shot in Hungary at the time, and was looking for a draughtsperson for a few weeks, so I took the opportunity.
One job brought the other. From there I went back to architecture, and after a year, I was called again that they look for a draughtsperson for a horror movie which was D-list at max. Eventually, my career as a designer began, and from then on I got stuck in filmmaking. I’ve been in the film industry since 2006, and I haven’t been in architecture ever since.
Bpr.: How hard or harder is it to assert yourself as a woman in a predominantly male-dominated career?
Zs. K.-L.: If there is a profession that is the most acceptable then that is the filming industry. I don’t feel that there would be a disadvantage to a woman in anything here. Well, there are not a lot of girls in lighting, since it’s quite strenuous physical work. But in South Africa, for example, there have been many female grips for years, very though girls, but now women have also appeared in the more masculine wards in Hungary.
In the art department, the proportion of women and men is about 50-50%. There’s a surge in my profession because women go on maternity leave, after which it’s harder to come back to work 12 hours a day. Many love it, but with a small child you can no longer take on such a preoccupation.
Bpr.: What does an art director do?
Zs. K.-L.: The art director is a leading architect if we want to compare it to real life. One doesn’t necessarily just draw, but also completes his or her plans, negotiates with contractors and departments. Not only does one draws or makes someone draw beautiful scenery, but makes many creative decisions during execution, right up to the start of filming.
Bpr.: Can you demonstrate this through actual work?
Zs. K.-L.: The task starts by making illustrations and visuals about the whole world of the film, which, after acceptance, will be sent to the art directors, who will create 2D or 3D set designs with their team, consult with the set designer, and then present them to the director and we change them if needed. If everyone is happy with it, then construction will begin. For construction plans, we do not draw a structure, only a surface, what the viewer will see. The support structure is invented by the constructor and static engineer, fitting to our drawings. After that, the contractor builds it in the studio or location.
It is the job of the art director to accompany the execution, filming, and strike. Painters, who make scenery, surface patterns, and material samples based on the guidelines and references of the art director and designer, have a very important role to play, as many times we only create the illusion, for example, something looks like rusty metal, but it is actually an MDF board, skilfully painted. When choosing material, it is also a matter of where you go. To the studio or outdoors. We have already dreamed the plans to this extent and in the process, we define the work processes together with the contractor.
This is accompanied by requests from various departments, such as stuntmen, for what should be soft, or foamed, or rubber. These requests usually come when the set is almost ready, these are not liked by the constructors of course, as they often involve modifications, but of course, we do it because safety is the most important thing. We, with the designer, are there when the set is handed over, we tell everything about how it works, what are the transports (moveable wall), what can be removed, and what cannot. From there, the task is taken over by the stand by the art director in the set, he/she is our eye during the filming and solves any problems that may occur, while we are already working on the preparation of the next set.
Bpr.: How is the art department built up?
Zs. K.-L.: There is almost always a foreign production designer at the top of the art department of films in Hungary. Recently, there was a refreshing exception to this, in which the production designer was Hungarian, this was an Amazon film “Bird of Paradise”. Nóra Takács Ekberg, a Hungarian designer, living in Los Angeles was asked for the job. It filled us with great pride and joy. After the production designer, comes the supervising art director, that’s what I do, my title is also head of the department. The production designer dreams something, and I try to implement it within the budget, together with the department.
In there I lead, depending on the size of the film, there are art directors, assistant art directors, draftsmen, junior drafting people, graphic designers, coordinator, assistants who are the office colleagues and that comes with lots and lots of subcontractors. Each of the art directors is responsible for 4-5 sets per film, and as the supervising art director, I am responsible for all the sets, the work of all people, while making sure that the production designer’s dreams don’t get hurt and we don’t exceed the limits of our budget, so my task is quite complex.
Bpr.: What has changed in recent years?
Zs. K.-L.: When I started, I had to call a foreign workforce for a lot of things. There was no school for this at home then. There were only architects and old MAFILM colleagues who moved into the international film environment, but today one can learn set design both at MOME and SZFE, so the supply of skilled labour is greater.
Bpr.: Are these courses made because of the number of movies being created?
Zs. K.-L.: Absolutely, the demand for a good professional has increased. The Brits have amazing film drawing schools. When I started, the Brits were the best in hand-drawing, but we learned from them as well. Since I also drew by hand while still in college, I only had to master the cinematic style part. Technical and engineering knowledge is even higher in our case because there are many architects among us. In the meantime, the Hungarian staff also grew up to the task. There is an international level specialist in all other departments, head of departments are no longer brought in from abroad, and foreign labour can be replaced by local labour.
Bpr.: Can you tell us a story about a work of yours, that is relatively new and you are proud of?
Zs. K.-L.: Every movie wears me down at first, all of them have a run-up phase, and then by the end, one can calm down, we can realize that we can do it. “Witcher’s” first season was filmed here, which takes place in a medieval fantasy world. It was a big challenge as we’re talking about a series. Here, the run-up and rest time worked as a roller coaster, you can’t get down, because you have to produce in each block, you have to work with different directors and cameramen. Everyone is different, with different needs.
There is a director, who only understands the plans, if the life-sized set is marked on the studio floor with masking tape, there is someone who looks at a floor plan and then comes into the finished set and shoots the film in happiness. It was the biggest art department job of my career as a supervisor so far because I was responsible for a lot of people, and a lot of money. There is no request that is impossible, or very few. Once a director asked if I could pull the walls of a six-meter-high, 25m-long cathedral, already built inwards by 3 meters until shooting, but I said no, not really. But basically, we always try to meet expectations.
It’s another, perhaps greater challenge, to implement something from a modest budget to look great and to not come across the screen as something cheap. The director of the film “Radioactive”, Marjane Satrapi said, I quote: „Zsuzsi is making everything impossible, possible.” That made me feel proud. There were big dreams, even though a limited budget. A 100-year long story, across multiple countries, obviously none of them were Hungary, however, we made everything possible. The script took place in France, the USA, Poland, the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Japan also. We made them I thought beautifully – and it filled me with great pride.
Bpr.: How do you find out what is your next job?
Zs. K.-L.: The big production companies bring in these films. There are companies that specialize in Scandinavian, German films, and other companies import American and English films. The news usually comes to me around 3 months before the work begins. On several occasions, I estimate the construction budget for various possible projects, pricing scenery-rich design, but the ‘green light’ itself is a relatively last-minute thing before preparation begins. As a supervising art director, I find out a little sooner, but there are those who only get the phone call a week earlier.
The way I try to take on projects so that I don’t have to work on summers, because my family and the producers know this and respect it. During work, which often means 8-9 months of continuous work for 10-12 hours a day, I have to rest for 2-3 months in the summer, which is not possible with a normal workplace. Many of the filmmakers also fall from one job to another. I don’t know how they do it, I need a little peace of mind. I couldn’t bring 100% for 12 months. But, if no one would call me for another job for like half a year, I would start to wonder if the decision was worth it, but there have been no examples of that in recent years.
Bpr.: What are your future plans?
Zs. K.-L.: I always plan to learn drawing, 3D modelling with Rhino, but at the same time, hand drawings are also attractive. I really liked being an art director and drawing beautiful sets, but somehow, I always find other types of work. Of course, production design is the only step up option in my profession, but for now, I feel good in my skin with my tasks, so I’m not particularly looking for an opportunity to perform, but that moment might come once.