Drawn to cinema: An interview with Stuart Craig

by Cynthia Barlow Marrs ASGFA on October 30, 2010

The making of the Harry Potter films started with a simple line drawing; a map of the Hogwarts world in black ink on white paper. J K Rowling drew it in her first meeting with the film’s producer and her production designer of choice, Windsor’s own Oscar-winning Stuart Craig. Small drawing, big story: you’ll need ten years and a studio the size of an aerodrome for that.

Stuart Craig talks about drawing and cinematic story telling, and how, even after 40 years in the business, he can still be daunted by the blank page.

Fine art and craft

My drawing for the last 40 years has all been story-based. I started as a fine artist, and wanted to be a painter. But very quickly I became interested in the theatre and design, and from there it was a very easy sideways step into film and film design.

Courtesy of Stuart Craig

Dr Jekyll’s Bedroom, Stuart Craig’s sketch in pencil and magic marker for “Mary Reilly” directed by Stephen Frears

The artwork I produce is not fine art, not drawing for drawing’s sake. I work to a brief. My sketches are like illustrations for a story book. And that’s the difference between fine art and craft. A fine artist can go anywhere with a work of art, and it doesn’t matter where he or she ends up. I can’t do that. I am necessarily bound by the need to tell the story, to deliver what the writer expects, what the actors expect.

The kind of craft I’m engaged in also involves a great deal of research. I spend a lot of time investigating architectural history, art history, and finding a way to be expressionistic with it.

So much of what I do is architecturally based. I’m an architect, but my buildings are all plywood, and my sketches and plans are all technical drawings. I want to commit quickly to physical dimensions, so I do rough plans and elevations that I can give immediately to a draughtsman. It’s more craft than art. My drawings are an extension of the craft, though the skill of the illustrators occasionally lifts them to more sublime levels.

Theatrical storytelling

The kind of storytelling I’m involved in is theatrical. It requires things to be ramped up, exaggerated. So on quite a literal level, I need a big landscape, something cataclysmic. For inspiration I often turn to the work of John Martin, the Victorian painter who created huge, apocalyptic canvases with caverns, lakes and volcanoes. For down and dirty in the back streets of Whitechapel, I study the engravings of Gustave Dore.

Courtesy of Stuart Craig

Stuart Craig’s sketch for “Toys”, a Barry Levinson film, designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti

Because I enjoy architecture and building blocks, I often start with a sheet of blank paper and without an idea in my head at all. Sometimes I’ll have a flash of inspiration, but it’s rare. So I just make a mark, and rub it out; then make another mark, and add another, and then rub one of those out. It’s an incredibly faltering process towards something.

Gaunt's House, initial sketch for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", by Stuart Craig

Gaunt's House by Stuart Craig © Warner Bros. Entertainment 2004

Stuart Craig’s initial pencil sketch of Gaunt’s House, for “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

In some ways there is a very basic, not totally creative beginning to it all. Once I find an idea, I do a little rendering of it. It’s never powerful enough at first, so I take it to the next level, make it more theatrical.

Communal work

I work in an industry which is highly structured and very, very disciplined. It’s full of crafts people. The tradition has been in place for a long time.

My work is communal, like theatre. I’m the production designer, but on a big movie like Harry Potter I may be responsible for 30 to 35 people; from the supervising art director, and a team of art directors and assistants, to draughtsmen and junior draughtsmen, and then on to model makers, sculptors and scenic artists. My job is as much to marshal their skills as it is to get the best out of myself.

Astronomy Tower technical drawings by Stuart Craig © Warner Bros. Entertainment 2008

The roughs from the designer go to the art director, who distributes them amongst the draughtsmen. The chief draughtsmen does the main set, and the details – this door, that window, that mirror – go to the more junior ones.  The drawings then go to the craftsmen, who turn them into physical sets and props. It’s down that corridor, where all the workshops are, that the writer’s vision, the production designer’s vision, the art directors’, the tradesmen, all of it comes together.

Astronomy Tower technical drawings by Stuart Craig © Warner Bros. Entertainment 2008

The Carpenters’ Shop is full of the whine of electric saws and the smell of sawdust. The Plasterers’ Shop is a world of muted sound where men in white overalls mix the simplest of materials — chalk and water – and pour them into moulds to create architectural or sculptural forms. The painters add patina with water and shellac, letting gravity create wet runs of mould and fungus on masonry. Spatters of green, ochre and blue-grey sawdust make moss and lichen on trees and north-facing walls. Paper laid on swirls of oil paint floating on a tray of water makes marble from Carrara or Connemara.  When the set’s components are being assembled on stage, the distinctive sound is of chain tackles: flying steel chains that hoist pieces of set to the roof.

Next to these ancient crafts, on the other side of the corridor, are the Visual Effects Technicians; younger men and women in their carpeted IT Suite. Two species seemingly unaware of each other, the only link between them being the film makers who use their services.

Within the hierarchy – the social order – the tradesmen, the construction workers, are treated with much less respect and gain much less recognition than they deserve. Many of them are quite unsung.  There are a very few star performers who have the most extraordinary skill; the equivalent of David Beckham or Leonardo da Vinci. Occasionally they really do take off in the most sublime way.

Virtual world

Digital technology is seductive. The scope of our dreams, our visions, especially our set design visions, is much wider these days. The capabilities are endless. The individual skills, however, are I think much less. But maybe that’s just confined to the film industry.

Interior Astronomy Tower concept illustration by Andrew Williamson © Warner Bros. Entertainment 2008

Ten years go, all the Harry Potter drawings were done in pencil. I would take my roughs and plans and sections and give them to a professional architectural illustrator, who would create concept art using pencil and colour wash on watercolour paper. Nowadays that same illustrator builds digital models.

For the first six Harry Potter movies big exterior shots of Hogwarts Castle sitting in its landscape were actually shots of a miniature made by craftsmen; a huge miniature that occupied a big sound stage. For the seventh and eighth films, it was decided that we would be better off embracing the latest technology. So the set was scanned, and the scan was used to construct a new digital model. When the model was rendered with different textures, it was extraordinary. The detail was astounding, and made it possible to move much, closer to the digital model than to the physical one. To my great surprise, I must say, as I’d have thought  it would be the other way round.

Alterations are much quicker. It’s fantastic to be able to change things with just the click of a button – and things do change all the time. Sets have a lot of repetitive detail, and now it is so easy to repeat something 50 times. It’s incredibly fast.

Exterior Hogwart's Castle, concept illustration by Andrew Williamson © Warner Bros. Entertainment 2008

The architectural illustrator’s digital work is so real it looks like still shots from the film rather than concept art. The photo-real quality is there, but it’s done so elegantly. The artist hasn’t just fallen in love with the technology and sold out. He has managed to retain artistic integrity.

But the digital revolution comes at a cost, in terms of human skills. The carpenters, plasterers (mould makers), set painters, sculptors and others are asked to build fewer and smaller physical sets. The virtual film sets are still designed by artists, but they are are built by technicians rather than craftsmen with coordinated hand and eye.  It’s a trade-off. On the whole, the gains outnumber the losses. The public certainly haven’t lost out.

Passion for drawing

My professional life is architectural drawing, but my love and my passion is what I think of as real drawing.

For me, the centre of drawing excellence in this country was the Slade, from the 1920s through to the 1960s and 70s.  Stanley Spencer was part of that tradition. He was taught by Henry Tonks, the Slade Professor in 1918. Tonks’ successors include William Coldstream. The Slade tradition was very academic. They revered drawing skills above all others.

Spencer was a consummate craftsman, but his work was filtered through his own vision. One of my favourite Spencer drawings is a page from a sketchbook. It’s a schoolboy sitting in a chair, probably made with a 2H pencil, a most unlikely sort of thing to use. That drawing is so sensitive. You feel for that little fat boy in the class. I think that drawing succeeds on all levels. It has an almost religious intensity about it.

Young people all go through an initial period of wonderfully expressive drawing. And then at about age eight or ten they become inhibited. It’s absolutely tragic that they hit that barrier. I wish one could do something about that. All my life I’ve struggled against a certain kind of tightness. You can see it in these drawings. Architectural subjects are quite forgiving, but that tightness is a real fundamental fault , which I regret.

I’ve been saying for 40 years that I will sketch and draw in my leisure time. I should do it, but I don’t. Even though that is where my heart is.

The trouble is, you have to be unafraid to let your vision, your self-expression, be seen for what it is. That part is very daunting. It’s been so long since I was a student at Hornsey. After all these years, I would find it hard to draw without a story as a starting point, without having that kind of prop. It was hard enough when I was 20! I’m sure that’s why I went off into the world of theatre at that age.

What kind of drawing would I feel led to do on my own? To tell the truth, I’m not sure. Now may be the time to find out.

Stuart Craig, production designer

Stuart Craig has designed some the most iconic films in recent history: Gandhi, The English Patient, The Elephant Man and Cry Freedom, to name just a few.  He has also designed all the Harry Potter films. In addition to Oscars and BAFTA awards, Craig also received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 from the Art Directors Guild.

The making of the Harry Potter films began with a simple line drawing; a map of the Hogwarts world in black ink on white paper. J K Rowling drew it in her first meeting with Craig and the film’s producer. The map shows how the Hogwarts world works.

Rowling’s hand-drawn map of the Hogwarts world appears in a Telegraph Magazine interview with Stuart Craig. He describes the drawing as “the first document from the very first day of the very first coming-together of the book, the author and the movies, more than ten years ago.”

In June 2010 Jane Barnwell interviewed Stuart Craig for Wide Screen, a peer reviewed open-access journal

Cynthia Barlow Marrs ASGFA

Cynthia Barlow Marrs ASGFA is the resident art correspondent for Beat Magazine.

Cynthia is a British-American artist based in Windsor. She started out with a degree in fine art and worked internationally in environmental planning and business-community programme development before returning to  England to stay put and paint. Cynthia is an Associate member of the Society for Graphic Fine Art.

Find more about Cynthia Barlow Marrs here.

Society of Graphic Fine Art – The drawing society www.sgfa.org.uk

Campaign for Drawing www.campaignfordrawing.org

Slade School of Fine Art is a world renowned art school situated in Bloomsbury, Central London, and is one of the University College London’s (UCL) most outstanding departments. Slade consistently ranks as among the premier Art and Design institutions in the UK.

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