Production Design Showcase

The production designer imagines worlds.

A self-described “introvert who learned to be an extrovert,” John Chichester first found the path to self-expression when he took up drawing — at age two, littering his house with sketches.

Though he later dreamed of being a cartoonist, Chichester’s career ultimately led him to the movies, where he designed everything from alien space ships (
Star Trek into Darkness
) to pirate lairs (
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
) to luxury suites in Las Vegas (
Get Him to the Greek

Joining the Dodge College faculty to lead the production design program, Chichester brings a breadth and depth of experience that will give students a wide-ranging view of what it can be like to work as an art director, production designer, set designer or in any of a number of roles filled by the hundreds of people who create the worlds for stories for the screen.

Having worked for the major studios (including Paramount, Columbia, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Disney), on television shows for HBO, CBS and more, as well as doing design projects for commercials, theater and opera (the New York City Opera, Julliard), Chichester has seen it all.  His work has spanned the ages, from
House Bunny
. He has collaborated with directors and producers with work as diverse as Oliver Stone, Robert Redford, Ben Stiller, J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer and Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And now he is ready to bring that arsenal of experience into the classroom.

Chichester is already working to revise the curriculum to best give students what they need to prepare for and succeed in a career. Number one on his list of things students need to know? “Collaboration,” he says without hesitation, noting that major studio projects require working with designers, directors and producers and supervising and directing subordinate departments such as location, decorating, props, set lighting, construction, metal fabricators, plasters, practical special effects, miniatures, digital effects and more.

It’s easy to see why the work of a production designer is often compared to that of a general fighting a war on many fronts. On studio projects with budgets for sets ranging from half a million dollars to $2.5 million
, Chichester was responsible for art department budgets and, indirectly, for subordinate department budgets. On projects like
Star Tre
k or
Pirates of the Caribbean
, sometimes 20 or more sets would be in development, execution or production simultaneously. Work on a single film could take six to nine months.

To prepare for a film of any size, “Students need to know how to read a script as a designer,” he says. “There’s a practical aspect and an aesthetic aspect that are interrelated, but you need to think about them separately.”

He compares the work to playing ping pong: “You have to constantly move back and forth between the practical and the aesthetic.” A passionate observer of how period styles continue to influence set and production design, Chichester is also adamant that students learn research skills, from digging through various visual libraries to taking photos on location. He wants student to see how and why “the visual style of the Baroque — losing yourself in the frame, chiaroscuro lighting — is the dominant style today.” At the same time, they need to appreciate the cultural influences of classic Greek and Roman styles.

Today, with two young children of his own, Chichester wanted to leave behind the travel demanded by the movie business and step into “teaching what I know.” He still loves to draw, just as he did as a toddler, but through his career he has found the art of collaborating with others much better than the lonely act of drawing by himself. Not to mention that, as an art director or production designer, “you get to play all the parts,” in imagining and creating the world of the film.

For an introvert who’s learned to become an extrovert, it’s the best of both worlds.