27 October 2021 The Irish Film & Television Network
Peter Francis discusses Oscar-nominated Production Design on ‘The Father’ and more at IFTA Skills in Focus Masterclass
17 Sep 2021 : News Desk
Oscar-nominated Production Designer Peter Francis
The Irish Film & Television Academy (IFTA) hosted a special IFTA Skills in Focus: Production Design event with Oscar nominated Production Designer Peter Francis (The Father).

The event, which was supported by Screen Skills Ireland, was hosted by Emmy & IFTA-winning Production Designer Tom Conroy (Legend; Vikings; The Tudors). Conroy spoke with Francis at length about the unique techniques and skills he deployed in his Oscar-nominated work on The Father and over his 30-year career as a Production Designer, Art Director, and Set Designer.

With over 30 years in the industry, 2021 Oscar-nominee, Peter Francis (The Father) is a production and set designer with credits on some of Hollywood’s biggest films. After working in the art department on films such as Alien 3, GoldeneyeThe Fifth Element Titanic. 

Francis went on to be the Art director of Enemy at the Gates starring Jude Law, the first two films in the Harry Potterfranchise (The Philosopher’s Stone; The Chamber of Secrets), 

Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Casino Royale

But his goal was always to be a Production Designer. “I always wanted to be a Production Designer from day one.”Francis said.  “I started as a runner and made my way up in the art department. I love it, I can’t imagine doing anything else!”

As a production designer, Francis began on short films such as the Oscar-winning The Phone Call with Sally Hawkings before working on features Mindhorn and The Pass in 2016. In 2017, he worked on The Mercy from director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, and The Children Actstarring Emma Thompson, as well as designing the additional photography on the Elton John biopic Rocketman.

Francis was nominated at the recent 93rd Academy Awards for his production design on The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. The film saw French director Florian Zeller adapting his 2012 play about an elderly man contending with Alzheimer’s (though it is never specifically named as such) as he grows increasingly confused with regards to his surroundings. 

In an Oscar-winning performance, Hopkins plays Anthony, a cantankerous, aging figure, haunting his increasingly confusing London apartment, growing more and more bewildered as it transforms into the apartment of his grown daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), who cares for her father as he continues to confuse his surroundings; and, by the denouement, into a nursing home, where Anthony may have been all along. It’s an intensely subjective experience and one in which Francis’ Production Design is crucial to the story telling. 

That gave Francis the opportunity to craft a complex set of interlocking set designs built to connect and resonate with one another. 

Asked by Conroy how it felt to be part of a project where the set design is such an important Narrative device and the challenge of delivering on the brief, Francis noted how rare an opportunity it was.

“It’s not often that you get to design a set that’s so key to the story.”  Francis said. “The brief I was given was the story taking place in one environment set in one place, but the set decor and arrangement changes as the film evolves. I relish challenges like that, the Art Director really comes out in me, and I love the problem-solving.” 

He connected immediately with director Zeller and said that the script had him hooked from the first page, which featured significant notes for production design. Francis had only three days to develop a proposal before his interview with Zeller, but when they met their designs for the layout of the set were nearly identical. “Our plans looked exactly the same,” Francis said. “We were on the same page from day one.”

With minimal time to prep and a tight shooting schedule it was vital that the crew all worked together and respected one another. “The crew was small, and the biggest joy was the crew, the team got on really well,” said Francis. “Time was tight, we all respected each other and made it work and it was a joy.”

Francis and his team built a set around a central living room (where much of the story plays out), which has three doors opening into it. These doors were crucial. “The doors were key to the set,” Francis explained. “I wanted an element that was constant, they are important because the doors created a labyrinth, like synapsis in your mind.”

They also built a 50-foot-long hallway leading from the entrance to the apartment into the living room, which plays a vital role in the film as the story progresses. Household items move around, pictures and lamps shift around on the walls and tables, and colors change, but the space remains just consistent enough to allow the viewer to share Anthony’s confusion. Francis said they often spoke of Polanski’s Repulsion as a useful reference as it focuses on an individual mentally unravelling in a single location.

On the use of colours, Francis said: “I learned more about colour on that job than a long time. As pre-production went on, colour became a bigger feature in the film. The brief was to have different feels and environment but the change in colour became more important.”

All of this work, however, is meant to be subtle and not distract the viewer with Francis describing the job of a production designer as being to create spaces for actors to do their work in. This clearly worked well as the first time he watched the film he completely missed many of the things they had done as he was so compelled by Hopkins’ performance. “Anthony Hopkins just pulls you in. He just took the character and made it into a hypnotic character. His personality would change moment to moment,” said Francis. “Everything we do tries to compliment him and his performance. We Create spaces for actors to work in and tell stories.”

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