Anastasia Masaro - on the design of
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

by Phil Stubbs

Anastasia Masaro
In August 2008, Canadian Art Director Anastasia Masaro spoke to Dreams about her experience as Production Designer on Terry Gilliam's most recent feature The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. Following the release of the picture, Masaro received an Academy Award nomination.

Phil Stubbs: How did you get involved with the project?
Anastasia Masaro: I was working on a film in London, when I received a phone call from Terry one evening. He cryptically asked, "Do you have Final Draft? I'm going to send you something. Let me know when you've read it."

That "something" turned out to be The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, which I read and absolutely loved. A couple of days later, I was in the Peerless offices talking with Terry and the line producer about working on the project. This was about two days before I was supposed to return home.

I thought, "Are you kidding me? Of course I'd love to work on the movie". Rob How, the Line Producer, said to me, "Can you just stay here?" Well, I wasn't able to just stay on the spur of the moment - I needed to pack up my regular life for a couple of months. It was just like that. I had worked with Terry before on Tideland, on which we'd had a great working relationship and we had kept in touch.

What were you first thoughts about the script?
I thought it was amazing, it reminded me a lot of Baron Munchausen which was my inspiration for working in film. The whole thing has been completely surreal for me. I love the script - the visuals and the fantasy aspect.

How ambitious did you feel it was visually?
I knew how that it was going to be a massive art department undertaking. I just didn't realize how huge until I started breaking down the script and was given my budget. On most films, the art department suffers from underfunding. On this one, it was even more so. And, as always, we could have used more time as well.

I remember walking through the London Art Department office, and I saw what was there, the sketches on the wall. I couldn't believe that it was going to be as ambitious as that, within the confines of the budget
The concept sketches that were on the wall showed pretty much everything that would be framed in a shot, including the visual effects. So those would have looked rather ambitious. We had to build a lot of props because so many objects in this film you can't readily go out and buy - although I was surprised at how many beautiful pieces were available in London and how little they cost. The ratio of the art department/construction budget versus the entire film's numbers was relatively small. It really is astounding how much we managed to accomplish.

When did you get involved?
It was early September when I received the call.

Were you involved in location scouting?

Yes, Terry had already scouted some of the London locations. He that knew he wanted to shoot at Leadenhall Market and Battersea. As you know, Blackfriars Bridge was in the script. We had to find a pub, and a club (which we shot in Borough Market). In Vancouver, we had to find everything else.

There is a scene at the end of the movie [spoiler removed]… that was shot on location in Vancouver I believe.
For that location, we had looked everywhere for restaurants. Terry liked one, but we couldn't use it. While we were on a tech scout in a library in Vancouver, Terry ran across the street. He does that often - he will run when you're on a location scout. He'll run up the street, he'll run this way or another. I remember him on Tideland doing that as well, we'd be chasing him up and down hills. He's always in the lead and he's never out of breath. We're all huffing and puffing behind him.

He saw this restaurant. It was absolutely horrifying to me. We went inside and it was a vivid red. I said "We're not shooting here, are we?" Terry said "Yes, we'll keep the camera looking in this direction towards the window. Well, I could work with that. We only had 3 days before shooting it. We couldn't order any beautiful fabrics in time - so I had the painters stencil the sheers that set dec had brought them. We got it done, but there was a lot of that - flying by the seat of our pants.

Sarah and Monique both said that so much was created on the day or the night before
When we shot at the Orpheum, we dressed that overnight. We took a break in the middle of the day to go home and sleep, and we came at night to dress it. At some point every person disappeared for about an hour. We all started feeling nauseous due to sleep deprivation. We were running out of time and had to staple up fabrics, glue and sew things up that were hanging in place.

We had time to build the actual studio sets. But we didn't have very much time to install them. The biggest problem was the size of the studios vs the footprints of the actual sets. They were large stages but they tend to fill up fast with the sprawling fantastical Gilliam environments. The construction shop was not large enough to accommodate most of the sets once they were built. So we weren't seeing them fully assembled until they were actually in studio. That didn't leave us much time to react to what had just been created. There are floor plans, construction drawings and renderings that are followed to assure that everything fits and is on schedule, but there are always some changes in the end. I always want to tweak, and Terry always tweaks once he's there especially with the camera.

Once you go to camera on any film, production goes into hyper mode. On Parnassus, the sets were being installed one day and filmed, literally, hours later. I don't think my paint team in Vancouver had a day off for months. That being said the English crew didn't have it very easy, either. The London shooting schedule was mostly at night, and it was always raining and cold.

In your working relationship with Terry - who does what?

With Terry, a lot of it is already on the page. Then when we go to build and adapt, he's pretty flexible. He's not choosing colours. He's not dressing the sets. The most I can give him to look at, before we shoot, the better.

I had an idea for one of the sets, when Parnassus is in the desert. I showed him a drawing and said, "You don't have to react to it now, because it's different than what you had in mind, but how about he's reached the end of the world." About a week later, he told me he liked the idea, and that all the other worlds can be added in the back. (We don't want to give that away in the interview).

The point of it is that you can have ideas of your own, and he'll say yay or nay. He knows what he wants, but he encourages new ideas.

How much of the design of the wagon was in Terry's mind at the start of the process?
He had drawn a black and white image of the wagon in its closed position at the start of the process. He draws beautifully as we all know. Initially he'd come up with an image of the outside of the wagon which was then adapted to fit the physical requirements and some aesthetic changes were made. I'd drawn my own concept sketch with the wagon having a decidedly ship-like feeling to it. In the end, ideas were adapted, replaced and transformed to create the wagon as you'll see it on the screen. Details changed in order for the wagon to function as we needed. The opening of the theatre stage, the stage itself, the interior and Parnassus' den were yet to be determined.

You saw the office in Battersea - it was one open room. Terry would run by and would say if he liked things or whether he wanted some changes. The wagon in its open position was a clean slate.

Did you supervise the construction of the wagon?
The production designer supervises the construction of the sets. But, the actual physical construction of the wagon was overseen by the construction supervisor, London art director and the special effects supervisor. They did a great job notwithstanding the time constraints.

There were so many people involved in its creation. The construction and paint departments work differently in London than here in Canada as well. There were three heads of department in London in the scenic department alone - responsibilities are more defined. Chiefly, it was construction and special effects with paint coming in after it was built.

Which of the sets have you found most satisfying?
The wagon and Parnassus' den were the most rewarding, they looked absolutely beautiful in the rushes. The monastery also looks fantastic. And our cliff set which was used as multiple sets - one set on one side and a different set on the other side, and the addition of snow to create the side of a mountain was definitely cool as well.

Click on image for more detail

I've seen a 3d computer generated image of Parnassus's monastery, with the guys kneeling around facing him
Those were done by Dan Hermansen, my art director in Vancouver, who did a fantastic job. The monastery was the set whose relationship to the studio space was most difficult to explain to everyone because it took up more space than any other and there needed to be specific mathematical relationships between set pieces.

First, there were construction drawings. Then, Dan built the set 3-dimensionally. With the program that he uses, we could alternate lenses so Terry, Nicola and the VFX supervisors could see the relationship of all the set pieces. It was fantastic because we were able to adapt, swap over his 3D drawings into construction drawings, so there was no time wasted having to redraw things. He was able to create construction drawings within the program as well.

Ladder World is one that sounds quite outrageous
Our green Astroturf was coming in from Georgia and it was stuck at the border. We didn't know if we would get it in time. We managed to get it the day before we actually shot it. It was beautiful, stunning when it came in. There were hills of Astroturf, and ladders going up as high as they could go. Ladders of different heights that performed different physical feats. They were constructed so that they could separate and the rungs could snap.

I've seen a photo of a large gondola…?
Yes, I think Terry brought that home. It's quite large, it's full size. At first it was supposed to be an Italian gondola, and so I was trying to find every gondola I could possible find in North America. Then I was looking at building it, and Terry said, "Let's make it not a gondola, let's make it something else", which is how it turned into what it is now.

It essentially works like a gondola. Verne is still propelling it in the scenes, with a long gondolier's pole. At first they were asking if I could possibly adapt an existing boat, somebody was finding me row boats. But it was not going to work - I can't adapt a row boat. We ended up making it out of Styrofoam. We had the most wonderful sculptors on the show. It's made out of Styrofoam and coated it with fibreglass.

Every time we go into the Imaginarium, we see something different depending on the person that goes in. Are there motifs that recur, or is it radically different every time?

No there are some motifs that recur. What I tried to do especially in the set decor was dress into Parnassus's den items that would recur in different worlds.

For the monastery door, I found a beautiful box. It's in Parnassus's den, and I've enlarged the box and added decoration to make the doors. In the gondola, there's this fabric strip along the back of the seat. I used that and pillows from the gondola inside Parnassus's den. So I tried to bring what is in Parnassus's world into the Imaginarium world. It's still the individual's personal morality that is being tested, but it's bringing in pieces of Parnassus as well.

How would you contrast working on this picture with working on Tideland?

In the way it was different, was that the scope of this one was much larger than Tideland. Although we had similar money and time problems as we did on Tideland, we had much less to build. We had very different problems. Most of my problems on Tideland were that locations were very far away, in the middle of fields, in the middle of valleys.

When you work on a Terry Gilliam film, you have to throw yourself wholeheartedly into it or you won't be part of the process. That's where the two films are similar. If you are not emotionally invested in it, you can't be giving the same level as what Terry is giving. We were all completely - mentally and emotionally - committed to this project. The same was true of Tideland. This one was more frantic than Tideland because we had far more to accomplish.

What influences did you use?
I primarily researched mysticism, alchemy, hermeticism and architecture - as you will see in the finished film.

At the start of every movie, I go out book shopping looking for images that speak specifically to the project I am beginning. I had brought books with me from my own personal library as well as a library of images that I've collected over time - images that have stood out for me that I've set aside over the years. When I came home for Christmas I brought back some books that I knew I wouldn't be needing anymore and grabbed a whole new batch of reference materials. I needed some fresh inspiration.

I had bought a wonderful book years ago. It had nothing to do with the movie I was working on at the time, but I thought one day I'm going to use this imagery, and it was about Mexican home altars. There's this scene where there are little boats in one scene. They were scripted as headstones but I approached Terry with the idea of making them little Day of the Dead boats. They were one of the most popular pieces of set dressing at the end of the show.

What involvement have you had with the visual effects work?

When I first got to London, we were working out of the Peerless offices and we had VFX meetings every day. As production continued, we'd have VFX meetings every couple of days just to make sure that we were all still on the same. Richard Bain, the VFX supervisor, was on set every day. I had worked with Richard before on Tideland. We worked very closely together throughout preproduction and production so that the physical worlds and computer-generated extensions could work together. I'm sure some things will have changed during the actual post-production. Terry always comes up with new ideas.

What would you say you have found to be the most rewarding about working on this picture?

The fact that I've had the pleasure of working with Terry Gilliam twice now, a person whom I admire both as a filmmaker and artist is pretty special. That and having watched the dailies and realising how beautiful everything looks... This will be a hard one to top!

Link to Dr Parnassus homepage within Dreams for many more interviews & features on the picture

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