Ra Vincent is one of the most prominent production designers working in the industry, having started his filmmaking career as a sculptor on The Lord of The Rings films. His credits since then have included The Hobbit films (for which he received an Oscar nomination for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), King Kong and Alice Through the Looking Glass. He is currently in Toronto promoting his work as the Production Designer for Jojo Rabbit, which is his third cinematic collaboration with Taika Waititi, following What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok. More of his work can be found here.
throwdown815: Going through your filmography, you went from being a sculptor, to a set designer and a production designer. Can you talk me through that transition?
Ra Vincent: It was an interesting pathway. I guess most production designers come from an architecture or graphics background, but my father worked in the industry as a scenic artist and backdrop painter. So I grew up learning a few tricks about scenic art, set building and things for the theater that was a big device toward pushing towards the fine arts. I started a sculpture degree which ultimately I didn't complete, and because I found myself falling into a very well paid, long term job with the Lord of the Rings films, I became a carver. And carving was kind of my professional hobby. I love to sculpt and I did that for a number of years, sculpting for King Kong and Lord of the Rings. So film kind of ended up finding me.
TD815: And your very first sculpting job for a major film was actually on Lord of the Rings. That must've been a pretty big first gig to tackle.
RV: Yeah, Lord of the Rings was pretty amazing education and most people around that time had extensive lists of projects that they've worked on before. But when you look at my resume, I've only had a few jobs. We worked on Lord of the Rings for six years – so that was six years of grinder work, five days a week, constantly honing your approach to filmmaking. And then, it wasn't until The Hobbit, which I decorated, that I really got close enough to the camera to appreciate the full storytelling process.
TD815: Between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, did you find VFX playing a much bigger role over the years?
RV: It has, but I will always maintain this: if a film’s made right, the visual effects serve to enhance the story and get us out of a tight spot. The production designer is really still part of the visual effects experience. A production designer is another tool in your kit. You still need to conceive the world that you're building and you still need to know what that big blue piece of fabric is. The reason why there's no set piece with this big blue piece of paper is because of many reasons. The stage isn't big enough or there wasn't enough time to build an epic city. But I feel like maybe now we're coming back to an art panel process, which relies less on visual effects solving everybody's problems, and more on becoming a tool for expanding our world.
TD815: You and Taika Waititi have had a pretty strong working relationship with each other over the past few years. How did that happen?
RV: I met Taika on this project when I was making a transition from sculpture to architecture. And because I'd ran large teams on some previous projects, he approached me about helping him with a film. And the film was his first piece, Boy, which ultimately I didn't do because it clashed with another job that I was working on. But it kind of sparked an interest in one another's work. And I remember Taika going away and working on Green Lantern and coming back and wanting to start up another project, and that new project was What We Do In the Shadows – which was a super, duper low budget film that required the kind of input from as many devoted storytellers as we could muster.
TD815: How different was it working on Thor: Ragnarok, compared with What We Do In the Shadows?
RV: We were dumpster diving for What We Do in the Shadows. Whereas Marvel was generous in allowing us the scope to build big. And with Thor, I think from Marvel's point of view, it was a bit of a dying storyline. And they gave it to Taika and needed to revitalize it, so we were lucky because we were given a bit of unlimited authority to recreate the world. And you do need to honor the previous films and make sure you don't destroy the aesthetic that was created, but the story was written to move into other realms and into new galaxies, so we were able to come up with an excuse to do Sakaar, which was completely bonkers.
TD815: What kind of research did you have to do before working on Jojo Rabbit?
RV: We were fortunate enough to have chosen our shooting locations wisely. Many of the locations we shot in Czech Republic were inside the German boundary, with towns that had historical references to Hitler. There were a couple of towns we went to that actually still had some of the propaganda in their displays. There were a whole lot of really terrible stories that people actually had at that time, but the were open to talking about it. I think by being in Czech Republic with people who were World War 2 survivors and had their own personal stories to add, a lot of the research came to us. Instead of me going and patrolling libraries, I had some very competent technicians.
TD815: I found the visual imagery of Jojo Rabbit to be very interesting. Specifically in how it took a lot of Nazi imagery that everyone’s used to seeing, and somehow depicts it with a much brighter disposition. It feels more cartoonish in a way, which I’m guessing was something you were trying to do when designing the film?
RV: I think that as we grow older, we tend to be a little more circumspect with our vision of the world and a little more conservative. And if you remember back to when you were a child, there was always a little heightened sense of memory of the colour, music or smells in an environment. And I like to use colour to express a feeling in a film, which I also did in Jojo Rabbit. Jojo's world is still a bright and optimistic one. The film was never going to descend into a terrible movie about war. It's a story about humanity and has an attitude that hopefully sticks with people. And with things like colour and not cluttering the frame too much, it allows people the time to sit with the characters. The idea is to not distract from those important matters, so the set design has a lot to do with that.
TD815: What was really surprising for me though, was that even the exterior street shots were relatively bright and positive looking.
RV: The thing is, the German people here were not the evil. The German people during Jojo's time were optimistic and very level headed, and I think Germany was a beautiful strong nation that just crippled itself. And so the gorgeous little German villages are always gonna be gorgeous little German villages. It's that kind of hideousness of war which is the blight, and it's so easy for people to depict the Second World War as a kind of dreary, gray on gray with dirt and cloudy skies.
TD815: It’s certainly a different way of depicting this period in history.
RV: I know what we did will be divisive and have people possibly thinking it's unnecessary, but that's not really the film we are trying to make. We're not making a historical recreation. That being said, near the end of the war in Nazi Germany, people would dress up in their Sunday best when they went down to get their food stamps and rations for the day because there was a very strong likelihood it would be their last day. So people celebrating life at the same time they’re facing death is a kind of weird jester – a juxtaposition between a collapsing world and people trying to still be human and enjoy themselves.