17th Berlinale Talents | 2019
Writer/Set & Production Design
Alina Smirnova is a production designer & art director based in New York City.
Hi Alina thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the Berlinale?
Yes! I even purchased a suitcase today to replace my old straggler with a busted wheel. I’ve also been trying to binge watch recent films and documentaries and everything else that might have fallen through the cracks over the last year.
Are there nerves ahead of the festival?
I don’t quite know what to expect, therefore my overall mindset is calm with a sprinkle of excitement and a dash of awe. I think I’m really enjoying the anticipation!
What does it mean for you to be part of the 17th edition of Berlinale Talents?
It’s definitely an honour. I’m looking forward to meeting creative minds from all over the world.
I’m especially curious to find out how the transformation of mass media, which film and television is a part of has had an effect on filmmakers from different cultures and cities. I want to know what preoccupies peoples thoughts - what they're talking about, writing about and putting onto film.
How important are opportunities like this?
I feel like I’ve been invited to participate in an event that’s like the United Nations of filmmaking.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work, what was it about filmmaking that interested you so much?
I enjoy the didactic nature of film the most. It's sometimes emotionally difficult, but I throw myself into the narratives and live out the experiences of characters on screen, drawing lessons and dwelling on moments that I may never get to experience myself. Films are influential in very many ways - docs teach me history; fantasy and sci-fi push me to the edge of knowledge; horror films make me aware of my mortality, and comedy soothes and heals. All films affect my subconscious - they mould my dreams and ultimately fuel my own creativity and imagination. I also appreciate how accessible film is to the general public, unlike other forms of art.
As a set and production designer, what draws you to a film project?
When I read scripts, I don't look for interesting, vibrant ‘design opportunities’, instead I choose projects for their dramatic content and multifaceted characters. It’s thrilling to get hooked on a script and want to deep dive into it.
"...the director will usually anchor the designer back to the important themes and characters."
What was the first film you worked on?
The first feature film I production designed is called ‘Keep the Change’. It’s a Manhattan love story that exposes it’s an audience to real people with autism.
Do you ever find yourself getting too attached to a project or are you able to walk away once it is done?
When I used to be a painter I practised a very personal and intimate art form. It was hard to pronounce paintings finished and walk away. But the design of the film is very different. Filmmaking has five major stages of production. As the designer I often enter somewhere in the middle, during the stage of pre-production and then move onto the next project before editing even begins, therefore I’ve learned to let go. As long as I feel like I’ve done everything in my ability to create a supportive and successful design, I am happy.
What has been the most challenging project you've worked on?
They’ve all been challenging in some way or form. Losing locations right before a shoot has happened to me multiple times on different projects and it can be very frustrating. I often have to rethink my entire plan and do last minute research and sourcing to make the new location work for the original concept of the film. It becomes very difficult to let go of the "ideal look" and try to make the best of what you've got.
What are some of the easy mistakes a first-time set and production designer might make?
I think the easiest mistake a novice production designer can make is to get too caught up in florid overwrought language/world of design without grounding it within the framework of the story. But the director will usually anchor the designer back to the important themes and characters.
"Collaboration is key to any successful film."
How important is the collaborative process in what you do?
Very important! Collaboration is key to any successful film. It’s a meeting of minds that generates more than any one person can forge. I love working with people who are dedicated, open to new ideas, willing to be vulnerable and constructive. I once had to collaborate with an engineering student to make a bicycle into a weight-bearing crane that was supposed to have been built by a young girl. We worked together to make something functional, safe and also wondrous yet believable.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
My approach to design has stayed the same. I often tap into history to understand my story and tap into various forms of art to support it. I combine two vectors: one is analytical and the other comes from the gut - it’s intuitive and gestural. My technical approach to design, on the other hand, changes as I gain more experience and begin to learn the ‘tricks of the trade’.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently assistant art directing on a TV show called FBI and preparing to production design an indie movie in April.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips for any thinking about getting into set and production design?
If the passion is there, you can make anything happen! Work hard and work often, take jobs that are big and small and work in different capacities to find out the many responsibilities of the art department. Set decoration, prop mastering, construction, graphic design are some of the many skills and fields that come together to create a successful design. It’s important to dip your feet into all of them.