INFO · Search
· Chinese version · Subscribe

Culture & Leisure

Art Department: The story behind the visuals

Irving Cheung has once been nominated for both best art direction, best costume and makeup design in the 38th Hong Kong Film Awards.

Irving Cheung Yee-man, a 40-year-old  film production designer and art director, once worked on film production in the Shaw Studio for 69 hours straight without sleeping.

She would keep working but not be conscious about what she was doing. “Why am I still working?” was the realisation when her consciousness was delayed.

For Cheung, working in the film art department is exciting, despite the high-pressure schedule and irregular working time. 

“Few other industries have such a job that people working for it can tell others, ‘hey, I just witnessed an explosion today, or a bank robbery, even flesh-cutting from a corpse’,” Cheung said. 

In Hong Kong, the rising popularity of recent domestic films has brought more attention to the film art department, which is often hidden behind the media spotlight and the cheers of moviegoers.

As the directorial debut of award-winning visual effects specialist Ng Yuen-fai, the action sci-fi film Warriors of Future has become the highest-grossing Chinese-language film in Hong Kong of all time, taking over HK$80 million at the Hong Kong box office, according to data released by the official social accounts of this film. 

With expensive and time-consuming production, Warriors of Future has impressed audiences with its rich visual effects and sparked a media discussion on Hong Kong’s special effects filmmaking. 

To achieve the artistic presentation of a film, the art department is responsible for creating the overall visual look of a film in collaboration with the director.

Inspired by Cheung’s work in The Empty Hands, Adam Wong Sau-ping (left), director of The Way We Keep Dancing, asked Cheung to also remove the blue tone in his production.

An art department is supervised by a production designer whose job can be divided into three stages: pre-production, scene creation and post-production.

Production designers will discuss and co-create the backgrounds of the film characters at the pre-production stage when the script has yet to be developed.

Then, the production designer will lead the art director and costume designer in the creation and establishment of the setting. 

Having worked in this position for years, Cheung said a production designer works as the scenes’ gatekeeper,  ensuring everything works out as expected.

“The few minutes between the walk-through and the official roll in the camera are critical,” said Cheung. 

She explained no matter how much preparatory work is done, how the scene is presented can only be known until the camera is set.

The post-production work is to deliver ideas on how to recreate the whole scene in a movie to the crew responsible for toning, editing and sound effects. 

For example, if the lips’ colour and eyeshadow’s lightness of the cast is different from the design based on the script after toning, a production designer needs to offer suggestions for improvement to the post-production team. 

Cheung said a production designer needs to be sensitive enough to visualise the world in the movie through texts, including the smells and colours. 

“I have to synchronise with everyone’s ideas. It is a process which inspires and pushes beyond every imagination,” said Cheung.

For art production staff, transforming characters in the script into visual images that can leave a deep impression in the moviegoers’ minds requires plentiful imagination. 

In a recent art production for an upcoming suspense movie that Cheung joined, she had to use her imagination to combine the abstract descriptions of the script to draw out a concrete portrait of the “a white short man” in a 10-year-old girl’s dream. To better present this role, Cheung added doses of creativity and imagined from the perspective of the girl.

“In what kind of circumstance will a little girl see the shadow of a person?” she asked .

Then she incorporates her childhood experience of looking into the living room from a dark room and seeing the shadow on the couch as a person into creating  this cinematic image of “a white short man”, presenting it as a human-like shadow looming from the wall.

“It is to imagine after putting yourself into the stance of the character more than complying with the scripts,” Cheung said.

Intending to add more texture to her works, she has tried to swap an old wide-brim straw hat from a cleaner with a new one at the refuse collection point, and even sneaked the old tank tops and bed sheets from her relatives for a better presentation in the film.

Apart from working in the film industry, Cheung also taught as a part-time lecturer for art and costume direction Hong Kong Baptist University, higher diploma in creative film production.

Only 19% of the respondents are interested in engaging in the entertainment industry, with 3.7% of them wishing to be involved in the filmmaking industry, according to a 2021 report from the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Group.

Regardless of all these challenges to working as part of the art department, arts or movie enthusiasts still wantto join the industry.

Ways for them to step into the industry are not restricted to conventional channels, whereas approaching someone they admire in the field on social media is a feasible way, said Cheung.

For Kels Chui Hei-ching, a 20-year-old student majoring in graphic design, it is a coincidence to have her first taste of becoming an assistant art director for the movie, The Sparring Partner.

She could never imagine a step inside the antique store would eventually turn into a step towards the industry. 

The store owner introduced her to watching movies at the film culture centre, where she met Ho Cheuk-tin, who later became the director of The Sparring Partner

Introduced by Ho, Chui started as a set production assistant, then the assistant art director.

“The job of an assistant art designer gives a higher degree in freedom of creation and enables me to gain experience from others,” Chui said. “It is a space to store wild ideas.”

As a newcomer, she said there is much more to learn. 

“I am used to working alone, but participating in the art team, communication and teamwork are essential,” Chui said.

Kels Chui’s interest in film art originated in The French Dispatch and The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson and The Worst Person In The World by Joachim Trier.

As a fresh film art staff, there are works which may be regarded as pointless by the audience, but meaningful to her.

During the set building for an R-rated movie’s casting, she wanted the filmgoers to know the scene was about a category III film at once, by putting up posters related to it although some would think it was unnecessary.

“You have to pay attention to details to make a difference,” said Chui.

She agreed to a certain extent that society pays more attention to the artists and directors than the art team. 

“It might be the habit for individuals to watch movies one-sidedly,” said Chui.

However, the rebound in ticket sales of films played in theatres recently is “unprecedented” to movie production workers like Cheung. 

“Enjoying domestic films has become a trend to Hong Kong people, also the celebrity effect and quality of script are the factors stirring up the hit,” said Cheung.

According to the senior film production designer and art director, “restoring the film set that is close to reality while creating an imaginary world” is what an art team does in filmmaking, and the contribution of the art department also deserves  applause and support from audiences. 

“As a personnel of the film industry, I hope to continue producing high-quality films for the audiences, as well as winning their confidence and support in domestic films,” said Cheung.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


Hong Kong film industry questions for its revival era

Hong Kong Cantopop: K-song's popularity reduces diversity of local music