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An Interview With – Production Designer Ray Ball

Runway (Ian Power)Since working in the design department at The Abbey, Ray Ball has worked as the production designer for countless productions for film and TV. Ray won an IFTA for Best Production Design in 2011 for his design of Ian Power’s feature film The Runway. Other credits include Saving the Titanic, Moone Boy and Roy. Conor McMahon, for Film Ireland, talked to Ray about why he loves being in charge.

So how did you first get into production design?

I was in Dun Laoghaire and then I went straight into the Abbey. I left there a couple of years later and went out to RTÉ. In the Abbey, you started as an assistant designer and then became a designer over time.

And would that be a route that people still take? Most people seem to do the year-long course in Dun Laoghaire.

It seems to be a prerequisite now to have a course behind you. I left RTÉ in 1988 and at that stage commercials were fantastic, because they were very well resourced. You got to do very good quality stuff like big set-builds. In those days we had control. Jesus. I don’t want to become one of those ‘in those days’ people.

Have you had to adapt to the green screen world?

It’s always been there. All that’s changed is that it’s used more now. I’ve never worried about it because I think actors need something to react to – the set is another character. And if you put an actor into a green screen without any impetus I think you’re leaving them exposed.

Yeah. Even Spielberg will say that if he’s on a set he’ll get 10 new ideas he would never have got otherwise. Do you find that you need certain artistic skills to be a production designer?

Different designers certainly have different ways of approaching it. My belief is that you should be fundamentally driven by a passion for art and design. That’s going to inform everything you do. A lot of the rest of it is organisational and managerial and fundamentally uninteresting. The core has to be creative.

When you’re working with the director, would you be using other films as reference points?

Yes, very often. Media can be so easily sent to and fro now. You can use other films as references with much more accuracy now than in the past.

Right now, do you think decisions about production design are mainly budget-driven? Is there much that people can do on the lower end of the scale?

It’s budget-driven, definitely. It’s a bit like Ryanair – the client very often just goes for the lowest quote. Re lower budget projects, personally I think it’s impossible. It’s the one input into filmmaking that requires money. The DOP can do his best work with just a camera and a couple of longs, you know, the same with the make-up person and the same with hair. To actually have proper control of the design of a project and to see it in its totality, you have to have loot behind you.

What do you do if the director doesn’t have a visual sense?

Bring me those directors any day. I love them to bits. It means you can present the whole thing. Now, obviously people with a visual sense will drive you as well, but in a different way. It’s just – it’s nice to be in charge.

I went to Dun Laoghaire and did the Film School. They didn’t really teach you a whole lot about production design. Personally, I’ve found that the more you let the other person do what they are good at…

Well I can fully support that, Conor. If you engage somebody to do something, let them at it.

For people thinking about a career in production design – should they aim do some sort of college course, then?

Definitely. It’s an art school background. But then the more life experience you can bring to the table the better because there is no end to the scope of what you could be asked to do.

Do you find yourself collecting stuff?

Not any more – I used to hoard. Your primary method of getting stuff is to get a good props buyer. A good buyer will have tapped into so many different communities. Sending out people that don’t know the lie of the land is a bit of a fool’s errand, because they could spend days doing what somebody with contacts can do in minutes. Obviously there are prop stores as well, but they become exhausted very quickly. And then if you buy something you have to store it.

So is there any production design ‘bible’?

The one I’m most likely to grab off the shelf is called, The Backstage Handbook. I don’t even know if it’s still in print, I bought it in America years ago. And it’s pretty much a bible of everything for stage-craft, which feeds into film as well. It’ll certainly allow you to at least seem as if you know what you’re doing.

This article first appeared in Issue 132 of Film Ireland Magazine.