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Dressed for Success with Katie Bulla

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or How to put the final touches on a well thought out production.

Katie Bulla.jpg
Katie Bulla    Photo Credit: Alexander Thompson

Katie Bulla is a production designer. What does a production designer do?  They make everything look... right!  Basically the overall look and feel of a movie.  It's that extra element in a film, besides the characters,  that helps to tell the story.  You can learn a lot about a character by the environment they're placed in and the objects around them.  Also, the actors must be dressed to best personify the role they are playing. It should be accurate for the period. Done right it can make the viewer feel they are eavesdropping on the place and time the story is about..

Katie has made everything look right with Death of a Wizard. A short film she recently worked on.  Her countless hours of research and attention to detail help us envision small town life in the 60's where the story takes place.  A time when racial integration in the schools and public places had just been adopted.  Blacks and Whites must learn to live together.  Not always easy for some.

Currently a film student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Katie is busy as a bee.  Besides keeping up with her studies she is starting to fill her resume' with the productions she has worked on.  Her inquisitive mind and desire to learn the backstory is sure to serve her well in the film business as it does in life.  Good luck Katie Bulla!

Katie Bulla and Robbie Cline Photo Credit: Alexander Thompson

What attracted you to it and what is your favorite part of filmmaking?

My favorite part of filmmaking is props, to me it is just so interesting. Getting into a character enough to understand what sort of things would be in their purse, or what they would use as a bookmark. Psychology really interests me and this is such a fun way of putting it to use.

I noticed from the start that Death of a Wizard reminded me of In Cold Blood. Today I was looking and found some photos (http://deathofawizard.blogspot.com) that were used for preparation of the film,  about the look that was desired, and found a photo of In Cold Blood there. It seems a lot of work was done in preparation for the film. What can you tell me about that?

I had a lot of fun researching for Death of a Wizard. I used some film references, including one of my personal favorites In Cold Blood and also Capote which is about the writing of the novel. I also used magazine references from the time period and one of our faulty actually gave me an original copy of the Life Magazine issue covering the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which is seen a couple of times throughout the film.

I also looked at family photographs from that era, which helped me pull an overall feeling for the rooms in the Wizard's house.

One of the most interesting parts of prep work to be done for the film, for me at least, was working with color in the black and white medium. I am a big believer in making the sets for the actors, and not just for the screen. So even though everything is in black and white, the rooms we used had to be painted, and not just in varying levels of grey. Paying attention to value range and greyscale was very important in that way and color test were crucial.

Talking with Edward was also a big part of my prep, working with him to flesh out characters especially with the two sisters, who we only see in this very traumatic moment in their lives, but figuring out who they were besides that allowed me the opportunity to make their living spaces tell us about them.

Photo Credit: Alexander Thompson

Your attention to detail certainly paid off in making the story very believable. Tell us a little about the goals of a production designer. You're called in very early in pre-production right?

Production designers are responsible for working with the director and the cinematographer to create the overall tone of the film through the aesthetic. We oversee the props, set decoration, and costume departments, as well as helping with finding locations and with special effects.

Designers are called in fairly early in preproduction and begin working with the director to bring forth their vision for the film. Then the designer will take what the director has told them and expand upon it through research and creative thinking, always keeping in contact with the director to make sure they are staying on target.

Photo Credit: Alexander Thompson

In small films, like the ones produced at our school the crews are much smaller and a lot of the time the production designers not only oversee but run the props and set decoration departments, and in the specific case of Death of a Wizard the special effects department. The overall goal of a production designer in my opinion is to create a world for the characters to fit into, even if the story is based in realism, every film is a new world for filmmakers to explore and capture.

Then comes the rest of pre-production, helping to find locations that will work, finding set dressing and props that stick to the vision, laying out the designs for the sets, and eventually making sure everything is set up and ready for the shoot. There are of course dozens of other little things that designers do in preproduction that I am not listing so as not to bore you but in a nut shell thats whats involved in preproduction for a designer. Then comes the beast of production, which in the case of Death of a Wizard for me, was very heavy.  Acting as on set dresser and props master with my Art Director Charlotte Cox and our crew.

In the case of Death of a Wizard we had the job of replicating a world which none of us (the crew) had been around to see, but one that some of the people who will see the film have. It was an interesting challenge and very fun to research.

Photo Credit: Alexander Thompson

That seems like a lot of responsibility. Does it end when the film wraps or is there more to do after that?

Well when the film finishes shooting, the art department still has to strike the sets and do returns, besides that we're finished, aside from reshoots or pick ups and if they want the designer to design the poster!

For me, the glasses that Marcese wore reinforced the character of Virgil that he played. What was the inspiration for the glasses?

The glasses were of course a reference to Malcolm X, and they were something that Edward wanted from the very start.

Marcese Lorenzo Robers as Virgil     Photo Credit: Alexander Thompso

Advice for those wanting to get into the behind the scenes type work?

My advice to someone trying to get into film making would be to just make it happen. Meet people who are working and stick with them.

Any interesting stories from the set of DOAW you can tell me about?

My favorite story from Death of a Wizard was that we had to reshoot the shot of the little girl (Kayli Tolleson) from under the bed. We couldn't get the actress back for the reshoot so we had the editor, Justin, put on the little pink pajama pants, little pink slippers and pretend to be the little girl! It was pretty funny.

Photo Credit: Alexander Thompso

That is funny!  What are you working on now?

I just finished my fourth year project called Gene, directed by Andrew Nelson, and I am working as prop master on two other fourth year productions. This summer I worked as prop master on a independent feature from Dragon Eye Films called Demon Lake.

Thank you for telling us about production design and your experiences on Death of a Wizard.

Thank you!

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