Interview: Simon Wood (L.A. Noire)

I love L.A. And when the game L.A. Noire was recently released I was first in line to get a copy. It’s a fantastic recreation of Los Angeles in the 1940’s. So I’m really happy that Simon Wood, who was the production designer for the game at Team Bondi, was able to talk about what’s involved in the design of such a title…

Q: What is your background?

It’s a journey… I was 8 yrs old and I just seen the ‘Making Of The Empire Stikes Back‘ and it blew me away, years before Star Wars had me drawing spaceships and monsters non-stop, but when Empire came out and I saw there was an art department involved, well that was it.. I wanted to work in film art departments.

So the most suited degree was Industrial/Product Design so that’s what I did, college and university. I started as a Product/Industrial Designer in London but it wasn’t great, in fact it was a bit boring. I missed my spaceships.

But I heard that Episode-1 The Phantom Menace was being made 20mins from my place. So I called ILM in California every day, every day for weeks to get the details of the Production Designer. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. So the poor girl gave in and gave me his number- Gavin Boucquet. He’s a genius and he was a draughtsman on Return of the Jedi. He doesn’t know this but one of my favourite sketches was his actual blueprint for the Speeder Bike. Man I loved that drawing. So after calling Gavin he hired me for a couple of weeks as an art dept. assistant. I helped the guys build some models, printed blueprints, made tea etc. He showed me how the art department worked. Looking back I was so wide eyed and naïve, years later I got it, but then it was just shell shock.

Afterwards Gavin rang the Supervising Art Director on the new Bond film being made and so I went to see them. It was to be Tomorrow Never Dies and they asked if I could sketch and so forth. I was hired as an art dept. assistant for a few weeks but went on to be there until the last few days. I loved every minute of it. I made tea, made sketch foam models, designed some of Bond’s gadgets and gizmos, the newspapers and printed props. I had such an amazing time, as these guys were the pillars of the British Film Industry. They’d all made the classic movies we’d all seen as kids – Bond, Star Wars, Empire, Jedi, Superman, Batman, Indiana Jones – Raiders, Last Crusade. It was insane. The guys took me under their wings and I ended up helping the stand by art directors on set. ON A BOND SET! When you saw Pierce walk on set and do his scene, you just couldn’t help hum the Bond theme tune in your head. The designer was Allan Cameron who’s done The Mummy’s and Da Vinci Code/Angels & Demons, incredible work. Peter Young the Set Decorator is a legend and won his Oscars for Batman and Sleepy Hollow. He showed me how to dress sets and breakdown scripts.

Then I was hired on Thunderbirds! and I was designing spaceships, props etc. But the film never saw the light of day. It was dropped by the studio. Years later somebody else picked it up but it wasn’t our work.

Q: How do you get involved in video games?

The film industry went quiet and at that time the games industry had really took off when the first PlayStation launched, games were becoming quite cinematic for there day. So I took my portfolio to the UK games show ECTS and thought Sony would be the best one to tackle. I got the number of the Director of Development for Sony’s London Team Soho Studio and called him. It was Brendan McNamara who went on to found Team Bondi and to write and direct L.A. Noire.

So I went in to design characters for their brand new game, it was such early, early days on this project which became The Getaway. I stayed on and as the Production Designer, I designed all the locations, characters, found the London locations and helped the guys plan and shot the huge motion capture shoot. I showed the art guys who to dress locations and plan lighting, from what I’d learned from my film days. I literally did all that I could, it was hard but great fun. The game went on to receive critical acclaim for its story and realistic film-like locations and characters. So we were all happy with that. Plus I think it became the fastest selling new video game on the PlayStation, which it held for years.

After The Getaway, Brendan returned home to Sydney and set up his own studio, whilst some of us continued to work on The Getaway: Black Monday. I helped the guys at the beginning of the project and then left as I moved over to Sydney, with a few other guys, to work with Brendan on creating L.A. Noire.

Q: What is a Production Designer?

In short we’re responsible for ‘the look’ of the production. We interpret the script through colour, architecture and atmosphere. We’ll work with the cinematographer to ensure the lighting plays its part and with the costume designer to ensure costumes and sets work well together.

Q: With L.A. Noire – what was your assignment – what was the brief?

The one thing we wanted from L.A. Noire was a sense of history and of a time long gone by. We wanted to be more Chinatown noir than the German expression films and Brendan wanted to follow an episodic tv formula, mini cases wrapped up in one big story. Its genius, the script is amazing and its over 2,300 pages long. So we had to be mindful we didnt reproduce a colour theme by mistake as with a cast of around 400 and we designed and built over 140 locations, the challenge was huge. As these locations were multiple floors, multiple rooms and some were so big we had the Player use elevators.

We designed and built over 600 individual shop windows, built thousands of clues and props all so we could have an immersive world for the Player. As playing as a detective, we needed crimes scenes dressed and fully detailed like nothing seen before. We’ve got locations so well dressed and so beautifully lit, that when you look at it, you think you’re looking at a movie. Thats all down to a huge team effort, art, design, code, its just super collaborative as its got to be a complete experience. We wanted the Player not to think he was in a version of 1947 LA, but actually in 1947 LA, like a time machine.

Q: How do you design an interactive space for a past era?

Thoroughly! As part of our research we found 1930’s land maps that detailed every section of LA at the time – residential, commercial, parks etc and we then overlaid that on top of US geological data, which was an amazing 3D model. We then adjusted it all and started to create our world on top of this digital patch work 3D quilt. We had obtained access to the photo archives at UCLA’s newspaper photo vault. These were the photos on every cover of the newspapers from the late 30’s up to the early 50’s. We scanned them in super high res. and we saw how people lived, what they ate, wore, how they went about their lives. We also obtained copies of the Spence Collection, which were photographs taken from a plane that flew of LA at the time, photographing almost every road and house. The results were amazing as it was like satellite photography.

I got the Sears paint and stain varnishes for the top ten colours of the time and we used them as a great reference, along with actual wallpaper books from the time too. All adding to the ‘time machine’ approach. Then we organized a ‘prop photo shoot’, where we hired vintage props and furniture pieces from all the major prop houses in LA and then photographed them. We hired a costume designer who designed the principal characters outfits, we went to Western Costumes in LA who are the biggest in the business. Its 120,000 sq ft and has dressed almost every film you’ve ever seen, from Gone with the Wind and right up until this years movies. We photographed and made clothes which we scanned in 3D giving us super high res models we could use for the game.

Q: What are some of your biggest design influences? And what, among them, are interactive?

We have a huge admiration and love for the games that our publisher Rockstar Games, makes. We love Red Dead Redemption, what a stunning rendition of the wild west, cowboys and history. There’s other games me and the guys tip our hat to, such as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and EA’s Mass Effect games. Everyone is pushing high production values. Outside of games I’m influenced greatly by amazing production designers, such as ‘the man’ Ken Adam, Guy Hendrix Dyas, Alex McDowell, Rick Heinrichs and Ralph Eggleston at Pixar. Photography is big influence too, so I’m forever photographing or cataloging images that grab me in some way.

Q: What do you want to do next?

A long holiday! I’m going back to Europe for a month and I’m going to avoid anything that looks remotely 1940-50’s. I’ll take a thousand more photos on vacation and again, not print any of them – again.

Thank you!

 

(c) images courtesy of Rockstar Games

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