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How Does it Feel to Design a Film's Visuals?

Photo from "Taking Woodstock" of protestors on stage and next to a car in foreground. Photo by Ken ReganPhoto by Ken Regan

Last year I was asked to join Ang Lee as the production designer on his forthcoming film "Taking Woodstock." I met with Lee to show him my work from previous films as well as a collection of photos I had put together of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, which serves as the background for the film.


It's the production designer's responsibility to create, or re-create, the world in which the story takes place. In the case of "Taking Woodstock," that process began with research. Once I had a solid understanding of the period, the place and the script itself, I set out with a location manager to scout for the best location in which to make our film, someplace that looked the part and wasn't halfway across the planet. We settled on New Lebanon, New York, with the Berkshire Mountains standing in for the Catskills.


"Taking Woodstock" required locating hundreds of period-correct cars and trucks from private collections across the country. Another major task was the recreation of The El Monaco Motel, an actual motel that existed in Bethel, New York in 1969, which served as the centerpiece of the story. Capturing the spirit of the times is only one layer. Each detail and decision is dictated by a larger effort to ensure that nothing on screen detracts from or overshadows the characters or the story.

Still, despite all the planning, conceptualizing and designing, it seems impossible to know exactly how the final product will look and feel. So it is always with great anticipation that I sit down to watch the film for the first time. If I've read the director's intentions carefully, I will have contributed seamlessly to the vision of the film.


Where was I in 1969? Just finishing my senior year of high school. A year later I arrived at SF State, where Professor Eric Sinkkonen was the first to teach me the skills that have let me express myself in a discipline that has fascinated me since I was a child.


-- David Gropman (B.A., '74) received an Oscar nomination for his work on "The Cider House Rules." His numerous credits as a production designer include "Chocolat," "The Shipping News," "Nobody's Fool," "Twilight," "The Human Stain," "Slaves of New York," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "A Civil Action."

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