From Hayward to Hollywood
Production designer Scott Chambliss ’85 devises futuristic look for Star Trek, Tomorrowland
BY MONIQUE BEELER
Scott Chambliss ’85 didn’t intentionally set out to design what the future – its cityscapes, warcraft, weaponry and hospital beds – might look like. But his steady employment as production designer for A-list Hollywood films, from the recent Star Trek: Into Darkness to the upcoming Tomorrowland, suggest his forward-facing vision and warp speed career trajectory won’t change course anytime soon.
Funny thing is that as an undergrad designing costumes and sets for University Theatre productions, Chambliss took more design inspiration from the 18th-century French painter Watteau than from contemporary artists and modeled his own wardrobe after 1940s Hollywood chic. Peers even called costumes he fashioned for one period piece the “Scotteau collection.”
His early preoccupation with times past may explain why his streamlined, futuristic sets never scream icy or sterile. Although he favors a pared down, often neutral palette, he weaves in touches of warmth and texture. It’s in the thick cognac leather covering the captain and crew’s seats on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, in the foliage dotting a 23rd-century urban landscape and in the rusty patina of a vehicle in a space age chase scene.
From Bard to Bird
Cast an eye backward, however, across black-and-white photos of student actors in a 1980s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It for a glimpse of the artist Chambliss as a young man. As costume designer for the CSUEB show, Chambliss clad the cast all in ivory and white — from flounces and lace trim to cinched-in bodices and wigs. (Decades later, slippers and boots he’d painted white for the performance remained staples in the theatre department’s wardrobe room.) The hand of Chambliss — producer J.J. Abrams’ go-to production designer for projects including Mission Impossible III and TV’s Alias — may not be immediately apparent, but as you get better acquainted with his professional output, a quiet foreshadowing of his trademark spare lines and subtle color schemes emerges.
“I had this goofy idea for the (As You Like It) costumes,” says Chambliss, during a break from his pre-production duties for Tomorrowland, directed by Brad Bird and starring George Clooney. “I wanted to create a feeling, an ambiance that drew from all cultures.”
The result? Sumptuous textures and silhouettes he dubs “extravagant in scale and structure.”
“I wanted to create another world, and they let me go for it,” Chambliss says.
It was a harbinger of his day job to come. As production designer — or as his email signature sums up his job title: Design Boss — Chambliss is in charge of designing the physical world in which a movie takes place. With few exceptions, if an actor touches it, Chambliss had a hand in its look and creation. That means every spy’s miniature flashlight, transporter room control panel and wall-size view screen on set gets crafted, selected or approved by Chambliss. He also oversees the location department, which scouts out spots where specific scenes will be filmed. For the 2013 Star Trek, for instance, he talked Abrams into filming scenes of the USS Enterprise’s warp core on site at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility. (When Abrams initially balked at checking out the site, Chambliss threatened to fling himself on the director’s office floor and lie there until he reconsidered. When Abrams later got a gander at the facility’s massive laser bays and target chamber, he agreed it was the right choice.)
“I’m head for a whole team of incredibly talented artists to achieve the visual storytelling point of view of the director,” Chambliss explains.
For his current assignment on Tomorrowland, he oversees a staff of 250 to 300 working in departments such as set decoration, props and construction.
His past work has earned him professional accolades and major awards, including a 2002 Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction and a 2003 win for Excellence in Production Design from the Art Directors Guild of America. (One theatre professor tells Chambliss he’s counting on him to remember CSUEB in his acceptance speech if he one day wins an Oscar.)
But pursuing a career in theatre wasn’t a foregone conclusion for the young Chambliss. When he arrived at 18 on the Hayward campus from the small Central Valley town of Tracy, he’d had high school drama experience but hadn’t picked a major. English, art and, yes, theatre were all on the table.
After running into a hometown acquaintance (Cathy Poppe ’82) who had recently worked on a production of Oedipus at then-Cal State Hayward, her zeal for the program inspired the teenage Chambliss to enroll in some theatre classes. At first, he says, he dabbled, but by junior year he was smitten. Home! He sensed he’d found a deeply fulfilling fit artistically, academically and, as it turned out, professionally.
“They let me design so much there,” he says. “They really allowed me to develop my creative
Three decades later, he has metamorphosed from stitching courtly garb and arranging sets for 17th-century plays in the University Theatre to bringing to cinematic life an entire universe of sleek weaponry, elegant skyscrapers, engine room technology and sick bay gadgetry for 21st-century Star Trek films, the spy thriller Salt, Cowboys and Aliens and other
futuristic fare. Like few others, Chambliss’ career track qualifies as meteoric. A steady-climbing, brightly lit flight path fueled by boundless inspiration, innovation and forward momentum aptly describes both Chambliss and his professional progress since his days as an undergrad when he once drove more than 300 miles round-trip one night to snap photos of Coalinga oil fields. He wanted the images to use as a model for an onstage oil pump he needed built for a play called San Joaquin Blues. On another occasion, he recalls being so absorbed creating costumes for a production that the time whizzed by without him noticing the sun setting — or rising again — until his classmates started filing in for classes the following morning.
“With Scott, it wasn’t hard to see that he had potential as a designer,” says Professor Thomas Hird, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “I frequently use the metaphor of a Swiss army knife. Everyone’s going to have a different blade. Some people have multiple blades.”
“One advantage I saw that Scott had — and is true of successful actors — he had the ability to have a conversation with anyone,” says Hird, who recently celebrated a 40-year tenure with the department. “He was interested in being helped. He was quietly soaking things up.”
Hird acknowledges that even in a tight-knit theatre department, some people can be hard to work with. Chambliss, on the other hand, treated everyone with respect, which in turn made others want to help him out with whatever tasks he needed done on a production.
“He was willing to lead when people need to be led, and he was willing to follow when he needed to follow,” Hird says.
No doubt it’s a trait that has contributed to his success in a business that is notorious for ranks filled with strong egos and challenging personalities.
Chambliss’ closest college friend, Meghan Krank Burke ’85, worked as an actor and regional theatre director for 25 years before switching careers. Today, she is a nurse practitioner based in Buffalo, NY. She and Chambliss made the journey together from the East Bay to the East Coast for graduate school: she to New York University to study acting, he to Carnegie Mellon where he double majored in set and costume design.
“To work in this business, you have to be consumed with it,” Krank Burke says. “I’ve seen several people where it’s taken a toll on their lives. He’s been able to keep a (balanced) life.”
“He’s extremely patient and extremely calm and has a lot of confidence,” she adds.
Krank Burke says she expected her college pal would become a professional success, but not necessarily in the commercial realm.
“I totally saw him going into weird offbeat artist stuff,” she says. As a kid, she says, he designed theatrical sets in shoeboxes. In college, he often penned elaborate notes to her on dancing, paper doll-style cutouts.
“He was just so freaking talented,” she says. “The word superficial would not apply to him in any way.”
Chambliss credits one Cal State East Bay professor in particular with shaping his early creative development: Edgardo de la Cruz.
Soft-spoken and beloved by students and colleagues, De la Cruz worked in the Department of Theatre and Dance for 23 years, until shortly before his death at 71 in 2004. He was named 1994 George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor.
“I will be forever informed by him and grateful,” Chambliss says of his mentor. “He had this great gift of charisma. He could just infuse people with enthusiasm.” The two remained friends for years.
“Edgardo was very much an artist,” Krank Burke says. “He was probably the first person in all our lives — (in this) little suburban theatre department in Hayward — who introduced us to theatre as art. His sets would be really minimal with structural pieces in it. He would layer his productions with meaning.”
Shaping ‘Responsible Artists’
As a director, de la Cruz concentrated on transforming students into what he called “responsible artists,” Hird says. A responsible artist, according to this view, does not need to go to the director for insights into her character’s soul and psyche; it’s her job to flesh out her subject.
As an artist schooled de la Cruz-style, Chambliss has gone onto demonstrate great competence in designing sets and scenes layered with meaning and metaphor — such as captives shackled in a gold mine like commodities by the greedy outer space bad guys in Cowboys and Aliens. Such responsible artist choices help link the world of the audience member to the “world of the play,” Hird observes. It’s long been a trend in theatrical productions — whether one set in the past or today — to highlight issues or themes relevant to the audience’s times. During the Vietnam era, for example, theatrical productions tended to reflect themes of wars, he points out. Done well, such dramas “tell us that the worst things that happen in war are human tragedies; it’s not just about the war.”
An Audience Assist
“(Chambliss) has — and this might be from Edgardo or he might naturally have it — a concern about the audience’s understanding,” Hird says. “Stories are about human problems, and successful ones take a stand and make you think.”
“Scott’s aesthetic is to be helpful to the audience,” he says. “The audience is being helped (by his design choices) into the world of the story.”
Since his current project, Tomorrowland, is still in hush-hush, early filming mode and isn’t due for release until December 2014, Chambliss isn’t at liberty to disclose details about what he’s envisioning for his latest sci-fi endeavor. He does say it’s a “big wonderful, live action Disney film.”
“It’s exciting to me, because the tone of the piece is rather positive, but it’s not stupid and it’s not naïve,” Chambliss adds. “It’s got a human, beating heart.”
Most jobs for which Chambliss is hired require about an 18-month commitment. During that time, he works long days, routinely grabbing only about five or six hours of sleep. “It’s what I know,” he says. “I don’t know anything else.”
He recharges at job’s end by grabbing his partner or a close friend and heading off for what can be a month-long respite, somewhere relaxing like Hawaii or a destination such as Iceland calculated to stimulate adventure. Practicing yoga on a beach is one favorite relaxation method.
“There’s nothing like taking yourself out of your own familiar world and staying there for a while,” Chambliss says.
“I’ve traveled to tiny fishing villages in China (with) ancient Chinese culture and architecture. It felt way lost
in time — (along with) the people and human relationships. There’s no concept for individual space, no word for ‘excuse me.’”
As he unwinds overseas, he’s also absorbing material for future sets. A visit to a medieval Russian monastery, for example, later showed up as a training facility in the film Salt. “Traveling to me is one of the ultimate creative experiences,” he says.
And while Chambliss’ creative right-brained self has found full expression through his work, his logical left-brained talents have not gone neglected.
“Technology is a fascinating component (of the industry) right now,” he says, adding that he’s fluent in several software programs.
“Just comparing when I did the first Star Trek in 2009 and the second one in 2013, the technology had just exploded,” he says. “We’re all looking for new and better and less expensive and more expressive. We always have to be in touch with — if not on the forefront of — what’s happening in technology.”
One of the most complex and demanding parts of his job involves designing and overseeing the special effects -- those that happen in "real life" on the sets his team builds -- and the visual effects -- digitally created effects that he describes as "the incredible and sometimes impossible futuristic environments that elements of our stories take place in."
The production designer's role in regard to special and visual effects is often misunderstood, even in moviemaking circles, Chambliss observes.
"An important evolution is taking place right now in my industry regarding the place of the production designer in the world of digital filmmaking," he says. "I work hard at making it clear to my cohorts what we do and what our essential role continues to be."
Another new trend Chambliss is keeping an eye trained on is high frame rate photography, also called fps for frames per second. Historically, movies have been filmed at 24 fps, but the first major film shot in 48 fps, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was released in 2012. Other high frame rate flicks — some as high as 60 fps — are soon expected to follow, including the next installment in the X-men franchise and the Avatar sequels.
Viewed favorably, high frame rates deliver what Chambliss describes as “super sharp, way bright” images that allow the movie fan to see up-close details from the fibers on Frodo’s soft green cloak to the hair sprouting from each knuckle of his furry hobbit foot.
At its worst, he says, “48 frames per seconds looks like an over lit Spanish telenovela.”
Back to the future
New technology, Chambliss acknowledges, changes the game for those who embrace it. But he also remains mindful not to rush headlong into using new tools at the expense of making the best looking film.
“It’s an information issue,” he muses. “We have more information about more subjects and ways other people are doing things.”
Will the resulting product start looking cookie-cutter? “I keep trying (to take) things back to the basics,” Chambliss says.
Sticking to the fundamentals, however, won’t keep him mired in the past.
“Being a good designer requires you to be literate (and current on) world events and be able to draw storytelling conclusions about them, which means emotional conclusions,” Chambliss says.
“Edgardo de la Cruz told me once early on: ‘Everything you do says something about you as a designer.’ I hope (my work) says I really love people and I’m hopeful for humanity and our culture. I have tremendous hope for our spirit.”