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Visualizing The Art Of Storytelling With Aashrita Kamath

Los Angeles-based Art Director and Production Designer Aashrita Kamath gives us a glimpse into the world of filmmaking, the importance of visualisation, and how storytelling and creativity go hand in hand.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 08 March

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Behind the Scenes from The Inside Story

Aashrita Kamath’s resume seems to be a never-ending one that is driven by passion and hard work. Like many Indians aspiring to join the film industry, she started her career as an Art Director with commercials, and quickly made her way into Bollywood, bagging projects like West Is West and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

Not too long after that, she found herself in Los Angeles, working in the Art Department on films like The BFG, Kong: Skull Island, Pacific Rim 2 and Production Designer on I See You, Dustland, Contrapelo and Interstate among others. Her strength as a visual storyteller has been a combination of nature and nurture, with her love for films marrying her skill as an Art Director and Production Designer. So it comes as no surprise that she is currently working on James Cameron’s Avatar 2 and 3, designed by Ben Proctor and Dylan Cole.

While she is contractually obligated to stay hush about the Avatar sequels, she opens up to Design Fabric about the magic of cinema, her personal experiences over the past decade in the industry, and the collaborative element of creating a compelling, visual world for a film’s story:

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From the making of Penny Police's video As Long As You Watch My Heart

Tell me about the role education had in shaping your career. Rishi Valley School made you fall in love with films and explore set design. But after studying Sociology at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, what were the factors that led up to you entering the Art Department in Bollywood?

At Rishi Valley School, I joined the film club where we watched movies from all around the world. I moved to Mumbai to study Sociology and to use my spare time to figure out what I wanted to do for my career. Being a part of the Fine Arts Exhibit in Malhar - the Annual College Festival - allowed me to express myself creatively and made me realize how much I enjoyed putting spaces together that helped tell a story. Finally, it was during an internship at an ad-film company that I was thrown head first into filmmaking and began to understand the multiple departments that worked and collaborated together to create the look and feel of a final film.

As an assistant director working on commercials, I observed the way the entire crew came together as a team to tell a visual story. Out of a crew of a hundred people, the Art Department, which designed the sets and props was the most attractive to me. I loved how the spaces they created laid the foundation of the world that the story was set in.

Which are the films that steered you to the world of cinema?

There wasn’t one particular film that inspired me to chose filmmaking as a career; it was many movies over the course of quite a few years! A lot of the movies we watched as part of the film club were European classics and some independent movies. When we discussed them, we analyzed the narrative; but rarely did we discuss how the cinematography or production design helped tell the story. I enjoyed watching those movies as it transported me to a different world and a different time. I remember being completely speechless when I watched the Lord of the Rings movies in the theater. I had read and loved the books and was amazed at how well the world had been designed. It took me a few more years (and watching more movies!) to realize that I was completely hooked.

When you landed West Is West and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), were you keen to do more Bollywood projects or were you interested in joining Hollywood?

Assisting Aradhana Seth on West is West and Suzanne Caplan Merwanji on Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara were incredible hands-on experiences. They were my first film experiences in Bollywood and I couldn’t have asked for more fitting people to work with. I learnt a lot on both projects and I interacted with very talented people. I don’t think I was inclined towards any specific industry at the time. I just wanted to work and was hungry for experience.

During the prep for ZNMD, Suzanne encouraged me to study filmmaking further and at first, I didn’t give it much thought; I was enjoying working far too much! When we wrapped the film, that idea stayed with me and I realized that I was at a crossroad. One path was tempting and clear: I could continue to work and gain more experience on the job. The unknown path was taking a pause and learning the more technical aspects of filmmaking in another country. I chose the path that seemed the most daunting and challenging at the time and I’m so glad I did that. Studying further opened up many more possibilities for me and my career.

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Aashrita co-directed ‘Seher Hone Tak’ with her husband/cinematographer Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi

Your foray into Hollywood with big films like The BFG, Kong: Skull Island, Interstate and now Avatar 2 and 3 must feel amazing. What's your process of immersing into a new project?

Preparing for a new project typically involves reading the script and then identifying reference images that most strongly evoke the tone and the mood of the film. It’s also the point where everyone is open to new and different ideas, so there are a lot of creative discussions. We typically go into many in-depth conversations about the story, the characters and their backstories.

For instance, on Dustland -a short film set in the Dustbowl about a tightrope walker who sells her soul to the devil - I did a lot of research on America in the 1930s, the great depression and the factors that caused the Dustbowl. Together with the cinematographer, we created detailed moodboards to evoke the essence of what the time period looked like. We wanted our design to be rooted in the reality of the times and yet have a fantastic, whimsical quality to it. I also had to do very in-depth research on how the circus community lived, and how tightrope artists walk the rope. We even spoke to a tightrope walker and took a lesson!

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Working on the short film ‘Dustland’ was one of Aashrita’s most challenging projects.

You're currently working on Avatar 2 and 3 and Pacific Rim Uprising. What's your present mindset?

I’m lucky and grateful to to be a part of an extremely talented team of people, led by the Production Designers of the Avatar sequels - Ben Proctor and Dylan Cole.

Pacific Rim Uprising will be releasing soon, and I’m looking forward to catching it in the theaters!

I can see that you play a big role in each film you take on. Is most of what is finally seen on screen a collaboration between the director and you?

The nature of filmmaking is of a collaborative process and a team effort! As a Production Designer, you are a part of the Director’s core creative team and it’s our responsibility to give their vision a tangible, physical shape and form; to create the overall look for a film; and one that illustrates the setting and visual style of the story. This includes the design of the sets, selection of locations and the supervision over any physical objects that will define the look of the film. We work in close collaboration with the Cinematographer and visual effects teams to maintain a coherent look from conception, filming, and all the way through to the final film.

Every director is different and has a different style. Part of the challenge is to be malleable and provide them with the support and ideas to take their vision further.

Production Designers gather a team of talented people which make up an ‘Art Department’ of a movie. There are Art Directors, Concept Illustrators, Set Designers and Model Makers that collaborate with the designer to bring their vision to life. An Art Director is the person who helps executes the vision of the Production Designer. The roles change through the course of the movie, and range from taking creative decisions regarding sets to scheduling, planning, and coordinating the operation of the department.

Aashrita Kamath's CAD design and 3D renderings of the Karaboudjan Engine Room from the Adventures of Tintin

What are the biggest challenges and most rewarding aspects of your work?

The challenge with any set is to allow the audience a chance to connect with the characters by giving them a glimpse into the world the characters inhabit and create a compelling, visual world for the story. There are always limitations. There is never enough time and definitely not enough money. With larger budgets, there are bigger expectations. So a big part of the design process is finding a creative way to preserve the integrity of the visual storytelling while delivering the sets on schedule and within the budget. The most rewarding aspect is when you see a movie that you’ve been a part of on the big screen.

One particularly challenging project was Contrapelo, directed by Gareth Dunnet Alcocer. It tells a story of a proud Mexican barber who is forced to shave the leader of a drug cartel. As he faces the man who is destroying his country with a straight razor in his hand, he is confronted by a difficult decision: to become a killer, or to let this man continue to kill. The film is set in Mexico, but we shot entirely on a soundstage in Los Angeles. The director grew up in Mexico and hence, had a very specific idea of how the barbershop needed to look and feel. I did an in-depth study with lots of research of various barbershops, and collaborated with the Cinematographer for the overall color palette of the film, which we wanted to link to the barber’s state of mind. It was a largely crowdfunded project, so we barely had enough money. Our plan was to only build the barbershop, but at the last minute, our location fell through and we had to construct an office within a few days! The sets only came together with the sheer handiwork and determination of the team. It was one of the hardest short films I’ve worked on, but it was a very rewarding experience! The film went on to have a successful festival run and made it to the final ten on shortlist for the 2016 Academy Awards Best Live Action Short Film!

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Set design of a scence from the film Contrapelo that was built on a sound stage.

Congratulations! Talking about short films, a lot of your work has been with your partner and cinematographer Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi. Are you each other’s muse? Is it tough to strike the balance between personal and professional?

Farhad and I normally work in very different spheres. So working together on I See You Directed by Manjari Makijany was a welcome change! As professionals, a Production Designer and a Cinematographer need to have an intimate understanding of the aesthetic and visual style of the film and need to execute the design in lockstep with each other. I See You was particularly challenging, and we constantly needed to come up with creative solutions to problems. As Farhad and I share a similar sense of aesthetics, the shoot went off smoothly.

On the personal front, we have very unconventional schedules. But as he works in the same industry, we understand the nature of the job and try and plan short breaks when we can. Trips are usually last minute and without any reservations or bookings! If we have a couple of days off, we jump into the car and drive to the nearest national park for a quick camping and hiking holiday! It’s the best way for us to detach from our hectic digital lives and reconnect with nature.

How do you recover after completing a big project? Do you plunge right into your next project?

At the end of any long project, I have these dreams of taking a month off, resting, relaxing and spending my days doing nothing. In reality, I can go about 10 days before I start getting bored and restless and start looking for something to do. Time off is usually spent catching up on TV shows, cooking, doing the occasional hike and spending time with my friends and family.

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Stills from the film The Pinata

Lastly, what's your advice to young aspiring art directors?

The biggest piece of advice that I can offer is to use every single opportunity as a chance to learn. I’m constantly learning and being challenged with every project that I’m a part of. But that’s what keeps me going and keeps the excitement levels up.

Also, you have to remember that every problem is just waiting to be solved! The work is demanding and the hours are often long, so it might not be for everyone. Before committing to the profession, I think it’s imperative to get your feet wet and work with a designer so one can get a sense of how it’s going to be.

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