Creating the ‘Perfect World’ with production designer Rick Carter

“When a film first comes out, everyone wants to know who's in it, and what it's about,” production designer Rick Carter said. “But afterwards, what people are often left with is the memory of images of where the movie took us and how it made us feel. To me, ‘the vision thing’ is the most important. And it starts with a question that Steven Spielberg once asked me on a location scout: ‘What am I looking at?’”

Rick elaborated, explaining that the significance of what people are looking at is defined by what resonates inside them: “As a production designer, I ultimately have to be specific about the imagery I put before the audience. I feel responsible not only for the look of the physical or digital setting of each scene but also for helping to evoke a specific spirit of place as well as an emotional reason for it to be there in the movie.”

Rick has worked as a production designer on some of the most iconic films of our time. An Academy Award-winner for Avatar and Lincoln, he’s currently at work on Spielberg’s The Papers, about Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Rick has production designed 22 films, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, War Horse, Jurassic Park, Munich, Polar Express, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future Part II and Part III and Castaway, among others.

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He explained how his job is about realizing the director’s vision, but that it’s not a solo attempt: “Creating that ‘perfect world’ for the director, whether Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron or whoever, is also the task of the writers, producers, director of photography, art department, set decorator, prop master, costume designer, makeup artists, shooting crew, editors, post-production visual and sound effects designers, composer and musicians. Everyone who contributes to what it looks, sounds and feels like to be in the places where the movies take us.”

The process of combining the director’s interpretation of the screenplay and vision of the film with his own personal memories and perceptions of place forms the foundation of each film’s aesthetic. To achieve his goals overseeing the visual storytelling in service to the director’s vision, Rick has never forgotten his background in fine art and painting, where he can express his deepest emotions directly.

“I’m always a blank canvas,” he said. “I don’t know how to do the job or what it even is until I envision the whole movie and feel it in the way I would when I begin a painting. Then I reflect that back to the director and give him a sense of what I think this world is in which the film’s narrative takes place. And the directors I work with help guide me, just as I am simultaneously guiding them.”

Over the years, Rick found that his private world travels provided the most consistent inspiration for his work in production design. He has often drawn upon foreign places he visited as the basis for the design of sets. His first of many journeys around the world took place on the day before he turned twenty in 1970, taking a one-way charter from Oakland to London, and traveling on his own for ten months to Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, India and Southeast Asia. Since then, he revisited cities and countryside he’d seen before and added many new ones to his experience, including places in the Far East.

Early on, he recognized that travel was an essential component to his career. When he was 20, he wrote a letter to his parents from Bangkok, Thailand saying, “I realize that I want an essential part of my artwork to be going out into the world to record its impressions on me."

And that’s exactly what he did. From running a foot race with a Masai Murani warrior in a rural Kenyan village near the border with Tanzania to reflecting on his father’s death with a monk in a monastery at the top of the Himalayan Mountains, Rick always absorbed the characters and places he encountered into his subconscious mind

“They have transformed with time,” he said, “so that they now reflect, like little mirrors, glimpses of who I was before and who I am now. Most are evolving.”

For example, when James Cameron described to him his vision of Neytiri, the Na’vi heroine of Avatar, Rick immediately recognized her as Vilai, a war-stricken Vietnamese prostitute and mother of a baby boy whom Rick met in 1970. She has been the muse living within his heart ever since, merging the real and the imagined.

“Sometimes the artistic process seems like a dream,” Rick said. “Images and sounds ricochet in my memory, back and forth, unencumbered by notions of time and space… or even reality. The truth of what really happened in my travels often appears vague or hazy to me, not quite as vivid as some of the stories I heard about or perhaps even invented in recent years when my mind drifts back to all of those people and places from my past.”

When he isn’t working on a film, he’s busy creating his own art — a solo task. “While I’m painting, I usually think that what I create is mine. But when I look at it later, I always come to the realization that the images did not come from me alone: I was the medium for all the people I have seen, all of them like cognitive grains of sand that have made their way into my subconscious, who have collected themselves together to recreate themselves in a new form within me. Through this process of creating art, I discover that I am not alone. I am them ... and they are me.”

Rick has had two exhibitions of his own fine art. The artwork from the art departments he’s headed for the films by Spielberg and Zemeckis can be found in the Rick Carter Library at the USC Film School.

Rick's art and stills from the films he has worked on can be seen below: