It’s no secret that I’m a “genre” movie lover. Sci-fi and horror are my jam, and I was absolutely transfixed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead‘s The Endless. They recently released a fantastic behind the scenes video , and I was very excited to learn that the Production Design team was led by three powerhouse women, so here they are!
Welcome, Ariel Vida (production designer) Kati Simon (art director) and Kim Berens (graphic designer).
How did you all get started in the industry, and how/why did you choose to go into your various areas of production design?
[Ariel] I’m a writer/director as well, and my production design career stemmed from the need to bring my own overly-ambitious concepts to life. I grew up in theatre, where you build everything from an apartment to a space shuttle in order to fill an empty stage, so when I started writing my own screenplays, keeping it set somewhere pre-existing never felt like a constraint. I’ve always been drawn to sci-fi and epics, so in order to make those myself back in Michigan, I had to learn how to achieve that world-building myself. This unexpectedly led to peers seeing my work and reaching out to me to design their films, and before I knew it I was working regularly as a one-woman art department.
When I moved to Los Angeles, my first gigs were as an unpaid PA. I knew it would be incredibly hard to get a foot in the door as a young director, so I mentioned that I could specifically help out the art team. As it turned out, indie projects often needed it – understaffed designers thrilled to take someone they could trust with a truck and a power drill. And the more directors and producers I met, the more often I was brought on to be the production designer. I was very much ‘thrown in the water and learned to swim’ as the scope of projects increased, but it all started by being an eager PA with work gloves and a leatherman.
[Kati] I got my start working in multi-camera television, assisting a designer with variety shows. After three years there, I ventured off to explore designing single-camera projects, and was lucky enough to bump into Ariel Vida. The Endless was an opportunity for us to really dig into all areas of art-making that a film like this required.
[Kim] As a kid, I spent years making fan art and graphics of my friends using Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop. I’d analyze and recreate my favorite posters, trying to guess where the photos had been altered and why, but I never realized this was a potential career until college, where I luckily changed my original major to Graphic Design. There, I joined the film club with the dream of using my skills the only way that had yet occurred to me: designing their movie posters. I met Ariel on those projects and we hit it off, deciding we wanted to live together in Los Angeles. Shortly after graduation, I had the enormous fortune to meet three very talented graphic designers for film, Miraphora Mina, Eduardo Lima, and Lauren Wakefield. I had unknowingly been admiring their prop work for years, and it made me realize there were all sorts of ways a graphic designer could work in film. By happenstance, the next Monday I worked as a crew member on my first feature with Ariel, and mulled over the idea of being part of making a movie rather than promoting it. Ariel kept bothering me with prop design requests for various projects until I finally admitted that it was not a bother at all.
What exactly is it that each of your jobs entails?
[Ariel] As the production designer, my job is to conceptualize the vision of the film with the director(s). It starts with breaking down the script in immense detail, as you’re helming not only a creative team (in which you need to be intimately familiar with each set element in order to fully realize its potential in the story) but also the logistics: what’s being built, what’s being rented, what’s being ordered, who’s being hired, etc. I need to be aware of the smallest details so nothing is overlooked, but also the big picture so that everything is scheduled and prioritized in accordance to our timeline and budget.
Working with the director, I hear all of their ideas that have been developed, and follow up with my own questions in order to best understand the world and the vision. I then present my initial thoughts and concepts, often with a lookbook and mood board of references, until we all feel confident that we’re on the same page. There’s a lot of research and development per location and character, and I then delegate to my team as we brainstorm and revise key props, set pieces, or graphics together. I also always discuss color, light, and texture themes with the cinematographer as well as wardrobe. In the case of this film, there was a lot of hands-on work each shooting day. On multi-million dollar sets, a designer would delegate to a much bigger team and spend a lot more time in an office, but I personally adore being in the trenches and getting my hands dirty, so I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think some people on The Endless set might sum up my job as just “being very, very dusty.”
[Kati] Ariel and I were mostly a two person team while we shot on location for three weeks at “Camp Arcadia” (with Kim helming graphics in LA). Ariel was mainly in the action of filming, making blood and dust gags and wrangling key props while I prepared the set we’d shoot next. (In the case of Cabin 3, it was a lot of hauling media up a mountain, so it was a great workout!) I also worked with the actor Kira who plays Lizzy, to draw her depictions of the monster in charcoal. I made the hoodoo, those tall clumpy rock formations that surround the camp, as well as the large stone monolith and totem pole that Justin and Aaron pass while walking through a field. It’s funny to think that the statue of the monster, which looks so big on the horizon, is just an eight-inch foam sculpture! That’s the exciting part of art-making in film – through collaboration, you make something, and others take it way beyond what you could have ever done on your own!
[Kim] We will usually make a list of the props and the ones I focus on are the ones that are custom-made and graphically designed. I’ll read the script to get a sense of the prop – is it going to be close to the camera? Sitting far away on a table? That sort of information is very important to me as the time involved to produce the prop can vary drastically, especially when text is involved. If it’s a newspaper sitting on a table, chances are generic text will suffice. The newspaper in The Endless appears closer to camera, so I filled the extra articles on the newspaper with things I’d written in the past, but slightly modified. I usually throw in a friend’s name just for fun.
What do you love about your job?
[Ariel] I love digging into characters’ arcs and locations’ histories within a script, offering up color palettes and symbolism that could subtly bolster details of these lives. I love when I’m tasked with making something feel lived in, deciding how the past would have shaped it. I also love working in elements that aren’t in the script but add to the world, even if it’s only ever noticed by one actor or one viewer. For instance, knowing that there was a memorial site to the brothers’ mother, and knowing how much Anna cared about Aaron as a child, I knew that I wanted to have mementos at the memorial that Anna would have hand-made, that you’d also see in her room. Knowing that Aaron and Justin live in such a low-income apartment, I spent a lot of thought on what items they’d have chosen to have around them, what Justin would have provided for Aaron that he wouldn’t have for himself, what the brothers would keep hidden from each other, which pieces of their room were integral to their independence and which were indicative of their codependence.
[Kati] I love fleshing out a world that brings the illusion of the story to life. Whether that is concept art, storyboarding, prop-making, or arranging environments, getting into the story world is like an actor delving deep into their role. The Endless was a beautifully haunting story to dive into. I think at the core of what I love doing most is visual communication, and with a stellar story, it can be a dream.
[Kim] I love the research and putting myself into the shoes of all the different designers who exist in these pretend worlds. For example, in The Endless, the campers brew their own beer and so would need a beer label. I imagine it would need to be simple, not designed on a computer nor printed on a modern printer as that would be difficult and expensive to maintain. I thought a custom rubber stamp and a regular inkpad brought in by their trade could work. A unique consideration for The Endless art department is creating items that supernaturally come into existence. What would they look like and why would they look like that? If this supernatural entity can send a package all over the world without a starting point, then, you know, what sort of adhesive tape would it use? Often my curiosity about the history of these props leads me down a rabbit hole of research, where I come out knowing far more than I ever thought I would about international parcel shipping services.
Loved seeing you all discussing your experience working on The Endless together and hearing about how you lived in a cabin that had half of the room dressed as a set most of the time. Could you elaborate more on that story? Or do you have other fun facts about the three weeks of production to share?
[Ariel] One fun fact (and spoilers if you haven’t seen the film!) is that I was essentially the ‘monster’ throughout the project. I aged the tapes the brothers find, I controlled the rope on the pulley in the Struggle, I snatched up the baseball Shane threw… but most of all, I ran around set with a battery-powered leafblower and a giant bag of dirt to make billows of dust wherever its ‘presence’ was. There were people only on set for a day or two who didn’t even recognize me at the Tribeca premiere when I wasn’t covered head-to-toe in dust.
[Kati] Yes, Ariel and I shared bunk beds in a cabin where the other half was Hal’s room, then Anna’s, then Justin and Aaron’s bunk. I’d say we were all really living in the story, because the whole camp was basically a hot set. With the cast and crew all bunking and filming in this kids’ camp, it created an amazing microcosm of friends. We’d work until we were bone tired, and somehow still find energy to swap stories by the campfire, that was still smoldering from our last shot. There was always so much to accomplish every day, but I guess I am like the character Aaron in that I remember the campfires and the friends, and how I didn’t want it to end.
[Kim] I only worked two days on set and the rest remotely, but art department starts long before filming does, and our offices and apartments were filled with The Endless for weeks or more beforehand. Ariel and I were roommates and we’re all really good friends, so Kati would be in the backyard creating hoodoo statues while Ariel is finding hundreds of old tapes and film reels, and I’m reading about the history of parcel services. When I finally saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, it was a constant stream of recognition – props and set decoration I’d seen in our apartment but innocuous enough that I hadn’t realized they’d been props!
Any challenges for your team specific to The Endless and how did you problem solve?
[Ariel] The budget of the film was definitely on the smaller end for a feature, so we had to be very industrious to stretch every penny without skimping on detail or quality. Cabin 3 is written to be filled to the brim with every type of old media throughout the century, which alone should have cost our entire budget. I combed the Free section of Craigslist every day of pre-production, haggled at thrift stores and estate sales, and begged my favorite prop shops to take pity on us. Ultimately, as many things are, it was the goodwill of a lot of kind people that allowed us to pull it off on a dime. And, going to a lot of Goodwills.
[Kati] In The Endless, I was faced with a challenge of interpreting the Arcadian, from the different perspectives of the people who’ve encountered it. Here we have this faceless monster whose only visible aspect is the effect of its power on the physical world. The character Lizzy, uses angsty charcoal lines to render this mooney-eyed beast, while the ancient people eons ago who made the stone statue, and those who carved the totem pole saw it in their own ways. I got a lot out of trying to imagine this higher power through the eyes of its various captives, and I think that is what art is all about, making the intangible tangible.
[Kim] One of the characters has a print depicting a Thoughtography machine, a brainchild of Nikola Tesla in which he speculated the possibility of creating photography from thought itself, a concept that may pique the interest of anyone who has seen The Endless or its predecessor, Resolution. The problem was the machine never existed, it was a failed speculative idea of Tesla’s. Luckily for me, one concept image survives from an unknown source, depicting something similar to a projector, and therefore we had a starting point for our Thoughtography machine as well.
If someone wanted to get involved in Production Design, how would they do that?
[Ariel] Speaking only from my own experience, I’d recommend early on to get onto as many sets as possible. I volunteered on dozens of film school projects and music videos at first. Even on the low-to-no budget shoots, I was getting a ridiculous amount of on-set experience – sponging up every piece of information I could from those around me. Ask questions, pay attention to every moving part of the show, and go the extra mile wherever possible. I found myself being brought onto bigger and bigger jobs more for my work ethic and commitment than an arts resume (which I never had). People really do notice when you give 110%.
Always be willing to learn from others in the business. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to coffee after a job to pick their brain about their experiences. Amass a kit of tools to be able to build, fix, or ‘MacGyver’ just about anything on set. Know the resources in your town so you can source supplies far ahead of time and at the eleventh hour. It doesn’t happen overnight, and perhaps only one out of every ten gigs your first year will yield a connection you’ll work with down the road, but some of these people will become your most trusted friends and coworkers.
[Kati] Everyone I know fell into it from every background imaginable, but I would say that it’s very valuable to know skills like drafting (in Vectorworks), sketching ideas, Photoshop rendering, and an overall understanding of how film sets work. On an indie level, as with The Endless, it’s a lot of making things yourself, but on bigger union shows it’s more about managing teams of draftsmen, builders, shoppers and artists. Theatre is a great place to start conceptualizing stories if it’s more accessible to you than film. Also, find other people at your level working in the industry, make connections and grow together on projects, like an oak alley. Fostering valuable relationships is really key to being constantly involved in the business.
[Kim] For graphic designers who want to work in film, I might suggest joining online Production Design groups and posting your portfolio or going to Production Design panels to meet people in art department. Even if none have current projects that need graphic design, there’s the chance they’ll need someone with your skill set eventually.
What are you all currently working on?
[Ariel] I’m wrapping up a feature that I’m directing, which I was extremely fortunate to have Kati and Kim working on as well! It’s rather surreal and stylized, so the design they brought to life was crucial to building that world, and I couldn’t be happier with how it came together.
[Kati] I am wrapping up production designing a movie that Ariel is directing, a trippy period piece we’re very excited about but can’t reveal just yet! I am also doing a lot of storyboarding and concept art for another indie coming out, a dark fantasy horror anthology. Somehow horror has found me and won’t let go!
[Kim] We’re working together again! Ariel is directing this one, and it’s been a blast, but we can’t say more yet. But I will say, one of the luxuries of being great friends and having lived with your director is the opportunity to intimately understand the story and its characters on a level not always available to the graphic designer. I’m not just following someone else’s list but working collaboratively with Ariel and Kati to decide what parts of the story will be told through graphics. I feel extremely privileged to work with them in that way.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. You are all so inspiring! Where can we follow your journeys?
The Endless is now available on VOD and you can watch the BTS below!