Barry Robison on Designing “Hacksaw’s” Ridge — Down Under
Production designer Barry Robison splits his time between Australia and the U.S., and has worked on films ranging from the historically-set Hidalgo, to installments of both the X-Men and Narnia franchises, with Wolverine and Voyage of the Dawn Treader, respectively.
As the designer for director Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, he was once again doing historical recreation, whether it was the blood-soaked Okinawan ridge of the title, or the southern hometown of Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss, the Medal of Honor-winning conscientious objector whose bravery unfolded on the battlefield with his personal rescue of dozens of wounded soldiers.
The difference for this recreation is that whether it was a Japanese island or the American southeast, Robison had to recreate it all in Australia. In an email interview from Down Under, he told us that they “built all the exterior battlefield field locations on a farm in Western Sydney. The night shots were all interiors shot on a soundstage in Sydney as were most of the interior sets.”
To make that farm accurately represent the field of battle, Robison “went the the WWII museum in New Orleans and used their facility to research the battle of Okinawa. The museum is a fantastic resource.” He also availed himself of the numerous online resources that document Doss’ life and story.
Armed with the research, Robison and his crew designed what he called a “battlefield bowl,” replicating the ridge, or escarpment, itself. That allowed them to “take the best advantage of sun direction which was key for Simon Duggan, the director of photography. For Mel it gave him the freedom of 360 degree shooting. For our VFX supervisor, Chris Godfrey, the creation of the bowl made sure there would be no need for set extensions or rotoscoping during the battle sequences. With the combination of atmosphere (smoke) and the pyrotechnics we were able again, by using ‘old school’ techniques, to create seamless action sequences which were exactly what Mel wanted from Day One.”
And “Day One” of production came pretty fast: “Pre-production was very short. We didn’t have much money so we had to keep things tight. Mel is a master filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of film. He had very strong ideas on how he wanted to shoot, (but) was very open and collaborative. We would talk about the battlefield, of course, how he wanted it to be ugly and intense. I suggested that we contrast the horror of war scenes with the softer look of the U.S. part of the film. I discussed this with Simon and we all agreed.”
As for those “softer looks,” many would be found in Doss’ hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. “I spoke with my Decorator, Rebecca Cohen, and we decided to keep the sets simple and abstract them a bit, boiling them down to essentials: color and texture as opposed to overstuffed with set dressing. It fit the period and the characters’ personalities. I also brought Lizzy Gardner, the costume designer, into the mix so that we were all a united front in keeping the look or pallet of the film consistent.
Ultimately, Robison finds creating those pallets similar whether he’s working on material from comics, fantasy lit, or history: “There is very little difference when it comes to the process of design. I was instructed early in my career by a master Stage Designer, Desmond Heeley, who said, ‘Do extensive research, look through books, photos and paintings. Soak it all in, then close the books, never open them again! Now you are ready to design. You will have absorbed the information and it will become your own.’ That is the way I approach any project whether it’s fantasy or reality, war or comedy.”
Or war as hell — wherein some “better angels” yet emerge.