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UK Production Designers: Nigel Phelps


Production designer Nigel Phelps has an admirably succinct explanation of the appeal of his job: “You get to design and build these worlds that otherwise you wouldn’t be a part of, so it’s awesome,” he says.Currently, Phelps is creating a believable world for The Mummy 3, a production that is sprawling over two continents, with principal shooting in Montreal and China, where the story is set. “My main art director doesn’t speak English and we’ve got a translator all the time, so it’s very interesting,” he says.Phelps’ career started while he was studying fine art at college, and he began doing storyboards for Paul Mayersberg, writer of Don’t Look Now and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Through him, he met production designer Anton Furst. “I left college to work with Anton because I wasn’t very good at drawing people but I was very good at drawing backgrounds,” he says.The two worked together for a decade on such notable titles as The Company of Wolves, Full Metal Jacket and Tim Burton’s Batman.”On the strength of Batman, Anton and me headed out to America 17 years ago,” says Phelps. “Poor old Anton, he committed suicide within a year and a half of us arriving here though. I had brought all my family with me, and I had to determine whether to stay in the US and make a go of it from scratch really, or head back to England. So I decided to stay in America and we’ve been based here ever since.”Phelps’ American career started in music promos with Propaganda Films. His first film-helming production design was 1995’s Judge Dredd. Filmed in England, it was a notable misfire for director Danny Cannon, though there was nothing wrong with Phelps’ recreation of Mega City One as envisaged in the classic Brit comic book 2000AD.Work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Alien Resurrection followed (the two plan to work together again on Life of Pi when it finally emerges from development hell). He also has worked on Pearl Harbor and The Island for Michael Bay, a relationship that stretches back to Phelps’ days at Propaganda.Over two decades, Phelps says that things have changed a lot. For a start, certain countries—notably the Czech Republic and Canada—have shifted over to primarily using CAD in their art departments, while the more established industry figures in the UK and US still prefer sketches. You also have to produce a lot more artwork. “You didn’t need to do half as much preliminary work when I started,” he says, “and there’s more of an emphasis on having presentation meetings with the big films than there was. And as you have the same amount of time you always had, departments are increasing in size too.”With art departments in LA, Montreal and soon in China, Phelps admits to having lost track of his head count on The Mummy 3. He’s looking forward to introducing a lot of new visual material to Western audiences though, as well as utilising the resources of the vast Hang Dien studio complex, three hours south of Shanghai.”They have the largest sets you have ever seen in your life,” he says. “They aren’t sets like we’re used to, they’ve built the whole lot—interiors, exteriors, roofs. The most famous one is the palace they shot for Hero, but they’ve also rebuilt the Forbidden City on a one-to-one scale! The detail is amazing, it just goes on forever.”

Written by Andy Stout

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