Ready – Set – Go!

World-renowned for his skills as a production designer, Ian Bailie was art director of Glen Goei’s The Blue Mansion, as well as the supervising art director of the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Atonement. He tells us about building castles in the sky for Jack & The Bean-Sprout!, and explains why designing sets can be as big a rush as playing an extreme sport.
Ian (second from left) meeting with the production team and director Ivan Heng

Tell us a little about your set design concept for Jack & The Bean-Sprout!.

Some of the main ideas include: German expressionism, knocking the world off-kilter, looking through the eyes of someone ‘seeing’ for the first time. I did also quickly revisit the original illustrations for the fairy tale, and took a recce of Hougang before stitching the inspiration and research together. Ivan was very supportive; more than that, he pushed the idea into a new realm, a separate reality full of wonder, fun, and AWE. He’s totally inspirational.

What are the challenges one faces in designing the set for a theatrical production?

One takes the written word and adds a metaphysical presence. Theatre can be suggestive, expressionist, avant garde. Pantomime allows us to push the envelope and invites us to exaggerate the conceptions of reality.

How do you go about designing the set for a theatrical production?

I read the script, then sketch and research the first things that come to mind and soul. I create a visual language that best communicates what I get from the script and how I interpret it in mood boards and concept drawings. Then I meet with the director and present what I’ve come up with as a discussion opener.

How did you come to design the set for Jack & The Bean-Sprout!?

Ivan messaged me on Facebook and ask me if I wanted to join him in dreaming and scheming. It’s a no-brainer when Ivan asks you to join him in his dreams and schemes, especially if it involves exhibiting them on stage for such a prestigious event!

How did you get started in the set/production design line?

Art, design, architecture and music have been a major part of my being for as long as I can remember. I majored in metal sculpture in Hornsey and Manchester. I was a goldsmith and jewelry designer when a client who happened to be a film producer asked me to work on a commercial. I found myself designing in the land of dreams and fantasy, and I was hooked. The film industry combines all the above interests. I also worked on live music events, including MTV’s first European music awards show in Berlin. The excitement is no less in film deadlines and schedules have to be met with meticulous detail. But designing for a live performance also introduces a huge adrenaline rush. It has to be right, no second takes. It is extreme sports on a stool at a drawing board!

Tell us about your process. Where do you get your ideas? How hands-on are you in designing and constructing the set?

Research research research. My ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere and I don’t confine myself to the subject matter alone. People are a great source of inspiration. Keeping an open mind is important, because ideas and inspiration can come when least expected. Keep the heart open, the mind is the recorder. It becomes a sponge and I squeeze it out over my sketch books, which I keep with me at all times. Sketches, sketches, and more sketches. Sleeping with it. Dining with it.

I’m hands-on as much as is needed, depending on the quality of back-up around me. I am lucky to have worked in all spheres of the art department, so I understand the manufacturing process and scheduling. Once the direction is decided, it’s all about practical and logistical issues. One has to be the devil’s advocate to achieve your director’s vision on a limited budget (it’s always limited!).

Any advice for aspiring production designers?

Make sure you are on the right path for yourself. Honestly ask yourself if you have the talent and dedication, because this career path is all-consuming and it can play havoc with your personal life. Be prepared to sacrifice. Keep mind and soul open; “see”, don’t just look. Seek out designers and artists who inspire and find a way to work with them. To do that, you have to be tireless, passionate, inspiring to others. Be able to argue your case with decency, because you will have to fight and argue to realise your art. It is a great privilege and honour to be asked to exhibit one’s work in a live performance, whatever the medium.

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