An Interview with Art Director Luke Whitelock

Interview by Lewis Bayley

When we did Guardians of the Galaxy we were all looking at each other goingWhat the hell is this? A talking raccoon and a talking tree?!

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Luke Whitelock on the set of Princess Jasmine’s chambers for Disney’s Aladdin (2019) Dir. Guy Ritchie.

When it came to finding alumni working in the art department of the film industry today, there was no-one more qualified that we could ask to speak to than Luke Whitelock.

Luke Whitelock’s career has gone from strength to strength since his film break in 2005 on Elizabeth: The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett. His upcoming projects as Art Director include the long-anticipated follow up to Disney’s Maleficient and the live-action prequel to 101 Dalmatians titled Cruella. Luke is currently working as Assistant Art Director for Daniel Craig’s last outing as James Bond: No Time to Die.

Luke’s career is far reaching. You can even see some of his work in person at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Floria. Almost a decade after completing work experience on the third instalment of the Harry Potter film franchise as a student, Luke was brought on board as a draftsman for the Universal Orlando theme park extension of the attraction.

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Luke’s sketches for shop frontages at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando.

With an exciting career in the screen-sphere, Luke has been part of the most iconic and memorable visuals in cinema over the last decade. From Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the Russo Brother’s two-part superhero spectacular Avengers: Infinity War & Avengers: Endgame.

We were excited that Luke could make time for an interview with us, to give our current students an insight into working in the art department of the industry today and his career so far.

Thanks for doing this Luke!

Before we get into your role on the highest grossing movie of all time (Avengers: Endgame) I want to go back to 2004 when you had just graduated from AUB (formally the Arts Institute Bournemouth). What was your first move out of leaving University? Was your runner role on Sugar Rush your first job?

Ahh yes Sugar Rush, God that feels like an age ago now. I was able to get on that show as an Art Department Runner because we were lucky enough to have a visiting lecturer come in to the Arts Institute who was a Production Designer, her name was Christine Ruscoe. She was a TV designer and had done all sorts of great shows like Worzel Gummidge, Grange Hill, Are You Being Served and Doctor Who. We hit it off and chatted for ages. She very graciously offered me a bit of work experience on a show called Rosemary and Thyme that she was designing and I would be shadowing the Art Director, Paul Cripps. I had a great time for the few days I was on set and stayed in touch with Paul.

When I moved to London in 2004 he was the first person I called. He was designing Sugar Rush and asked if I would like to come on board as the runner. It was a baptism of fire that job, I was working in central London, very low wages, long long days but the learning curve was steep. Looking back I really enjoyed that job and I owe Paul a lot, he gave me the start I needed.

Soon after you got your first film break by working on Elizabeth: The Golden Age. How did that come about?

Well back then the Film industry in the UK was not as busy as it is now, it was very much a cottage industry and you either had to know someone or be related to someone to get your foot in the door. I had done work experience whilst at The Arts Institute on Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban and through this work experience I met the art department co-ordinator and she kept my records on file. A few years later I got the call about Golden Age out of the blue. She had passed my details to someone who was looking for an art department assistant. I got the call and raced down to Shepperton for the interview.

The working day was still long, back then it was a 7am start and 7pm finish, but compared to the frenetic pace and low budget restrictions of some of the TV work I had done, the large features were much nicer to work on, contained on a studio lot with everything you need on site — is a lot easier than the mad rush of TV.

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Luke’s BTS still from Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Now — on the note of comparing jobs, how does working on films such as Elizabeth and Rock ’n’ Rolla differ to the Avengers franchise and the MCU?

Well, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Rock ’n’ Rolla were much lower budgets than anything in the MCU. $55 million and $18 million respectively. We did Rock ’n’ Rolla with 4 weeks prep and 6 weeks shoot — the money was that tight. The lower budget stuff means a smaller crew, less wages and terrible catering haha.

“ When we did Guardians of the Galaxy we were all looking at each other going ‘What the hell is this? A talking raccoon and a talking tree?!’ ”

What’s the process of working on a film like in your role?

Well, as an Art Director I come on board fairly early in prep. A designer might of already been working on the concepts for a few months and I’ll come on board when they are ready to start fleshing out the sets and the costs. I might be given a large set or a series of small sets to draw up based on the concept sketches. I have to work out how the set will be built, heights, widths and length as well as floating walls and scenery that may be required. We used to hand draw everything on the board but most people are CAD based now so I’ll flesh out my design in a 3D modelling program called Sketchup. From this main model I can pull out all the details (windows, doors, staircases etc) and either give them as 3D files to my assistant art director or Draftsman or even Junior Draftsman to turn into construction drawings.

I’ll then oversee the build by constantly visiting the workshops and the stage and/or location where I will have meetings with my HOD (Head of Department) Carpenters, painters or plasterers. They will inform me of any snags or problems and its my job to help come up with solutions and report back to the Designer to make sure they are happy. I’ll attend meetings regarding stunts and VFX, budgets and SFX — sometimes I’ll be at the read through to make sure what I am doing fits with the script. I’m constantly in touch with many different departments to make sure the set comes together.

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What’s something that most people would be surprised to learn about the art department on MCU movies?

Most people who work in the Art Department for these big comic book films have no idea about the comics. Obviously we all know Batman and Spiderman etc but when we did Guardians of the Galaxy we were all looking at each other going ‘what the hell is this? A talking raccoon and a talking tree?!’

Were you surprised when Avengers: Endgame overtook Avatar to become the highest grossing movie of all time? How does it feel to be part of that?

It’s quite surreal to think I had a small hand in that, I hope my kids are proud of it when they are old enough to understand. I suppose it’s the modern equivalent of if my dad had worked on Indiana Jones or something.

You’ve recently finished production on the sequel to Maleficent with Disney, starring Angelina Jolie, which was your first feature as Art Director. How have you navigated your progression in the industry over your career so far?

Well, it just takes time and commitment, you have to build your contacts and stay in touch with them even when you are on a different job. General rule of thumb for me was to do 3–4 years in each position, learn the craft, get to know how a film art department runs and just absorb as much information as you can.

You’ve worked with some of the biggest directors in the industry — Christopher Nolan, Guy Ritchie and Ridley Scott just to name a few — who has been your favourite to work with?

Here’s a little secret for ya, I hate being on set. It’s so boring. I avoid it like the plague, once Ive handed my set over to the shooting crew that’s me done. I have no interest in being on set.

That being said, when we have a big actor or director on its nice to pop in and watch for a bit, but honestly, every one thinks its glamorous but there is so much waiting around and the stages get incredibly hot during the summer. I’d rather be in the office designing something. Of all the directors I have worked with Ridley Scott was the most hands on when it came to the Art Department. It was very exciting meeting him.

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Luke’s BTS still of Ridley Scott on the set of Prometheus.

What advice do you wish you were told when you were at film school?

That I would need to learn how to draft, They didn’t teach that when I was there, the course had just changed from an HND to a BA and I think they were trying to work out how to make the course work and that unfortunately meant that unless you had specialised in either producing or directing you didn’t get much in the way of specialist tutors. That being said it just made me more resilient and allowed me to do my own thing when designing short films on the course.

Okay, let’s end with some quick fire questions!

What film has been your favourite to work on?

Rock ’n’ Rolla or Guardians I cant choose!

What film have you not worked on, but wish you had?

Bladerunner

What film would you love to work on in the future?

I would like to do something original — Comic books and live action remakes are great but a truly original film like Inception would be good to do.

Marvel or DC? I joke… is the answer what I think it is?

I actually love Batman out of all comic book characters, but Marvel have perfected how to make a superhero movie.

And finally, any spoilers for the next James Bond movie?

There are no spoilers on any of the action cars, not that I know of anyway.

(laughs) Thanks again Luke!

Pleasure!

You can follow Luke and get inside looks at his projects both past and present on hisInstagram account @lukewhitelockdesign

Interview by Lewis Bayley

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