Q & A with Specialty Set Designer Haisu Wang on “Avengers: Infinity War”

Haisu Wang in his studio

I recently had the chance to catch up with Specialist Set Designer Haisu Wang for an interview about his work designing some of the coolest ships from the feature film “Avengers: Infinity War.” Haisu has become a serious expert when it comes to designing specialty sets and vehicles for some of the biggest films on the market. As a Specialty Set Designer he worked on the 2018 film “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and the “Untitled Avengers Movie” due out in 2019, as well as the new “Avatar” films that are set to release over the next few years.

Hey Haisu, thanks for joining us!

As a specialist set designer, can you describe for us in general what your job entails from project to project?

Specialist set designers are in charge of designing a wide range of unconventional sets from organic caves to futuristic vehicles. My specialty is in vehicle and special equipment design. We’re required to have a comprehensive understanding of different manufacturing process such as multi-axis CNCs, water jets, laser cutters, vacuum forming etc. as well as a solid grasp in terms of digital visual effect so that we can build sets that are visual effects friendly.

Poster for “Avengers: Infinity War”

You’ve been working on some pretty big productions lately! How does it feel for you to be working on such massive productions? Was this something you’d always knew would happen is it still kind of overwhelming to see how far you’ve come since you first started out?

It is always very exciting to work on films like this. For these types of movies I can fully express my creative voice, and I get to work with the best teams in the industry to achieve new ideas, and hopefully inspire the next generation.

The design process of big blockbuster films is pretty similar to my previous work, but now I am more inspired by the level of talented artists and designers I work with more than the actual projects themselves.

So let’s talk about the “Avengers: Infinity War” film that came out earlier this year. How did you land the key role as specialist set designer on the project?

The supervising art director Ray Chan, who’s been working with production designer Charles Wood for a long time on a lot of Marvel films, reached out to me first. He was really careful about who he wanted to hire for the job. He visited my office while I was still working on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and he became interested in my work, especially “Yondu’s Cremator,” a complex piece of equipment I designed which appears at the end of the movie, and that’s how I was hired.

Practical build flight deck of the Benatar Ship by Haisu Wang

I hear you designed the Benatar ship’s cockpit and galley! That’s a pretty big deal — can you tell us what went into designing these two sets for the film?

From the beginning Charlie and I had a conversation about the look of Benatar vs. Milano, the first ship that Guardians of the Galaxy had that was destroyed in the second Guardians of the Galaxy film. We wanted the Benatar to be a more mature version of the Milano. If Milano was designed for a boy, the Benatar would be more for a teenager. It carried the design gene that Milano has, which is a futuristic technology juxtaposed with the retro design of the 80s, a fighter plane/rocket ship that was both “in-your-face, over-the-top, unrepentant colorful” and just as functional as a standardised the grey spacecrafts we have today. We looked back to the 1940s and 50s for our inspiration, to an era when air and space travel were idolized and still full of aspiration and style. We combined beautiful classic curves with futuristic materials, producing many different versions over the course of several months exploring how to effectively blend the design principles of the past and the future.

What is it like working with Charles Wood?

It was a fantastic experience working with him. He is really clear about what he wants yet open to suggestions. As the production design Charlie has a more comprehensive understanding of the story and how the vehicles fit into the visual arch so he gave me pretty clear set of goals of what the vehicles was supposed to feel like. He likes to use visual metaphors to reinforce the aesthetic. He gave me enough freedom in terms of designing the form and details of the vehicle and then guided me towards the right texture and color combinations.

You also designed Rocket and Thor’s Escape Pod, can you tell us about that?

I had a great time designing the Escape Pod’s exterior and part of the interior! It was designed as a backup ship for Benatar and is stored at the back of the ship. You can see the canopy of it when you are inside the galley. I was mostly in charge of designing the shell. The early version of the Escape Pod had a really slick form compared to the final version, and the surface detail was much more simple and minimalistic. But Charlie preferred the surface to look more like an insect and for the exposed equipment to look a little more complex to match the personality of “Rocket,” the owner of the pod.

For the interior of the pod, I spent a good amount of time designing the Gyro Pilot Chair. We thought a lot about how to make the pilot seat self-stabilized so that the pilot would not spin with the ship and lose consciousness like what happened to Neil Armstrong during his first space flight. We came up with the Gyroscope Seat from the idea that a device consisting of a mounted wheel could spin rapidly around an axis that is, in itself, free to change directions. The Gyro Seat frees the pilot from spinning with the capsule. I think a version of it is something I think could actually work in the future.

Pilot Chair designed by Haisu Wang

What is the creative process like in terms of designing these sets?

It starts with reading the script and it’s all about designing an environment that assists the storytelling. I have a broad idea of the tone of the movie and then after meeting with the production designer I have a concept to start working with. For regular sets there will be concept artists to develop rendered illustrations and hand it over to me to develop the set build design. But vehicle design is a specific area that has a lot of practical factors that need to be considered initially so I get involved with the concept design from the very start. During the concept design period we do rough 3D models and 2D paint-overs to brainstorm ideas. We sometimes use gaming engines to set up VR presentations to help us sell the idea to the director and producers. Once the concept is approved, we start to design the practical build and work with a few other departments such as the visual effect supervisor to breakdown the practical sets and green screen proportions, the special effects department to figure out how to set up the set pieces onto motion bases, and with construction to decide the structure, the material and the paint finish etc.

What tools did you use to design those sets?

Too many! During the concept design phase I use Cinema 4D to block out rough concepts and render them in Octane Render and then occasionally bring the model into Unreal Engine to set up a VR walk through. I use mainly Solidworks and Rhino during the set design phase because they are designed to work with CNC machines really well, which are very important to the construction department.

Constructing the Benatar Ship

Did you face any challenges along the way?

There are different challenges on different sets. Some are design challenges some are due to limited money or schedule. One of the tasks with this project was extending and refinishing the Benatar ship’s Galley, which was from the old Milano ship that appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy one and two. My job was to extend the space. We assembled the central bay first and then realized that the existing set pieces didn’t match the drawing from the previous film. So we couldn’t start the extension design until we understood the actual structure and dimensions that were built using the metric system.

What was it about designing these sets that required a ‘specialist’ such as yourself as opposed to a general set designer?

Normally, set designers have theater design and architecture design background and they mostly deal with conventional sets such as houses, hospitals, classrooms etc. For specialty sets, more departments are involved and requires a smooth collaboration. Specialist set designers normally have intersecting backgrounds that allow them to work with different departments. In my case, my industrial design background means I have a solid understanding of complex manufacturing processes, which helps me communicate with specialty fabricators. My VFX background on the other hand helps me ‘speak the same language’ with nerdy visual effect artists and technical directors.

What was your favorite part of working on “Avengers: Infinity War”?

I enjoyed the whole process very much, but I do have to say that my favorite moment was to walk on the set right after it was done.

How do you feel about the end result of the film?

I was very excited to see the film with friends, and glad to see my work recognized by Marvel fans. I think the film has been pretty well received and had a great box office record. I am looking forward to seeing the upcoming one next year.

Can you tell us anything about the sets you’re designing for the other upcoming films you’ve been working on, or is that still a pretty big secret?

Unfortunately, since I have signed NDAs I can not talk about the detail of my work at all. All I can say is that I am very excited about the world that we are creating and very proud to be part of the Avatar team.

Can you offer a little advice for specialist set designers aspiring to do the work that you do? Where should they start?

I think one of the key habits I have that brought me so far is staying curious and sensitive to new knowledge. I spend a good amount of time learning new skills and following the new design ideas and new technologies from many different fields. I think this habit helps me sharpen my mind and allows me collaborate with people from different fields to achieve innovative designs.