Jim Bissell is a production designer who has brought to the silver screen some of the most powerful, moving, and magical film imagery of the past 30 years. Bissell was nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) in 1982 for his work on Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. More recently, he has become known for his collaborations with George Clooney, which began with 2002's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and continued with Good Night and Good Luck and the latest Clooney film, Leatherheads. His film credits include the groundbreaking 300, The Rocketeer, and The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Bissell began using Google SketchUp for his work in 2004, and it has since become an integral part of the design process for each of his films.
Production designers are like architects in that we deal with structure, but we deal with structure to create images -- specifically, the imagery that tells the story of the film," explains Bissell. "Your goal is to maintain a level of veracity in keeping with the film's imagery -- to maintain architectural norms so people aren't pulled right out of the movie. With Google SketchUp and Google Earth, you have sophisticated tools that make it easy to create imaginary space -- space that you can make real.
According to Bissell, this ease of use makes SketchUp "invaluable" in production design, particularly in the beginning stages of designing sets and set pieces.
Creating a set is very labor-intensive, and SketchUp allows you to be flexible in the very beginning of the process -- to react quickly to changes and make decisions creatively before the commitment to build," he says. "You used to have to go to the guy who was the 'high priest' of the computer, and he'd bring something back in two days. Now, I can do it myself, working directly in collaboration with the director. That's much more in tune with the creative rhythms of movie-making.
Bissell says that having the ability to import terrain from Google Earth and build location sets on these virtual sites makes SketchUp even more useful for production designers. This facilitates communication between the design, film, and construction crews, saving both time and money.
When you build a model in SketchUp and marry it to the imagery in Google Earth for your set location, you can show people exactly what the final scene will look like," explains Bissell. "It helps everyone to be able to visualize the end result -- not just the director and actors, but the grips and gaffers, and the hammer and nails people who handle lighting and construction. It's one of the least expensive ways to anticipate problems.
Good Night and Good Luck
Bissell's first major success with SketchUp was in his role as Art Production Designer for George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck (2005). The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including a nomination recognizing Bissell for Best Achievement in Art Direction.
"Good Night and Good Luck was made on a very small budget. We built a foam core model for the set that was based on a SketchUp model," says Bissell. "The model was so successful as a planning tool that there were no changes to the design once construction began."
Bissell's next project was 300 (2006), which garnered him an Art Director's Guild nomination for Excellence in Production Design. "I applied many of the lessons from Good Night and Good Luck to 300, including the way I used SketchUp," he says.
In 300, the idea was never to replicate Greece, but instead to create a space that reflected the world of the graphic novel the movie was based on. We created varied terrains, which we shot from different angles using modular foreground elements and different digital – and in one case, painted – backgrounds. SketchUp was invaluable in creating the illustrations that were used on the day of the shoot to show everyone what the final shot would look like.
"The end effect was dynamic -- not flat -- like people walking across a sound stage," continues Bissell. "You got a sense of very specific terrain, and the audience didn't feel cheated."
The Spiderwick Chronicles and beyond
Bissell has continued to find new uses for SketchUp, and on the set of The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008), created models for sets that were then used as templates by the set designers and pre-vis artists. "I used SketchUp throughout the making of the film to rough out the sets, and we used frame captures as the basis for other illustrations," he says. "The Sketchup models helped us fine-tune our sense of proportion in various sets, which was helpful in designing many of the details.”
According to Bissell, SketchUp has become even more useful over the years with the addition of features like LayOut, which lets you insert scaled views of your SketchUp models in documents you can use for both online and print presentations. Bissell used LayOut to produce the director's plans that were handed out to the Leatherheads crew.
This, he says, represented "a big breakthrough" in facilitating the design and production process. We were able to show everyone exactly what we had to deal with that day, using Google Earth image captures with set models built right on top of them.
"Leatherheads is a period movie about football in the early '20s," Bissell continues. "I designed the set models with SketchUp, including integrating photos of people, and placed everything in real locations with Google Earth. Using the precise longitude and latitude, I was able to show exactly how the sun would illuminate the set pieces."
Bissell plans to continue using SketchUp, and believes that in the future, more production designers will use it on movie sets to create and develop concepts for dramatic imagery, as well as to communicate effectively with other people working to bring that vision to life. "It's an honor to work with people like George Clooney, who's a wonderful collaborator," he says. "A tool like SketchUp makes it much easier to do that."
Developed for the conceptual stages of design, Google SketchUp is a powerful yet easy-to-learn 3D software tool that combines a simple, yet robust tool-set with an intelligent drawing system that streamlines and simplifies 3D design. From simple to complex, conceptual to realistic, Google SketchUp enables you to build and modify 3D models quickly and easily. If you use Google Earth, Google SketchUp allows you to place your models using real-world coordinates and share them with the world using the Google 3D Warehouse.