「Global Entertainment」 Personal Interview_ “Let Art Be Integrated into the Story and Characters” – Tu Xinran, Production Designer

「Global Entertainment」 Tracy Xia, Cici,Gi-Ling

He is a production designer in the China Film Group Corporation, a member of the China Film Association and China Film Artists Association;

He has been in the industry for more than 25 years and has participated in the production of 21 films and 24 TV series, participating in more than 774 episodes;

His production design filmography credits include the Academy Award-nominated film The Grandmaster;

and action film The Great Raid starring James Franco;

The Painted Veil, based on Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, starring Edward Norton;

Television series Peace Hotel starring Lei Jiayin and Chen Shu.

Historical drama film Heng Kong Chu Shi starring Li Xuejian and Li Youbin;

To Be With You Forever starring Wang Xueqi and Song Chunli;

And Springtime in a Small Town directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang;

His art direction works include John Rabe directed by Academy-Nominated German director Florian Gallenberger, which won Best Production Design at the 59th German Film Awards, one of the few times that a Lola award has been given to a non-German citizen.

He is the

celebrated production designer

Tu Xinran

 Part One: Family Upbringing that Influenced his Career

Tu Xinran’s parents were professors at the old Beijing Film Studio. Growing up in a film-centric household, his family upbringing was the root of his creative work in the film industry. As he grew up, like most young people, he gradually discovered his specialties through constant exploration. In university, he majored in advertisement design, but a few years after graduation, he came to realize the creative limitations of advertisements. He wished to fully express the beauty and charisma of moving pictures. He had always loved the film industry, so he decided to begin his career  working on art in film.  

Part Two: Persistent focus, Create professionalism

Tu has been in the industry for more than 25 years.He is very dedicated to his work.  He believes the core of production design comes from a deep understanding of the story and characters. To production design is to provide actors with a framework to work with, to visually present a film as a piece of art, and to create a scene to support the work of the director and the cinematographer.  Utilizing his unique artistic vision, he was able to craft a brand-new world for each project. Tu translates words on the page into sounds and images. Tu’s work provided an emotional undertone and visual aesthetic for the film.

The story is the soul of the movie, and the characters are the soul of the story. A successful production designer must be able to integrate the story and characters of the film. A production designer must have a firm grasp of the tone, the set decoration, the color palette, and the transition between each set. Any sense of separation in one of these elements will affect the overall presentation of the film. Tu always approaches each project by digging for the heart of the story and analyzing the character. Before entering the stage of focusing on details and props, he always starts with situating the mood and tone of the film and deciding ways to subtly illustrate certain motifs and messages through production design. Tu believes that the look of each set is a subtle yet most direct means of showcasing the characters. He believes production design is to service the stories and tailor the character. 

The quality of work comes from professionalism, and professionalism comes from dedication. Since the beginning of Tu Xinran’s career, he has designed many well-known production sets and detailed scenery experiences for the audience. His success is closely related to his attitudes toward historical accuracy and details. During the filming of The Great Raid (2005), a film about the US military prisoner of war camp in the Philippines during World War II, Tu and his team did a lot of research to completely transform Nanjing Road at the Shanghai Chedun Film and Television Studios into a Philippines city street. After extensive historical research and on-site field trips, his team was able to recreate the Philippines during WWII on a studio lot in Shanghai. Tu and his team also did a lot of research during the preparation of The Painted Veil. He and his team conducted multiple location scouts in southern China for research, venturing deep into remote, mountainous areas such as Huangyao in Guangxi and ancient towns in Sichuan. After over six months of location scouting, the film decided to shoot the Mei Tan Mansion scenes in Yizhou and Huangyao Yao, Guangxi. However, the London scenes were filmed at the Chedun Film and Television Studios in Shanghai. The look of London  was so incredibly detailed and realistic in the film, that many were surprised to learn that it was all recreated in the studio. The English said that is real London.Such successful restoration across time and space hinged on the extensive data and research conducted by Tu Xinran and his team. The team was able to build London by recreating the architectural style of the city as well as paying attention to historically accurate elements. 

When considering the difference between film production design and architectural design, Tu believes that to design a film is to rely on the script. The production designer follows the director’s vision and the structure of the script to create the look of the film. When the director or the script has no specific instructions, the production designer makes the script the core of the design and designs according to the undertone and the potential blocking. A good design should not only consider the aesthetic, but also assist the actors in playing around in the environment created. Production design aims to design scenes that can tell a story well according to the development of the plot, while an architectural-related design is more personalized to the creator’s vision and more commercial.

Part Three: Comprehensive, Meticulous and Safety First

As a professional, it is Tu’s primary objective to not only be comprehensive and meticulous, but also consider safety first and foremost. The construction of movie sets are often temporary, so they would eventually need to be demolished according to construction safety protocols. In addition, Tu considers copyright issues in his projects; to prevent his original design from being reused by other crews or businesses and potentially have a negative impact on the original film, his sets are always dismantled according to Hollywood production rules. All the oil paintings used in The Painted Veil were approved for fair use and any suspected infringement had to be eliminated to avoid any copyright disputes. He is very strict. It is this meticulous and rigorous attitude that makes Tu Xinran an industry staple.

In addition to paying attention to safety and copyright issues, Tu also considers the cost efficiency of building a scene. When it comes to choosing materials, he prefers period authentic materials, but when it comes to substitutes, he makes his decisions based on texture and safety, as well as if they are environmentally friendly and recyclable. In the MGM production Warriors of Virtue, he used blister boards supported by wooden structures when building the forest scenes. This decision helped the production cut down on lumber resource consumption and helped the film be more environmentally friendly.

Celebrated Production Designer Tu Xinran gives an exclusive interview at Global Entertainment in Los Angeles. He reveals his secrets and tips for participating on  film projects. The following is the interview Q&A:

Global Entertainment: What impressed you the most when you worked on The Grandmaster?

Tu Xinran: First of all, I am very honored to have been able to participate in the filming of The Grandmaster.What impressed me the most was Director Wong Kar-Wai’s unremitting pursuit for art and his rigorous attitude towards each detail in the film. Whenever I came back from a tech scout or analyzed a finished draft with him, he usually had a new idea to present to me. Sometimes this overthrows all our previous ideas, but his ideas were always reasonable extensions to better showcase the character. His approach to his work makes me feel that the set design should be divergent. It does not have to be confined by the script, but the design exists to promote the characters and provide a basis for the story presentation. This experience brought inspiration to my later works. Ever since working on The Grandmaster, I would approach the director about each look of the set first before discussing the plot and the character design, and the set design would come organically from our discussion. 

Global Entertainment: John Rabe is known as the Chinese version of The Schindler’s List, and the film won Best Pictures and Best Production Design at the 59th German Film Award for its highest award (Lola Award). Both the costume and the set design in the film are quite particular. What was your artistic approach to that film?

Tu Xinran: John Rabe is the largest film co-produced by China and Germany. All members of our creative team took the artistic quality of this film very seriously. The script was adapted by the director based on real historical figures and events. The foundation of the production design aims to recreate the authentic texture of that time in history. When we saw opportunities to make creative decisions in the story, we try to make it not only visually aesthetic but also stay faithful to the characters. For example, our design for John Rabe’s house reflected this idea. Historically, the real John Rabe didn’t live in a factory like what we presented in the film, however, the director made the creative decision to set Rabe’s house next to a factory to better service the plot. We renovated a Siemens factory with an old aircraft hangar, so Rabe’s house is set next to this huge factory with a strong industrial presence. We were thinking, what should the design direction of Rabe’s home be? This required us to have a deep understanding of John Rabe’s life. Rabe lived in China for nearly 30 years before the Rape of Nanjing, so I wanted the exterior of his house to have some Chinese elements to it. These visual elements reflect Rabe’s deep feelings for China and also helps to explain why later in the plot, he decides to save the Chinese people despite all the difficulties. The interior design is also a blend of Chinese and German. For example, the kitchen should be more German because Rabe must cook and eat his homeland’s cuisine, so the stove, pots, kitchen utensils, and even all the seasoning are all antiques we purchased from Germany. But we also incorporated elements of 1920s and 30s Chinese home decoration and furniture, and the Bauhaus style was popular during the 1920s, so we infused Bauhaus elements in the wallpapers, lamps and other details. All these meticulous designs stem from the art department’s 4-month pre-production period. We studied the history of Siemens in China, the German way of life and habits, and our team visited a lot of museums for research. For example, the switchboard room in the Siemens factory in the film was recreated through our visits to the Shanghai Telephone Museum, as well as with pictures and historical materials provided by Siemens.

Global Entertainment:  You mentioned in the previous interview that you did a lot of historical research for the film John Rabe. Did you encounter any difficulties in the process of these researches?

Tu Xinran: There were indeed many difficulties. For example, in the movie, there is a scene set in a hospital operating room. However, many medical instruments used back then in operating rooms can no longer be found. The only way for us to recreate them was to find historical pictures, and find manufacturers to reproduce them based on the drafts we provided them with. Different surgical instruments also had different specificities, so we visited surgeons who were working at that time and conducted interviews about how they would approach the potential scenario that was in the script. There is another scene in the film where the foreigners were evacuated to the pier. Therefore, we had to design a riverboat, which was attacked and eventually sunk. The real historical tragedy happened to a smaller riverboat, but we thought that a smaller riverboat was not as visually impactful as we wanted it to be. Therefore, we designed a huge cruise ship. To ensure the authenticity of the cruise ship, we also invited engineers from Jiangnan Shipyard to fact check and provide a foundation for our designed drawings.

Global Entertainment: The film The Painted Veil took place in London in the 1920s. How did you design the scene for this specific historical time period?

Tu Xinran: In 2004, it was quite difficult to recreate the set of London in China. Technology wasn’t advanced then and the amount of information we had access to was limited. I was able to reach out to my friends in London, and they went to the British Museum to help me look up pictures and materials and email the information back to me. I also researched the unique details of Victorian architecture. We were recreating the streets of London on the Chedun Studio Lot in Shanghai. Therefore, we constructed a set and modified it to fit the studio lot. We put in London trams, a historically relevant detail, awnings outside shop windows, added roadside railings, post boxes, phone booth designs, etc. For the set decoration, we had an Australian art director gave us suggestions based on British living habits. All the hand props we used were British antiques rented from antique shops. We did so much that some British actors on set were saying, “It’s no different from being in England.”

Global Entertainment: In the film The Painted Veil, as the romance develops between the main characters, did you make any artistic decisions to reflect that in the scenic design?

Tu Xinran: This is an interesting question. As the romance develops between the main characters, the environment in which they are in also changes drastically. In the beginning, they first meet at a luxurious family ball in London. Everything is so lavish and magnificent, conveying how real life is full of temptations. After their marriage, they go to Shanghai. Although it is also a prosperous city, the furnishing of the Shanghai apartment reflects the female character’s loneliness and troubled emotional state. The apartment is luxurious but slightly ethereal. Towards the end of the film, the set takes place in the most important location: a communal, large wooden house, the Mei Tan Mansion. Here, the set decoration reaches extreme minimalism. Except for the traces of torn wallpaper on the wood-paneled walls, the house is almost empty. There were minimal pieces of furniture. The few personal effects and luggage they bring into the house are relics of their life in Shanghai. All of this is to visually demonstrate the emotional rift between the male and female characters. They have reached the point where nothing is left in their relationship. However, it is because everything is gone that the female character, after letting go of all her desires, finally realizes that she loves the male character. And in the end, she earns the fruit of all of their love, their child.

Global Entertainment: The Painted Veil has sets of downtown Shanghai. What kind of fusion of Eastern and Western cultures have you made during your production design process?

Tu Xinran: Indeed, the Shanghai bustling market scene is very typical of Shanghai’s regional characteristics. We also recreated this setting at the Chedun Film and Television Studio in Shanghai. This setting reflects the Shanghai Shikumen culture — a unique fusion of Chinese culture with Western influence in the early 20th century. This scene could only take place in Shanghai. We set up a crowded and lively market in a narrow alleyway, which is precisely a characteristic exclusive to Shanghai.

 Global Entertainment:  Among all the film genres that you have yet to work on, which one would you like to take on in the future?

Tu Xinran: First of all, I think a good production designer should be able to integrate their artistic vision into the story and characters without leaving any personal marks. I will continue to move forward with this belief in the future. In addition, I also look forward to the future of production design. I hope to use my  sets to tell a story, help build the characters and visually advance the story. Furthermore, I want to showcase the diversity of cultures through details in my production design. For example, I really want to take on a Chinese historical fiction project, to use rich visual expressions to show the historical and cultural accumulation of Chinese history and create a tranquil and elegant atmosphere for the actors. I want to represent our culture and potentially combine it with Western culture.