Art Direction is often forgotten in independent film. The myth is that most low-budget filmmakers don't have the funds or resources to use anything but the exact location they find and clothes the actors own. I couldn't disagree more. Sure, a low-budget film might be ill-advised to attempt a sci-fi period piece (though even then, it's possible), but you'd be surprised what you can accomplish with the right talent and a little imagination.
Our Art Director, Stephanie Petagno, is overflowing with both. I'll eventually get an interview with her up here, but she tends to stay a little busy with things, like working on designs for Women's Studies. What's great about her is she has enough talent, drive, and imagination to allow me to just point her in the right direction and let her go. Which isn't to say that I'm totally hands off on the Art Direction. On the contrary, it's one of the things I love to deal with most. However, with a thousand other things to deal with as director (and co-producer), it's nice to have full creative confidence in someone who is going to be helping us make vitally important decisions about the final look of the film.
We'll go deeper into the philosophy behind the Women's Studies "look" in a future blog, hopefully in the Stephanie Petagno interview. For now, we'll just talk a little about one specific piece of finished design work; "the academy girl tattoo."
In the script, the "academy girls" wear a tattoo to symbolize their allegiance to the Ross-Prentiss cause. It's also a way of letting the audience know who's with them or against them, which as the story unfolds, becomes important.
The problem with using a tattoo in such a "Mark of Cain" manner becomes one of subtlety. Now, you may argue that the use of a tattoo, period, just isn't very subtle, but it's all in the execution. Showing a woman walking down the street then cutting to close-up of the tattoo on her body while effective, comes on a little hard and fast. However, when establishing a motif like the tattoo, I believe this kind of "in your face" composition works best. One of the first shots of Women's Studies will be a close-up of the tattoo. Then the camera will pull back to reveal who's wearing it. Not too subtle, but again, in that moment we're simply setting up the visual cue.
The idea is that in most subsequent appearances, we won't have to take the time to blatantly point out the tattoo. It'll be just "part of the scenery," so to speak. By simply appearing, the tattoo becomes a subtle reminder to the audience, "That's a Ross-Prentiss girl."
To this end, I gave Stephanie two instructions about the tattoo. First, that the design should NOT be the circle and cross female symbol that we use in the Women's Studies logo. We talked a little bit about the "pagan" aspects of the story, but honestly not much. The second was that whatever the design would be, it should be "stylized" with sharp lines in order to contrast with the skin of the person wearing it. That way we won't have to constantly use close-ups to point it out.
"Give me something to yea or nay," was how I put it.
Stephanie gave me lots of somethings, and ultimately, the design we decided on was this:
Basically, the design is a modified heraldic dagger, or pointed cross, which is often used in typography to denote someone's death date. More fitting I thought were two botanical meanings of the symbol which Stephanie pointed out: "Poisonous" or "A plant once cultivated that now grows wild."
In theory, each character's tattoo will have it's own variations in color and size. As mentioned before, there are a couple of key tattoo "reveals" essential to the plot. However, the basic design will remain the same with each character.