A Q&A with film and television Art Director and Sydney Film School alumni, Lee Launay

by Nicole Newton-Plater

Sydney Film School prides itself on giving it’s students a hands-on education to film-making so that they go into the competitive Australian film industry as prepared as possible with all the tools they need to start their long and successful careers. Graduate Lee Launay is only too happy to talk about this aspect of his alma mater and how it has helped him with his career thus far.

Since graduating from Sydney Film School’s Advanced Diploma course in 2010, Lee has worked in art and production design in both film and television in Australia and in the United States. He worked in the props department on the set of the 2013 films Goddess and The Wolverine and as the art director on episodes of the television shows The Voice and Disney Channel’s Hanging With Adam and Ash and the upcoming film, Jack Goes Home.

We are delighted that Lee has taken the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his experience at Sydney Film School and the benefits to his career of choosing to study there.

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How did you initially decide to begin your filmmaking study at Sydney Film School?

I was always interested in design and storytelling. I spent more time building cardboard buildings, caves and spaceships for my action figures than I did acutely playing with them. I’d draw comics, write fiction and get some friends together to film improvised fantasy and drama shorts. They were awful, but put me on the path toward studying film. I had looked at a few other film schools, but didn’t want the sterile university vibe. I fell in love with the Sydney Film School creative space as soon as I walked in. It had character from top to bottom, and was full of instructors who were active filmmakers, not just full time teachers. The vibe is what got me and I’m very glad with my decision.

How did you decide to make art direction and production design your filmmaking focus?

When I began at film school I assumed (as most do) I would turn out a director. Over the intense year at SFS I tried many on-set roles, learning their responsibilities and the realities of what each entailed. I learnt a lot about my natural abilities, and through collaborating with other filmmakers developed a slew of new ones. It seemed my skills at drawing and ability to comprehend and articulate ideas into images made me a good fit for art direction. I dived in while in my second semester and have been working in the industry ever since.

You’ve now done work in both film and television. What are the major differences between working in the two? 

Working freelance is a constant hustle, but its always offering fresh and unique experiences. I’ve found that TVC and commercial music videos are very demanding but offer good money for short periods of high stress. Television shows are always under funded and thus art departments are always under the gun to deliver on tight turn-arounds, but it’s constant, dependable work with a steady pay check and forges great working relationships that ultimately lead to more work later. Feature films are their own beasts entirely. A visiting production from the USA has a very different feel to a local feature and the budgets involved can vary dramatically. Feature films offer a fantastic scope of challenges and are where I would ideally like to spend most of my time. Working with a dedicated crew on a single project for a long period of time really tests your mettle and evolves you in your chosen art.

In your few first credits in film and television you were working in the props department. What does working with props entail? Is this a good place to get your foot in the door working in the art department on projects?

The Wolverine remains the biggest production I’ve worked on. I was hired as “Assistant Standby Props”, which is a gloriously misleading term for “Assistant to the On-Set Art Director”. It’s a role that mixes set dressing, prop fixing, rigging, carpentry, SFX, construction, cleaning and A LOT of sweating. I got to build some set pieces and props that got a major close up in the film. I became “Claw-Wrangler” of Wolverine’s deadly blades and would be called on by the Director by name to solve problems as they arose. Strangely when given the extra responsibility, I sort of “settled” into the high-stress environment more. The lessons learnt were invaluable and talking favourite 90’s cartoon theme songs with Hugh Jackman between resets will remain a treasured memory.

What was it like to work on films Goddess and The Wolverine?

Working on a big set is daunting no matter your role. There are so many people to meet, names to remember and protocols to adjust to that I remember feeling really overwhelmed the first time. But with each completed project I realize there isn’t as big a difference between short film and ‘Hollywood Blockbuster’. The budgets are bigger and there’s more to do, but at the end of the day you are still showing up early, solving problems creatively and then going home to do it again the next day. No matter the budget, the “perfect” tool for the job is rarely in reach and it comes down to the ingenuity of the team in place to keep the project moving forward.

You’ve now made the move to be working part-time in the United States. When did you decide to start work in the United States and what was the process like to break into the film business there?

LA is a soup of people trying to ‘make it’. Everyone is trying to do something. Every waiter is an actor, every receptionist a model or a singer… it’s a big masquerade ball of people doing things to survive long enough to “make it” doing something else…myself included I guess. Everyone is a scrapper; it reminds me of that Old Ben line from A New Hope, “Never was there a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”.

In contrast Australia’s film industry is a small one. We have incredibly highly trained and talented professionals doing amazing work on the limited number of production available. After a few years of stable freelance work I wanted a new big challenge, so began to search out productions abroad. In the USA there are a huge number of productions being crewed and completed everyday, the foot in was all I needed. I started small by landing an art director roll on a short film produced by James Franco called “City Bus”. I felt intimidated at the prospect of working with Franco, but soon realized that everyone was really impressed with my level of dedication and professionalism.

I realized that the Australian standard of work is very high due to our competition in the job market, and that having trained here was indeed a privilege. With the fear of being an ‘outsider’ somewhat faded, I threw myself at more projects, always aiming up and last year I Art Directed my first feature film shooting in upstate New York as head of the art department. Jack Goes Home is a psychological thriller directed by Thomas Dekker and starring Rory Culkin, Lin Shaye, Britt Robertson, Natasha Lyonne, and Nikki Reed, which premiered at SXSW Festival in March and will hit Australia early 2017.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itYrHQEqQuE

People often comment on the differences in film financing between Australia and other countries. As you work in production design and in the art department, is this something you feel is evident in production when you are working overseas?

Yes. Australian funding rests largely in winning grants or being awarded funds by government bodies. In the USA there is a market for producers to gain multiple streams of private funding,either on their own merits or on their ability to sell the production to a financier. An indie feature’s budget can start at $300,000 USD and then be rocketed up to $1million USD while shooting through acquiring additional executive producers, letting them visit the set, “wowing” them with the footage shot or simply by getting the right handshake over drinks at a bar. The funding structure the USA seems much less rigid and with more to go around. However, having said that I am not a producer, so I’m sure there’s an entire inside-ballgame that I was not privy too. I’ll just say that I think the Australian Film industry is dramatically underfunded and I really hope we can begin to create Australian franchises to send internationally,as opposed to simply crewing American features that shoot here to save a few bucks.

What are some of the challenges you have faced working in the art department in film?

You name it. There’s no proper way for me to answer this question. Filmmaking is all about challenges. Overcoming challenges against insane odds is what we do. It’s how we learn, how we grow and how we become fearless. I’ve encountered everything from trying to safely orchestrate a horse-mounted gun-fight sequence on a mud slicked hill in thick fog under a heavy rain machine to how to dig a meteor sized crater in the desert, and where to hide all the dirt. No matter the production demands the biggest challenge remains getting out of bed on a cold morning.

You still have a great deal of contact with Sydney Film School. Do you feel that it is important to stay in close contact with where you studied?

Important? I don’t know. I certainly like it. I would not be where I am without the tutelage of Sydney Film School and as I worked with filmmakers who studied elsewhere, I became certain that I made the right choice. A film school needs to allow growth, it needs to hold its own spirit and it needs to challenge you. Nothing has ever been nourished by a concrete slab, which sadly I feel are all other film courses offer…blocks of pre-fabricated lesson plans. I like staying in contact with SFS as it keeps me connected to the future of the Australia film industry. On a selfish level I know that somewhere in each semester is a future producer or director who may ultimately hire me, but really this industry is all about collaboration and I know that every year SFS will produce another set of talented art directors destined to be a collaborator. I do my best to offer assistant roles and paid work placements to alumni as often as I can. I know they will have a strong work ethic and take pride in the results. The SFS community is a unique one that I’m proud to be a part of.

How has what you learnt at SFS helped you in your career thus far?

The greatest offering by Sydney Film School was the ability to try new thing and make mistakes on working film sets. SFS’s focus on practical film making means you can try and fail over and over in a supportive environment, so you can learn from, and ultimately not make those mistakes when working on a professional production. In my first semester I volunteered on a dozen Part 2 Thesis films and I made every mistake in the book from sleeping through alarms, to breaking things, to my phone ringing while filming… you name it, I learnt the lesson in film school. I continue to learn from every production, but becoming intimate with on-set etiquette and protocol was invaluable to me delivering on the first jobs that got my foot in the door.

What projects do you have coming up?

I’ve just wrapped on a short film by Australian director Genevieve Clay-Smith called Kill Off staring ‘American Horror Story’s’ Jamie Brewer. I’m now beginning pre-production for a music video with director George-Alex Nagle, who is another SFS Alumni, to shoot early next month with a TVC to follow. I have plans to return to the USA for a feature film at Christmas, but as productions often get delayed I’m still looking for work locally just in case.

If you could give one piece of advice to those starting their filmmaking journey, what would it be?

Try everything, stay focused and don’t give up. Life is going to be tough no matter what, so prepare your self for a lot of soul-searching in-between each amazing production. Filmmakers suffer from a great deal of ‘impostor syndrome’ and self doubt that can make the jobs we don’t get seem more important than the ones we do, but it’s this feeling of ‘Oh maybe I’m not good enough’ that keeps us humble, keeps us motivated and keeps pushing us to aim higher and higher. So stay focused on your goal, I’ve found it to be a truly amazing existence, worth every petty stress and sleepless nights.

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