FRANÇOIS AUDOUY was born in France and raised in a small town in California. An artist from a very young age, François was an early adopter of digital art programs as they became available in the late 80s and early 90s. After starting out in graphic design and as an illustrator, François learned the craft of art direction as an apprentice mentoring with production designers Bo Welch (Men in Black) and Alex McDowell (Minority Report). He eventually became an art director on films such as Watchmen, Transformers and Spider-Man. He was one of the first all-digital concept designers working in the art department and evolved to assemble highly collaborative art departments all around the world.
François is a founding member of the 5F Institute, a global community of multi-disciplinary creators who share a passion for generating new methods of storytelling.
For his latest film, The Wolverine, François spoke with Bill Howard at Fountain Pop.com to speak about his craft and how he helped redefine one of the most beloved superheroes of all time.
FA: Hi Bill.
BH: Hi there. I just watched Wolverine and loved it. Striking visuals and a superhero movie unlike any before it I think. And I don’t think I have ever spoken to anyone who has worked on as many films on my personal favorites list as you have.
FA: Thank you very much, that’s nice of you to say. I’ve been very lucky working with cool people, you never know when you’re working on them if they’re going to be any good, you just never know.
BH: So since you started out as an illustrator on films like Men in Black and Miami Vice then moving to art direction on films like Transformers and Watchmen was the process of getting to production design a natural one and was it a goal of yours to get to production design specifically?
FA: It’s funny you know, I wasn’t in a rush to be a production designer but it’s kind of an organic evolution. For me I kinda started out as a concept guy and an idea guy in the art department. Working as a concept illustrator your job is to come up with ideas then come up with images that start conversations or keep conversations going. So that is a great training ground for becoming a production designer because part of the job in becoming a production designer is being a problem solver and a visual communicator. It’s interesting because I started off as an illustrator and a graphic designer and then I became an art director and being an art director trains you to be a manager so you get that other side of the brain training where it’s much more practical experience. Then you go over that hump into a job that is more creative in a sort of idea way.
BH: My wife and I run our own graphic design business so I get that.
FA: Yeah I started out as a graphic designer then my first job on a movie around 1995 I had some really great relationships with production designers who used me as part of their regular travelling art departments, mainly with Bo Welch who did Edward Scissorhands. It was an interesting time looking back because it was the dawn of using Photoshop and digital compositing and digital photography and I was one of those guys who could use Photoshop to communicate ideas very very quickly as far as doing location composites and telling stories about how locations could look in the movie.
BH: Maybe moreso than any other job on a movie, production design seems that the work would vary drastically in your day to day work. Does your personal taste and sense of style come into play or do you have to leave that behind to focus on what the story calls for?
FA: It comes into play every single day because as a designer there is a side to the job, the aesthetic, you want to create an aesthetic to the film that you’re proud of so every single set and every single frame represents my aesthetic point of view and sensibilities. I think I have very strong opinions about what looks good and what doesn’t look good just like all production designers and all directors of photography quite honestly. You’re constantly pushing your own aesthetic into the mix. But I think you’re hinting at something interesting that sometimes you have to take your own emotions out of the picture and do things for the good of the movie. It’s a balance that you’re trying to create a consistent aesthetic throughout the piece in look and tone but at the same time I’m also trying to create a world that feels right and true for the movie and pushes the narrative forward and strengthens what’s happening emotionally in each of the scenes.
BH: That kind of links to another question I had. When art is your work, what is that balance like, creating art but performing your job at the same time?
FA: From an outsiders point of view you might think that I go to work and create pretty pictures and then it magically comes to life. The truth is that it’s really hard work and an enormous challenge when you’re given really limited resources; the appetite is always bigger than the stomach, at least on the movies I always work on. Producers count on me to deliver a movie that looks bigger than what they spent. They want a production designer that will deliver a movie that looks like twice the budget that it actually was. To find efficiency wherever possible and deliver a sophisticated and immersive experience. There’s kind of a transition throughout the course of a production where the beginning is the blue sky period and it’s all about building enthusiasm and exploring ideas and creating visuals that get everybody excited and you’re trying to find the look of the picture. You’re trying to find the story in the script by finding locations and references and research. And then as the movie gets closer to reality, then it becomes trying to figure out the equation of how to create as much value with your available resources and time. Part of my job is also trying to figure out what is the best combination of real locations, sets, CGI set extensions and you’re constantly juggling that to get the best possible result without having to compromise. You’re trying to stay true to the vision and the look that you created. It’s very very challenging in that way where it’s like a painter with a time deadline but only a certain number of colors to paint with.
BH: So the expectation is always going to be greater than the budget.
FA: For me fear is my greatest motivator. Just having a ticking clock and a deadline and expectations keeps you on your toes, keeps you sharp and keeps you going. If we had unlimited resources and unlimited time I know that we wouldn’t deliver the same exciting product at the end. You need that to fuel the creative fire.
BH: So the hard work naturally becomes part of the art itself.
FA: Absolutely, it’s all part of the same experience.
BH: One of the things about Wolverine that stood out for me is that it didn’t feel a superhero movie at all; it felt like some epic drama that just happened to be about a superhero. It felt more sophisticated. Much like The Watchmen had its own visual style, Wolverine also stood out on its own. When you are working in these fantastical worlds is it a challenge to keep them grounded in reality?
FA: Every movie is different. The approach to this movie was very different than Watchmen where we really kept going back to the graphic novel as a sort of bible. We tried to recreate every single tiny detail in a loving way to the graphic novel. You can go back to that movie and find tons of Easter eggs if you are a big fan of the novel. The approach for this film was that Jim really wanted to create a character piece that stood on its own and wasn’t really linked to the previous movies in the franchise, he didn’t want the distractions of all the other characters, he wanted the movie to be about Logan. And I thought that was incredibly liberating because it enabled us to create a stand-alone story that could hold its own. As a result we really labored to create a believable rounded world that didn’t distract from the narrative and kept everything feeling real. The understated quality of the movie I think comes from the fact that we went to a lot of real locations in Japan that hadn’t really been seen in any other western films. We constantly tried to find locations that weren’t cliché and felt like parts of the real Japan. For example we went to these very remote fishing villages in Southern Japan that frankly took a lot of resources to get the crew down there because they were in the middle of nowhere. That helped ground that part of the movie immensely. Then all the stuff in the streets was gritty and real and helps you stay rooted in the story and doesn’t feel like a big set piece on a soundstage somewhere.
BH: Nothing about the film felt rehashed from anything, it felt like an old samurai movie updated to modern day.
FA: You know I kept joking to Jim saying ‘Hey, this movie would still be really entertaining if you got rid of the claws completely’, It doesn’t need the comic book element at all for the story to hold up.
BH: Yeah, I thought the character story was the strongest element of the movie for sure. It was a refreshing change and made for a unique movie. Even though it did well at the box office I think it might have done even better had people known it was so much more than they might have anticipated.
FA: Thank you very much, we have been delighted with how well it’s been received and it did really really well internationally. I think audiences were excited to see a movie that wasn’t the same old backlot movie; it’s nice to see a character like this go out into the world.
BH: All of the films you have worked on seem to be movies that are remembered for their visual style. You don’t seem to have any romantic comedies on your resume. Is this a coincidence or are you drawn to specific types of movies visually?
FA: I think it’s because as an illustrator early in my career I worked on a lot of movie with big art departments and big art departments tend to work on fantasy, sci-fi technical types of movies. So as a result when I transitioned to art direction and production design that is what my experience was in so it became sort of a safe choice. I don’t really know how to do a romantic comedy but I could probably do one.
BH: It would end up being a great looking romantic comedy…
FA: The thing I love about my job most is the opportunity to learn new things and Wolverine is a great example because it has afforded me the opportunity to become an expert in Japanese culture. For my next film, Dracula Untold, it all takes place in 15th Century Transylvania so I sort of became an expert on that part of the world and that part of history. I’m grateful to be a sort of go to designer for fantasy or these sort of epic movies because it’s a great playground to play in.
BH: So are there movies from the past that stand out for you as inspiring in terms of production design?
FA: Oh absolutely. I’m still inspired by great looking movies now but I was born in the mid-70s so my most impressionable time growing up was mid to late 80s. And that just happened to be the time that was the birth of the franchise film and it kind of spawned a new era of tent pole type films. There were a lot of Hollywood movies being made that had scope and were really unique movies like Terminator and all these other movies that we all loved, you know, Back to the Future, the Indiana Jones films, Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner, there’s so many great visual trips that came out in the 1980s. Those kinds of movies are movies made in Hollywood at that time are the kinds that we are still trying to build upon and find again. What I am trying to do is really look for the films that are original and aren’t necessarily remakes or sequels but are trying to do something different and trying to create a unique world that lives on beyond the 90 minute experience of sitting in the cinema.
BH: Well I think so far you’ve succeeded.
FA: Thanks Bill, that’s really nice of you.
BH: Well I think I’ve gone way over my time, it was a real pleasure and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
FA: Well I hope we get the chance to do it again!
BH: Definitely, I would love that. Thank you very much.
The Wolverine is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.