As Executive Creative Director, Academy Award-winning production designer Rick Heinrichs, a longtime collaborator with Tim Burton, is now responsible for leading visual design at the innovative Fourth Wall Studios. While continuing to raise the overall creative output across all of the projects developed for the innovative transmedia RIDES.tv, he brings over 30 years of experience to the next generation of interactive storytelling with a platform that uses technological devices to enhance and add dimension to narrative while engaging fans on a whole new level.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Rick Heinrichs talked about how his interest in these transmedia platforms has developed, how he came to be involved with Fourth Wall Studios, that it’s both exciting and daunting to have so much input in something that’s still so new, and the approach that they’ll be taking with each of the different projects. He also talked about what led him to make his directorial debut with the short The Ledge (the pilot episode for The Gamblers) about a high school senior who tries to talk her lovesick stalker out of jumping off a building while two gamblers bet on the outcome, how collaborating with such creative directors throughout his career has influenced his own approach, and that he loves how collaborative an industry and art form film is. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
RICK HEINRICHS: I would say the latter. I have kids and I do notice how much they’re connected to their phones, their games, their computers, their televisions, and everything they are. It will be interesting to see if that’s a function of their attention span, and they’ll watch television and text at the same time, or if it’s actually a potential tool for telling stories that immerses them more in the story. That’s what was put forward by the founders of Fourth Wall, Jim [Stewartson], Sean [Stewart] and Elan [Lee], and it’s an interesting idea that there is a new way to tell a story and to make people feel a part of it.
How did you come to be involved with Fourth Wall Studios? Did they approach you about doing it, or had you been looking for a company to get involved with?
HEINRICHS: They approached me. I was giving a talk at the Los Angeles County Museum on my collaboration with Tim Burton, as a designer over the years. They went to that and we just started chatting, and the idea of bringing my experience there, and helping them try to tool their process and their products, and bring the production values up, and to see how my experience might be able to be brought to bear on those elements. That was the idea. Along the way, the idea of directing one of these things came along as well, and I jumped at it.
Is it simultaneously exciting and a bit daunting that you can have so much input on something like this?
HEINRICHS: Sure, something that goes out and gets hit on and consumed by potentially millions of people is very daunting. It really puts a lot of importance on the things that you’re trying to do, and because this is such a new and experimental phase of what this is, you’re potentially failing or succeeding, depending on how things go, and you’re doing it on a big stage.
HEINRICHS: It’s a novel approach to watching narrative entertainment and content, in so far as you’re used to seeing stories and identifying with characters and feeling that there’s a stake in them that you identify with. But, in this particular case, you’re actually able to interact with it and bet on your stake and see what happens. That was the thing that was very unusual and unique. I wanted to see how that would work and if people would want to interact with it, and it seems as though people are enjoying it, so it’s cool.
Will you have a hand in everything that comes through, or are there specific things that you’ll be doing?
HEINRICHS: My role here is head of the visual design department. We have 10 or so people in that department right now, and they’re all interacting with the other departments. It is kind of a new company, so it’s a pastiche of different disciplines, coming from the film industry, from advertising, gaming, website design and internet interactivity. It’s very much a combination of all the disciplines that each one of those require separately, brought to bear on this particular thing. It’s always interesting, as a creative person, to be involved with something that is novel and to see where it can go and where it can take you. This feels very much like the beginning of something. We’re very much involved with tooling a process, at this point. The product will hopefully be what happens from a successful process. We’re working on what all the elements of that process are, and how we finesse that.
Is there a specific vision that you’re looking to bring to each of the different projects? What defines a Fourth Wall Studios project?
HEINRICHS: The approach that I’m taking with each one of the different projects that they have here is the same one I would take to any movie project I would work on. You simply explore the meaning of the story and the characters involved, from the ground up. You also pull together research and imagery from whatever source that inspires you, and you try to make unique connections between things that you hope will illuminate the story and bring it to life in a unique way that somebody hasn’t quite hit on yet. Part of the selection of the way these stories are told, as we are tooling this process, is that the stories and characters are being designed to take advantage of the storytelling tools that are being experimented with, so that the end product is going to be a combination of traditional storytelling and character evolution with all of these new ways of interacting with the story. There are specific ways of having the audio, text messages and visuals delivered on different devices, and they’re just a different way that you take in the story. One of the things I’ve always tried to do in filmmaking is that you don’t tell the story, you try to show it. With all of this new technology at our hand, there is much more opportunity to show and to allow the audience to take in bits of the story on a more subliminal level, as well as the more expository, simply because they are getting things from different ways. It is really interesting to see where that can go. Even in traditional filmmaking, you’re always trying to find novel ways of telling stories, and this is different.
What was it about The Ledge (the pilot episode of The Gamblers) that made you want to take the step to director?
HEINRICHS: The challenges were really interesting ones. One of the things that we’re trying to do is to optimize our production process, and it’s something that I always try to do, in making films anyway. There is new technology that is being developed and used in television and films, and I’m trying to see how it works with the internet world. It’s something called the virtual production process, which you can see in the behind-the-scenes featurettes. You’re very much on a stage with a green screen, and just whatever part of the set that makes sense to build. And then, your environment is virtual. It’s not really there, obviously. It’s something you can posit your characters into, later on.
That’s pretty old school, but the novelty is that there is camera tracking technology that’s going on, which is telling a computer where exactly, on stage and in space, within two centimeters, your camera is, at that moment. That allows the computer to put your camera into the virtual set and actually play that back while you’re shooting the scene, so that the actors can see what they’re going to look like when they’re in the environment, at the same time the director and the director of photography can. You’re able to compose and do all the things you would normally do with actors in a real environment, with this virtual set and this virtual production pipeline.
The advantages of a virtual production pipeline are that you can reduce the footprint of your production down to the size of the stage. The problem has always been that it’s pretty awful to work on a green screen stage. There’s nothing very inspiring about it. It can be a visually soul-sucking experience to work on a green screen stage. However, if you are able to see on a monitor what it’s actually going to look like and have that kind of feedback informing your decisions, then you’re bringing back a lot of the decision-making process of the designer, the director of photography and the director away from the post-production process and bringing it back into the actual capturing of the event on film. When you’ve got those people right there doing that, instead of happening in such a segmented way in post-production, it stays alive and there’s just much more intuitive communication going on sometimes.
So, I wanted to explore the virtual production pipeline, and we were able to shoot that show up at the virtual production stage at Universal. We worked with a visual effects company, called Zoic, who has a great deal of experience doing this very same thing for television. I think they do Once Upon A Time, and they did Pan Am. They do a lot of shows, some of which you notice that it’s an amazing set, but you don’t really clock the fact that it’s a virtual set that they’re interacting with until you see how the process was done. In a lot of cases, you think that the art director and the production designer designed and built this amazing set, when in fact they only built part of it and were able to extend it using all of this fabulous technology.
So, there was a curiosity, on my part, bred from my experience as a designer, and I wanted to experiment with that. It was an opportunity to direct and work with actors. I’m so used to retiring from the set and the stage when they start shooting because my job is done and I’ve got to go get the next set ready. Actually hanging out and working through the scene, and working through all of the different compositions and building a scene that you put together editorially later, was a really fascinating process. I’ve seen many amazing directors do it. To do it yourself is a whole other thing, altogether. All of the planning that goes into that is a huge amount of work and a huge challenge, but I could totally see why people get hooked on it. The rewards are really, really amazing when things work out.
HEINRICHS: A successful director is someone who has the combination of skills that you can learn, but there’s also an intuitive sensibility that they bring to it, that they’ve developed on their own and that is singular to them. So, depending on which director you’re talking about, their particular vision for something would be something you either like or don’t like. You can’t really learn that from a director. That’s just something you have to bring to it yourself. But, in terms of the skills that a director has to surmount, and all of the challenges that they have to come up against and know how to deal with, and the fact that you’re the center of attention and everybody is coming to you with questions, I have been able to take advantage of my experience with directors. For instance, when I said, “What do you do when everybody is asking you questions constantly and you give them answers right away, and then they go away and act upon that?,” Gore Verbinski was just like, “Yeah, and I feel like I’m doing really well, if three-quarters of my decisions are good ones.”
You’re definitely playing the odds there and hoping that the kind of problem-solving you’re doing on your feet is, for the most part, going to be taking you in the right direction. You certainly can’t be a perfect person, coming up with the 100% correct solution, all the time. It’s just a combination of a chain of good decisions that comes up with a successful product or a successful film. That’s what you hope for. But, nothing about the system is 100% fool proof.
And then, the real tough thing is working with actors. I’m a designer and used to working with artists, so there is some familiarity with the personalities that come up, but actors are their own animal. I was working with actors who were very easy to work with, but I can just imagine how, with all the other decision-making problems that come up along the way, in addition to that, the whole point of what your doing is following performance and character development. You’re building your story with those building blocks, and it is not easy. I’ve only come out with more respect for directors, from this. Before, I just didn’t really quite know. I knew it was really hard, so I respected them that way, but I didn’t really know exactly why and how it was hard until I tried doing this little bitty thing on my own.
How exciting is it to be involved with Frankenweenie and get to have a touring exhibit of the sets, so that people can see just how much work goes into the design? Is it important to you that people learn just how involved what you do is?
HEINRICHS: You want to feel appreciated, definitely. I think I’ve been very lucky to have a long enough career, so that I do get this kind of feedback. I would never have expected anything that I did would ever appear in first-rate museums around the world. That was just a choice that I made, very early on. I was interested mainly in the entertainment arts. I wasn’t as interested in being a fine artists. It all comes from the fact that I love working with other people, and I love the fact that film is a collaborative industry and form of art. You’re all working with each other and playing off of each other and getting the best ideas out of everybody. That’s the exciting thing. I never feel like I’m the guy that’s got all the answers. I love the interplay with other smart and creative people who have got better ideas than I do and that I can bring something to, as well. So, the fact that there are awards and exhibitions and some people know who I am is just all gravy. I’m lucky to just work in an industry where I get to play so much.