Veteran production designer Mark Tanner certainly has left his mark on indie film over the past couple of decades, working in various capacities on films such as “Waking Ned Devine” and the ethereal, moody “Awaydays.” His latest project is “Julia X 3D,” directed by P.J. Pettiette and written by Matt Cunningham and Pettiette.


Starring Kevin Sorbo, Valerie Azlynn, Alicia Leigh Willis and Ving Rhames, the film had its premiere at Screamfest last month.

“Julia X 3D” centers on the cat and mouse game between Julia (Azlynn) and The Stranger (Sorbo), as the audience tries to figure out who is chasing whom after the initial abduction of Julia after she meets a man on the Internet. Tanner, along with Pettiette and Cunningham, has crafted a unique looking film, using the 3D component to immerse the audience in the movie-going experience, rather than just merely throwing objects at them for the thrill factor.

The English born Tanner began his design career, as he says, “fresh out of private school” in the 1970s, first by working in the music industry, alongside bands such as Blondie, the Boomtown Rats, and the Cars, but never quite finding his niche (“I was useless; completely useless,” he said, laughing). After a visit to Pinewood Studios (where the original “Superman” and many other movies over the years have been filmed), he gravitated towards the visceral challenges of filmmaking.

His talent for drawing led to a position as a trainee matte artist and working on models on various projects, including the original “Clash of the Titans” with special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. Tanner rose through the ranks, and his career has coincided with the transition from strictly physical effects to the blending of CGI with traditional matte painting, model making, etc.

Tanner took the time recently to chat with Film Slate Magazine about the challenges of making a 3D thriller on an indie budget, trying to use a less is more approach when it comes to filmmaking, and how design serves the story on a film.

Film Slate Magazine: How did you become attached to this project?

Mark Tanner: Funnily enough, it was through a colleague of mine in London who’s a cinematographer and he was exploring 3D for another film that we were involved in that was going to shoot in Poland, which I don’t think happened. He was exploring 3D and flying all over the world, sort of finding out as much as he could about it, because it was a couple of years ago.

It was, well, not in its infancy, but it was pre- 'Avatar' and the rest of it. And putting some cameras together and what have you, and he put me up for it, and I met P.J. and Max Cunningham, the writer down in Hollywood, and we hit it off straight away. And I guess that they realized that I kind of got it from day one and then we went on the rest of the journey together. Unfortunately the cameraman was not able to do it (laughs) which was a bit ironic. He went off and did something else. And then Jason Goodman, the stereographer, took over on cinematography.

FSM: And when you take on a project, how immediately do you start going about the look of the film and the things that you have to work on? Do you have to get a sense of it, or when you read the script or meet the director are you already thinking of things?

MT: Obviously, it’s like reading a book, for anybody. Your imagination comes up with all sorts of stuff. It’s not the same for everybody. You then have to lock in. If you’re unlucky, which I have been on occasion, where it’s just not jelling, then you have to come to a common ground.

But in this case both P.J. and Matt Cunningham, they all kind of clicked in with my vision of it because it was very much their vision of it. The devil is always in the prep is what I say as much as the detail which of course, the devil is in the detail, but it’s in the prep. And the preparation, film prep, is the most important part of any—whether you’re doing a TV commercial or pop promo or TV film—if you’ve got those days to immerse yourself in it, and in this case weeks to immerse yourself in it, you’re 70% of the way there.

FSM: What did you find the challenges of working with 3D, certainly with a smaller budget?

MT: I’m certainly quite used to low budgets these days. And in fact, that’s kind of my niche, is more independent movies. I much prefer more hands on. But 3D, that was my first experience, so I wrote a couple of letters in fact, just to dip my foot in. I wrote a couple of letters to designers who were designing 3D.

I got a very nice letter back from-- it was a long time ago now, so I’m trying to remember--but I think it was 'My Bloody Valentine 3D,' {the production designer on that film was Zack Grobler-ed.} the designer there, and he sent me reams of pages of advice on what to do, which was very helpful. Because I had never done it before; it was very helpful but it’s not a huge difference. You just have to keep the 3D thing in mind the whole time. It’s all about layers. Film and design is all about layers anyway. You’re just exaggerating stuff slightly.

FSM: And these days, 3D is becoming quite the norm. This expansion of 3D, do you see it as a good thing from a design standpoint? Because everybody seems to be using it. Sometimes whether it’s warranted or not.

MT: (Laughs) Right. I think it is exciting and all the rest of it and is going to stay there, but it’s all down to the genre…Obviously horror is one of them, or thrillers. I was always kind of against the gimmick, trying to bring P.J. back a little bit from the gimmick. The whole effect of 3D is the immersion in the scene rather than the thrill of these—which I think has lost its novelty, certainly for me—the thrill of stuff coming out at you and all that sort of stuff.

It’s fine if it happens but a lot of these things, the audience cheers it, and that’s fine, because quite often that’s the kinds of movies that end up being made, but this had a lot more integrity I think, a much better crafted film and I was trying to keep that in the design all the way through as well. And I think what the 3D really achieves, which I was amazed at actually, because I’ve been to all these 3D films, like everybody else, it didn’t feel like a cartoon. And it didn’t feel like reality—it was somewhere in the middle. And I thought that was a little bit like 'Sin City' and '300,' you know, the new genre that’s kind of in between reality and...that to me is the most exciting thing about 3D.

FSM: Right, because say in a thriller or a horror movie, it’s where 3D certainly came to prominence, and now some of these other movies are using it as a gimmick. Throwing things at you in the front row so you get that feeling, as opposed to what you said, putting you inside the film.

MT: This is the thing. They actually are two different things. You don’t actually have to thrust stuff at people to bring them inside the film, because you’ve got that 3D layer. I felt personally that I was immersed in there, and you could almost smell it. That was what we set out to do, and I think we did it very successfully. I’m hoping that will transcend any accusations of gimmickry. We did in fact pull back hugely on that. There’s literally, two or three thrusts here and there that are arguably gratuitous. It was designed to make the best of 3D. I’m really quite proud of it. I think we achieved it.

FSM: Well, you almost want that, as opposed to relying on the gimmickry, because after that initial thing has worn off, then you’re looking for the next one and the next one. That would seem to be a wise move to pull back on that.

MT: Exactly. You’re just looking into an empty bucket. We didn’t have to do that because there was a good story. There were good characters, fantastic locations. The locations really became characters within themselves. I think we achieved that without gimmickry.

FSM: Any final thoughts about ‘Julia X 3D?’

MT: I think it’s going to be very easy for people who haven’t seen it to dismiss it as garbage or whatever. I would be tempted to poo-poo it if I saw it advertised and didn’t know anything about it, (making a cautious sounding grunt), ‘Ooh, another one, you know,’ but it actually has got all the elements for a great night out. I think it’s really good fun.


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