Posted 28 November 2019
Interview by Ayla Angelos

Production designer Anna Rhodes on creating on-set magic for Virgin Media’s new ad, I Can Do Anyth-ing

Some of the most satisfying projects are those full of creativity and collaboration. For Anna Rhodes, a production designer based in London, her work on Virgin Media ad I Can Do Anyth-ing ticked both of those boxes in the extreme. Last April, Anna was tasked to create a young girl's bedroom that was true to life “but with a teaspoon of magic”, working closely with director Raine Allen-Miller, as well as the producer, props buyers and a huge VFX team. Following a long process of mood-boarding, research and prop sourcing, nearly every item on the set was customised in some way. It was “a joy to realise,” says Anna. Here, she shares her tips for working well as a team, and tells us about the challenge of balancing a budget with the “epic scale” of the set she needed to make.

Project Background

James Waters, the producer, first called me about this project in the pitching stage in April, looking to get some baseline figures for the art department. I only saw a script at this point, and I could already tell it was going to be a great project. I was confirmed in July and we had a month to prep until the shoot.

I had worked with James and director Raine Allen-Miller on a Nike job in Tokyo at the start of 2019, which was challenging but also very fun – it was great to work with them. Raine and I then went on to work on a Stella Artois commercial in Seoul.

Still from I Can Do Anyth-ing

The Brief

The outline of the story and the scenes were already defined, but Raine and I developed the growing bedroom set together by playing around with cardboard models and match boxes. I was really inspired from the start, so I quickly put together a mood board with visual references to discuss with Raine. This became the bedrock for what would be the entire look and feel of the sets.

The Preparation

I always start with mood-boarding and image research. Intuitively, I normally always have a direction I want to go in following reading the treatment from a director, and then I spend a day or two honing that vision with visual research. When it comes to making an edit of all the visual material into an initial mood board, a unique look and feel often rises to the surface.

Once the initial moods are signed off, it’s time to start sketching up the sets. In this case, I spent a day with Raine working on ideas and making models so we could figure out how we wanted the room to grow. I then had a meeting with construction to make sure the idea is viable (logistically and from a budget point of view), and then finalised the design. I work in Sketch Up and I send my model to a 3D artist to make it look beautiful, ready for client and agency approval.

With this project, we worked closely with the brilliant team at the VFX company, Untold Studios. I sent them the digital 3D model and they started to build the flying CG elements and put in the camera move, which helped us work out exactly how much flooring, set height and children we needed to fill the set.

“We sat down to work out how the set would move and grow, it felt more like play than work.”

In the mean time, the team and I began looking for locations to shoot some of the scenes that weren’t set builds. I’d make a mood board and a Pre-Vis – a pre-visualisation of how the location will look once dressed and any set elements added – for each location, ready for client and agency approval. Once we have set designs and locations signed off we start looking for specific props, and honing details like materials and paint colours.

Raine loves colour, and is more than happy for everything to look completely mad, exciting and original, so obviously I love collaborating with her – it’s always challenging and inspiring. When I presented the boards to her and she loved them, and we sat down to work out how the set would move and grow, it felt more like play than work.

Still from I Can Do Anyth-ing
Still from I Can Do Anyth-ing
Behind the scenes on set
Raine working on set behind the scenes

Development and Production

James Waters was the producer and this role is the glue that holds everyone together – the kind of puppet master of the crew. The producer needs to be in constant communication with the agency to make sure things are going ok, everyone is working in the right direction and things can get signed off.

Within my department, I lean heavily on my assistant art director, Ashley Dando, who manages things while I am on recces or in meetings with production or the director. During the prep and the run up to the shoot, I will be in constant conversation with Ashely and Jasper – who leads the construction team – as well as Raine and James to ensure things are moving on swimmingly. Ashley manages a team of buyers and assistants, and Jasper a team of carpenters and painters. On set, we introduce the prop master who looks after all the details that are seen on screen, making sure everything is as it should be – clean and shiny, if it’s supposed to be clean and shiny; dusty and dirty, if that’s the look you are going for.

“I like the different ways people work, because it means I’m always having new experiences – obviously some are more conducive than others.”

Some directors want you to just get on with it and want minimal input, and some are way more involved in the process. It’s my job to be flexible and work out what that director needs from me. I actually like the different ways people work, because it means I’m always having new experiences, but obviously some methods are more conducive to creative output than others.

With Raine, I love discussing the direction of the art department with her. One of the most important things within a director/production designer relationship is trust as this allows for unbridled creative thinking and development. This job was a great example of that.

The initial mood boards took one weekend, and the initial design for the set took a few days. This needed a bit of development to make sure we could build it on budget and work out how many kids were going to be needed to fill the set, which involved VFX and construction, which took another week or so. The buyers worked for two weeks, and construction about the same before our four-day shoot in London.

Render of the bedroom set design
Render of the bedroom set design
Render of the bedroom set design

Sourcing the Props

We sourced most of our props from prop houses, but allowed for some purchases. We wanted to avoid the commercial look and tried to choose things which were more unusual. We set ourselves a limitation to avoid any plain black or white items in the commercial. That immediately gave us a technicolour vibrancy and a brief to look for props.

Most of the bedroom furniture was made or adapted to make it look like Darcy, the main girl, was into customising and painting her own furniture. We also had a rule – if any piece of furniture looked like it had been featured in dozens of ads before, then they were not allowed in our film. So with this anti-bait, anti-black-and-white policy when it came to props and furniture, we had a clear brief and the limitations made the search more fun.

Also we customised pretty much everything, from phone covers to bedside tables, which gave the film a more detailed and personal touch.

Anna rhodes set design virgin media lectureinprogress 01 autocompressfitresizeixlibphp 1 1 0max h2000max w3 D2000q80sf9a3fe0a63088c4f44936e7aef90720e

Still from I Can Do Anyth-ing

Anna rhodes set design virgin media lectureinprogress 09 autocompressfitresizeixlibphp 1 1 0max h2000max w3 D2000q80s92c7c3a083087c01ba809b89e5bc0b1e

Still from I Can Do Anyth-ing

Anna rhodes set design virgin media lectureinprogress 05 autocompressfitresizeixlibphp 1 1 0max h2000max w3 D2000q80s0ce804abdcd51e809f82fd125d823080

Still from I Can Do Anyth-ing

Delivery and Reflection

Because there were so many parts of the process, I think I was constantly delivering updated art decks from week one right up until the shoot. I put my boards together on InDesign, and I do my budgets in Numbers and then export to Excel.

One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to balance the budget with the epic scale of the set we needed to create. James, Jasper, Untold and I all worked for over a week tweaking designs and models to make it work within our limitations.

If I was to do it all again, I might make more time to watch the entire back catalogue of Clarissa Explains It All, Bring It On, Pretty In Pink, Me Without You and all the movies that helped shape the look and feel of the project. It was such a joy to realise.

“One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to balance the budget with the epic scale of the set we needed to create.”

I think everyone feels pretty happy with the final outcome. Rina [Yang, DOP] shot it beautifully and it seems to be sparking joy left right and centre, so that’s good! It was also Campaign’s Pick of the Week.

Even when I watch it now, I am still wide-eyed at the camera moves, colours and the epic sass of Darcy – the lead. It makes me smile, so I think that means it’s a success.

The finished ad

Interview by Ayla Angelos
Mention Anna Rhodes