Off set with… Elena Albanese

Elena Albanese is an Art Director, having worked on such films as Terminator Genisys and Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Her work spans sci-fi, comedy, drama and action, and with it comes a huge array of set work design, which walks the line between reality and fantasy. 

Elena’s impressive portfolio includes some beautifully crafted, female lead pieces. I Feel Pretty, the Amy Schumer-starring, Abby Kohn written-and-produced film, set in the unforgiving world of beauty, and more recently, Elena worked as Art Director on blockbuster, Captain Marvel. The creation of these worlds comes together in both magnitude scale and minutiae detail, showing a dedication to script and story in the most detailed ways.

Elena spoke to Jade Scott at Not The Director’s Chair about her career so far, with particular emphasis on these female-lead flicks.

What was your first step into the industry?
I started working as a fashion photography stylist, while graduating in aesthetics at the University of Milan, Italy. Shortly afterwards, I had my first experience as a designer on a short movie, and I realised that it was all I wanted to do. 
I studied design and worked in the field for a few years in Italy, until It came the time for me to take a qualitative leap and work on bigger budget shows. 
I moved to LA to complete an MFA in Production Design at the American Film Institute. The program allowed me to meet and learn from Hollywood professionals, as well as developing my skill set. After that I moved on to work on movies such as Zero Dark Thirty, Furious 7, Terminator Genisys, Free State of Jones and Guardian of the Galaxy 2.

What was the first milestone experience for you in the industry?
My first important experience in the art department was in LA, as an art assistant for a re-shooting of Zero Dark Thirty. After my Masters at AFI I had the opportunity to work closely with Todd Cherniawsky, an extremely talented supervising art director and designer. He hired me to help with the LA reshoot. Principally, we had to rebuild an exact copy of an interior black hawk, used in the main photography. For me it was an interesting reverse engineering project. From previous set pictures and models we had to rebuild the helicopter set, graphic, layout, and set dressing included. The set was then shot on a remote controlled platform on blue screen. 

What has been a highlight of your career so far?
I cannot forget the moment I got into the union Local 800. Soon after Zero Dark Thirty, I was hired to work as art assistant on Fast and Furious 7 by Desma Murphy, who, beside being a sophisticated and dedicated supervising art director and theatre designer, is one of the most caring people I ever worked with. She and Bill Bretsky, the show’s production designer,  loved my work and promoted me to asst. art director and got me into the union three days after I started working on the show. After that it was a straight-forward career. I worked as asst. art director and then art director on several important shows, until when I was offered the opportunity to work as a production designer for a Paramount movie. 
I love working as art director on big budget productions; you get the chance to see the professionalism of the crew and work on extremely challenging sets and it was a good way for me to experience the industry from inside, but I was always more compelled by designing. So when Malik Vitthal, an extremely visionary emerging director, offered me the chance to design his new movie Body Cam, I couldn’t refuse, even if I was six months pregnant during a very hot summer in New Orleans! That particular movie was smaller in size compared to the scale I was used to, but was one of my best experiences so far. The smaller the budget, the more creative you have to be! 

Captain Marvel (2019)

Tell us about your specific work on Captain Marvel…
Captain Marvel was a peculiar working experience for me. Very different from all the other movies I worked on as art director. 
The supervisor art director needed a pair of eyes on the sets they were building on location on a plantation near Baton Rouge, while he was still in LA. All the decisions had already been taken; we had to build a hanger, a runway and re-dress Maria’s office and house. My role was to supervise the work, making sure that everything was going according to plan. 
One of the funniest moments for me, whilst prepping the sets, was chasing down a 1950 airplane that the local people knew was sat somewhere in hanger nearby, waiting to be ‘discovered’. We needed a plane to use as a background, and we were hoping that it would have been cheaper renting it in location, instead of shipping it from LA. I spent a morning looking for it with a local pilot, while he was telling me all about the sugar cane production in the area. I remember that it was the end of the movie and everyone was very tired, but at the same time excited to get the job done.

For something completely different, you also worked as Art Director on the Amy Schumer lead film, I Feel Pretty. What was it like to work on this comedy set?
We prepared and shot the sets in Boston and we all enjoyed our time there; I was even able to get to the stages by bike. The art department team was very close, Thanks also to the vibe that the designer was spreading and the dynamic collaboration with the directors, who were always open to ideas and suggestions. 

Building the set on I Feel Pretty

How does comedy reflect a different tone and style in the art direction?
The design should visually tell the story, set the characters and help us to understand how they feel and who they are. We usually do this with visual components: space, line, tone, colour, movement and rhythm. Through contrast and affinity. If we divide the screen with architecture elements and place the characters in between them, the audience will perceive them as trapped, if the background is flat we suggest monotony. We can play with contrast and affinity in the scene or between the scenes. There are infinite possibilities and choices, what is very important is that when the filmmakers define a language that stays true throughout the movie. If the ‘evil’ is purple, it will be so until the end of the movie, otherwise the audience will get confused. 

The design should visually tell the story, set the characters and help us to understand how they feel and who they are.

Elena Albanese

In I Feel Pretty, the sense of comedy was achieved through contrast. The contrast between Renée’s own world and the world she would like to be part of. The striking contrast between Renée’s perception of reality and the audience’s objective point of view.

LeClaire HQ

I love the visual contrast of the Lily LeClaire’s skyscraper offices and Amy’s off-shoot department. Were the two different locations always written into the script that way? 
We decided to build the sets from scratch on stage for logistical and storytelling reasons. The sets were designed to be a very unique environment and we perhaps wouldn’t have found something so special on a location. Also there were enough script pages that took place in those sets, that building them was the just smart choice. Our designer William O. Hunter came up with the concept, and the directors loved it.
Lily LeClaire’s skyscraper was designed as an extravagant and sophisticated space. With an out-of-touch feeling, Renée’s office instead wanted to be a more grounded place, and at the same time to show part of her personality. All the boxes were colour-coded for example, suggesting that she was a bit obsessive with her space and the way she wanted her world to unfold in front of her.

Renée’s love of colour coded boxes on display in all their glory

How did you go about developing this and working on Renee’s home style?
Renée’s home has that kind of iconic ‘young female living in NYC’ look about it. It is so full of character and layered with props that enhance the character story (the mirrors in particular).

Mirrors were key in Renée’s apartment design

This set was built in layers to represent a personal space built over time. A place that has developed with the character. Everything had a story to tell, from the different layers of wallpaper that looked as if it had been there forever (thanks to the artistic touch of our painters), to the collection of furniture throughout the apartment. The decorator did a wonderful job adding personality to every object. William (O. Hunter) had a clear vision of what he was looking for and it was easy for us to transfer it to reality

Take us through the design decisions behind the LeClaire company offices. As a play on the stereotypes present within the beauty industry, the details and how the space accommodates the humour is very clever. What were your thoughts when first drafting ideas for this set?
The sets actually went through a drastic redesign. The first version was oriented towards a more arc-design approach, minimalistic and with defined geometries. The concept we went for in the end, was more organic and incorporated many more natural aspects, from the carved stone reception desk to the conference room surrounded by water.

Inspired by nature to contrast with the artificial world of the beauty industry as depicted in the film

The whole set was one unit, built on a platform on stage and each room represented an element; ocean, desert, forest and garden. William was coming up with these ideas that really helped to set the tone. He loved the idea that the cafeteria was actually a vertical garden or that the receptionist was surrounded by cacti. It is a representation of the extremism of some elements of the beauty industry; starting with a natural approach, everything would become out of touch.
The stepping stones into the creative meeting space were a strike of genius and bridges that gap of comedy with almost a slapstick feel.

Just a hop and a skip over the water fountain/moat to make it to the meeting space

How did other elements of the set help to inform the physical comedy of the film?
The reception was another example of great physical comedy staging. We had wood branches instead of benches and a huge hand-carved rock as the reception desk, with cacti surrounding it. This was done to emphasise the comedy aspects of the life in that office, but which Renée aspires so much towards. It was a big contrast to see top models waiting seated on branches and Renée feeling accomplished by her new job, while surrounded by cactus plants. Another of the many physical comedy elements of the set was the washing fountain in the cafeteria. The top models would pick their own salad from the vertical garden, and wash it in the stone sink, trying to reconnect to nature.

Renée’s cosy NYC girl apartment is layered over time

What was your personal highlight set on I Feel Pretty?
The cafeteria in the LeClaire offices. William came out with this idea of having the actors harvesting their own food. He found the idea hilarious, a form of extreme attention to health in the beauty industry. I personally love gardens and gardening, even if not with the best results sometimes. I find the process very relaxing. So it was very interesting to help him design and build these spaces in the most efficient way possible. We had to take the plants out in the sun every day to keep them alive and we attached produce to the live plants. At the end of the set everybody went home with a basket of veggies!

And finally… what’s next for you with your work?
Pandemic apart I will resume working as a designer. Coming from a business-oriented family, I have found myself naturally understanding the mechanism behind the industry, and the economical and managerial aspect of it, but I have always been more of an artistic person and designing is just more natural for me. 
I would love the chance to do a couple of shows in Europe or abroad. Traveling has always been my other passion, together with art and literature. My husband has always been very supportive and willing to travel with me and our children. 

Elena’s most recent work as art director can been seen on Sky Atlantic in episodes of Lovecraft County, out now.


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