From Guardians of the Galaxy to Inception, meet art director Jim Barr
PUBLISHED: 12:33 18 April 2017 | UPDATED: 13:15 18 April 2017
Nikki Lennox Moorby
Jim Barr leaves his Hitchin home and enters new worlds. An art director with 18 major films to his credit, including many in the Marvel universe, he brings to life directors’ often otherwordly visions
‘And Tom Hiddleston,’ says Jim Barr. ‘I don’t think I mentioned that I worked with Tom Hiddleston. I designed the prison he was held in.’ Jim hadn’t mentioned the Golden Globe winner until the end of the interview – just goes to show the depth and calibre of work the film art director has been involved with.
Earlier, thumbing enthusiastically through a portfolio of his incredible concept drawings and plans, the Hitchin 47-year-old revealed the sets and designs that made it into box office hits like Wrath of the Titans, Captain America and Thor: The Dark World – where he imprisoned Hiddleston as Loki in a striking white cell in ancient dungeons.
Based at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, and a husband to Jeni and father of four beautiful girls, he talks modestly and thoughtfully about his career in the movie industry – creating, designing and producing sets for 18 feature films over the past 13 years.
When pushed, he describes without bravado his conversations on set with Benedict Cumberbatch about being a new father, of chatting with award-winning Tilda Swinton about her teenage son who was on a work experience placement with him at the time, and meetings with acclaimed director Ridley Scott. Despite his modesty, the list of feature films that Jim has worked on, and the influential and prolific directors and artists he has worked with, really is impressive.
It was seeing Star Wars as a lad in 1977 that triggered an obsession with blockbuster movies and an ambition to work in the industry. But he was unsure about how to go about achieving his goals. ‘This was why I took a rather indirect route to landing my dream job,’ Jim explains.
‘I would leaf through books on concept art from films so much that when you opened them they would just fall apart. I was especially fascinated by the work of Ralph McQuarrie who was the most iconic artist in the history of Star Wars. His conceptual paintings, storyboards and matte paintings and posters set a benchmark for concept art that is still seen today.’
McQuarrie’s art inspired Jim to go, in 1994, to Central Saint Martins in London where he studied model making and theatre design. He then negotiated his way into television and after eight years working on pop music promos for bands like Oasis and the Spice Girls, as well as commercials for brands including Ikea and Pepsi, he finally got the break he had dreamed of into feature film.
He was given the role of junior draftsman on cult British film Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, being created at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire and starring Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy. Following Hitchhiker’s, his next job was in the Czech Republic, where he was a member of the production team on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Then came his biggest challenge to date – a place on the film set design team tasked with creating the mindbending science fiction hit, Inception. In a world where secrets can be stolen from dreams, the ground-breaking film was partly shot in one of the huge airship hangars at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire. Jim worked on one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the ‘dream corridor’ (pictured, opening page) in which the characters tumble and fight in a spinning space. The secret? An open-ended oblong set built on a huge revolving mechanism. The film grossed more than $800m worldwide.
More recently, Jim joined the Marvel cinematic universe, bringing to life the worlds of comic superheroes. His work can be seen in Captain America, Doctor Strange, X-Men: First Class, Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
It was during the making of Doctor Strange that he got the chance to chat to Mr Cumberbatch. Released in November last year, the design team that worked on the film, led by Charles Wood and John Bush, was nominated for a BAFTA for Production Design (they were pipped by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).
‘The production design team’s nomination for a BAFTA was really exciting,’ Jim says. ‘Not just because it was my first film art direction role but also because Doctor Strange was a relatively unknown character and it captured audiences’ imaginations.’
Another unknown quantity was the innovative Guardians of the Galaxy, Jim reveals, as the team had no idea how it would be received.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy was a bigger hit than anyone had imagined. Everyone was unsure as to how popular it would be, simply because the idea of the film was slightly left-of-centre and it featured a talking racoon and a talking tree. But in the end that was what gave it the edge.’
On the Avengers sequel Age of Ultron, Jim got to work with one of his favourite directors, Joss Whedon.
‘Joss is fantastically down to earth and a really intelligent man. I have a lot of respect for him. On that film, production designer Charles Wood gave me more freedom and input to put forward concepts and ideas for sets, which is much more fun than having a concept that you just have to follow.’
It’s Jim’s ambition to one day work alongside Stuart Craig – production designer on the Harry Potter films and more recently Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Describing his role in the creative process, Jim says: ‘When you are an art director on a feature film you might be one of up to eight or nine – depending on the size of the film – who will be assigned a number of sets in order to create the film’s concept.
‘Art directors work for production designers, who together with the director, conceptualise a vision for the film as a whole. It’s the art director’s job to carry out that vision and turn it into a reality.’
Today, digital design plays a key role in the process. ‘Traditionally rendered on drawing boards, concept paintings and drawings are increasingly created on computers. Three-dimensional computer models of the sets are built and refined at various stages throughout their creation before they are finally approved and ‘locked down.’ After the computer models are approved, a physical scale model is then constructed. The technical drawings are then produced and set construction is overseen by the art director and production designer until shooting begins.’
Explaining how physical set designers interact with the computer-generated images and animation so prevalent in films today, especially action movies, Jim says that after the design is built and painted, sometimes visual effects extensions are added. ‘Once the set is built, it will be scanned on to a computer so there is an exact computerised 3D model that can be recreated in visual effects.’
And for those wanting to follow in his creative footsteps, his advice is matter-of-fact: ‘Be prepared to start at the bottom. There are kids with degrees starting out in the business whose duties include photocopying and making the tea, way before they get the chance to produce drawings. You need to be prepared to start from scratch and work your way through the grades to get to where you want to be.’
He adds, ‘A lot of this business is about being in the right place at the right time. It also helps if you already know people in the business who can give you a good recommendation.’
What work is he most proud of? ‘One of the designs that I am particularly proud of is Ronan’s Chamber, which featured in the Guardians of the Galaxy. I found, among some abstract photo references, a picture of a detail in the Sidney Opera House. I then took that picture and adopted the same style, incorporating it into the design. The idea was then developed and honed into the chamber that is seen on set in the film.’
When asked what he still wants to achieve in the industry, Jim shifts uncomfortably in his chair. He admits he’s working on something big, but can’t say much.
‘I’m currently working on a very exciting up-and-coming project that started this year. It’s very unusual being asked to work on a project at this early stage in pre-production, particularly on a film of this size and scope.’
Intrigued? Watch this outer-space.