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LIGHTS, CAMERA ...

Imagining a fort for 'Where the Wild Things Are'

December 16, 2009

For Lights, Camera . . . , we ask a craftsperson to talk about a specific scene in his or her latest film. This week, K.K Barrett, production designer for "Where the Wild Things Are," talks about creating the fort the monsters build.

The heavy lifting in designing for film is inspiration, the flash point where a key idea unlocks a door, and it all makes sense. In "Where the Wild Things Are," we would be designing a child's imagination.

Usually, the guide to forays into film fantasy start with the script. This journey started with Maurice Sendak's book, an icon of many childhoods, a precious jewel box of many individual interpretations.

The script that emerged from Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers had design needs that the book didn't cover, specifically a fort that Max excitedly describes to the Wild Things and sketches for them in the sand.

First parameter: Max needed to draw it on camera, in two or three quick, continuous lines (with a slight detour around a bull's intimidating foot). A fort and a tree with a bite out of it. Second parameter: The creatures had to build it within the Wild Things' natural world. Third parameter: They lived in structures we glimpsed for only a moment when we first met them. They needed to read quickly without question as to what they were or where they came from.

What were these creatures capable of? They were Wild Things, after all. Claws and fur, feathers and beaks, teeth and horns.

We began to study nature and its shapes. Birds could weave intricate nests, hornets could spin a sphere, hibernating furred beasts found a cave to sleep in. We made rules. There would be no tools, no chairs, no benches or beds. They would just as soon sleep in the dirt in a pile.

Spike wanted to take a field trip to Frank Gehry's studio. I really couldn't place where this fit in. His designs seemed too modern. I was trying to burrow into nature. His studio was full of dreams, ideas and whims overflowing off tables and crumpled on his desk. From this I took not his forms but his sense of play.

My office was next to Sonny Gerasmowicz, the creature designer's. I would sit across from him, and we would sketch back and forth. Many elaborate schemes were dreamed up, and abandoned. I had my 9-year-old son, Drake, draw some forts; they were very inspired but un-buildable. He drew a circle around his fort. And it was simple. All the pictures were tacked to the wall.

I went back to the book. No fort there, but it was the source; the answer would be there. The crosshatching Maurice shaded his drawings with looked like thousands of tiny sticks. I was getting closer. The pictures of nature's pure forms on the walls of the art department office began to speak.

From the bird nest and Maurice's shading came the interwoven sticks. From my experiments with Sonny, an enormous hornet's nest on its side, lying on a beach. From Drake's drawing of a circled fort, the hornet's nest became more rounded. The Wild Things' huts, caves, nest should relate to the fort, be of the same language, come from their DNA. The fort would be the mother-ship of all nests. Wasp, bird or fur, string and stick. Curving walkways spun up the inside. Trees upended to support the ceiling.

Later, I couldn't pinpoint the flash point of inspiration for the fort. It was as if I was gathering sticks the whole time and finally saw that they all weaved together naturally.

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