10 Questions for Kathy Altieri - Production Designer

1. How would you describe the look of “How To Train Your Dragon”?

Wild, dramatic, edgy, whimsical, expansive, striking, stunning, and cool.

2. What was it that attracted you to this film?

The story – the fact that it’s about a kid who “has a way with the beasts,” and doesn’t quite fit in.  The tone of it promised that we could dig deeply, building a striking and dramatic world with rich production value and a sophisticated look.

3. How did you become a Production Designer and What does a Production Designer do on a film?

A Production Designer oversees all of the visuals on a film from beginning to end, and makes sure they support the story the directors are trying to tell.  I work with a bunch of amazing artists who constantly surprise me with the quality of their work.  For me, I started out as a background painter in television animation – then went to features, then to Background Supervisor, Art Director, and now Production Designer.   I draw and paint constantly to keep my skills up, and I work all day with other artists, bringing out the best they have to offer and learning from each and every one.

4. Do you have any favorite hobbies?

I’m a fourth degree black belt and certified instructor of Aikido (a Japanese martial art) and Iaido (Japanese Swordsmanship).  I love to paint, dig in the garden, work with rocks (building walls, patios, etc), and write. 

5. What is your favorite film?

I love a lot of things about a lot of films, and what I love, what I’m studying, and what I’m looking for changes as I myself evolve.  So no, I don’t have one.

6. How did you like working with directors Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois?

They are an amazing pair.  They are both talented artists themselves, and have a clear vision for what they want in their film.  Chris is  tremendously energetic and enthusiastic – kind of a kid at heart, and his spirit is contagious.  Dean brings the “deep note” to the film – the long through lines of story ideas that tie the thing together.  And he’s  a heck of a dialogue writer!  They both push us, like a personal trainer would, to make something better, more unique, and more honest than we could possibly dream.

7. Which real life landscapes inspired the look of the film?

We loved the drama of Iceland (no, we didn’t actually go there, but we wanted to!) – really unusual landscapes and light, a truly Nordic island.  The rugged coastline of Oregon gave us black cobblestone beaches and seastacks, a volcanic landscape that butts up against the ocean.  And Anacapa Island, off the coast of California, gave us rich and exotic textures for Dragon Island (especially the bird poop!).

8. Does working in 3D cause you to visualize things differently?

Working in 3D keeps you honest.  Your spaces have to work, relationships in that space can’t be fudged or cheated, so actually we have to be a little more responsible and thorough with our design choices.  Its also a great excuse to infuse the sets with lots of textural detail, because it makes the locations look so authentic and tactile in 3D.

9. Did being a nature lover help inspire you on the look of the film?

I spend a lot of time in nature drawing, painting, and taking pictures.  There are reasons and stories behind every landscape in real life – and we try to create similar stories when working on a digital set:  “the wind would have blown off the ocean like this, so the trees should be twisted like that,”  or “the rock would have broken off like this in this area…and crumbled in the other.”  Tiny textural details are important for the authenticity of a set, especially when the shapes are as pushed as they are in our film.  You really want to make the place look like you could go in there and hike around if you wanted to, and attention to detail is important for that.

10. You’ve had a stellar career, what advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?

Do the best job you can on whatever is in front of you.  Be humble.  And keep growing your skills and your loves outside your job – the more you learn, the better you’ll get.  And the better you are, the more you’re needed.

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