By Tina Valin
Martin Whist has the best plan B story I’ve ever heard. After obtaining his Masters at Claremont Graduate University studying painting and sculpture, he started his fine art career showing his painting in galleries; but like many artists and creatives, he found he needed to find a way to make ends meet. Fine art wasn’t paying the bills. Already in the LA area, Whist recognized that movies need props, and he had the sculpting and construction experience necessary to build those props. He picked up a telephone book, called a set shop in East LA and landed a job sweeping floors. Eventually, they handed him a few projects to work on.
Whereas the normal plan B story involves settling for that boring desk job or becoming a teacher, Whist’s plan B began his slow and steady climb up the Hollywood ladder to his current position as Production Designer on major Hollywood Blockbusters. “Super 8,” “Cabin in the Woods,” “Warm Bodies,” “Cloverfield,” and this year’s “Robocop” reboot are just a few of the films that have benefited from Whist’s creativity and imagination.
In case you’re not familiar with what a Production Designer does, Martin Whist has a great explanation. If you take all the actors in a film that you see on screen, have them drop all their props and walk off set, what’s left is his domain. The props, the sets, the ‘look’, the visual elements of the story; these are all the result of the Production Designer and his team’s efforts to manifest the Director’s vision of the script. If you talk to Whist for only a few minutes, it’s quickly apparent that he loves his job.
Whist’s body of work proves that he’s also pretty darn good at what he does and that he’s not afraid to take risks. Once news of the reboot of “Robocop” hit the internet, a certain amount of backlash was expected. For Whist and those involved, there was the realization that by just agreeing to do the film they had already failed in the eyes of critics and skeptics who wondered why anyone would bother rebooting the much loved original. With that, they were free to just get to work and do their job. I expressed my pleasantly surprised enjoyment of the film. With a chuckle, Whist agreed that’s the response he’s been receiving the most. Not bad for a film that has made $220 million at the box office.
Whist’s success has allowed him to be more selective with his projects, and I wondered if there was a particular genre he favored. I expected his answer to include any of the high-concept genres, Sci-Fi or Horror; genres he’s worked in before that allow for a lot of innovative and original design opportunities. Although relishing the opportunity to anticipate and manifest sci-fi and technological trends in a film like “Robocop,” he derives equal satisfaction from creating more practical and reality-defined worlds: taking us back to the 1980s in “Super 8,” for example. Each and every film offers it’s own original challenges and set of rules regardless of genre. For Whist, it’s more about trying something new. He’s never worked on a period piece and that would be a new challenge he’d like to tackle.
As a result of his continued success, Whist is often asked for advice from those interesting in pursuing his line of work and admits that it’s a tricky question to answer. Not a lot of Production Designers come from laborer’s background as he did. Many start off in architecture and set design or begin as illustrators. Production Designers come from a whole myriad of backgrounds following a number of different routes to the role. First and foremost he recommends finding a film school with an excellent production design program. Beyond that, it’s a matter of diving in and learning as much as possible about all aspects of making a film. Designing is only the first task of ensuring that your design is made through to completion and shot on budget. Of course, hard work is a large part of the equation as well as the willingness to let the business take you where it takes you.
Closing out our conversation in the midst of a busy day on his next film, “Night at the Museum 3”, I asked if there were any specific phases of the process he relished the most. Laughing, he said, “I love when we strike a set. When the bulldozers come in. It’s like Picasso, the creator/destroyer. A huge part of it is destruction.” He expounded saying that symbolically the bulldozers signify completion for his part of the process. He loves every part of the process from the initial spark of the idea to the illustrations and consulting with the director through to the physical construction of the sets; and that once the actors take their places and the scene is shot, the whole process is nothing short of amazing.
I’m sure we’ll continue to see amazing work from Martin Whist starting with “Night at the Museum 3” and beyond. Accompanying the creativity and skill that’s allowed him to reach this high level of success, Whist is a warm and appreciative man with whom anyone would be fortunate to collaborate. And yes, he still keeps his private art work going, bringing his work with him as he travels. He’s working in a digital format more and more for convenience and hopes to start showing his work again sometime soon.
For more about Nathan Edmondson check out reel9productions.com or follow him on twitter @edmondsonnathan