Artist Paula Whiteway

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Paula Whiteway is someone who has a long list of creative achievements. Predominantly she is a Set Designer in the film and television industry, but she is also a trained Architect, an Illustrator, sculptor, graphic designer, painter – the list goes on! FOCUS spoke to Paula about her experience working on some big feature films and how that compared to some of the Australian films and television series she has worked on, what other creative projects she has on the go, and her role amongst the art community here on the Coffs Coast.

Hi Paula. Can you tell us about your relationship to the Coffs Coast?

I moved to Bellingen in 2007, just after the birth of my third child. I had been visiting the region for a while and had fallen in love with the area. I also was looking for a place similar to where I grew up, to raise my family, and Bello ticked all the boxes. The Coffs Coast offers such a wonderful landscape and environment to encourage a love and appreciation of the land and a wonderfully creative environment to raise children in.

Poetically too, being situated halfway between Sydney and the Gold Coast, my two work hubs, it kind of amused me. Bellingen also had a massive film connection for me too; some of my favourite production designers, art directors, construction managers, chippies, steelies and scenics came from this area.

How would you describe your work, and what kind of mediums do you like to use?

Predominantly I am a set designer working within the Australian film and television industry. I am a qualified architect, illustrator, and I love just making stuff.

Within the film industry I am one of the last of the hand drafters (I am a tad of a luddite and do not like drafting in CAD). As such, I work in graphite or ink to create the set drawings.

In my time between jobs I do a variety of creative tasks; however, at the moment I am working on an illustrative series in graphite and watercolour and a street art series in house paint varnish and ply.

What is it like working on big feature films like Star Wars III, Thor Ragnarok, Kong (to name a few) as a set designer?

To be perfectly frank, some of my favourite film experiences are on Australian films and television series, such as The Proposition, Mental and Answered by Fire, and smaller budget films, such as Queen of the Damned and House of Wax. 

On the lower budget films you have more opportunity to diversify within the art department, which has given me the opportunity to enhance my set design. Quite often I have been given the opportunity to work on the lot with the scenics and chippies, or with the set decorators and props makers. This gives me the opportunity not only to understand all aspects of the art department side of film, but can enhance the final quality of a set produced.

On the bigger films, as a set designer you will be grouped into a team focusing on just one set area – it might be a town or spaceship in Thor, or ships on Pirates of the Caribbean, and then you are employed just to draft. I guess I have always been a tad lucky in this respect. I seem to be able to affiliate with the production designers (I try to “get into their heads” with respect to the aesthetic, period, detailing etc. of the sets), and in doing so seem to be given sets of my own to work on and more leeway in contributing to and furthering the designs.

The big films are interesting too for the sheer size of the art department – we had probably close to 40 drafties at one stage during Pirates – which can mean unless you stand out, you can get lost within the department. I also find the level of security working for companies such as Lucas Films, Disney and Marvel is incredible.

Tell us a bit about the process that you go through to create sets for big feature films?

The first thing I do when I jump on a film is read the script. It is important to know the story being told, characters involved, the sets and locations envisaged by the scriptwriter. I then am briefed by the production designer on the specific set builds, the aesthetic style envisaged for the film, the action and potential camera shots (shown through storyboards or pre viz) for that set, sizing and budget. I then research the architectural style and period, come up with initial design concepts, get them ticked and start drawing.

Drawing in pencil is important to me, as I have to think about what each line means or conveys to the chippies. It allows me to make changes to my designs, plus I layer my drawings up graphically so not only are they read as construction drawings, they also depict how the set should look as a final built piece. (I have drawn areas of wood rot, crustaceans and coral on the set pieces for The Flying Dutchman).

When I start drafting my set, I “plug myself in” – normally I have headphones on blaring loud music to cut out the office and I spend the next twelve or so hours standing (or having a little boogie) at my drawing board drawing. I think those times are some of my happiest in my “working life”. It’s wonderful to get to do the things you love. It does also lead me to having the pants scared off me – Dan Henah, the production designer on Thor Ragnarok, quite often would sneak up behind me whilst I was drawing and give me a little “boo” to get my attention. I believe he is responsible for some of my greys! Thanks, Dan!

When you’re not working in the film industry, you create art through many forms. What are some of the artworks you are working on at the moment? 

At the moment it feels like I am spinning a lot of “creative plates”.

Currently I am focusing on my illustrative work and furthering an “anthromorph” series (hybrid human and animal characters) in development for an illustrated novel.

In addition, I am working on a few “street art” projects, which reflect the more “cartoon-esque” aspect of my drawing work and have been recently included in a street art project, in Bellingen.

I also pull in architectural drafting work and labouring (again both creating the drawings and then building the structures); I have a sculptural series that I have been creating and some graphic design work in the pipeline too.

Is there anyone whom you would say has influenced or inspired your work?

That’s a big one… Lots of people have influenced different aspects within my creative career.

My father has always shown me through creative thinking you can do almost anything you put your mind to, which I think is an important lesson to learn.

A wonderful production designer, Ian “Grace” Walker, gave me my first opportunity to work on feature films, and encouraged me to get on the floor, post completion of the drafting contract, to work with the chippies, scenics, sculptors and props makers, and explore other areas of the film industry. I always found that through having this hands on experience it helped develop my set design work, and I am forever thankful to Grace for giving me that opportunity.

Author Neil Gaiman – filmmaker Tim Burton, architectural illustrator Leebus Woods, fashion photographer Tim Walker all inspire me.

Do you feel very connected to the art community here on the Coffs Coast, and how has the Coffs Coast played a role in your artwork?

I have been very fortunate with making and maintaining connections with the art, design and film community in the region, even though I do work away from the area a lot. I have amazing support. Last year, unfortunately I had to turn down a major feature film in Queensland; however, within that week I was asked to be a part of a pop up gallery in Urunga. At that stage I had never exhibited my illustrative work, so it provided me with a wonderful opportunity to jump in the deep end. The pop up gallery then became Urunga ArtSpace, in which I was actively involved until November. That gallery provided me a wonderful opportunity to connect with some amazing artists from the region and is an absolute asset to the town.

In addition, I have had the opportunity to connect with the film scene here, being involved directly with three projects in the region and consulting on a fourth. It is a very industrious area, with many wonderful opportunities for exploration and expansion of creative activities.

Where can people see your work?

I have been very fortunate to be given the opportunity to have a solo exhibition (my first!), Silent Ramblings with Big Fig Arts at The Bellingen Brewery & Co. This exhibition will be of my original graphite illustrations from The memoirs of Scarlet Sagan. It opens 5pm, April 5.

In addition, the next exhibition at the ArtSpace (formerly the pop up gallery in Urunga), Full Circle, opening Saturday 24 March at 5pm, includes some of us founding members. Through the ArtSpace I will be selling limited edition prints of some of my illustrations that have previously been unshown, as well as some of the “sooty” sculptures I make.

Bellingen Framers, who have fabulously supported my work (and constantly astound me by always meeting my unrealistic deadlines) also shows some of my limited edition prints from Sketches from the Moleskin, the original anthropomorphic series.

Otherwise, I am on the photo app sites –  Instagram as Scarlet_Sagan and Vero as w.Paula Whiteway.

And hopefully my website, which includes both my film and illustration portfolios, and etsy store should be launched in early April 2018.

Thanks Paula.

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