For 'Ocean's Twelve,' a museum-quality set

Philip Messina

Production designer

Latest assignment: Steven Soderbergh's caper comedy "Ocean's Twelve."

Challenge: To create the interior of a Roman museum on a Los Angeles soundstage for a heist sequence involving a priceless Faberge egg.

The decision to build from scratch: "We were always going to build a small portion of the museum where they housed the egg back in Los Angeles, but we were going to use the grand room of this museum we had selected in Rome.

"We were going to have to take some of their art down and put up some of our own. And they had just installed a major exhibit, which was kind of in the way of what we wanted to do, so they were going to have to strike that down and then put it back up. They were basically a government-controlled building, so they had an obligation to stay open to the public, and they could not completely shut down for us.

"At the 10th hour, we decided to build the interior back in Los Angeles."

The design: "A lot of the Roman museums are circuitous and that layout didn't quite work. We wanted something central. Steven wanted more of a classical layout. So in the end, I laid out a museum that completely worked for our story. We knew the museum was more 17th and 18th century art. We didn't want it to be sort of ancient Rome, ancient art. We had to support the fact that the Faberge egg was going to be sitting in there.

"One of the funny things was about three-quarters of the way through construction in Los Angeles, a production designer on another film wandered through our stage set and some of our construction people said he was saying, 'Oh, I have been to this museum in Rome.' And I completely made up the museum."

Construction: "We had about 10 weeks of construction, which is very, very short. We were on one of the biggest soundstages on the Warner Bros. lot. The museum set was 15,000 square feet total, and it was on a couple of different levels. We had a raised level in the back with a staircase."

Materials: "The columns were plaster, and they were [painted] to look like marble. The floor was actually a printed vinyl. It was like a photographic process. Real marble pieces were scanned and manipulated [in the computer], so they didn't look like the same five pieces. They were laid out like big sheets of wallpaper. They were like 6 feet wide and we rolled them out.... You couldn't see the seams. Then we put several levels of polyurethane on top of it to protect it. It actually held up really well. We were a little afraid of it ripping -- dragging equipment across it. But everyone was really careful. No one we knew had ever done such a large piece in vinyl before. But it was cheaper to do it in vinyl, and we didn't have a lot of time for all of this. We had to look at quick solutions.

"The walls were like a Venetian plaster, and I had some very talented painters do that. The walls had a nice kind of life to them, and they picked up highlights."

Set dressing: "A lot of the artwork [in the museum] was made especially for us. There were a lot of sculptures, and about 80% of them came from Cinecitta [studio] from their prop house. They had an amazing selection of sculptures we had shipped from Rome. In the end, it was cheaper to actually put them in containers and ship them and rent them and send them back than it would be for us to start sculpting.

"We had over 30 life-size and over-life-size sculptures. A lot of them were actually casts of original sculptures the studio had made back in the day when the museums let them go in and cast famous pieces. The figures were some of the best I have ever seen."

Aftermath: "A lot of the sculptures went back to Rome and some went to Warner Bros. [prop department] because we ended up buying some. The paintings we had made, but what we do with a lot of that stuff is pay [people] a fee to create it but [let them] own it at the end."

The dismantling: "That's the part I never am around for. It's too heartbreaking."

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