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Working Hollywood: Hitting the books for ‘Inception’

Although Christopher Nolan’s big-budget psychological action movie “Inception” was shot in six countries, art department researcher Dominique Arcadio found much of what she needed to do her job within the aisles of the Los Angeles Public Library.

“For every film I’ve worked on, I’ve gotten at least 50 books out of the L.A. Public Library,” she said. “They’re very good about just letting you take out books that should really be reference books. It’s one of the best libraries that I’ve had a chance of using. I know all the rows by heart.”

For Arcadio, a day’s work can include collecting source images of rust to inspire the art department, looking into table etiquette circa AD 200 or interviewing employees of the U.S. Geological Survey.

“I’m kind of like a librarian,” she said. “I work closely with the production designer, the supervising art director and sometimes the set decorator and even the prop master. My role is basically to gather information as quickly as possible, especially in those first few weeks of preproduction. Usually by my third week on a project, I have over 10,000 images that relate to the set and the script breakdown that I’m given.”

Born in Nimes, France, and schooled in Paris, Arcadio grew up admiring the films of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg, Jean-Jacques Beineix, David Lean and Spike Lee. After a short stint in the fashion industry working for Hermès in Paris, Arcadio headed stateside to pursue film.

She worked her way up from intern to art department coordinator before noticing she was always volunteering to do the research.

“I’ve always loved being in libraries,” she said. “And eventually I realized, ‘Wow, this is a full-time job for some people. This is really cool.’”

Since then, Arcadio has served as an art department researcher for directors including childhood favorites Gilliam on 2005’s “The Brothers Grimm” and Spielberg on 2008’s " Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

“My job is really interesting, and it’s always changing,” she said. “Sometimes I’m looking up nuclear plants, then the next day I’m looking up Elizabethan décor. I heard that sometimes they do profiling on people by looking at their public library records, so I might be flagged as being a weirdo.”

If you build it: For “Inception,” which is set to open Friday, Arcadio got the chance to brush up on her knowledge of blueprints. “Architecture is actually one of the characters in the story,” she said. “So for the art department, I’d say it was a bit like going back to school in the sense that we had to dissect a lot of styles and architectural icons. As reference, we put together illustrated timelines of the world history of architecture since the beginning of the 20th century. We really tried to pick out all the major styles of architecture. I’d say that without copying any of them, we took influences from all of them. So basically, it helped the art department and the visual effects department create a cohesive environment.”

Mission impossible: In addition to researching the built, Arcadio delved into the realm of the unbuildable. “We had to study impossible constructions, impossible realities, images that your mind can create that defy logic and physics,” she explained. “This included things like morphing architecture and constructions that are basically impossible to build in reality unless you play with perspective and people’s sense of perception. So it was really abstract stuff like trying to translate mathematical and philosophical concepts into architecture and, in our case, sets.”

Finishing touches: Many of the buildings in “Inception” needed more than a coat of fresh paint. “Usually, I put together huge paint and texture reference books that designers can carry around,” said Arcadio. “When they’re speaking to their head painters, instead of trying to describe something, which sometimes is really hard, they just flip to a page and say, ‘This is the finish or the texture that we want here.’ So I find reference images for a lot of those paint finishes. Even when you’re doing a concrete façade, there are so many different finishes you can do depending on if there was water, if it was rusty or if it was in hot temperatures. It always looks different. Everything we build isn’t supposed to look brand new.”

Top 40: Sometimes Arcadio’s research goes viral. “When there’s an image that the director or the production designer really loves, that image comes up a lot,” she said, “and that’s when you know you’ve got a hit with an image. It is spread and shared with every department. For example, on ‘Inception,’ there’s a portion of the film that’s supposed to take place in Kenya, so there were some images of interiors that I had found that the art department got pretty inspired by. It might have been some interiors of dilapidated hotels and things like that, and I’d hit upon a series of four or five that seemed to have the right feel for this particular interior that we were doing. So that was something that was used over and over accompanying the set plans for the film.... The goal is to try to get a hit image for every single set because it helps.”

calendar@latimes.com


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