A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes
This month: Kalina Ivanov ‘83
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
Two years ago I co-founded THE PRODUCTION DESIGNERS COLLECTIVE, an organization dedicated to connecting colleagues from all corners of the globe. Through it designers exchange ideas about their creative process, craft and philosophy. We currently have more than two hundred members, including many Oscar and Emmy winners. It’s very rewarding to be in touch with so many colleagues and hear their unique perspectives on art.
You graduated in 1983 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
I’m a very persistent person, and I consider that the main key to a successful and long career. I enjoy working with people and try to foster fairness and humor in every art department I lead. As a production designer, I oversee more than one hundred people on any given film, so it’s very important to be a leader and be decisive. We come together for a few months’ time and work intensely, so I do my best to encourage a harmonious and organized art department. I’ve learned the hard way not to allow toxic people on my team. I’m a very hands-on designer but not a micro-manager; it’s important to let others on your team have ‘breathing’ room and feel free to contribute their own ideas.
And last - I prefer to treat people the way I’d like them to treat me.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I make the best effort to attend the Design show in May to meet emerging artists. Many of them are strictly theater graduates, so it’s become harder to hire students out of NYU since they’re not as interested in film. Sometimes I’m invited to lecture on production design and I always have great fun doing that. I encourage the students who want to pursue film to contact me and share their portfolios. I travel a lot for designing films; for example, I just spent five months in Vancouver designing the upcoming film WONDER, so I wish I could be more involved.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
A few NYU students have found me. The last one was Sia Balabanova; she was lovely and very professional.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
One of my all-time favorite stories is when I designed a cool photographer’s studio set for the movie “Lulu On the Bridge”. I was very proud of the asymmetrical design and pre-determined position for the photographer and his model. I went to open set with great joy. The first sign of trouble was seeing the director and the cinematographer hotly arguing and neither wanting to meet my eye. Eventually the director told me that we should flip the positions of the model and the photographer because our leading lady refused to be shot in left profile (her bad side). I patiently explained that it would be hard to do on account of the asymmetrical design, and could we please shoot it as is. Let’s just say I lost that battle badly and had to re-cut the set to accommodate a ‘good profile’.
Trace your entry into your fields from graduate school to your current pursuits.
I was an undergraduate student in the Design Department, and after graduating I worked for a year as the 8th assistant to the Broadway designer David Mitchell. In his studio I met some great colleagues who were also assisting, and we all influenced each other’s work. One of them suggested that I take up storyboarding, since I drew very fast. That casual remark had a profound influence on my career, as I became enamored with storyboarding and film. I realized that I wanted to learn more about film language, so I went for my master’s degree at NYU/TSOA graduate film program. From there, it was only natural for me to progress into production design.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of your process and how do you resolve it?
Perhaps the most difficult part of my job is to marry my vision with the budget; there is never enough money for what I would like to design. I always start big and then work towards simplifying the design. I also try to win over the producers with my bigger vision, and most of the time my persistence pays off.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
Winning an Emmy and an ADG award for GREY GARDENS was a wonderful moment, plus I got to dress up.
When did you get interested in theater or film design and how?
I’ve loved theater since I was a child, and I used to put on plays in Sofia where I grew up, since I was eight. I was always a leader, which got me in trouble quite often with the other children’s mothers. I decided to become a set designer on a whim when my family and I escaped to New York. My English was very bad, and I drew well, so I incorrectly thought that I could be a designer and I wouldn’t have to talk very much.
What or who were your influences?
At the beginning of my career I was very influenced by Brecht and Japanese gardens; they both have a very clean, timeless esthetic. As a film designer I’ve learned to be careful about the sets becoming too theatrical, and I strive to capture reality and bring authenticity and emotion to all my sets.
As you design and meet the challenges of being a freelance artist, are there any voices that you particularly hear from the aggregation of voices?
When I get stuck, or have a design problem, I always hear Oliver Smith’s voice in my head. It makes me smile and relax.
What are some of your other interests in life?
I love reading books. The two I’m reading right now are the upcoming novel “4321” by Paul Auster, and “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore” by Benjamin Hale.
Any final thoughts?
If you were writing my biography, would you please title it THE EMOTIONAL ROOM DESIGNER.