After the pomp and ceremony of the Academy Awards, the blur of red carpets and the glitz of the exclusive after-parties, Oscar-winning art director Kim Sinclair is back to his day job. For him, that means “virtual production” on Jackson–Spielberg collaboration The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn as one of the key people responsible for the look of the children’s comic adaptation that will hit theatres next year.
“It’s a pioneering job for a physical art department, satisfying and frustrating in equal parts,” says Sinclair, who along with two colleagues picked up a gold statue at Los Angeles Kodak Theatre in March for art direction on James Cameron’s epic Avatar.
The awards, says Sinclair, were a “hugely enjoyable whirlwind”.
“On the stage you feel relieved the wait is over, proud, but at the same time slightly ridiculous in that you are there to represent so many people and their hard work, and how can you do that justice?”
As a newly minted member of the Academy, Sinclair will join the growing ranks of Kiwis able to vote for future Oscar-winning movies. But he won’t be biased towards sci-fi.
“Sci-fi is satisfying in that, along with ‘period porn’, the audience at least recognises that the art department have been to some trouble. In fact the hardest jobs can be the thankless contemporary dramas—you do no less work.”
Despite Avatar being set 150 years in the future, Sinclair’s brief was to make the militaristic sets fairly conventional looking with a few dashes of future-tech thrown in.
“Everything had to be grounded in good science and engineering. In fact, probably more experimental and innovative technology was used in making the film than appeared on screen.”
Sinclair’s Oscar is the culmination of three decades of work in the movies, much of it completed under the guidance of iconic New Zealand directors. “The first time I met Geoff Murphy he taught me something I have never forgotten,” Sinclair remembers of the Utu and Goodbye Pork Pie director.
“He was, while smoking, attacking a large TV to place an explosive charge in it—we blew up lot of things in those days. At times he got confused and had the detonator between his lips while blu-tacking his fag to the TV. Sucking on his detonator, he said, ‘Kim, remember, there’s nothing faster than an explosion.’ Good advice.”
His art direction on three movies for Martin Campbell, including Vertical Limit and The Legend of Zorro, took him to our own Southern Alps in the middle of winter, the jungle of Thailand’s golden triangle and the Mexican desert. Campbell, he says, is an old-school director: “firm but fair, energetic and hardworking. At 4am he is on set going through the upcoming day’s filming—every shot story-boarded, every last detail worked out.”
A good apprenticeship then for Avatar and a gig with the most exacting of directors, James Cameron.
“Jim is a perfectionist, who demands that the world we are creating is as perfect as the one that has been in his mind for ten years,” admits Sinclair.
That vision extended to details like the flooring in the army base on Pandora. “A lot of the sets on Hell’s Gate had flooring in various shades of grey; light, dark, metallic, and several different expensive sophisticated finishes, all laid in a complex pattern,” says Sinclair. “However the night before shooting the biggest, most complex set, Jim decided that humble glossy black lino would be the way to go. I bribed a flooring warehouse to stay open at night, arranged labour, forklifts, trucks, equipment, catering and we worked all through the night ripping up the old flooring and gluing down the new lino. In the morning I got a nod and a ‘thanks’. But you will notice that the flooring is featured, and gets a big close up, in the movie.”