Back in 2014 when we first started putting together our team for the show’s first season, Ian Brock’s name came up. A LOT. And always, whenever it did, it would be accompanied by the phrase: “He’s a genius”. From different people at different points in the pre-pre-production process it was “Ian Brock” and “genius”. Well, I’ve encountered very few geniuses over the course of my 20+ years in television so I was fairly skeptical.
In the next eight weeks or so, I watched Ian oversee the creation and construction of our standing sets – The Raza bridge, corridors, underbelly, quarters, infirmary, mess, and Marauder. Then, in the ensuing months, it was space stations and spaceship interiors, mining colonies and palaces, builds big and small. He was spirited, smart, incredibly creative. And, yeah, I finally realized – a genius.
He’s someone who can break down a script into its constituent locations and then, working within the constraints of a very limited budget, craft some of the most gorgeous sets a production has any business aspiring to. Believe me, his work looks gorgeous on screen but you can’t really appreciate the extent of that genius until you’ve actually visited his sets and studied the details of his ingenious designs.
Hopefully, some day you will and, I have no doubt, you’ll agree. Genius.
Anyway, Ian was kind enough to take time from his very busy schedule (building a space shipyard, tech room, palace quarters, war room, lab, and an industrial area housing a powered gateway to ominous parts unknown) to answer a few of your questions.
Check out his Q&A to learn his tips on breaking into the business, his overview of the set-building process, and, most importantly, his favorite Stargate series…
Jon Hurbesch: “How did you end up working as a Production Designer? Was it something you planned to do or did you fall into it?”
IB: Hi Jon. I’ve been making movies since I was 12 and I pursued filmmaking and particularly the the art dept side of things through high school and university. I went to production design school at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation after university and other than stints in theatre in various capacities
I’ve worked in the art department my whole career.
arcticgoddess: “Where do you get your ideas? And: Are you a sci-fi fan?”
IB: Hi articgoddess. I get a lot of ideas from everyday life and things that I see around that interest me – particularly materials that I can repurpose into a set in some way. I squirrel ideas, notes and clippings away – random stuff I like and save them for a a rainy day. I have folders from the early 90’s that are still relevant to set construction.
On the show, most ideas come from the script and discussions in concept meetings . I do a lot of research when I’m building a set and experiment with many different designs as part of the process.
I am a sci fan. I’m sure it would entail 50% of anything I watch and read.
Alex: “Questions for Ian Brock: 1) What advice would you give to an aspiring Production Designer?”
IB: Hi Alex. If I was starting up, I’d be sure to to have strong computer skills in modelling in a 3d or virtual reality environment to develop concepts. I’m still doing hand sketch with tear sheets. Some designers use models but I’m amazed by what the concept artists I work with are doing and the various methods they use.
The tutorials available online and through deviant art are a great source of inspiration and technique. A good knowledge of scenic construction, fine art, cinematography ,lighting and the history of film are all very handy.
Just spending time on set to understand how everyone works and their various jobs is invaluable as well.
“2) What tips would you give for success?”
IB: Keep knocking on doors. Everyone gets that you’re looking for work and 99% of us did it so should be accommodating. It’s to our advantage to get the most talented people on our crew.
I started out doing low budget movies and rock videos. They are a great way to learn how to be resourceful and allow for a lot of individual input.
If you aren’t somewhere that has a film business, you’ll have to get creative on your own. I learned as much about set design and lighting doing theatre as I have working on films.
“3) If you could re-design the set of any old, classic movie, which movie would that be and how would you re-design the set?”
IB: That’s a crazy question. I’d never presume to do a makeover, but I’d love to redo a few of the movies I’ve worked on – knowing what I do now.”
jez: “Question for Ian: is there something you look for in an idea or a piece of art that makes you say, “Yes, this is for that show (/vehicle/ship/etc)” or is there more of getting everything together choosing between them…The show’s consistently beautiful, thatnkyou too.”
IB: Hi Jez. Thanks. Once I start designing something I seem to spin everything around that I see to see if applies to the things I’m working on. Generally for sci fi we start sketching and build it from scratch and then embellish with purchased or repurposed found objects.
I’m a big proponent of recycling sets and often just wander our stash of materials and recreate something new from that. I often look for inspiration in old design and “how to” books as well as rooting through old warehouses and many yard sales.
TheOtherOne: “Hello Ian. Thank you and your great team for all the fantastic work on Dark Matter! Please may I ask: Is there any Production Designer/Art Director past or present whose work you greatly admire and why?”
IB: Hi TheOtherOne. I’m a great fan of the concept artist Syd Mead. His vehicles and environments have inspired me for years.
“When not at work, do you sketch or paint?”
IB: I used to sketch all the time but I tend to do other things now. I get to be creative at work so I don’t need that outlet as much.
“Which architectural and/or interior design period/style is your favourite?”
IB: For some reason the round furniture and cars of the late forties have always been my favourite period. Must be something that I’m nostalgic for.
“What is your favourite anecdotal tale you tell at social gatherings?”
IB: Ha – trick question. I tend to reflect on things that happened that in the recent past that made me laugh. Like this question!!
“Thanks for taking time to answer our questions. It’s much appreciated”
IB: You’re welcome.
Walter Stevens: “Can you break down the process of building a set? Step #1: You get the script…”
IB: Hi Walter.
Conceptual issues posited by the script – characters and environments.
How can you assist creating the writer’s, producer’s and director’s visions of the story? Breakdowns of requirements.
Work up a basic design.
Hand off rough sketches to a concept artist or go straight to set designer with a plan of attack.
Draw the set / revise and annotate.
Budget budget budget
schedule schedule schedule
Get drawings to every department involved in the build.
Order materials, specialty items etc.,
The whole team tackles whatever things we are building
And we follow it through to the shoot.
Dallas Marshall: “No questions for Ian, just this comment: You and your Art Dept are BRILLIANT! Gorgeous, brilliant work. I bow to your abilities.”
Randomness: “Some questions from me! 1. How would you describe your experience working on Dark Matter for three seasons now?”
IB: Really great. It just keeps getting more interesting for me. We are a well oiled machine and Joe and Paul are ridiculously talented and savvy in their world of sci fi.
It seems to get easier as you know what the feel of the show is and what does and doesn’t work well – unlike the tentative steps you might take in a first season.
“2. Is there anything you’d like to see in Dark Matter that you perhaps wouldn’t have the budget(yet) for?”
IB: Definitely! I’d love to build the kind of massive space ports and shuttle bays that you see in blockbuster movies – and mech suits like Pacific Rim or Avatar.
“3. Are you a foodie?”
IB: Not really- I really like asian influenced food though.
“4. Were you a fan of Stargate before joining Dark Matter?”
IB: Yes and no. I hadn’t kept up with it at all, but I spent the first season going through 1/2 of the 300 or so episodes on Netflix. Universe is my favourite. I really like James Robbins’ ship and the aliens are pretty creepy.
“5. If you were the captain of your own spaceship(Could be any ship from any Scifi show or whatever). Who from the Dark Matter cast, crew etc would you want to crew it?”
IB: Definitely 6. He flies the Marauder particularly well. Or the Alien so there would never be any disagreements.
“6. Thankyou for taking the time to answer the questions, keep up the amazing work. But one final question, what inspired you to be a production designer?”
IB: I guess I always like the “putting on a show” aspect of the job. I used to decorate the school gym in grade 7 sock hops with black light posters and lights to get the mood right – and have never looked back.
Nacisse: “1. Where do you draw inspiration from in designing your sets?”
IB: Hi Nacisse. I get inspired by pretty much everything I see – and I like the challenge of creating something I haven’t done or want to figure out how to do.
“2. What kinds of materials to do source for your sets? Do you ever get creative and use atypical material like egg cartons?”
IB: All the time. I am constantly using things that aren’t really made for anything in the scenic world. Building materials, landscaping materials and packaging materials all come into play.
Sometimes I get raw materials (like sheet aluminum) that I have a hunch will be a great way to get something done for 1/4 of the cost and be totally recyclable.I think we find and repurpose something new in almost every episode. We’ve built a ceiling out of flooring in the episode we’re working on now for instance.
“3. Was Production Design always your career path? If not, what was your first choice?”
IB: I have been designing sets or working on set for my whole career and I still learn something new every day – So it wasn’t ever a fallback option.
Alex: “Some questions for Ian Brock: 1. How do you approach designing a project with so many different aspects as the Dark Matter universe? Do you have a specific designing process that you usually follow?”
IB: I usually get questions trickling in from Joe Mallozzi while he’s developing the story, but it will be without any context or a episode. That always piques my interest and gets the creative process working until the script comes out . I’ll read the script a few times to let it sink in and then I basically try out a variety of ideas based on the conceptual parameters of the show. I’ll talk to Joe and Paul regarding what I’m thinking and what they’re thinking of and then dig into sketching and doing a collage of references that pertain to each set. We are starting to develop a virtual reality approach to our designs so we can let people walk through the designs which is really exciting.
“2. Your job must involve a ton of little details and things to coordinate. How do you keep track of everything? And what about time management?”
IB: We do get a lot of little pieces that all have to come together for a particular set. I work with an art director and an art department coordinator to get everything organized and scheduled.They also make sure everyone has the information they need about a particular set. Everyone in the art department is responsible for ensuring their particular contribution is delivered on time , particularly from outside supplies like metal fabricator and graphics. We track all this and are constantly in communication with each other about pick-ups and shipping things into the show. Occasionally we’ll miss a deadline and have to substitute something at the last minute.
“3. Do you do a lot of research before starting work on a project, like the Raza for example? What kind of references do you work with?”
IB: I worked on and off for about 3 months before I started Dark matter full time developing the layout for the RAZA with the concept artist Bartol Rendulic. We tried many variations of the ship before we locked into our design. We’ve used some of the other prototypes as other ships in the series – so nothing goes to waste.
“Thank you for your wonderful work, and for taking the time to answer these questions!”
IB: You’re welcome.
Aerial: “What was your favorite build so far on Dark Matter? What was your favorite build on any show outside of Dark Matter?”
IB: Hi Aerial. The mess hall and the quarters are my favourites, oddly enough – both designed by Russell Moore during the initial build. My favourite build so far was an art deco hotel for the series “At The Hotel”. No one knew it was a set.
Ponytail: “Question for long-beard Ian… How old is your beard and have you ever gotten it caught in a power tool at work? (I got my long hair caught in electric garden sheers once. Had to take it apart to get my hair out.)”
IB: Hi Ponytail. My beard is only 4 years old and I don’t know what picture you saw but I’ve trimmed it . It was always getting caught in the zipper of my parka.
RichS writes: “Questions for Ian Brock. You must work very closely with the physical props and construction people, are you in charge of the entire process from conception to final construction ?
IB: Hi Rich. I am in charge of the overall design from conception to completion but I work closely with the producers, writers and director of photography to finalize the design of each set. I do get to work with an amazing team of professionals who all are equally responsible for their part in the process and assist with everything from sets and props design, graphics, playback, construction, scenic art and set decoration. I also coordinate with grips, electrics, camera and locations. We are all ultimately servicing the requirements of the script in a group effort.
“Do you feel a tinge of jealousy when you see budgets of 10 million per episode for shows like Westworld?”
“Do you feel a more limited budget fuels creativity?”
IB: I do. I describe it as the aesthetics of poverty. It’s as much about ideas as what you spend on supplies. It’s why I loved Doctor Who. No matter how crazy things looked you always believed in them.
“What drives your ideas? What do you do for a creative boost when up against a deadline?”
IB: Many ideas just come from the script. When I reach an impasse I’ll pass on it and go onto something else. Walking in the woods or driving seem to be good for refocusing my attention – if the deadline itself isn’t enough of a creative boost.
“How easy is it to decide whether a physical contruct is warranted over doing something on green screen? Are the costs comparable?”
IB: It’s generally pretty easy to decide. They both cost a lot but the ability to do set extensions and unbuildable environments usually tips the balance in favour of green screen. We generally limit those shots to a few key angles as well to keep those costs down.
“Thanks for making Dark Matter look great!”
IB: You’re welcome.
gforce writes: “I wish I could think of a good question to ask Ian. I’m too satisfied I guess to just sit back and enjoy his excellent work.”
IB: Hey gforce – Thanks.
@26mengel: “Question for Production Designer Ian Brock- what has been your biggest design challenge for Dark Matter so far, and did the result of that challenge work out the way you hoped? Have we seen it or will we be seeing it this season?”
IB: Hi @26mengel. We designed and built the Marauder for the first season in about 3 weeks. It was crazy. I love doing the dashboard controls but they are fussy and have a lot of elements in them. I feel it worked out pretty well.
The other big challenge was the Hyperion 8 prison set. It was large and needed set extensions and a big lighting set up. Again – I think it worked out well.
Raza Crew Forever!