Belfast production designer Jim Clay helps recreate Kenneth Branagh’s childhood – Under the Line


A scene from Belfast

Two-time BAFTA winner production designer Jim clay teamed up for the fourth time in his career with Kenneth branagh on the filmmaker’s passion project, Belfast. He had previously been appointed by the Guild of artistic directors for his work on Branagh Murder on the Orient Express, as well as another nomination for Alfonso Cuarón‘s Children of men.

Belfast is one of many black and white films released in the fall of 2021, and it’s a very personal story for Branagh that could only be made in the wake of the pandemic. The film is a semi-autobiographical take on Branagh’s life at the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s. Caitriona balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and presents Jude Hill, it depicts a story of love, laughter and loss in childhood against a backdrop of music and social uproar.

the Belfast production took over an airport, where they recreated the street filmmaker Kenneth Branagh grew up on. Due to Covid protocols, taking back the actual street was not an option. Clay discusses the challenges posed by the film’s design due to the pandemic, and also discusses his research process. He knows the city well because he worked in Belfast many years ago for one of the Mike leighhis first films. It was about 15 years after the time the movie takes place.

Jim clay

Jim clay

Below the line: How did you first get interested in production design?

Jim Clay: I think from a young age my mom and dad took me to the movies. I saw a school production when I was probably 10 or 12 years old of an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. I embarked on the realization of a model theater, and I was very interested in architecture, and I trained as an architect originally before entering television and then cinema. I think it’s been in me from a very, very young age.

BTL: Belfast marks your fourth collaboration with Kenneth Branagh. How has shorthand improved?

Jim Clay: I think a lot, and especially with a production like Belfast, where we really had very little time to prepare it due to the COVID situation. The shortcut that already existed between Ken, Haris Zambaloukos, the cinematographer and I really paid dividends in preparing for Belfast.

BTL: What was the most difficult part of designing Belfast?

Clay: I have to say the COVID scenario, because we started production, I guess it was June 2020. This country and the film industry had just emerged, tentatively, from the first lockdown and there was a lot of talk of a another lockdown in the fall. We knew we only had a very short window of opportunity to do this. Normally, a movie of this kind of scale, we would go to places, but in our newly socially remote world, that wasn’t really an option. We set about building the street and its composite interiors. It was a period of time for it to be constructed in a way that it was believable, plausible. It was a real world. I guess that was the biggest challenge.

BTL: When I first saw the movie in October, I couldn’t believe it was the end of an airport runway.

Clay: (Laughs) It’s a strange choice, isn’t it – to build it at the end of the trail of all places? But the truth was, most of the studios were on lockdown. They had standing sets. There was very little, if any, studio space available at the time. We chose to take an old empty schoolhouse in Surrey, England which was our production headquarters, and which was probably 10 miles from Farnborough Airport. It was part of the airport, but it was also a large exhibition space. They were still suffering from confinement. Their showrooms were empty. Their parking lots were empty. We were able to build there.

BTL: When you build a set of this nature, do you sometimes take into account the potential placement of the camera or do things turn out the way they do?

Clay: No, no, a lot, we take the placement of the camera into account. This is the collaboration that I have had over the years with Haris and obviously with Ken. It is quite expected. We were kind of forced to build the street and its interiors because of Covid. But I have to say, it’s Ken’s preferred method of making the other movies we’ve made, which are on a much larger scale. We pretty much build a lot of sets, a lot of sets, because that gives full control over the lighting schedule, just control of the world we’re working in. It’s their preferred method — it’s just that on Belfast, we didn’t think we would be of the scale we could do. Ken, being a brilliant producer and director, he was able to make these resources available and we were able to do it.

BTL: What are some things that struck you when you first visited Belfast for research?

Clay: I was fortunate enough to have worked on it a few years ago, in fact, on one of Mike Leigh’s early films called Four days in July. It was, I guess, about 15 years after the time we were settled in, but The Troubles still existed. The streets were obviously like at the end of the sixties. I had this knowledge and this experience of the real place. It was really a reference from Ken and that reference came mainly in the form of conversations we had over the weekend when we went to Belfast really just to scout, thinking we weren’t going to shoot there, but we were able to walk the streets, although Ken’s real house does not actually exist anymore. Obviously the street yes, and the geography yes, so we were able to take that trip he did when he was nine, from home to school and through the park railings and across the grounds. and up to school, then the reverse trip. It was two fabulous days walking the streets and listening to him talk about his memories. It was rewarding and it was also very emotional at the time.

BTL: Other than touring the region, what kind of research have you done?

Clay: Obviously, it’s well documented – the terms of The Troubles – so a lot of photo archives, photo searches, a lot of things exist. We were lucky.


A scene from Belfast

BTL: Since the film is shot in black and white, what impact does that have on the design of the production?

Clay: We like to shoot in black and white. In fact, all of the movies that we do with Ken and Haris, we try to do a little black and white streak somewhere. When Ken said we were going to shoot it in black and white, it was, “Well that’s great! I think the impact is mostly related to the tonal values, I guess. We build the whole in color as it would be normal. But I was taking into account that if I was going to paint a door or a wall, that particular color and then maybe the window frame or the door frame, I just made sure that those tonal values ​​in between. colors would work strongly in black and white. It was a conversation with Haris, and we did a little test shooting with our color scheme. It had a big impact. I think it’s a powerful emotional statement, in black and white. It also helps to get you into the period.

BTL: Do you approach period films differently from a contemporary or fantasy film?

Clay: I do not think so. You are building a world. I think my job as a production designer is to create a psychological climate for the director, his story and the actors. Whether it is period or contemporary, you embark on the work in the same way by designing rhythms and volumes while thinking of the shots, the action and of course, the lighting in sight, the placement of windows in volumes. I think the design process is very similar regardless of the time period.

BTL: In terms of the design process, has it changed over the years with all the changes in the industry?

Clay: Yes it does in some ways. I think it goes back to the introduction of CGI, blue screen, green screen. For starters, I think a lot of people have found this to be a threat to the production design. In fact, it is the other way around. It enlarged our world, so that we could design bigger and better things and it would be achieved virtually. Camera techniques, lighting techniques, obviously, visual effects techniques have all improved in phenomenal ways. All of these advancements you would use. And of course, the latest is what’s called The Volume, which is for large LED screens. Part of the whole can be built there digitally. It’s a closed-door thing; it is not something that is done by mail. I think we are learning how to use this in the best way at the moment. We did some clips from the movie I’m working on right now. It is the last of these technologies.

BTL: How honored are you to have your name in the production design awards conversation?

Clay: Much honored. I want to say, Belfast is a fantastic film. It’s a wonderful, heartfelt film to which it is wonderful to be attached. The fact that he wins such accolades for Ken and the cast is phenomenal. Making the trip with that is great.

Belfast is now playing in theaters and is also available On demand.

All photos are courtesy and copyright Focus Features; Photographer: Rob youngson.


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