When dissecting a cinematic body of work, one would cut into formations of people who create an alternate reality. The script works as the spine, keeping the structure of a project together, and the production designer heads the impetus of the written reality.
Production designer Toni Barton constructed environments that pull the audience into the story. Her transformative abilities have been featured on television, film, and theatre sets. Barton has curated the atmosphere for Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Dare Devil, and Netflix’s Luke Cage series, to name a few.
We conducted an exclusive interview with the scenic visionary, discussing her journey, passion, and the mindset needed to pursue this career path.
“Everything starts with the written word; there would be no need for design if there was no script,” Barton said, reflecting on the significance of a written outline of a scene. She elaborated on different aspects of filmmaking, calling it a “collaborative effort.”
A production designer absorbs the idea of where a story occurs, takes the proposed setting, and interprets it into physical placement. The painting in one’s mind formulates into the physical world. The seamless performance of a film or play is held together by the set, which the production designer cultivates. Barton developed an eye for what sits in the background and provided a window into what she sees.
Breaking down the process of taking the narrative and breathing life into it, Barton starts with absorbing the scene from reading the script and then diving into the research. After gathering the bones of the project, the architecture can begin. Barton oversees the role of art, sets the direction to build out these worlds, and shares creative synergy with the production’s buyers, graphic designers, illustrators, and many more to tell the given story.
Barton’s introduction to her future career path started on the University of Southern California (USC) campus, where she pursued her degree in architecture. While in school, her friends would call on her to capture scenes of their plays and short films.
After earning her degree at USC, she looked for specialized theatre training at New York University (NYU), entering a graduate program in set design and art direction. Barton honed her skills to create sceneries for stage and film production.
By her third union film as an assistant art director, Barton’s skills and confidence matured. She worked with veterans of the business, and they took Barton under their tutelage. With real-time hands-on experience, they shaped the rising creative to become the profound designer she is today.
According to Barton, a production designer’s role calls for interest in fashion, art history, and architecture, “Understanding history and helping to tell that story helps us build character, so anybody interested in any aspect of history, sociology, architecture, art, fashion and […] how to tell a story, would potentially be interested in this and more importantly have that skill set to then tell that story.”
Barton reflected on a moment in her early career development when a friend told her, “when you become a production designer—that’s when you will really make it.” Barton responded with the reassurance that she was exactly where she needed to be at that time – an assistant art director. She owned her current placement, taking the first steps into her journey. Eventually, Barton went from being an assistant art director to becoming an art director while simultaneously teaching at NYU. Later, through her accumulated experience, she became a production designer.
Getting to that final point takes time, and not everyone understands or is prepared for it, “People think when you get out of school, you have to instantaneously have this title, or you’re not making it.” On the contrary, Barton said, the beginning stages of one’s career are rich with people who are experts, willing to garnish a young mind with wisdom to build a force around their talent.
Passing the torch, in conjunction with being an art director, Barton taught theatre design at NYU for 18 years. “By far, that has been the most rewarding thing I could ever say and do,” she said. The production designer continued to explain the passion of being an art designer while taking it to an academic setting. Her hope is for younger students to identify this as a viable career and be drawn to the scenic route, especially students of color. “I desire more people to know about it younger, in essence, to know every single aspect of design,” she concluded.
Rihanna’s New Wax Figure Unveiled at Madame Tussauds in Amsterdam
The global icon and entrepreneur Rihanna was honored with a new wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Amsterdam, Netherlands, this week.
Her outfit this time around is inspired by one of her looks from the 2020 Savage x Fenty show, which streamed exclusively on Prime Video.
Starz Releases Official Trailer for ‘Run The World’ Season 2
The squad is back! Starz dropped the new trailer for ‘Run The World’ season 2, and it looks like our favorite NYC girls are in for more fun and drama. Bresha Webb, Amber Stevens West, and Corbin Reid are reprising their roles as Renee, Whitney, and Sondi, respectively. Andrea Bordeaux (who played Ella in Season 1) departed the show over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The new season will follow the “euphoric highs and heartbreaking lows that Whitney, Renee, and Sondi must endure in their pursuit of world domination,” says the official synopsis. “Whitney must follow the road of self-discovery to thrive in her life with or without Ola, while Renee and Sondi must decide what they truly want out of life — both in love and their careers. Whether they reunite with a past love, taste the life of a millionaire, or see their career take off in a radical new direction, these powerful Black women, fortified by their impenetrable friendship, won’t let anything get in their way.”
The new episodes of ‘Run the World’ will premiere on Friday, May 26.
Disney Casts Actors of Color to Play Fictional White Characters – Impactful or Opportunistic?
The studio has faced criticism for hiring non-white actors to portray roles depicted in Disney cartoons as white for its live-action remakes.
This year, Disney is gearing up to release live-action remakes of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Peter Pan.’ Each will feature a Black actor playing a fictional character originally portrayed by a white actor. Halle Bailey, a Black actress and singer, is set to portray the beloved red-haired, fish-tailed under-the-sea princess Ariel. Yara Shahidi, a daughter of an Iranian father and an African-American mother, will star as Peter Pan’s most trusted fairy friend Tinkerbell. Both movies are scheduled to be released in the next two months.
The casting decisions came with backlash from a vast number of Twitter and Redditt users, who claim – “blackwashing” childhood characters (i.e., taking an originally white character and making them a person of color) will not solve the lack of inclusivity in Hollywood. But is that really why they so passionately stand against it? The negative attention on Little Mermaid and Tinker Bell has also fueled great support from other fans who view such anger as racist behavior. “Those opposed to diversity on screen are the ones fighting it in real life,” one Twitter user wrote. Rob Marshall, who directs the upcoming Little Mermaid remake, admitted he was caught off guard by some of the negative responses that came with casting Bailey. “I wasn’t anticipating that because, in a way, I felt like we’ve moved so far past that kind of thing.” He also insisted there was no agenda in Disney’s decision to hire the 22-year-old, “We just were looking for the best
actor for the role, period. The end,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “We saw everybody and every ethnicity. The goal was to find someone who can be incredibly strong, passionate, beautiful, smart, clever, and with a great deal of fire and joy,” Marshall explained.
For a few years now, Disney, among other media companies, has made an effort to
redeem itself from a century-long history of producing controversial movies and
animated films (‘Song of the South,’ ‘Dumbo, ‘The Aristocrats”), some of which have been deemed racist or ‘culturally outdated’ as Disney conveniently describes it. Most recently, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced a diversity and inclusion program ‘Reimagine Tomorrow,’ that is committed to “amplifying underrepresented voices and untold stories as well as championing the importance of accurate representation in media and entertainment.” Casting more people of color could count as a way to honor their commitment, but is changing the ethnicity of established characters the best solution? Some argue that it could be. Several previously released remakes that followed this model have done well, despite surrounding controversy.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella cast/ Disney
In 1997, Disney released Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, a reimagining of the famed tale. It did not just have a non-white main cast but also received a budget of $12 million, which ranked it among the most expensive television films ever made. The remake featured Brandy, an African-American actor/singer, as Cinderella, the late Whitney Houston as Fairy Godmother, Paulo Montalban, an Asian actor as Prince Christopher, and Victor Garber and Whoopi Goldberg as the king and queen. Although the non-traditional reiteration of the Disney story received mixed reviews from critics, it was met with a lot of praise, specifically from the Black community. “This Cinderella remake is such a beautiful, magical gem of a movie filled with a multiracial cast, and I can’t believe it came out in 1997! Talk about progressive!” a review on IMDb reads. “I think this live-action Cinderella movie is my most favorite. I love the songs and the comedy. Most of the actors are familiar. This movie also teaches us that no matter what we look like, black, white, Asian, we are all the same,” another fan wrote in his five-star review.
Most recently, Disney doubled down on casting non-white actors to star in their remakes. Aside from the aforementioned ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Peter Pan’ films, Rachel Zegler, a Latina actress, was cast to play Snow White in a movie scheduled to be released in 2024. Disney’s ‘Wonder Years’ reboot features an all-Black main cast. Zendaya plays MJ in the new Spider-Man movies. And that’s not just with Disney. Amazon Prime Video recently cast Afro-Latino actor Ismael Cruz Córdova to play Arondir, a Silvan elf, in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.’ The reimagining of ‘The West Side Story’ featured Latino actors in leading roles. Almost every casting announcement caused a social media stir.
Rachel Zegler spotted on the set of ‘Snow White’
But why remake in the first place? According to Dr. Matthew Jones, Film Studies lecturer at De Montfort University in Leicester, “Remake and reboot culture is not new. It’s often framed as something novel and unique to our postmodern times, but there is actually a rich tradition of remakes in Western film culture,” he told Cosmopolitan. So why are they still being made? The answer is fairly simple – remakes are a safe financial bet. Studios capitalize on people’s nostalgia and the connections they already have with their favorite characters. “The most secure option for studios is always going to be something we call a ‘pre-sold property,’ Dr. Jones continued, “meaning films with pre-existing fan audiences. And what types of films have fan audiences before they are even released? Remakes, reboots, and sequels do, precisely because they are already properties familiar to audiences and which some people will feel an emotional attachment to already.”
Those opposed to Disney’s casting decisions to ‘race swap’ insist the company should focus on creating original characters and storylines instead of reimagining the ones they have become so accustomed to. “Another remake! Did Hollywood run out of ideas?” One Reddit user asked. “Disney is only changing the race/ethnicity of characters in live-action remakes to spark controversy and get more people talking about the movie rather than trying to bring minorities to light as protagonists,” another speculated. However, it’s no secret that the United States has a long and dark history of racial discrimination and injustice. So, when minority groups are shown outside of the tired, stereotypical roles or, furthermore, play roles that are considered “traditionally” white – it implies a change that some simply don’t want to accept.
Indeed, Disney had succeeded in the past in introducing original non-white animated characters such as Mulan (the live-action version was released in 2020), Tiana in ‘Princess and the Frog’ (the remake is currently in the works), Moana, and most recently, the family of ‘Encanto.’ But original content inevitably means more resources spent, and with remakes that deliver guaranteed financial gains and casting decisions that bring attention (positive or negative), studios seem to achieve desirable results still. Additionally, the cultural and racial diversification of Disney’s fan base and the pressure to acknowledge and show more of those faces on the screen pushes the company to do just that. So the main question remains – does Hollywood genuinely cares about inclusivity, or is it just adjusting for the sake of profits? No matter the answer, one thing is clear – Disney is not going anywhere any time soon, and neither are the Black, Asian, Latino, and other non-white people across the globe. Those who have a problem will just have to learn to live with it.