You need to experience art before making it come alive. All the famous artists visualise their art before making something beautiful. They give importance to the process than the end product to accomplish magnificence. The job of an art director could have many meanings attached to it. Maybe, their speciality in the creative industry lies in this very fact. People often look for the key to creative success and any art director would respond by saying that it all comes down to understanding the vibe released by place and the people involved. Fusing minute elements together to produce work that’s reflective of the personalities and style of the scene sums up the work of an art director. This is exactly what Jayashree Lakshminarayan, the art director of Charlie, Jacobinte Swargarajyam, Double Barrel and more, has shown us through her work.
Having always wanted to work in films, Jayashree realised that art direction came to her easily, though the journey of that realisation had its share of ups and downs. Long before she entered the Mollywood industry, she worked as an assistant production designer in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Phata Poster Nikla Hero and as an independent director in Myskin’s Pisassu. Overwhelmed to have bagged the Kerala State Award for the Best Art Director for Charlie, Jayashree’s accolades couldn’t have arrived at a less opportune moment. This marked a significant milestone in her career because it was a pat on her back for putting in all the years of effort and overcoming challenges, one at a time. She was being appreciated for her visual thinking which let her guide an audience through the creative outcome, presenting them with visual content that told a story.
We caught up with Jayashree Lakshminarayan to learn more about her work, personality, and quirks.
How would you describe the role of an art director?
Someone who deals with all that goes in the background – in a layman term backdrop decoration. We deal with the non – living things in the film.
How do you come up with ideas?
My mom once told me to observe everything, and that everything has an emotion. I tried to do that. From then on there’s been no looking back, every non- living this has an emotion, a story & a history. I try and pick that up from the script or the line provided to me.
How do you overcome a creative block?
I don’t because one can never be a 100% creative 365 days a year. That’s the beauty of a creative mind. You’re so clueless and blank in one minute, and the next minute, boom you get something so beautiful that you surprise yourself. Your mind is an amazing being. But if I have to give an answer to this question – I take a break, close my eyes, and I put down whatever comes to my mind on paper. Even if it’s not related to what I am thinking.
What are the typical challenges an art director has to overcome?
The challenges begin with creative challenges and logistical challenges. That’s the nature of the department. Starts with people management, budgeting, creative decision, and labour management. These are the main challenges one has to face. While people management becomes the most difficult as it is an unorganised and autonomous industry, there are no set rules of behaviour or ethics to be followed.
What’s your warm-up ritual?
If in terms of work, I try and study the person I meet – who they are as a person, their previous works – and I try and avoid reading about their work. The best thing to do is to go with a blank mind. On a daily basis, I sit gazing into trees and nothing else. Recently started meditation (which used to be on & off now it is a ritual).
How did you approach Charlie and Double Barrel?
I read the script, read the character and thought what the character would do. And, of course, the director’s input and the approach needed for the look and feel of the film pave way to how we bring in more details. It’s what the story demands. I try and get into the character’s shoe to imagine what he / she would be going through. That’s exactly what happened with some new ideas on Charlie, which is why I used junk art as a concept. In Jacobinte it was realism which spoke to me. It was the emotions of a family in the Gulf.
Did you use your existing work? Or, do the directors want you to create everything from scratch?
Art exists within one, always. It just gets channelised when a script reaches me.
In every movie, we create everything from scratch. No art is repeated. No movie is the same. Especially in a movie like Charlie, as an art director, I am more of a curator than an artist so I did take inspirations and reference from my favourite junk artists around the world and brought that into a bigger picture through the films I do.
Do you have a style that you would say is the trademark feature of your work/work ethic?
Yes. I am a little Bohemian and old school with my approach to decor. I try and mix utility and decor together at props. I try and place a lot of curios and hobby corners for characters whenever I get a space to decor and create installation art.
Any stories from the sets where you pulled off something incredible?
I know that I quote back to Charlie constantly, but it was a film that was creatively satisfying for me and enjoyed by the audience who noticed minute details that I had in mind while curating it; most of the time this goes unnoticed.
The ridiculous idea was that of setting up a surreal chair stack inspired by the painting of Salvador Dali. It was dessert stand and we just used a gravity line and welded a pipe at the same angle – and oh god, not only did it work, but people ended up loving it! Thinking back, I realise that so many things could have gone wrong. But few things that are meant to be right just works out. Charlie was one such movie where I went all the way out and created & quenched all of my creative fantasy.
What’s the most heartwarming and heartbreaking response you’ve received?
Actually, there are a lot of both. In fact, a lot of it is heartbreaking since unfortunately, the industry-standard depends on the acknowledgement of others and most of the time art goes unnoticed and not even mentioned in the credits. That’s a struggle all production designer are fighting for.
Many girls are inspired by my work and are inspired to do what they want to do. I am happy that I could be of help in some way and that people look at me as an example.
Can you name a few people who have inspired you?
I have learnt a lot from all the bosses I’ve worked for. To name a few – Rajeevan, Sabu Cyril , Priya Suhas.
I love the work of Sharmista Roy, Stuart Craig , Sarah Greenwood , Stephanie Mcmillan ( set dresser ), Henry Bumpstead, Eve Stewart , Aline Boneto , and Wong – kar wai.
In terms of art, I am a fan of surrealism so for me it is always Dali and Rembrandt for his colours.
What do you like and dislike about Malayalis?
I like Malayalis for the affinity we have towards our language, culture, and State.
I dislike Malayalis for the same because we tend to get so close-knit and there is hardly any option for an outsider to get in. And even if they try to stay, they’re always seen as an outsider.
What do you listen to when you work?
I don’t listen to anything when I work because Art Direction is not like a desk job where you sit, listen to music and sketch. Production Design is something more, and it occupies a lot of space in your brain. Everything and anything becomes a reference to some set in the past, present or future.
What would you tell a young art director who is just starting out?
Do what you feel like doing. Your work contributes to the movie, affecting the audience, and getting them to relate to the movie. It’s pure magic and remember to be consistent in whatever you do no matter who / what the film is about. Your work should remain the same and be emotional towards that art. Everything has a ‘thing’ in it, find it. Find the layer of decoration and look deeper, you will hear the story that is waiting to be told.