How I Came to Be Here: Production Designer Gemma Jackson
Posted on: May 05, 2023
Gemma Jackson has scored two Primetime Emmy Awards, a British Film Designers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and an Academy Award nomination. If you watched and loved Finding Neverland, Bridget Jones’s Diary or John Adams, you’ve witnessed this production designer’s extraordinary magic at play.
Gemma is UK-based and has brought to life worlds as diverse as Agrabah in Aladdin, Camelot in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Westeros in Game of Thrones. She took time out of her day to speak with us about the pivotal role of production designers in moviemaking, and her love for her hometown.
You originally went to art school to become a painter—can you talk us through how you went from painting to production design?
I got a degree in Fine Art Painting at Saint Martin’s School of Art. Whilst there, I learned to my dismay that I really wasn’t a painter—philosophically speaking—but undoubtedly an artist.
I [then] got on to a life-changing postgraduate course in Theatre Design, and my life began. I worked as a theatre designer for around 10 years before being invited to design one film and then another—both of which I loved, and my journey continued.
What do you see as the main role of a production designer?
The production designer is responsible for the look of the film: the texture, architecture, color, ambiance and mood. [It’s] storytelling in every detail.
The detail in your work suggests an immense amount of research. Where do you start when you first sign on to a project?
Every project is different! Sometimes, I have a very visceral first instinct, which will stay true until the last day of shooting. Other projects need more conscious research and learning around the subject.
Majoritively, I start with research. This can be fairly straightforward—architecture, environments, photography—but can also be paintings and more abstract [elements]. It depends on the degree of storytelling required.
Is there a set you adore, but feel audiences might have missed?
The honest truth is that every film or series I have made contains at least one [or] more sets that are never seen—lost on the proverbial cutting room floor.
I have never heard of a scene being cut because of the set—it will be storytelling or an actor’s performance. But I am inured to such events. In my job, I have to remember that I’m working in parallel with the director to tell the story in the best possible way.
You’ve worked in an array of countries around the world. How have you navigated the demands of this as deftly as you have?
I’m inquisitive, and on the whole, I love my fellow human beings. Working abroad throws one in with new people, cultures and patterns. To be out of one’s comfort zone can be inspirational.
You seem to almost always go from project to project. When you get a rare moment of downtime, how do you like to spend it?
Believe it or not, I love being at home—cooking and exploring my own neighborhood. I take advantage of all the exhibitions in London [England]. I go to the theatre a lot, I read books, I see my friends, I go on trips and I do lots of yoga. [There’s] never a dull moment!
Given all you’ve accomplished—and given your 40+ years in the game—what keeps you so excited about your craft?
Every job is different, and I think in my profession, we are all addicted to [getting] that phone call with a new proposition.
A new world to investigate and create—that’s what lures me in every time!
When pressed for advice by emerging production designers, what do you tend to offer?
In my opinion, to be a production designer is the best job. It’s really hard work. There’s a lot of organization as well as creativity, but the joy of seeing the world you envisage take shape is worth every sleepless night.
Work hard at every level. Learn as much as you can from everyone you come across.
Enjoy your crew and all they have to give you, whether in the paint shop or at the drawing board.
Look out for Gemma’s upcoming release “Lee” later this year! The biography stars Kate Winslet as Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, the model-turned-acclaimed-war-correspondent.
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