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Production Designer Stefania Cella Talks “Downsizing”

Stefania Cella is a woman who knows what she likes. Enthralled by the script to Alexander Payne’s latest feature, Downsizing, the award-winning production designer was determined to land the job. She’d previously encountered the director when she submitted a visual presentation for “Nebraska.” This time, she went one step beyond.

I did a scene by scene presentation, said Cella. I really wanted to do the movie.

Shortly into production, Cella got the call to come in and take on the role of production designer. Payne’s primary objective for the film that features individuals who are downsized to a five-inch version of themselves, was to present a natural reality within the scenes. He didn’t want the audience to be distracted by gimmicky visual effects or “big prop versus small prop” sight gags. While there are a few memorable moments outlined in the script that highlight the transition process of “downsizing,” such as the “spatulas” that remove the recently shrunk individuals in the hospital room, or the giant saltine crackers presented to Paul (Matt Damon) after he regains consciousness, the audience forgets about Paul’s size difference once he is fully integrated into Leasureland.

While the goal was to create a natural environment, Cella and her team infused a great amount of devotion to the presentation of the environments where the downsized individuals resided. While Paul and his neighbors lived in high-class houses and apartments, Cella and her team vastly simplified the details. The design of arches, doors, even fixtures like lights and chairs were removed of ornamentation and the structures were paired down to basics.

It was blocky, simple; think of it like a doll house, said Cella.

Textures of material were kept to the scale of the regular world. Cella did extensive research to discover the best types of wood grains, carpeting, marble and other material that would be utilized in creating the structures. She also spent a lot of time balancing ratio changes to ensure there was a balance to the viewpoint in the reduced-size world. To ensure the textures would be properly represented in Leasureland, Cella and her team created 3D printouts of the actors that were roughly five inches tall. She placed the models in front of the life-sized texture she was working with, took pictures, and evaluated the effect to determine if some creative license needed to be exercised to ensure what the viewer would see would be less invasive and appear more “natural.”

Stefania Cella on the set of “Downsizing”

The project at the outskirt of Leasureland was an extremely labor-intensive set for Cella and her team to create. The idea initiated with the concept of a construction site set up during the development of LeasureLand. The leftover office trailer became a headquarters for project housing units that surrounded an open courtyard. Loosely representing an insect’s hive, Cella and her staff built each individual unit with plywood. Floors, walls, doors, tables, lights – everything was built for this structure that was housed at the largest studio space in North America.

Cella enjoyed the process of working on the film, recalling the fun she had scouting for locations in Los Angeles, Omaha and Toronto. Even when the schedule seemed daunting, she enjoyed the creative process and the ability of the production and art departments to come together and make decisions to find solutions.

“This process is in every movie,” said Cella. “You arrive to a decision then just go. If we had another six months, it would have been even different. We studied and studied, but we were still deciding (on details) while we were doing the film.”

Cella has an ADG Award nomination for her work on this film.

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