Craig Jackson: Designing 'Chicago Fire'

Craig Jackson and his production team have mastered the art of playing with fire. 

Photo by: NBCUniversalPhoto by: NBCUniversalDesigning, constructing, and installing a set in eight days is challenging. Creating several that can withstand on-set fires is a different kind of monster. For Craig Jackson, production designer for NBC’s Chicago Fire, creating flame-accelerating environments is easy compared to fighting the production clock. Coming from a theater set design background, Jackson moved into film art direction and production design 20 years ago and has since worked on features including The Dark Knight, Stranger Than Fiction, Secretariat, and the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street. But nothing is quite like working on Chicago Fire, a job Jackson says involves a delicate mix of artistic taste, quick decision-making, and a solid knowledge of how things burn. Here’s how Jackson turns up the heat week after week.

Get In Media: Fire is a major element on the show. How does that affect your work as a production designer?

Craig Jackson: When we started the pilot of this show, we spent a lot of time on research and development about what to do and how to do stuff. We were very successful in the pilot in terms of what we did. We set a template for, OK, this is the basic way we’re going to do it and since then, we’ve continued to build every time. We try new things. We experiment. OK, this didn’t work well. What’s the best way to do it next time? Let’s find a way that will look better or a way that will go faster. We’ve gradually developed a really big repertoire of how we do it and why we do it.

It’s kind of funny, but the fire sets are actually some of our easiest sets both for the construction and design and the filming. Although there’s certainly work involved and they’re still very hard to do, we all have a comfort factor when we do them. Honestly, we’re very good at it now. We know what we’re doing and we know how to do it, but it’s taken us a long time to get to this point.

GIM: What tips and tricks have you picked up after doing episode after episode?

CJ: You know, it gets down to kind of specific minutia things. For example, [if] we go to exterior locations where we’re doing the fire from the outside of the building, basically what we’ll do [is] in place of the windows that are in the building, we’ll put in these specially designed metal fire boxes that allow us to put fire in the windows. The first time we did it, we did kind of just used blank boxes and it was like, “Oh, that looks good, but it looks like fire in a box. How do we make it look more natural and more interesting?” We’ve had a trial-and-error process of hey, how can we have broken pieces of glass in there that can withstand fire and be safe?

Actually, of all the things we’ve tried to do, that is the one thing that has stumped us for the longest time. It’s really hard to do. We would try things and find that they would break. They would become dangerous. We couldn’t use them and so it’s that kind of thing. How do we make that look more realistic or how do we make that look more intense? How do we combine various effects? A lot of times on our interior stage, we’re balancing. If we have a lot of fire, we find we can’t have a lot of smoke. If we want to have a lot of smoke, we can’t have a lot of fire because the fire kind of burns off the smoke and pushes it off the set. It’s learning those challenges. How can we get the look we want and integrate those elements?

GIM: What is your biggest challenge on Chicago Fire?

CJ: Our writers come up with really very amazing events that we have to pull off and the majority of them are based on true stories they get from some firefighter consultants that we deal with regularly or they’re based on very real events. They pitch us a lot of curveballs of very weird things. Last season, the first few episodes, I was a little fearful of how we are we going to do this or how are we going to do that, but gradually as time has gone on and we’ve gotten better at it, there’s very little that challenges us in any extreme way.

It’s not one specific [challenge]. Being an episodic TV show, we get a script and we have eight days of prep and then eight days of filming. Whatever we’re doing, you have 16 working days to read a script, figure out what you have to do, find a location, design a set based on that location, get drawings done, get construction done, get a special effects department to weigh in, a lot of times getting a stunt department to weigh in, a lot of times pictures vehicles are involved. You’re trying to, in a very short time frame, integrate a workflow of a lot of different elements very quickly. In reality, that’s our biggest challenge with whatever we’re doing. If you had three months to do it, it’s very easy to do, but how do you do it in three weeks? That’s the battle we’re fighting.

We have only a day to find a location. We have only a day to design a set. We have two days to start building it. We have three days to install it. We have two days to rehearse it and now we’re filming it. In general, our biggest challenge is just the relentless time management of it. Generally, in an episode we have two to three fire events. Plus our episodes overlap. As a designer, I’m dealing with an episode that’s currently filming and an episode that’s prepping, so I’m oftentimes handling four or five or six of these fire events or other climatic events all at once. It’s staying on top of the time flow of it to get it done as quickly as possible.

GIM: You’ve also done design work on several features with very iconic looks. For a project like The Dark Knight how do you come up with a new look when there are already so many artistic takes on the subject?

CJ: Again, on any project whether it’s a very low-budget, quick TV show or commercial to a huge $100 million feature that has a year to two years of prep and a lot of design development, it’s still a very similar process. It starts with a lot of research, of looking at what the subject matter is, and it’s not necessarily looking at something like the Batman or Dark Knight stuff. It’s not like you’re going to look back at what all the other Batmans are. You’re going to look more at architectural forms or artwork or other sources of inspiration. You develop a kind of portfolio of research that will strike you in a certain way. It’s through that you then create your own look and feeling based on what you’re seeing in the research.

You’re not necessarily looking at, “This time this character was done this way. This time the character was done this way. I’m going to do it a different way.” It’s more looking at a lot of different research and through that looking, at least for me, at what strikes you as being right for the character or for the intent or whatever. A lot of times you end up in a different place than where you thought you would be in the first beginning steps. I find if you’re doing it that way and building up that way, you can come up with a unique look that’s not necessarily repetitive of what’s been done before.

GIM: For a project like The Grudge 2, you were a designer on the reshoots of the film. Are there any challenges designing for a reshoot and not for the original shooting?

CJ: I’ve done that a few times on things and it’s always a tricky balancing act. A lot of times, you have to go to the core of what are they reshooting and why. Was it a script problem? Was it they’ve done some test-audience stuff and they feel they need different scenes or need to reshoot scenes or they need to replace a character? A lot of times you’re responding to that. As a designer, it’s a tricky thing when you interface with another designer and another designer’s work. I tend to be very deferential to other designers. If I’m doing reshoots of someone else’s work, I’m going to be very, “OK, what was your look? What was your intent? Where were you going with it?” I try to honor that. At the same time, I’ve had situations where I’ve had producers tell me this is what the design was and we didn’t like it. The reason why we’re redoing this is we didn’t think it looked good, and so then you have to say, “OK, why didn’t it look good?” And then you go in a different direction.

GIM: What’s your advice for students moving into your career field?

CJ: I have a very broad skill set in the business and I tend to hire people that are that way. I definitely think that developing experience, developing skills, basic drafting, CAD [computer-aided design] drawing, 2-D and 3-D modeling skills, computer graphic skills, Photoshop, Illustrator, all of those are very important. Having any kind of architectural education, knowing the history of architecture and building styles and stuff like that is very important. …

GIM: What materials does someone new need in their portfolio or resume to get their first job?

CJ: It depends on where they’re trying to get to and what they’re trying to get into. A lot of our entry-level people, people that come right out of film school, just work as PAs [production assistants], whether they’re in the art department or in production. That’s a basic entry-level job. You’re not expected to have much more than a computer that you can do e-mail and look stuff up on the web for.

I think it is essential if you really want to go further as a designer, a set designer, or a director, eventually getting a digital toolset and having a drafting program and knowing how various graphic programs on the computer work. That’s important. A lot of it is having a good work ethic and just wanting to learn and work your way up.  I think there’s a lot of people nowadays come out of college and don’t have a strong work ethic. This is a very demanding business. The people that tend to move up in it are people that work very hard and are very dedicated to it. A good work ethic is the most important thing to have.

Chicago Fire returns to NBC January 7th at 10/9 Central.

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