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Living in a Barbie World… Design grad Emily Bates on creating Barbie Land

Design for Performance grad Emily Bates has just finished her dream job – creating the miniatures for the set of the blockbuster Barbie movie! She tells us what it’s like to have been immersed in pink for the last year.

Linbury prize finalist

After graduating from the Design for Performance MA in 2017 as a Linbury prize finalist, Emily spent a few years working as a modelmaker and design assistant in theatre before pursuing her own design career. She then worked in opera, designing three productions for Danish National Opera before making the move across to work in film in 2019. One of her first jobs was a stop-motion animation project called The House for Netflix.

RWCMD’s production of Street Scene, designed by Emily Bates. Costumes, Brighde Penn.

‘This was my first experience of draughting for miniatures which were built to be filmed upon,’ said Emily, picking up her story.

A lot of the Art Department team had worked on Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs, as well as the Harry Potter films where miniatures were used a lot for filming, so they were incredibly knowledgeable about scaled sets.

Model making and set design at RWCMD

I was drawn to set design initially because of a love of making models as part of the design process, as well as serving as a strong presentational tool in talks with directors. I particularly loved the modelmaking aspect of the course at RWCMD, and when I first graduated, I worked for theatre designers such as (RWCMD grads) Colin Richmond, Soutra Gilmour and Nicky Shaw who make the most beautifully crafted coloured 1:25 scale models.

It’s noticeable how differently people respond when a model is put in front of them, compared to say, concept art or CGI and I think that tangibility is a key part of why the Barbie Production Designer Sarah Greenwood, who also comes from a theatre background, was so adamant that miniatures be used as a world building tool in Barbie - a movie about toys!

Becoming part of Barbie’s world…

I was on another job at Warner Bros. Studios when Barbie pre-production was starting, and their offices were right opposite the car park. It was a cold and gloomy January and there was this tantalising pink glow emanating from the windows that just looked so inviting and fun.

Junior Set Designer Barbie (Emily)

I also loved Greta Gerwig’s work as both a director and an actor.

I interviewed initially for a job as a draughtsperson in Set Decoration - drawing props to be built on the full-size sets, but they needed someone sooner and I thought I’d missed my opportunity.

Luckily, Alex Walker, the Production Designer I had worked with on The House was asked to be Art Director for the miniatures because of her wealth of previous experience and she needed a draughtsperson to help her, so I finished on my previous job and started the following Monday.

Using miniatures in filmmaking

Miniatures for films are quite rare now because of the use of CGI and blue screens. There were just the two of us in Art Department Miniatures producing drawings for a 15 strong workshop of miniature modellers and painters - all amazingly talented and terrifyingly quick once you took a drawing down to them.

We created drawings for five separate 1:18 scale (18 x smaller than real life) coloured miniatures, which were scanned and used in the final composite world building shots alongside VFX wireframes.

The skill and care of the miniature makers and set designers

Each time Barbie looks out across Barbie Land from her dreamhouse, the foreground of those shots is our miniatures of the circus suburbs with the full-size set in front and VFX in the background.

If you watch the Architectural Digest behind the scenes videos, you’ll see that those mountain scapes were all hand painted. They were stunning in real life and had the same feel as theatrical painted backdrops.

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We also made a miniature for the establishing shot of the Weird Barbie house when Margot Robbie is making her flat-footed way up the steps, and a miniature of the desert landscape complete with a 1:18 scale pink corvette!

The beach front buildings you see in wide shots of the beach are miniatures too, as well as the buildings in the background when Barbie is waving while driving to the beach in the opening sequence.

If you look carefully, you can see a Barbie cinema showing the 1939 film of Wizard of Oz!

Using miniatures to map out the geography of Barbie Land enabled Sarah the Production Designer to have full control over the design, texture and colour of the suburban buildings and street architecture, in a way that would have been much more difficult if it was all drawn digitally by VFX in post-production.

She came down to the miniatures workshops often as did Greta, and I think it really helped them to establish the wider world that they were filming within on the full-size sets.

How we did it…

My days were spent studying the initial concept art and references, spending time on the full-size sets and then drawing up different suburban miniaturised versions of the established hero designs on the same theme to populate the residential part of Barbie Land, the shop front buildings and the beachfront esplanade.

Barbie Land real estate. Each with a pool and slide of course

We spent a lot of time collating information from the various art directors on the film so we could translate their drawings into miniatures. For example, the Weird Barbie house was also built full size for filming with the actors, so we built an exact 1:9 scale replica of that with the surrounding landscaping for the establishing shot.

We had a lot of conversations with Graphics and Set Dec getting dimensions for the full-size props and drawing them up so they could be 3d printed and painted exact in miniature - we even made the bird letter boxes and sun loungers at 1:18 scale!

Set dec was an especially fun department because they had a lot of archival Mattel dream houses there to use as reference, as well as incredible samples of glitter and streamer curtains for the choreographed dance number and gorgeous furnishing fabrics.

It was one of my favourite jobs I have had to date, and I feel very lucky to have worked on something that has brought a lot of people together and made them laugh. We all knew it was going to be a hit when we were working on it - seeing some of the initial takes we were all rolling around laughing - but it’s crazy how big it has become.

'I alternate between draughting and modelmaking for film now which I really love. At a time when a lot of productions of this scale have shut down due to ongoing strike action concerned with the use of increasing use of AI in film making it feels especially poignant that Barbie has done so well in the box office.
I think part of this is people responding to the artistry and craft - both visual and in the writing of the script - that went into making the film. There is something in the use of built sets and in camera techniques that gives the film such heart, something that isn’t always achieved by knitting pixels together!'
Emily Bates

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