A day in the life of an Art Director

Constructing entire homes out of narrow passageways for your Ch 8 dramas and getting chased by bats are all in a day’s work for an art director.

Chen Jiagu, 50s, Senior Art Director of set design department, MediaCorp’s Chinese Drama unit
Chen Jiagu, 50s, Senior Art Director of set design department, MediaCorp’s Chinese Drama unit
05 Jun 2015

Chen Jiagu, 50s, Senior Art Director of set design department, MediaCorp’s Chinese Drama unit

He’s been in the business for over 40 years and has bagged Best Set Design Star Awards for Bukit Ho Swee, Bountiful Blessings and The In-Laws. Jiagu recently worked on the set for the upcoming The Journey: Our Homeland. “My parents, who are from Liaoning, China, were movie set designers, so I grew up observing how movie sets were created in China,” he says.

8 DAYS: What’s a typical work day like?
CHEN JIAGU: I prepare the sets for dramas at least two weeks before the start of filming. The first episode of The Journey: Our Homeland is set in Chinatown and we filmed that episode in Malaysia over Chinese New Year this year. I typically wake up at about 4.30am, arrive at the set at 5am and prepare the scene in two hours. I also have to buy props, like fresh veggies, to place at the stalls. The filming schedule is often very tight, so I can’t afford to miss out on these small details. My day usually ends at about 7.30pm.

What was the most memorable set you’ve created?
I like the set for Bukit Ho Swee. As there are no longer any kampungs in Singapore, we recreated atap houses in a studio. I also remember manually constructing Little Dragon Girl’s cave in Return of the Condor Heroes out of fibre glass so that water could flow among the fake rocks. At that time, CG effects were limited and we didn’t have technology like the green screen. The rocks had lights installed in them so they could glow blue and green. To make the jade ice bed she slept on appear realistic, we played around with lighting and drilled holes in the bed where we placed gunny sacks full of dry ice that produced icy ‘smoke’.

Have you encountered haunted locations?
The creepiest location I’ve been to was an old warehouse in Shenton Way when we were recceing for locations for Stepping Out in 1999. Back then the area wasn’t as developed as it is today. When we opened the door, we thought we saw rats running around on the beams. Then the ‘rats’ started flying towards us and we realised they were actually bats. That was horrifying! But we had to contain our terror and continue working. I’ve become immune to the supernatural after so many years (laughs). At most we’d go to the temple to pray before we start on a production. In Malaysia, some of the locations we filmed at have not been occupied for a long time, or the owners have passed away, so we knock on the doors before entering.

What’s one thing you’ve learnt on the job that they didn’t teach you in school?
Set designers tend to observe their surroundings and make mental notes of the location in case we need to use it next time. I often tell my wife, “Don’t mind me if my eyes are not focusing on you when we talk!”

Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy
Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy
05 Jun 2015

Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy

Three days was all it took to build Singapore General Hospital and KK Hospital (above) — replicas, of course. “We spent the most money — almost $70,000 — on constructing a ’70s SGH in a studio. We usually build brand new sets for hospitals ’cos pivotal scenes, like emotional farewells for the sick and dying [characters], take place there.”

Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy
Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy
05 Jun 2015

Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy

Welcome to Felicia Chin’s home. Okay, so it’s just her character Zhang Min’s home. “We have to work with our sponsors to see what kind of furniture they can offer, and we typically bring in about seven styles. But most props come from what we’ve collected over the years,” he reveals.

Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy
Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy
05 Jun 2015

Sneak peek: The set of the upcoming finale of The Journey trilogy

Jiagu also had to create a funeral for a major character. “We rented a house in Bedok from a wealthy old Caucasian lady. She also owns a few houses around that area. Generally, Westerners are not superstitious [about filming a funeral scene], but we still had to be mindful not to offend the other people living around the area,” he says.

The Journey: Our Homeland premieres Jul 9, Ch 8, 9pm.

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