Get to Know Nathan Thompson
Prof. Nathan Thompson teaches students a hands-on approach production design in the Film & Television Department.Megan Briggs | College of Arts & Media Feb 14, 2022
Professor Nathan Thompson came to a “very young” College of Arts & Media (CAM) to teach set design and technical direction in the since-dissolved Theatre department. After the college’s decision to move away from theatre and build the now robust Film & Television department (FiTV), the newly-tenured Prof. Thompson taught himself several new skills to be able to teach the same concepts for a new medium. Currently the interim chair for FiTV, Thompson brings with him a slew of relevant work experience, including various International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) jobs, seven seasons as the Central City Opera Technical Director, and custom furniture construction. Thompson’s direction on the student web series project, Booth by the Window, led to a 2021 Bronze Telly Award for Art Direction. Despite his familiarity with CAM and the film program he helped to bring to fruition, Thompson says he is deeply appreciative of the “mass of creativity” he encounters in CAM. “I wish I could engage with even 10 percent of the expansive quantity and quality of work done by peers, students, guest artists,” says Thompson.
1. You made a career change from teaching theatre set design to film. How did this transition come about and what was it like?
The change came about with the dissolution of the theatre side of the department, therefore not by choice. My choice was to either re-tool or go elsewhere. I chose to re-tool. Luckily there are many transferrable skills between the two disciplines, particularly in Art Direction / Production Design and Construction. This background still required an adjustment to design the environment through the “eye” of the camera instead of the eyes of a live audience. The biggest challenges were in the specifics of the film medium—cinematography and editing/post-production. I had never used a video camera beyond simple home videos, nor had I tried to edit a film together. I have developed reasonable skills to train students on an introductory level in cinematography and editing, but my greater contribution is in Production Design and the Art Department.
2. What is something a student (or students) have taught you over your years in CAM?
Inclusivity. I’m a middle-aged white guy used to all the privileges associated with that. Yes, I have my intersectionalities, but students have opened my eyes to so many more ways of perceiving the world, identifying with the world, seeking to change the world.
3. You are often described by students and colleagues as being kind (even while expecting high standards on set). How has kindness helped you in your role as an instructor and a creative?
I think I was fortunate in that I was raised to respect everyone. Everyone is both in process as a human, a creative, an identity, AND everyone is richly developed within their current identity, creativity, and humanity. If we are all in process and all richly developed, how can you not respect someone for where they are now?
4. What do you think makes a good set designer?
Each set is a new puzzle to solve with new challenges required by the story and the director’s vision. I have spent so many years being presented with a task: design an environment for this script and these characters, or build this set that functions in these ways within these parameters. That’s the challenge, the call to creatively identify the visual “problem” in relation to the text and then to provide possibilities (intentionally plural) to solve the challenge. I am a creative interpreter. I take a story and visualize it.
Put succinctly, a good set designer possesses the following skills:
1) Basic visual art skills: a good visual memory, a knowledge of architecture and art, a disciplined compositional eye, an understanding of color, shape and volume, line, texture, visual rhythm, balance, visual unity and emphasis.
2) an understanding of character and their relationship to their environment in relation to the story structure, themes, meanings and how these narrative and character traits can be illuminated by the visual environment.
3) diplomacy, collaboration, an ability to “see” through the director’s and author’s eyes, good communication skills, humility, discipline, strong work ethic, endurance, commitment.
5. How do you personally get into a creative state of mind? Are there any rituals or rhythms you observe to aid creativity?
First, I read the script as an audience member: What does it make me feel; who do I relate to; how does it unfold; what do I feel it means? Then I analyze: Did I infect my first reading with too much prior experience and personal bias? Did I misread character intentions and actions? Did I catch all the subtext and richness of the structure that the author has given me? Can I examine the meaning of the story more objectively? Why did the author need to tell this story with these characters at this time in our culture? Then I talk to the director and get their vision and perspective. Sometimes we are aligned, sometimes I have to change my point of view and re-examine. I’ll often create a kind of moodboard of images that I think relate to specific moments in the text before my first meeting with the director if I can. Try to establish the broad strokes, begin identifying the emotional content of the story through visual imagery. Then it’s the nuts and bolts, the plainly rigorous work of developing those inspirations within the style of the story.
If I have any rituals, it’s the kind of music I listen to when working on the nuts and bolts of the design. Does the story have an operatic feel? Listen to opera. Is it gritty, raw, violent? Listen to metal or punk. Or do I need a jazz influence? Music can be so inspiring on subjective levels. I’m also pretty kinetic when I work. I pace a lot, I try to stand as much as possible, even when CAD drafting or searching for images. I love poring over physical books, even walking the shelves in the library to see if I can be inspired by something I didn’t even know I had to search for. When I get stuck, I go do something physical–build something that I can do without much thought, go for a run, ride a bike, engage my body. Physical engagement, even to exhaustion, can sometimes free up my creative mind.