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Anatomy of a Scene: Talking the 'Her' Office with Oscar-Nominated Production Designer K.K. Barrett

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 31, 2014 at 2:05PM

Spike Jonze's beautiful and beguiling "Her," the dark horse in the best picture Oscar race, offers a warm and inviting fusion of LA/Shanghai, with its intoxicating use of red. And the opening scene in the office -- a high rise on Hope near Bunker Hill -- wonderfully sets up the delicate mood and world inhabited by the forlorn Joaquin Phoenix. Oscar-nominated production designer K.K. Barrett discusses his artistic choices and the impact.

"It's the introduction to his world, it's the atmosphere, whether it's going to be heavy or light, it's sleight of hand because it begins close-up and opens wider and we see more and more of what's going on. It involves some of the major conceit of the film: that he's working with an operating system that is intuitive and voice-activated, although we don't know to what degree these operating systems could be intuitive. 

"And so with the light we had very limited time to be in there. I couldn't build graphically or paint, so I built a modular system of color plexiglass towels that would be on the windows and the skylights for shifting color throughout the day and they would also be in cubicles that would separate them from one another. You could see through them so it wouldn't be like they were firmly separated, and it didn't block the light from bouncing around the room, and it gave it a thematic look all the way through. And the color [predominantly red] livened up the atmosphere and made it more playful." 

Besides personalizing the different work areas with the tools of their trade, including individualized stationary, they also made blow-ups of hand-drawn outlines with people doing comfortable activities that were mounted on the walls.

"You don't want to make him feel depressed by his world -- this is your first chance. And you also can't play the hand that it's so light and fun that there's no place to believe the weight that he carries later. And Spike wanted to start close-up on his face and get wider and wider. As he gets up from the desk, we pan around to see everybody else working and then later he gets up and walks toward the front where he engages with the receptionist in playful banter and then we see the sign that says, 'Beautiful Hand-Written Letters.'"

As beginnings go, it's pretty marvelous, and we're easily hooked. "His character is going to be a slow reveal and you're going to find the depth of this displacement from other people as you go on, and you can't be hit over the head that he lives in this horrific, heavy environment. That's for the story to tell later..."

And what a love story for our time about virtual comfort, emotional longing, and spiritual awakening.

This article is related to: Her, Spike Jonze, production design, Immersed In Movies, Oscars, Thompson on Hollywood, Interviews , Awards, Awards Season Roundup

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.