Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer (‘Barbie’ production designers) bring colorful playsets to life: ‘It was really hard work to play like that’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

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“You have the courage to take risks with each other,” explains set decorator Katie Spencer of the benefits of her working history with production designer Sarah Greenwood, “there’s a trust that comes with a good collaboration.” Greenwood adds that “two heads and two pairs of eyes is better than one…also we are very good friends. And what better way to spend your time?” The pair have earned the seventh shared Oscar nomination of their career for their production design on “Barbie.” Though their pink plastic creation is based on toys, it turns out that having fun can be hard work. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

The pair are responsible for bringing Barbieland to life in the Warner Bros film. From the title character’s classic dreamhouse to beaches made of plastic waves, the entire world is a colorful artifice. The pair entered discussions with writer/director Greta Gerwig a full year before the actual pre-production phase of the film. Greenwood notes that those “massive conversations” were necessary in order to bring this unique vision to life. “They’re big, philosophical, intellectual,” she remembers, “what is the nature of a toy? What is the nature of being a human and the nature of relationships?”

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In order to achieve a toy-like aesthetic, the designers had to dissect and reinvent all their normal filmmaking tools. “From a visual point of view, you’re taking away black, white, wind, rain, sun, electricity, patina, clutter,” explains Greenwood. “All these things that normally are a comfort to us in production design,” adds Spencer. In the place of those elements, the design brings forth color and a pristine plastic quality.

Greenwood and Spencer even purchased actual Barbie playsets in order to figure out the dimensions and scale of a typical dreamhouse. By playing with actual toys, the pair kept note of every bit of minutiae that would inform Barbieland on screen: the shrunken scale of Barbie’s house, the limited mobility inside her car, the waves on the beach frozen at a perfect crest. “It was really hard work to play like that,” admits Spencer.

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Some of the designers’ favorite memories reside in the way that the cast and crew treated the Barbieland sets as reality. On a standard film shoot, there is always a rush to clear the set of coffee cups, meals, and bags left by the cast and crew. “But because it was pristine, people had this weird respect, so it wasn’t full of everybody’s bags and kits,” remembers Spencer. What I did love…was the pools, the resin pools,” she adds with a laugh, “Everybody knows they’re resin…but everybody walked around them!” Having everyone on set buy into the child-like fantasy of a fake set is the ultimate compliment for a designer.

Greenwood and Spencer are seven-time Oscar nominees for Production Design. They previously shared nominations for “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Anna Karenina,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Darkest Hour.”

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