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SketchUp Stories: Adam O'Neill

April 10, 2019 Lauren Donnebaum

Adam O'Neill has worked as an art director on a range of films including 'Troy', 'Snowden', and 'Prometheus' and as supervising art director on film and television productions including 'Billy Elliot' and 'Penny Dreadful'. He's received Art Directors Guild nominations for art direction for five productions and won an ADG award for 'Gladiator' as assistant art director. His most recent projects include work on Netflix's 'Nightflyers' as senior art director and as supervising art director on 'Pennyworth'.

Adam is also Chairman of the British Film Designers Guild (BFDG), which was founded in 1946, for the betterment of Design in British Films. Out of this society grew the Guild of Film Art Directors, and the present British Film Designers Guild, who now include in their membership all the various branches of the Art Department. Earlier this year, SketchUp UK sponsored the 2018 BFDG Awards ceremony and we caught up with Adam to find out how SketchUp has helped inform his work.

"Nightflyers": Int Cargo Bay Credit: Syfy/Netflix

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"Nightflyers": Int Cargo Bay Credit: Syfy/Netflix

So, how did you get started in the industry?

I started as an art department assistant for production designer Stuart Craig. Since then I became a draughtsman, then assistant art director, and now I alternate between supervising art director and art director.

How does SketchUp help with your design process?

SketchUp is great for fast conceptual models, quick visualisation of 3D spaces, and for blocking out design details. It's also fantastic for quick animations to illustrate sequences, or to explore 3D spaces, with a minimum build time. The very best tools for film and TV art direction are those that are fastest.

You started your career in the early 90's. How have changes in technology since then shaped and defined your role as an Art Director in Film and Television?

I started when we all used drawing boards and T squares. Hand drawing still has a useful place in the art department, but these days it is absolutely essential to use all the tools available, 2D, 3D and the emerging technologies such as AR. Although the technology enables faster design work, the design process is largely the same. It involves finding the best way to communicate an idea to a designer or director, often simple, sketchy unpolished artwork is more useful than final detailed images which are sometimes more useful to show to a studio than as a tool to find the final design for a film set.

"Prometheus" Rovers Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / Scott Free Productions

What's the one functionality you're glad SketchUp has?

The ability to do a fast output to Layout for a quick plan and elevation or section.

This is such a valuable tool for passing on orthographic views of the design to an art director or draughtsman to finalise the working drawings. The ability to quickly create in 3D and then generate these plans and elevations is incredibly useful.

Possibly a foolish question – do you ever have anything like a 'typical' work day?

It depends on the project, whether I would be looking at budgets, schedules, visiting the stages to see the set construction or maybe I'll get the chance to draw and model all day if I'm art directing. Mostly it's a mix of all of these.

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Rough concept sketch for Oliver Stone's film, "Snowden"

What kind of projects interest or excite you the most?

Anything that involves an element of exaggerated reality, a period film or TV show, or sci-fi. Basically anything that lets my imagination run free. I'm not so keen on a straight take on contemporary reality, but it all depends on the script and who is involved, so nothing is ruled out.

I was lucky enough to start my professional career with production designer Stuart Craig, and he still inspires me today. He's someone who does beautiful detailed sketches, and then can draw his sketch as a scale working drawing. He also knows the value of getting the right team around him to expand on his ideas and contribute their own, but always under his direction.

Working on Ridley Scott's films are also always an event, and have been highlights of my career because Ridley is so visually minded - he can draw better than most designers! On the early days of Alien covenant, I worked with designer Chris Seagers on the initial ideas for the sets and spaceship interiors, just for a few weeks, but we generated a lot of ideas that Chris then developed for the film during production in Sydney.

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"Alien Covenant" Concept Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / Scott Free Productions

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"Alien Covenant" Concepts Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / Scott Free Productions

Do you use any essential plugin or extensions with SketchUp to help with your work?

Yes, to clean models or export them to FBX for example. Also tools for slicing are very useful to quickly make shapes.

What's been your proudest work so far/career highlight?

I enjoyed working on Gladiator very much - it was the first time in my career that I had big sets to draw up and manage the build. I looked after the Imperial Palace and the Roman Streets which were built in Malta. The palace set itself was over 200ft long, with flights of stone steps to the Roman streets. I also really enjoyed working on seasons 2 and 3 of "The Borgias" for Showtime. We got an Emmy nomination for season 3 - it would be remiss of me to not mention that a visit to Los Angeles for any awards ceremony is always great fun and a lovely part of the job!

To see more of Adam's work visit his website.

To learn more about the work of the BFDG click here.

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