Production Designer Ludovica Ferrario: “I trust in the power of image”
by Viktorija Samarinaite
by Viktorija Samarinaite
Barred from filming “Young Pope” and “The New Pope” at the Vatican, production designer Ludovica Ferrario embarked on a mammoth task to reconstruct the Vatican. After bringing a top team together, they managed to rebuild the State, the Sistine Chapel and other Italian masterpieces at the legendary Cinecitta studios in Rome.
Cinema & architecture
When production designer Ludovica Ferrario got into architecture studies, she had no clue about the hidden visual worlds waiting ahead. She also did not know that one day she would be working side by side with one of the most important directors of the contemporary Italian cinema, Paolo Sorrentino.
Ferrario’s career in the industry started with a volunteering position on a set. Later she joined the art department as an additional trainee. Her first movie was Franco Zeffirelli's period film, “Tea with Mussolini.”
“I was very lucky to have the chance to help with the set dressing for Fiorela Mariani who had always worked with Zeffirelli’s operas. Her cultural background, her imagination in building and designing atmospheres, and combining simple materials was extremely inspiring,” she said.
“I enjoyed following her knowledge and taste which had strong references to the history of art. Mariani’s technique and craft that was influenced by her experience opened my mind to the invention of a scenario with a very little on a plate and bringing the significance through props, too. I am extremely grateful for this experience; it arrived by chance but opened a new path,” said Ferrario.
She has always been interested in a relation between space and psychology, so she loved cinema no less than the architecture. Later on, she realised that these two fields are not so different after all: composition, movement, light and proportions are highly significant for both.
“Movie making is a structure as the music is the structure too. In a way there is a rhythm, a heartbeat. You can go through it and listen immersed into the space or screen,” she said.
Production designer on a project
The first “amusing step” when taking part in any project “is the production designer’s relation to the script, a pillar to start a dialogue with the director,” said Ferrario.
“Before bringing the narrative to life, the responsibility lies in compromises with the team on a visual approach to structure, the point of view the director wants to choose, and the atmosphere required.”
Ferrario chooses her team with utmost precision. One of the most significant steps is the selection of a set dresser to bring the narrative to reality. Then the production designer assigns the work within the art department and confirms the budget with the production.
“I am very keen on the extensive research of the mood and locations to be done during the pre-production phase. The second pillar is scouting, which is done in order to build proposals for a possible geography of the project. Good preparation is the most important part of this work.”
After receiving a proposal of what and where to shoot, the director decides on the best way to proceed with the production. In addition, the production designer has to make sure that each choice remains within time and budget.
Once the shooting schedule is confirmed, it is essential to have the art department team ready for the construction, dressing, and wrapping of sets. When the actual filming takes place, half of the art department’s work must already be done.
“In this phase the more we are organized, the more we can be flexible on changes either with new upcoming ideas or reschedule of necessities. This ability is even more crucial while working on a series,” said Ferrario.
Rebuilding the Vatican
Art department’s work is flawless if it goes unnoticed on screen, as it makes the viewer trust the narrative, the authenticity of the locations and props.
“Certainly, the invention of a credible Vatican for Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope” has been one of the most challenging design projects in my career. Inability to shoot inside the Vatican required a visual reinvention of the setting: we needed to decide how and where to build a small, but powerful State.”
To make the audience believe in the story, Ferrario and her team had to take a different approach and pick the most publicly recognizable places for reconstruction. Series depict the most visual gems of the Italian culture: the Sistine Chapel, the chapel of the Pietà di Michelangelo, the Library – where Pope meets the Italian and foreign ministers – the facades of St. Peter’s basilica and St. Mark’s basilica in Venice.
“I trust in the power of image and the boundaries on how much we can reinvent and build worlds as long as the audience believes in the story. Once you manage to immerse the viewer into the atmosphere of the narration – and that is the challenge – the painted world becomes genuine.”
Ferrario achieved this goal in the series “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope” through her spatial thinking, spotless sense of visuality, incredible design solutions and extreme particularity to the details. At Cinecitta studios in Rome, a team of 25 painters and 40 builders recreated a full-scale Sistine Chapel model, measuring 581,251 square feet.
Italian background and in-depth knowledge in the local culture simplified the search for locations. Most of the exterior shots were taken in several locations around Rome: Villa Pamphili, Villa Medici, Villa Piccolomini, Villa Lante and the Botanical Gardens.
“The choice to go full scale was made, so me and my team had to redesign certain elements. For instance, in order to carry Jude Law on the gestatorial chair all the way through the sacred space to the altar and in the end turn back towards the entrance, we had to redesign the transept,” said Ferrario.
“The real design of the Sistine Chapel wouldn’t have allowed that. The challenge was to redesign employing the right proportions, so the audience would not think that it was somehow altered or notice the difference,” she added.
Challenges were not over. For “The New Pope'', they had to rebuild the interior of St. Peter’s basilica at Cinecitta in the Teatro 5 studio – the so-called “Temple of Fellini.”
The original layout was once again redesigned and the actual proportions and perspective were altered. On the other hand, the conclave in the Sistine Chapel needed to be depicted as closely as possible. Everything in the shot had to be double-checked with a consultant in order to persuade the viewer of the authentic recreation of the election of the new Pope.
In between fiction and reality
TV-series “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope” have shaken the Catholic community. It was criticised for the sexual content, nudity and profanity, especially since the subject matter is the papacy. Vatican officials issued their review about the series a year after it was aired and called it “grotesque”, “frivolous” and “caustic.”
Ferrario emphasized that the world they created does not refer to the real Pope: “Lenny Belardo and then Sir Brannox need to be credible, but they are in the fantasy of the narration. I think this is the reason why it was very useful to have a consultant giving advice in preparation to all teams. We needed to understand how much space we had for artistic improvisation.”
“For example, the gestatorial chair has never actually been brought to the Sistine Chapel,” said the production designer. “A hospital, a fresco room with neon cross, where the Pope lies in coma or a dormitory for the nuns with an altar in plexiglass that suddenly becomes a scene for dancing, or a white lacquered confessional in the middle of the room – all the choices from sets to the props might have been peculiar in the real Vatican, but they were right for our show.”
Movie-making at the time of the pandemic
Ferrario has been working with such directors as Paolo Sorrentino, Wim Wenders and Abbas Kiarostami. When asked about filmmakers who inspire her, the production designer said that she was moved by Alfonso Cuaron’s movie “Roma.”
“I feel that there was a very interesting and important work done with space, psychology and composition. There is some poetry in that space in between. That kind of project I would love to engage with,” she said.
Beauty is what drives her forward, said Ferrario, inspiring her, raising curiosity and leading her to new ideas.
“One can study beauty through architecture, painting, sculpture or look for the beauty in people and nature,” she said. “Together all these ingredients bring fresh concepts to the research and offer visuality to the projects.”
Lockdown did not stop Ferrario from working. Nowadays she has more time to research, to learn how to harness the technology to extend the horizon of her work possibilities. According to Ferrario, it is hard to plan during times of uncertainty, therefore, it’s important to remember the privilege of her work and the importance of human relations.
“My advice to anyone interested in production design or life itself is to always remain a pioneer of oneself, to spare time for curiosity, to research and to be open to transformation,” she said.
“Now more than ever this world is asking us to be flexible. Staying faithful to our passions is also significant in order to give the world back our visions on how we would like to rebuild it on screen and in reality.”