Erick Donaldson, from architecture to art director

A creative mastermind known for his work at Captain Fantastic (2016), Lost River (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). As someone who has given lead to art departments of state-of-the-art productions numerous times, Erick has earned his spurs as a Hollywood film professional with a ton of experience in a wide variety of films. He speaks about his journey to becoming the film professional he is now, and the work he did along the way.

Oz the Great and Powerful, where Erick was the set designer

Erick grew up in Michigan, far away from the red carpets of Hollywood. He was in 8th grade when he occurred to Batman by Tim Burton, for which a wide range of collector cards made available to the fans, picturing set locations and characters in the movie. Erick then realized Production Design is actually a thing. After he finished his education in Architecture at the University of Michigan in 1997, he gradually worked himself up. First as an architect, now as someone who has mastered different facets of film production.


‘’I wear different hats while working on a film. I Production Design, Set Design, and like on Captain Fantastic, Art Direct. It depends on the project where my inspiration is coming from. Most of the time it is spawned by the Director or Production Designer. I try to read in between the lines of the script and then pull from personal experiences and things I have observed. There is also a lot of research into the time period, the subject matter, location, etc.’’


A filmic masterpiece where Erick led the art department is Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen (known for The Lord of the Rings and Green Book) and directed by Matt Ross.


‘’I worked with the wife of Captain Fantastic’s Production Designer Russell Barns on a film called “Lost River.”He called and asked if I was interested in coming out to Washington State for the film. I was holding the phone looking out over the concrete jungle of downtown Detroit. I was ready for some nature, so the answer was a quick yes. ‘

The outdoor set of Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic is a drama about Ben Cash and his wife Leslie, who live with their six children in the Washington wilderness, isolated from the rest of the world. They are former anarchist activists who chose to teach their children survivalist skills and to be self-reliant, having them grow up without technology and teaching them to think critically. Most of the photography was commenced in Western Washington, where the idyllic set of the Cash’ family’s home was built.


‘’Russell, in collaboration with Matt Ross, already had the perfect tone in how the visuals were going to play out. They both came from families that lived off the grid growing up and pulled from those experiences. With their guidance, I began my search for the perfect construction materials and details that would help bring the sets to life. I found multi-generational saw mills that cut rough saw planks for the Teepee decking and the skins for the out buildings. We used hand cut cedar shingles, antique windows and doors, and salvaged hardware. Russell contracted a Native Canadian family to come down to the Snoqualmie River Valley where were filming to erect an authentic Teepee. The construction, set decoration, and scenic teams spent weeks in the middle of the forest bringing the set to life. Viggo Mortensen even drove out his own truck with a trailer filled with items and props that he wanted to include into the sets.’’

Actor Viggo Mortensen

Actor Viggo Mortensen played a big part in the creative process of Captain Fantastic. Production Designer Russell Barns and director Matt Ross set out the lines, but Viggo’s relationship with his role was remarkable.


”The Art Department with always busy with activity and it became a natural meeting place for Matt and Russel as they discussed the sets. Russell had the entire mood of the film in photos on the walls and that began to fill in with Set Designs, Photos of Hero Props, Set Dressing and Locations. It’s a necessary visual tool for the per-production of film making process. Viggo came in several weeks early to be part of that process. A week before we started filming, Viggo started sleeping at “The Compound” in the woods. I walked up on him one early morning and he was carrying jugs of water from the nearby creek. He was taking it a greenhouse we had built into the set to water plants he put in. That spoke volumes to me how much passion he had for this movie and his character. We exchanged some quick words and he went on with his chores. When you see someone approaching a project like he does, it makes you want to work even harder to make sure every detail is perfect. It makes you want to guide everyone around you to do the same. You could feel it in the air that this was going to be a special movie.‘’


Erick has worked on a wide variety of different film projects, where he worked in different roles. When asked what work he is most proud of, Erick replies.


‘’As an Art Director, Captain Fantastic is right up there. It was very challenging. It was also life changing for me and my family. They traveled with me from Michigan and spent the summer in Washington, one of the most beautiful states I have ever been too. We share some unforgettable experiences while we were there. Lost River is also on the top of my list. As far as Set Design, Oz the Great and Powerful will go down as my most proud.‘‘I was one of two Detroit based set designers, and I believe that it really shaped my professional film career. I started out with small design projects and ended with some fairly large sets. Lead by Production Designer Robert Stromberg, and surrounded by the best Art Directors and Art Department personnel in the world, it was an unparalleled learning experience.’’

The set of ‘Oz The Great and Powerful’

Erick is currently working on commercials and has a film coming up this summer, which not too much can be said about yet. For now, it’s been fascinating to take a look into the experiences of Erick Donaldson, who can be an inspiration for any aspiring art director or set designer. He finishes with a piece of advice for a beginner art director/production designer.


‘’Know Architecture. Know design concepts. There are many ways to manage departments and personnel, but you have got to have the fundamentals of set construction and architecture down first. Your everyday is working with the UPM, Construction, Props, Set Dec., and the Heads of every other department. As an Art Director you are there to execute the vision of the Director and Production Designer. Communication is key, so being able to clearly talk with these individuals, and to have an understanding of what you are trying to relay and what they are trying to tell you is so important.‘’


Contact Erick via email at donaldson@maefilms.com or find his profile on IMDb
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Written by Kilian Harkema

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