“My name is Kim Sinclair and I’m an architect.” For a moment it seems I’ve stumbled into some sort of 12-step programme for recovering designers of the built environment. Such gatherings may exist. Our culture seems to value the school of life, the school of hard knocks, the school of rock, just about anything over an actual academy of higher learning. It can be a hard road working in a profession that attempts to combine commerce, art and science; theory, utility and, on a good day, sublimity.
In fact, Sinclair is delivering one of the lectures in the annual Communiqué series, hosted by the University of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning. He brings glad tidings to students in the audience wondering what on earth they’ll do with their Bachelor of Architecture degrees in these tough times. “Thank god I’ve got the answer,” declares Sinclair. “You can win an Oscar.” Well, he can. He got his for art direction on James Cameron’s digital 3D tree-hugging behemoth Avatar.
Sinclair’s talk had the not particularly architectural title “The Imaginary Hero in the Real World”. “It’s the title of a chapter of an intellectual French book I read on Tintin,” he says when we meet a few days later. For anyone who ducked the hype, he’s talking about Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s 3D motion-capture The Adventures of Tintin. “It was a kind of mantra I used for what we were doing.”
His lecture was about the movies he has worked on as an art director or production designer since Savage Islands (1982 – pretty much the dawn of time in local movie terms) to upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel. It was also a jokey, deliberately un-Hollywood defence of what he has done with his architecture degree. “I consider what we do is the real world,” he tells his audience.
This is an audacious proposition when you have been working with indigenous humanoids from the moon Pandora who worship a tree; and a cartoon nosy parker with a quiff. What is the real bit again? The question has Sinclair, normally wry in the approved Kiwi manner, delivering a small impassioned speech to an audience of one. “Architects are traditionally dismissive of set design. People tend to think that we work in a fantasy world. We work in the wind and the mud and the snow, in freezing temperatures. We have huge logistical problems that an architect would never encounter in a lifetime. What we do is totally not ephemeral at all.” Fair enough. The preposterous and the fantastic crop up in the sometimes-surreal world of architecture as well.
But sets usually last a few months. “You know what? I’ve designed restaurants and shops and factories and houses, real ones, as an architect. Had them built or built them and they’ve been demolished. In some cases I never even got a decent photo of the bloody things,” he says. “Even the cruddiest little TV movie I’ve worked on, you can go anywhere in the world into a video shop, buy it and look at your work. I’ve been in Thailand and turned on the TV and there’s the bloody film with Thai titles. To that extent it is the real world.”
Sinclair’s Communiqué lecture featured many behind-the-scenes images of his sets, accompanied by a lot of “See that light? We got that from the Warehouse” and “That’s off a Holden.” The Warehouse. It doesn’t get more real than that.
He won a Bafta, too. Also for Avatar, it sits alongside the Oscar, incongruously domestic on the bookshelves of the house he originally designed for his mother and now shares with his partner, cycling advocate Kirsten Shouler, and daughter Electra, an architecture student. The house – narrow, tall and dashing on its small triangular section – stands out in all its shed-like elegance among its neighbours in leafy Kohimarama. The dining room, appropriately for a set designer, is a re-creation of the one from the architect’s family home, circa 1950s.
Which must be grounding when life these days can involve politely stalking Kristin Scott Thomas at the Baftas after-party and meeting Stephen Fry. “He complimented me on my shoes.” Such awards can be life-changing. “Not in Kohi.”
You have to believe him when he says the Avatar Oscar came as a shock. “Avatar was a very experimental film. The 3D might not have worked. The cameras were experimental – two Sony HD cameras kind of gaffer-taped together.” It was developed in the US but it was the sort of thing you’d come up with in New Zealand, he says. “They broke down a lot.” Art direction was also on the hop. “We were inventing all that as we went. We might have ended up with a product people just didn’t want to see.”
Indeed. The 2.7m-tall blue people with pointy ears and tails – Hobbits seem hopelessly prosaic by comparison. Sinclair was supervising art director for the Wellington sets where the human action was shot. In the most artificial of films, everything had to be grounded in a meticulous, if future-forward, reality. A world that was believable, at least for 162 minutes. “Jim [Cameron] knows everything. He’s a polymath. He was a stickler for debating – not debating, he doesn’t debate – for telling you things had to be real.” Given to going ballistic at all? “Oh, James would never go ballistic,” says Sinclair diplomatically. “Actually, he did go ballistic about a little sign they put up that everybody thought was a nice touch.” It was someone’s artful addition to a door. “Jim’s a perfectionist. So when somebody tries to think for themselves and contribute something that he hadn’t imagined, it tipped him over the edge.” Sinclair can relate. “I share his frustration. I can’t even get something painted the right colour. He had it in his head and had to drag probably 2000 people along with him over a 10-year period to get on screen what he wanted.”
Art direction. It often came down to the most banal practicalities: “Will it fit through the studio door?” At the lecture, Sinclair discoursed on the problems of mounting a gun on Avatar’s hyper-real Samson helicopter. “We employed some special New Zealand technology. We got a four-by-two.” The magic of film, as related by Sinclair, can sound like an ad for Bunnings.
It’s all very No 8 wire. Ironically, in another lecture in the Communiqué series, architect and critic Tommy Honey argues “the nation’s obsession with No 8 wire as the symbol of our ‘ingenuity’ is a lowest-common-denominator approach to design, making us the cultural cellar dweller of the Western world”. Ouch. Possibly. But it has worked for Sinclair. “Kiwi can-do – people really respect that. In America you just hear that constantly.” It hasn’t necessarily held us back. “Avatar is the first film, when you think about it, where we didn’t go outside. They came here for the knowledge base and the skill base. I thought that was a big significant marker in the industry.”
The past is another planet. They didn’t have iPhones there. Sinclair recalls the low-tech days of Savage Islands. There was a wrangler in the crew, nickname Horace. “A kind of hippy guy who lived on Great Barrier and had no power and no phone. We used to contact him by pigeon post. He would ride a horse to the nearest phone and ring in.”
Thirty years down the track, Sinclair finds himself video-conferencing with the likes of Spielberg and Jackson. “Steven would say things to us like, ‘Sorry I’m late. My cell tower got hit by lightning. Don’t you hate it when that happens?’ And we’re like, ‘Yes, we can’t stand it when our cell tower gets damaged, Steven. We are in the real world. Hello.”
Well, more or less real. Sinclair never worked on The Lord of the Rings. But Peter Jackson once worked with him, on 80s television cultural collision Worzel Gummidge Down Under. “He made some little plasticine dolls for us. We’d heard about him. He brought in his little photo album. It was amazing. We were blown away,” says Sinclair.
So, what was he like? “In those days? He was the little hobbit, the jandals. Short, hairy, stuttered. He had that conception of where he was going. He’d made his own steady-cam and his own tripod – all this equipment he couldn’t afford, he made. He just wanted to make films,” says Sinclair. “Our props buyer helped him fill in the Film Commission application for funding to help him finish his first movie. The rest is history.”
The old days. There are currently movies coming out – Hugo, The Artist – paying tribute to the pioneering magic of film. Could that be because we’re seeing another evolutionary leap in the medium? “Yeah, on the cusp,” says Sinclair. Not everyone loves 3D. Those glasses. “Obviously the Holy Grail is 3D without glasses, and that will come in the next few years, I’ve got no doubt.” Overall, he’s for it. “It doesn’t suit all sorts of films and I’m not saying that all films should be made in it.” But the architect in Sinclair approves. “It makes directors think in a new way about space.”
Also you’re less likely to get blown up. He recalls working back in the 80s with the famously pyrotechnic Geoff Murphy on The Quiet Earth. He was attaching detonators to the back of a TV. “He got very excited, waving his hands around and then he had the detonator in his mouth and his cigarette on the TV.” It was an early learning experience. “He said to me, ‘Remember, Kim, nothing is faster than an explosion.’ Which I’ve always remembered as a good piece of advice. As I was running away.”
As for the tall-poppy business, Oscar winners seem exempt. “I’ve not yet handed it to anybody who doesn’t have a big smile on their face.” Indeed, receiving his from Sigourney Weaver, with colleagues Rick Carter and Rob Stromberg, threatened to turn into knockabout comedy. “Rob jumps in and has this big emotional moment. He’s standing on Sigourney’s dress. She’s trying to step to the side and she can’t because Rob’s on her train. I was considering clobbering him.” Never mind. Holding their Oscars out the limo window was enough to allow them to crash the Vanity Fair party, until they were thrown out. “The last to leave were Kiwis, including a guy from Weta Digital who didn’t have an invite but we schmoozed him in.”
Not bad for one who started out designing for the Education Board. “I thought, oh god, if this is what being an architect is like …” His partner, Kirsty, saw an ad in the classifieds. Draftsmen wanted to work on a feature film. That was Savage Islands, and he has never looked back, despite the odd year spent waiting for work. Thus he found himself working alongside Tom Cruise in Taranaki on The Last Samurai. There was the technical challenge of making the samurai village look suitably antique. “We always leave a whole lot of chickens loose – wild cats and chickens, so they had a bit of dynamic going on,” recalls Sinclair. “That always ages a set.”
He was marooned on a Fijian island while Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball (when it comes to awards, Wilson – the volleyball – was robbed). Cast Away director Robert Zemeckis decided to make most of the movie with a crew of only 15, banishing the rest to the other side of the island. It was … intimate. “I was kind of like his survivalist,” says Sinclair, of Hanks. And there was that underrated Kiwi asset on a film location: tough feet. Zemeckis wanted Hanks to walk across a reef. “Do it how Kim would do it,” he told Hanks. “Tom had terrible feet. He had to put rubber feet on all the time.”
He rose to the occasion. Filming was halted when the star couldn’t be brought in through stormy seas to do his scenes. “Then I go walking along the path and hear someone whistling. There’s Tom in his Speedos, sweeping out his little hut. He went, ‘I put a life jacket on and swam in over the reef.’ What Hollywood star would do that? He surfed in.”
It’s not all glamour, says Sinclair. “It’s not glamour at all, really.” He doesn’t worry about not working. “I worry about running out of money. We need to eat.” Still, jobs shouldn’t be a problem post-Oscar, you’d imagine. An important agent offered to represent him if he moved to Los Angeles. “I don’t want to move to LA.” There are elderly family members here. His daughter is still living at home. So he’s away a lot. “That’s the hardest thing and the most controversial thing in this household, yeah. You have to go where the money is. Where the job is.”
The imaginary architect in the real world: Sinclair’s modus operandi sounds like it hasn’t advanced a lot from the days of getting assignments by pigeon post. “I once got rung up 18 hours before going to Thailand for six months,” he muses.
When we meet, he’s about to take off again for a couple of weeks on a project he can’t yet talk about. Except to say that it’s of the big sweeping-historical-epic variety. The meeting was supposed to be in Paris. Then it changed to somewhere yet to be announced. This was a couple of days before he was due to leave. “I just went and bloody bought a French map and the plugs. I’ll try and get that money back if I’m not going to Paris. Bugger that.” Last I heard he was off to LA. “I’m always semi-packed,” he says. “Ready to go.”