Interview With Art Director William Cheng

In this month’s instalment of our Member-driven interview series, DGC Ontario Production Designer John Dondertman (Orphan Black, Titans, Kim’s Convenience) chats with Foundation’s Supervising Art Director William Cheng.  A former architect who made the jump to film and television, William’s other credits include Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, The Boys, American Gods, The Shape of Water, Shazam!, and dozens of other major series and movies made in Toronto over the last two decades.

John Dondertman: Tell us about your early years. Where did you attend University, and how did you segue into the film business?

William Cheng: I was born in Hong Kong and spent my childhood in Scarborough, Ontario. I have always been interested in film, and particularly science fiction. I attended The School of Architecture at Carlton University and graduated during the worst recession in many years. I was one of two graduates to have a job when I left school, so the idea of working in film, which was then a transient field, didn’t seem to make sense. I had a steady job with benefits at an architectural firm, so I stuck with that for a few years. One day, I ran into a friend on the set of Cinderella Man, which was filming near my office. I was given an “in” to the business and have never looked back. I joined the DGC and my first project was Earth Final Conflict.

JD: Are there specific influences that you look to for inspiration?

WC: I love Production Designer Ken Adam’s work for his over-the-top villain design in the ’60s and ’70s James Bond films, and I enjoy the animation of Soji Kawamori (Macross Robotech). I am also inspired by architects Nicholas Grimshaw, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, and Zaha Hadid. As the Supervising Art Director on Foundation, we were able to work in several architectural influences from these firms in designing the sets.

Lou Llobell and Jared Harris in a scene from Foundation
Lou Llobell and Jared Harris in Foundation, now streaming on Apple TV+

JD: Any design-based pieces in your home that you value?

WC: I have a Barcelona Chair and a Boomerang lamp. I also collect a lot of Soji Kawamori-designed toys.

JD: What did you aspire to be as a child?

WC:  I wanted to design fighter jets. There is a certain kind of musculature and powerfulness and sleek lines. As an aside, if I could do anything else, I would work as a Concept Designer.

JD: Have any recent series or movies inspired you?

WC: I loved the sets on The Queen’s Gambit and Oblivion. I would love to work on a musical or a rom-com (which seem to be a dying breed) for a change of pace. I would also love to work with Production Designers Darren Gifford (Tron Legacy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Rick Carter (Jurassic Park, Avatar).

JD: Any advice for aspiring up-and-coming Art Directors?

WC: I think people should take their time moving up. Many younger Art Directors want to climb, but a lot of this job is “learning by doing” and examining your mistakes. So if you climb too quickly, you won’t have the necessary experience to draw from.

A scene from Foundation of a spaceship at the end of the event horizon of a black hole
Foundation, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Lightning Round Questions:

Analogue or Digital?

Digital all the way.

I was one of the first Designers to use CAAD in Toronto. I actually lost out on a few jobs because I drew on a computer, as Production Designers were still transitioning to the smaller screen from the large drafting board.

Favourite non-work activities?

I build plastic model jets to relax, and there is no compromise as I am the only one doing it. My office shelves are filled with them.

Fiction or non-fiction?

Fiction.

Classic rock or new wave?

Classic rock all the way, and 80’s rock!

Next trip?

There are so many places to see, and I love to travel. I studied in Italy and would love to take my daughter there. I’d also love to visit the Greek Islands.

Fave crew lunch?

Lobster lunch, although I have been on three shows that served lobster and subsequently went down, so there could be something to that…

Any confessions?

[laughs] Probably.

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