December 7th, 2021 by Daniel Birt SDSA

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Graffiti alley, Tokyo. Filmed in Bangkok, standing in for the vibrant heart of Japan, the complexity and dose of realism is immense. Photo courtesy Netflix.

Set Decorator Daniel Birt SDSA

Production Designer Dominic Watkins


New Zealand Set Decorator Daniel Birt SDSA tells of the challenges in bringing authenticity to KATE, a contemporary action thriller set in Japan starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an accomplished assassin now seeking revenge on the person who has infected her with a deadly poison.
“It’s a challenge faced by art department teams often, how to transport one location into another and capture the essential realism. The story of KATE takes place in latter-day Japan (2021). But the vast majority of the filming was done in Bangkok, so carefully selecting the right locations was key to ensure that the sets and street sets built and decorated in Bangkok stayed true to, and were believable as, Tokyo.” 

“The design and decoration were influenced by many Japanese styles. Manga played a major part in the film's aesthetic...a fusion of Japanese pop culture, digital technology, night street life with a touch of cyber punk gives the edge of low-life and high-tech...all in the same world.”

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Black Lizard, Tokyo, by way of Bangkok and the design & décor team. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

“While traditional Japanese culture and history was dominant to the overall theme, using a blend of traditional and modern culture brought a more realistic, rounded look to the film. 
The Black Lizard  studio set build is a great example of taking these two design styles. By adding the influence of Manga into a traditional backdrop, this set comes away with its own identity and stands out against the rest of the film.”

In contrast, Kijima’s house  tells a story of ancient ideals and family traditions. The emphasis here is the beauty in the natural materials and hand-painted murals which convey the cultural importance of this ceremonial space.”

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Kajima’s house. Ancient Japanese ideals, traditions and artistry. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

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Kajima’s house. Soulful beauty. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

“Within the design and decoration brief, there were also a variety of sets which showed another side of Japan - glimpses into the homes, past and present, of the characters.
These glimpses of every-day life allow us to see a slower paced, softer side of life in Japan.” 
“The Eighth Floor Apartment  brings us out of the neon lights and busy streets, into a warm, comfortable abode. This environment gives Kate  a place to think and refocus.”

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Eighth Floor apartment. A welcoming space beyond the neon and extremes of the street. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

“The street design and decoration was based on the Golden Gai bars in Shinjuku. This 1950s black market area consists of six narrow streets with two-story bars only a few meters wide. Some of these bars only seat between five and 12 people so once you are in and drinking you are not leaving.”

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Murikawa Market streets, night. The narrow streets enclose even narrower bars and shops, closet-sized. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

“Some patrons have been coming to this very establishment every day for more than 45 years. It’s a real experience while in Toyko and a visit is highly recommended.”

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Murikawa Market, Photo Bar. This is 3/4 of the entire bar room. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

 “There were also many flashback sequences of Kate’s  journey to becoming an assassin - from childhood through to early adulthood. This required a vast array of reflective sets ranging from the 1980s through to the current day.” 
How did your previous work on that side of the Pacific help for this film? 

“It’s a really interesting question, because as we all know in the industry, we never know what’s coming next, where and what genre it might be, so the jobs that have come my way at the bottom of the world, in the Pacific, have been important ones to the development and style of my work and really helped me with this project in particular.”
“My personal interest, in this case for Japan, came from working on two World War II projects, the HBO television series THE PACIFIC and the film EMPEROR. Both were filmed in New Zealand and Australia.” 

“Japan is a country jam-packed with traditions and refined aesthesis. Researching and working on these projects and looking at the every-day life in Japan during the war era made me curious as a decorator and made me want to learn more about this country.” 

“Having the knowledge and a better understanding from these two earlier projects was an huge advantage when it came to making the story of KATE. My work as an assistant decorator on GHOST IN THE SHELL really helped with the Japanese anime aesthetic side of the decoration and the CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON project definitely drummed in some strong traditional aesthetics. Both of these projects were also filmed in New Zealand.” 

“All of the Japanese and Chinese projects I have been involved in made me very particular about the way I see a set and its decoration. There is a particular order to every part of the Asian decoration process, from the way and when you buy dressing elements, the direction of the over-all color palette tones and textures used, then the final arrangement of the decoration. It’s hard to explain what that exactly means, but something from this process I have learnt is that it has stopped me overcooking the decoration and causing me to lean to a more theatrical minimal direction in my work on KATE and in many of my other projects. I enjoy negative space just as much as I do the dressed space.”

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Kajima’s house, exterior. Balance, everything deliberately and thoughtfully chosen & placed. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

The look is often either dark, diffused neon, or white/grey, almost black and white, then splashed with candy color. What was the impact of that on the set decoration? 

“In preparation for the set design on KATE, I made a couple of trips to Tokyo - one to location scout and the other for buying. What I found during those trips, was that the world at night was one of neon signage blends of amazing color. This became a key factor in the set decoration on KATE”.

“The practical lighting was a huge part of making this film feel believable, as we were in Bangkok not Tokyo. This was especially the case in the Murakawa  streets we created. With a combination of over 250 practical lights including neon, RGB LED, fluro and tungsten, and a full-time set decoration team of six very dedicated electricians, this made the locations come to life. Many days were spent making practical lighting plans for each of the street locations we filmed in, choosing the exact color for each light and sign in every location as Kate’s story evolves. Then art department-generated graphics for the Japanese signage had to be made to complement.”

“This was one of the biggest challenges. In Bangkok, cheap RGB LED, power supplies and controllers didn’t work well for the camera and the power supply was very limited at times. Undertaking this huge electrical and lightening mission was a significant cost to the art department, but everyone agrees the effort that went into this aspect well and truly paid off. Since the film has been released, I have read many on-line articles about KATE, especially its design. None of these mention Bangkok. Anyone viewing the film thinks it was shot on location in Tokyo or in a studio, which is a tribute to everyone involved in the set decoration and every department involved.” 
“I always hope that the viewers who see the films we make, or who look at the worlds we create for cinema, think to themselves that they would like to go there one day, that this looks like an interesting place to visit. It may even allow them to create new ideas in their own life. 
I feel very lucky that a lot of the ideas we formulate and the designs we create as part of our craft as filmmakers will influence future trends or will be incorporated into people’s lives. It’s amazing to think that this does happen, as our primary role is making a film for the purpose of story-telling for entertainment.”
How did you become involved with this project?

“I had previously worked with Production Designer Dominic Watkins on other projects, including THE MUMMY in Namibia and a huge EVONY gaming commercial in New Zealand. 
Dom told me about the KATE project, on which he was to also act as Production Designer, and it sounded like a lot of fun as well as being able to provide a new set of challenges! 
I personally wanted to do a contemporary action film, having come from a lot of period work recently, so I took up this opportunity without any hesitation.” 
“Since KATE, I have been fortunate to work on another project with Dom...in Canada...called SLUMBERLAND, which I co-set decorated with Oscar-winning and very talented Set Decorator Jeff Melvin SDSA. This was an amazing project for me, working with Jeff and his hugely talented team, and I learned a great deal from them. I hope to share more stories about that when SLUMBERLAND is released.”
What you enjoy most about international work? 

“I have been very fortunate to be able to travel for my work and really enjoy the opportunities I have been given. Working internationally has been a way for me to see things in a different light. What I experience and see in the world helps develop my style and expand by work as a Set Decorator, and also helps me teach my children about what is beyond the shoreline of my home country, New Zealand.”

“To share those experiences with my children, which I do as often as I can, shows them how different cultures live, new and exciting styles of cuisine, and a diverse range of history, to name but a few of the advantages. They now have an interest and understanding of other places that are so different to the little islands we occupy at the bottom of the South Pacific.” 

“Working in a range of locations constantly informs and modifies my views on what design and decoration actually is. It shows me in the strangest ways how things are and can be arranged and what design means in everyday life, no matter where you live or whoever you are. Every culture and every person I meet views things differently, and how they use items can be very different to the way I would use them.” 

“I enjoy watching and working with these people, taking the parts I like and putting them together in a way that tells a story with a slight difference to the normal aesthetic. I push ideas and tend not to play my decoration safe, while always searching for variety in look. The people I meet and work alongside on all jobs are the most important thing to me—they make my job exciting, interesting at all times and fun, and I thank them for these experiences.” 

“While international travel and work is been great for learning and understanding and for gathering ideas, I readily accept that sometimes it can be overwhelming when there are so many great ideas out there. I find that returning to New Zealand and doing projects in my own country makes me see things in a different light as well, and I find myself taking a very different approach to my decoration. The work I do overseas...I have done many more films now offshore than I have at home...has categorically seen me become more open to other influences and to what life is to bring next.”

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate, formidable assassin now with the sole purpose of revenge on whomever lethally poisoned her. Images courtesy Netflix.

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Black Lizard, Kabuki stage. Photo courtesy of Netflix..

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Bathhouse, “Tokyo”... Photo courtesy of Netflix.

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Murikawa Market streets, day. The signage is compelling even when not neon lit. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

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Murikawa Market, interior. Storage is definitely vertical, most everything is. Photo courtesy of Netflix.