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Exploring the Institution of Loneliness with Celina Bassili

Still from film – girl and loneliness outside the treehouse
Still from film – girl and loneliness outside the treehouse
‘Girl and loneliness’, still from film
Written by
Jane Cuppage
Published date
02 August 2018

Celina Bassili is from Sandefjord, Norway and she graduated from BA Set Design for Screen (now BA Production Arts for Screen) earlier this month. We interviewed Celina about her time at Wimbledon and her practice.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to study at Wimbledon?

I’ve been doing ballet ever since I was four, so I have always been surrounded by scenography. When I was 12, my mum started a small interior decoration shop in my hometown, which resulted in me spending all my spare time there over the next four years, growing a love for interior design. That is when I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to creating beautiful spaces. A few years later, when I was 16, I watched a gorgeous music video, then read an article about the set designer afterwards, which made me realise that set design was an actual job. It therefore became my dream job as it combines my love for design, architecture, film, art, music, books, history and fashion.

As I always knew that I wanted to study outside of Norway, the choice was easy when it came to choosing an international university. I wanted to attend the best there is and learn from the best when it comes to set design. When I read about Wimbledon’s Set Design for Screen course and its amazing alumni, I knew that it would be the perfect place for me.

Winter picnic scene, still from film of ‘The Institution of Loneliness’ Still from

How would you describe your current practice?

My current work consists of a spatial design piece called ‘The Institution of Loneliness’. It is an abstract and minimalist building set in an arctic desert in a parallel universe, designed to torture lonely souls. I have also written, directed and designed a short film, with the same name, which tells the story about a lonely teenage girl imprisoned at the Institution, caused by the technology-shaped world she lives in. She dreams about escaping to a magical tree house and becomes friends with Loneliness as if the emotion was a person.

I think what inspired me in this project was a personal encounter with the emotion of loneliness some time ago. Later I realised that it is an experience that every human being goes through at some point in their lives, yet it seems to be a taboo subject. We are social beings, we feel like we have failed at what we were created for when we feel lonely, and that brings up feelings of shame and humiliation, and so we stay silent and feel even more alone. I guess I became curious about what the emotion truly is and feels like. What inspired me to do further research, study and explore the theme of loneliness and find out what the emotion would look like if it was a physical space, was a book I read called, ‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing. I had also started to write a book myself, which later turned into the screenplay for my short film. For that I already had quite a strong idea of what I wanted it to look like visually.

Rendered Visual of reception area of ‘The Institution of Loneliness’

My main film influences were auteur directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. The music of Norwegian singers Susanne Sundfør and Aurora, as well as Radiohead, helped setting the mood for the project. In terms of design and architecture, I was very inspired by Scandinavian culture and design; minimalism and brutalist architecture, Norwegian architect firm Snøhetta, the Harry Bertoia diamond chair, and most importantly a tree house called the Mirrorcube in Harads, Sweden. This led me to work with materials such as concrete, glass, mirror and metal. Mirror is the main material of the building as I really liked the idea of the building seeming invisible in the snow, just like you sometimes might feel invisible when you are lonely. Because loneliness is such a horrible emotion, I wanted the materials I would use to look and feel cold, harsh, empty, impersonal and sterile, therefore the colours are mostly grey, white and black.

When I design I usually always come up with an idea straight away, which I write down and describe down to the tiniest little detail. I might also do a rough sketch. I then make a mood board, which usually includes some kind of a colour and material palette. I sometimes like to have a little photo shoot to experiment with my initial ideas and make another mood board out of that. My next step is then to research; visit relevant places and exhibitions, watch films, read and listen to music, and eventually do some rough sketches. Later they usually turn into some experimenting with both digital models and rough hand-made models. When I am completely happy with the result of the design, I then start drafting the actual realisation and making of the design.

Please tell us about your final piece(s) for the summer show:

My final pieces for the summer show included a hand-made 1:100 scale model and a hand-drawn technical drawing of the Institution, as well as digital concept art and several rendered visuals of a digital model I made of the different rooms and spaces inside the Institution. The space is large and empty, as human beings look small and insignificant in big spaces. I also like the thought of the sound of an echo when someone moves inside the building, like the footsteps of someone crossing the 16 metres long reception area, or the 30 metres long halls on each floor.

Each floor of the building is filled with cube-shaped loneliness cells, covered in mirror, and they are designed to torture lonely souls. Every person who feels lonely in the real world ends up in a loneliness cell at the Institution in their minds, and because loneliness feels different to everyone, the cell that the lonely one inhabits changes its appearance to resemble the place in which the lonely one feels the most lonely in reality. I have therefore designed three different loneliness cells, for three different lonely characters that I have come up with.

Rendered visual of young man’s loneliness cell for ‘The Institution of Loneliness’. Loneliness as an urban aquarium.

The film I made was shot on location in Harads, Sweden and Oslo, Norway in February. I also traveled home to Sandefjord over the Easter break, and built two small sets on my own in a very cold barn, which I then dressed and had ready for filming two weeks later. The film was very close to my heart, and my way of teaching myself more about film-making and set construction in general. I took care of production, which taught me more about fundraising, budgeting, and putting together a team. I was also in charge of hiring camera and lighting equipment, storyboarding, art direction, production design, set construction, prop buying, graphic design and set dressing, as well as the actual script writing and directing. It really taught me so much about every aspect of film making, but especially how much hard work goes into it. Despite it being extremely frustrating and stressful at times, especially when doing almost everything on your own, I learned so many new useful skills, and gained essential knowledge that I will always carry with me.

How have your tutors or technicians assisted or influenced you with your summer show work?

The tutors and the technicians at Wimbledon really helped me shape the design of my project and push my technical skills this year. My tutor this year, Paul Cripps, especially helped me organise my thoughts and ideas a lot, especially if I was ever feeling overwhelmed. I have also struggled for a long time with finding my own identity and personal process of designing, as there are so many different ways of approaching a new design project. But Paul really helped me understand who I am, what my style and skills are, how I work and which methods work the best for me, and for that I am truly grateful.

It has also been really amazing to have the opportunity and privilege of being allowed to knock on any technician’s door to ask for help regarding digital programs and applications such as Sketchup, AutoCAD and Photoshop when needed. I don’t know how many hours I spent in the Digital Media Centre over the last few weeks of summer term, getting the help I needed to understand how to render a good Sketchup model. I also got so much help and advice regarding complicated camera and lighting equipment, such as Blackmagic cameras, which I knew nothing about before. It feels so good to know that someones is always there and happy teach you their skills and give you the advice you need.

What are you plans for after you leave Wimbledon?

I travelled back to Norway only two days after the degree show ended to work at a music festival for a couple of weeks. I designed a part of the food and beverage area, which was really exciting.

When I come back to London, I might be working on a film shoot in Glasgow in September, but until then I hope to assist on a few more set design jobs before I can finally begin to design on my own sets one day. I would love to be represented by an agency, and as I have a love for so many different aspects of production design, and many different visual mediums, my greatest aspirations are to work within set design and set decoration for film, fashion and music.

Still from film, ‘Institution of Loneliness’, a teenage girl’s loneliness cell

Is there a favourite project or piece of work you completed while at Wimbledon?

I am quite happy with all the projects I completed at Wimbledon, but I am definitely very proud of the production design project that I did in my second year. The brief was to make an adaption of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. My adaption was therefore set in 1966 Los Angeles, California, and I designed the interior and exterior of the Capulet mansion. It was highly inspired by American architect Richard Neutra, so I thoroughly researched his designs to create my own Richard Neutra house. I used the old Design Museum in the Shad Thames area as the exterior location, as it had to be in London, which I then dressed to make it look like the sculpture garden of Capulet’s Modernist California mansion. When it came to the interior of the house, I designed the living room and ballroom slightly dressed before Paris and Juliet’s wedding.

The set design/interior design of the house was inspired by Neutras’s natural and organic colour palette, as well as some from Casa Luis Barragàn. It made me stick to wood, white, green, blue and earthy tones like orange, peach and beige. The room was dressed with both typical 1960s furniture, as well as French antiques. In terms of narrative, my idea was that Juliet’s father was based on French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, whereas Romeo’s father was based on François Truffaut. The tension between the two families was therefore inspired by the tension that emerged between the two directors in the 1960s. I imagined that they were both shooting a French New Wave film, but in America to teach Americans how to make ‘real’ films.

Do you have any artistic influences?

I’m inspired by a great amount of artists and designers, but I am particularly interested in the many different shapes of chairs at the moment, and as previously mentioned I am currently obsessed with Harry Bertoia’s wire chairs.

Have you had any work experience in the industry?

I have done a vast amount of work experience and paid set design related jobs over the past year, which I am very proud of, as it has been a bit hard to balance next to uni work, but I still managed to do it. There has been both internships and art department/set design assistant/runner jobs, on everything ranging from feature films to fashion editorials, music videos, commercials, short films, and TV series. It has been truly vital for me as these jobs have really helped me find out what I feel comfortable with, and what I really enjoy doing in an art department. I have done a lot of prop making, tried standby art direction, prop sourcing, prop buying, and set decorating, as well as interning doing lunch and coffee runs, and spending hours sitting in the office cutting out graphics.

The other day I made a Sketchup model of a very organic and sculptural mirror for someone else other than myself for the first time, which I really enjoyed. I had never actually used Sketchup to draw a piece of furniture before, and especially not anything organic, so I tried to push myself and my skills and took the challenge. It felt so good when I had finished it. I think that is one of the main things I really look forward to when I finally embark on my own set design journey; the fact that every day and every job is completely different, you will always have to try and learn new things and it feels absolutely amazing when you have accomplished it.

Interior Capulet Mansion for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ project

Can you tell us about your Erasmus exchange?

In second year, I did an exchange to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) during winter term. Looking back now, it was definitely one of the best experiences of my life. I chose to apply to UCLA because I knew it was a great university, but also because of Hollywood’s important place in film history which I wanted to learn more about. While I was there, I attended three different classes: History of American Motion Picture, History of European Motion Picture, and Prop-Making for Theatre. The term was heavily focused on writing essays and analysing films, but I honestly never thought I would learn as much as I did during those three short months. Those classes made me fall in love with films I never knew existed, and films I knew existed but had never seen. I was also allowed to focus my learning into the aspects of film I was more interested in, and so I took the opportunity to learn more about the history of production design, and was introduced to amazing films by directors such as Jacques Tati.

The university itself was amazing, as everything was accessible to you whenever you needed it. There were six gigantic libraries on campus, one of which was dedicated solely to art which to me was like a dream come true. I remember taking at least ten books with me home every time I wrote a new essay, and some just for fun.

I had heard both positive and negative things about Los Angeles about it before moving there myself, so I decided I would go there without any expectations and I ended up positively surprised. I absolutely loved it. It is such a vibrant city, and the lifestyle very laid back compared to London. It was nice to be in the sun and near the ocean, too. Another thing I really enjoyed was the diversity in the architecture. The city offered amazing modern abstract buildings, yet right next to it you would find older art deco buildings revealing the remains of a golden era. I also coincidentally ended up staying in one of the buildings that architect Richard Neutra had designed, and that itself made the whole experience even more thrilling.

However, what I enjoyed the most and really miss are all the amazing people I met during my stay. I did some work experience while I was there, which helped me get to know some amazing creative human beings that I really look up to. I also don’t think I had ever met so many creative people in one city before, who really love what they’re doing, even though it can be really frustrating and hard at times. Despite the fact that a creative life can be a tough life to live, they all seemed just genuinely happy and as if they had truly found their place in life. They had the sparkle in their eyes, the enthusiasm and motivation to just keep going and work hard for what they love and feel passionate about, no matter what. Seeing this just made me more motivated and excited about my future as a creative working professional.

Do you have any advice for future students considering a career in production design?

If you know that you want to do set design in the future, it is definitely the right course for you. Even if you’re interested in pretty much any other side of the art department, such as model-making, art direction, production design or draughting you will get a lot out of the course.

What I think I would have appreciated to know before I started myself is that it is very much a self-taught course, so make the most of it. When they teach you Sketchup in first year, keep practicing it at home because it will change how you communicate your designs with others. In other words, don’t take what they teach you, nor all the facilities, for granted. Instead, use it as much as you can, and try to learn as much as you can, because when it comes to set design you will find that having many skills is essential.

Follow Celina on her website, Instagram and LinkedIn

BA Set Design for Screen is now BA Production Arts for Screen at Wimbledon College of Arts.