Bruce French is an artist, sculptor and designer who lends his creative eye and expertise to both Landscape and Portrait Artist of the Year, not only designing the sets for both shows, but also offering his thoughts on what the artists will paint. This time, we caught up with him to chat about his role on Landscape Artist of the Year and how he came up with the idea for those, now famous, artist pods
So, tell us how you came up with the idea for those amazing pods?
When the Storyvault team originally came to me, they’d already had an idea of creating something in the style of Henry VIII campaign tents. The thing is, when you’re painting outside or doing any TV programme outside, the whole thing is about the weather – and about how we are going to film it.
So, if you’re going to make a tent out of fabric that looks like a Henry VIII campaign tent, you’re not going to be able to get a camera in there. After that I had lots of conversations with the team - we worked together and decided to make them much more modern – really contemporary – that’s fundamentally what I do anyway and I approached the brief as a sculpture that could sit in the landscape.
I went away and made up something using cut-up card: That’s often how I start making things - just cutting up bits of card and gluing them together. I was actually working with the ballet at the opera house in Switzerland and at about 4am in the morning I got up and started cutting out bits of card. After about the 10th one, and after lots of gluing and cutting, the shape came. I then created a computer model that made it look like it was built out of glass. But that was just so expensive, and so heavy, that we had to devise a way of doing it out of Perspex.
It was difficult to get the shape right – we made a mock-up and the whole team went to see it. We had to adjust angles for water run-off and height, and there was lots of discussion about changes we might make, but the Storyvault team were really strong about keeping what we had. When you work collaboratively, there’s always the danger that ideas will be watered down, but these guys stuck to it and saw it through – so the pods stayed pretty much exactly the same as my first designs.
I’m an artist, painter and sculptor but I also have a commercial practice – my art and design careers took off at the same time, so I have Le Mat Design for my commercial work and am Bruce French for my art, painting and sculpture.
A prototype of the now famous, artists pods.
Artist pod prototype, from a different perspective.
Tell us more about the challenges in designing and making the pods…
The weather and filming - to film you have to have the artist, their little studio, a cameraman, the producer and a sound recorder all in one tiny space. In the UK, the weather is always unpredictable – those are the two nightmares. We also had to make the pods so that when the artist is working in them they can’t actually see the pod and it doesn’t become part of the landscape they are painting. We’ve given them tilted back walls so on a summers day the artists can be in the pod, but the cameras see almost no pod from the artists perspective. I put a roll-down wall at the back in case it rains. I go to the filming of every show and it doesn’t matter where we go, I always wonder if the weather is going to be ok..
Has the weather ever been so bad you’ve had to stop filming?
It was pretty bad once in Wales, but when we filmed in Stowe it got really bad and even the pods couldn’t cope – the water was leaking in everywhere! We had to make some design adjustments to stop leaking in the future. Another time filming at Paddy’s Hole in Redcar, the wind was so bad we couldn’t film in the pods that day. Luckily we found a yacht club that had a building with the same view, so we filmed one episode there: I think that is the only episode not to be filmed in the pods.
What happens to the pods at the end of each series?
We’re still using the original ones made five years ago. They’re made of steel, wood and Perspex and come flat-packed to each shoot on a truck. We change the Perspex each season because it gets scratched and damaged, and the pods are repainted, but the actual structures themselves stay the same. They last pretty well – this is the fifth year of Landscapes we’ve done. We can build eight pods with eight guys in about 7-8 hours. We get lots of people wanting to buy them, so they’re all copyrighted. Myself and Ben Steele who is the engineer and welded the very first pod together, have been talking about making them to sell. Waddesdon Manor was interested in having them dotted around their gardens and we talked about putting a brazier in the middle, with hammocks, so you could spend the night in them. We were also talking about badger watching in them.. The ones we use in the show would be very, very expensive because they have to adhere to loads of health and safety regulations, so that would make them unaffordable for people to have at home, but we’re tying to make an affordable version. We might launch that next year…so watch this space.
Apart from creating these amazing pods, what else might we know you for?
I’m an artist, painter and sculptor but I also have a commercial practice – my art and design careers took off at the same time, so I have Le Mat Design for my commercial work and am Bruce French for my art, painting and sculpture. Le Mat Design works on big productions, such as the Brit Awards, the Royal Ballet and rock concerts, so the pods are not the craziest brief I’ve ever had. I’ve also done a lot of work for people I can’t talk about, like for rock stars, such as building things in their back gardens including a whole Japanese house .. but that’s another story!