By Accident or Design

21 March 2017

Renowned production designer Tunku Tommy Mansur on his journey to building extravagant film sets for local films.

Tunku Tommy Mansur is a self-taught maestro when it comes to building things with his hands. He can invariably conjure large metal sculptures out of scrap materials, transform old glass bottles into shapely contours of the human body, and create intricate pieces out of everyday objects.

It makes sense then, that he’s a production designer, one of Malaysia’s best in our small but immensely talented film industry. As a living, Tommy builds larger-than-life sets for film shoots and aids in major aspects of a film’s visual outlook.

His portfolio—built over two decades—includes noted Malaysian films such as Liew Seng Tat’s Men Who Save The World (Lelaki Harapan Dunia), U-Wei Haji Saari’s Hanyut, and Kabir Bhatia’s Pulang.

Movie still from U-Wei Haji Saari’s Hanyut.


Liew Seng Tat’s Men Who Save The World (Lelaki Harapan Dunia).

Tommy’s obsession with building and designing art pieces flourished when he was growing up, sometimes aggravating his mother whose facial cream jars he would empty and deconstruct. “My parents recognised the fact that I had a creative streak that was almost unstoppable,” Tommy says.

Movie still from Kabir Bhatia’s Pulang.

After years of boarding school in England, he studied fashion where he honed his art of manipulating flat surfaces into 3D objects, a skill that overlaps with production design. But after a successful run at a local clothing line back in Malaysia, Tommy still felt a void to fill.

“I didn’t want to do wardrobe, I wanted to do more. The more I researched production design, the more I fell in love with the role,” he says.

A drill press among other specialty tools in Tommy's in-house studio.

His gift of being able to visualise grand sets simply by reading a script paid off in the film world, prompting him to collaborate with the cream of Malaysia’s creative crop. While Tommy appreciated the romance of making films, what also dawned on him were the realities of working in a still-thriving industry—logistical and budget constrains.

Outdoor shoots would often prove strenuous and set building would stretch into months. “If we’re shooting in a kampung and it’s in the middle of a jungle and the director wants to build a longhouse, you’re talking about having a team of builders and the art department there for at least a month and a half, two months,” Tommy says.

Location recces, too, eat up into pre-production, with Hanyut taking a year and a half just to scout for locations. “We were building sets eight months before the cameras rolled,” Tommy adds.

Where location shoots are more expensive than they’re worth, Tommy builds from the ground up grandeur sets to depict iconic places like Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour and Singapore’s HarbourFront.

“When I have my welders, carpenters, poly-carvers, scenic painters, and fibre glass people in one place, it makes logistical sense to build ten or 15 different sets in one [studio],” Tommy explains. “It’s cheaper to achieve that than bring an art department team over to seven different locations and then retrofit what we have there into the shoot.”

If production design is still an under-appreciated art in Malaysia, Tommy looks to French filmmaker Luc Besson for inspiration, especially for his work on The Fifth Element.

“He had Jean Paul Gaultier doing the costumes. He had the best production, the best prop makers. And then he had a fantastic story, and created, to me, the most incredible movie. This man’s a master,” he says.

Paints and clear coat varnish used for Tommy's paintings and other set pieces.

Tommy is of the belief that beauty on screen is best portrayed in its most raw state, that is without the typically Hollywood-style flash and pomp. Filmmakers like Besson and Akira Kurosawa are experts at extruding emotion and authenticity through the power of great storytelling, he adds.

But of course, the daily grind isn’t quite as quixotic. One of the trials of being a production designer is looking for creative individuals to execute jobs, or in the case of fresh design graduates, landing paid gigs at all.

To bridge the gap between the design industry and fresh-faced talents, Tommy is hatching plans to set up an industry-wide network of contacts for those involved in film, commercial projects, photography, and events.

“[It’ll be a] a one-stop art department support structure for production,” he says.

“If we create a base for people in the creative industry to get a selection of really talented people, this could be a huge win-win situation.”

On top of that, he has ambitious ideas to eventually set up an “artist’s village” where just about anyone creating tangible design work can come together to master the art of carpentry, carving, welding, and forging. “Being around creative people and living that creative life is just magical. It’s a real dream,” he says.

Unsurprisingly for a man who’s so good with his hands, he can’t seem to keep them still.  

By Surekha Ragavan

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