UAlberta alumnus makes mark in the movies

In this video interview captured in Hollywood during the U of A’s centenary in 2008, Todd Cherniawsky talks about what his years at the university meant to him.

(Edmonton) It’s probably fair to say that no Western Canadian has put his mark on as many Hollywood blockbusters as Todd Cherniawsky. The University of Alberta fine arts grad has applied his considerable production design talent to Avatar and Alice in Wonderland—both of which garnered Oscars for art direction—as well as Ocean’s Thirteen, Hulk and The Polar Express, to mention only a few. His most recent credits include supervising art director on Oz the Great and Powerful (the biggest box-office hit of 2013 so far) and helicopter art director on last year’s Best Picture-nominated Zero Dark Thirty.

Cherniawsky attributes much of his success to the somewhat meandering but fruitful seven-year path of discovery he followed at the U of A as an undergrad, taking courses in whatever struck his fancy. His choices included industrial design, graphic design, theatre design, painting, sculpture, engineering, literature, science and even statistics, before he finally graduated with a BFA in 1993. He also watched every movie he could get his hands on, from the 1930s onward.

He thought he was simply killing time before committing to architecture school, and yet, without knowing it, he was training himself for a demanding and varied career in Hollywood. He went on to earn an MFA from the American Film Institute and finally found his true calling.

Last Friday, Cherniawsky returned to his alma mater to speak to U of A students of theatre and film—a pilgrimage he likes to undertake every couple of years, he says, because he is acutely aware of how important his time here was.

“The U of A was so supportive of my wandering ways. So many faculty members here pushed me to take this step and believed in me. They said, ‘Just do—take a chance.’” He admits his cross-disciplinary explorations “looked reckless in my early twenties. I looked like a lifelong student … but it was a wonderfully pleasant place to be.

“Now, coming in as an art director or supervising art director, I really feel I have a chance to contribute to the looks of these movies,” he says, adding that in his experience, employers in Hollywood are looking for people with passionate and varied interests, a committed work ethic and a love of craft.

In his talk, Cherniawsky covered the nuts and bolts of film production design, from the constant pressure to save money to the headaches over copyright and the ever-growing use of digital design tools.

Despite that growth, however, he says the need for people with fundamental art skills remains high. “Hand drafting is never going to go away. I would say that 20 years of experience hand drawing is equal to 50 or 60 years of digital drawing. When you draw by hand, you think of every line in everything you’re doing before you do it.”