On a delightful sunny Saturday we visited Tinna Ottesen a production designer and scenographer in 101 Reykjavík. We sat down with her in her apartment with a latte and dark chocolate delicacies to learn about her artistry, the life in Denmark, her experience and future projects.
NEO-GEO – Underwater concerts
I heard that you started by studying design, what was the deciding factor?
It was very random actually; there was never a certain point in my life that I thought to myself that this is what I wanted to do. Actually, I just applied for the first thing I found online, that was Denmark’s Design School and thankfully I got in the department of digital design, which I thought was very interesting at that time. After one year, I changed my mind and switched to the department of visual communication.
Well, that was not all because once we had a cooperation with the Danish Film School, I got to study there also with the documentary department, and at that point I was there as a guest student for a couple of years studying production design. I had no academic background in art, but I found my path quickly.
Where you an artistic teenager?
Yes, I took courses here and there in art, but as a teenager I did a lot of stuff that I replicated later on in life, for example the underwater concerts in a group called Neo Geo. I always had something creative going on. It is a process coming out of the closet as an artist here in Iceland, you have to earn your spot as an artist before you can call yourself an artist, do you know what I mean? So it is an establishing factor, I feel like that is the rule here.
How was life after graduation?
The first thing I did actually when I finished my education was my husband’s graduation film, we have always worked together in all sorts of projects. We built a pier in the studio for that project, I am always thinking about spaces, the set of things. I think it’s about the process, you research until you find a concept, it’s all about the process but processing itself is also very important, and that is also a part of the process of course. Now I sound very complicated. But this is necessary for my work, creativity and the process of the projects.
But well, after graduation I participated in an architectural competition and other artistic collaborations. Every time you work with new people you get to experience a new energy and you learn so much from it. For example when I designed the stage in the Roskilde festival in Denmark, I got to know Haukur Þórðarson, architect, and we are designing a stage together for a project called Kræklingurinn, shown next year.
How does it feel being an artist in Iceland?
When I came back from Denmark one and a half year ago, I booked meetings with people from the artistic industry and tried to introduce myself here in Iceland, it’s like a snowball, one project leads to something new and different. I earned the attention of course, but somehow it is about meeting new people and become a part of the community here in Iceland. I don’t feel like this is a competitive community actually, It feels more like everybody is trying to help each other with projects and connectivity.
Even though it was hard to be away for such a long time, I lived in Denmark for 10 years, it was very easy to come back.
Still from the tv program Heimsendir
Heimsendir, the Icelandic TV series, we are excited to hear more about that…
Ohh, that project was really exciting for me actually. I got to dissect the script to its fullest to get the overview and came up with these three different worlds for the series.
“It touches the soul to see something beautiful”
The dream is for the future to choose cinematic projects that have those possibilities for blending the theatre into the production design. Heimsendir was pretty close to that, it is always nice to create a set that can stand on its own, as a piece of art. Taking stills from those sets has a poem like effect and people do think they are beautiful.
Yeah, so the thing for random things in the props department for TV productions is not sufficient enough?
The thing is that sometimes they over prop projects, just to hide that there was no preparation or a special theme for the set. Everybody is so on it to fix up some things, so that they get a lot of stuff, randomly thrown together. Also this happens a lot in TV sets, they sometimes are thinking very three dimensional, and then the visuals are presented in the two dimensional TV set then it really shows that they haven’t been thinking about this properly. So I think it’s very important to have collaborative production designers department.
You have also participated in the documentary festival scene here in Iceland?
Yes, my husband and I have been artistic directors, for the second year in a row, at the documentary film festival in the West part of the island. There are around 20 premiere screenings annually of Icelandic documentaries at the festival. Although this is an industry festival, it’s also a large Icelandic party, but people talk about documentary for three days, drink beer and feast on seafood in the beautiful town of Patreksfjörður.
We always have a guest of honor at the festival because we want to push the boundaries of the festival. This year we invited Max Kestner who makes films with real people but in real produced scenes in his documentary films. We were trying to push the boundaries more than usual, so we could create a field of discussion in Iceland. There is something that happens when you attend this environment of academic discussion with four beers in your stomach, this is the Icelandic way of mingling. There is a core of people within the Icelandic documentary scene that turns up year after year so this is a very important festival and get-to-gather for Icelandic filmmakers.
What inspires your work?
My computer is full of photographs of this and that that inspire me. It’s also very good to have the camera on you, so you can capture different things when you’re out and about, so you end up with maybe 30 gigabytes of colors and forms that you refer to in your work. The influence bank is always receiving materials and changes as time goes by.
“there were around 90 plays last year and ten films”
I have been watching documentaries and movies in general, there is so much development in documentary filmmaking nowadays, the experimental sector is still so fresh, and people are always doing something new.
There is so much productivity here in Iceland, in arts, there were around 90 plays last year and ten films. In comparison there were around 10 feature films produced in Poland last year where 38 million people live.
Is the production of “reality” portraying the truth in documentary filmmaking?
No never. The thing with both fictional and documentary filmmaking is that the director is telling a story. The space is always somewhat of a production as well, even though you are at somebody’s house you are tweaking things around, the backstage and the visual is always so important for the storytelling.
Where do you work, do you have a studio?
I share a small working studio at Grandi, by the harbor, which I actually share with three other women. But my dream would be to have a giant house, just beside my house, where I could spread out all over the place.
So are you collector?
I try to watch out not to collect too much, if I find something interesting I try to give it away to somebody else for example to RUV the national television stations props storage or to Embla stacks where Júlía has her props storage, where other people can use it, so I can maybe access it again. I don’t dare to start to collect props. Then you have someplace, which works like a spare valve.
So have you ever found something amazing, that you wouldn’t dare to throw away?
I can tell you about something, yeah; when I was out in the country I found sooo many old phonebooks from 1940´s. The official institutions are very professional in what they do concerning the preserving of things, but they have so little space. RUV for example is such a good official service for all the film industry; their workers are so nice and helpful.
“Somebody’s uncle that knows someone that knows someone else that has a certain sort of stone museum”
But if you’re looking for something specific, you could always call somebody, or someone that knows something about this and within an hour you have sorted it out. Somebody’s uncle that knows someone that knows someone else that has a certain sort of stone museum. But sometimes it takes a month to get some one little thing. But usually it’s the other way around.
Lastly, what are you up to now?
I am working with actress Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir on producing a project called the Norður that we will open next year. We are traveling to Faeroe Island, Greenland & Denmark and get artist from these countries to contribute to our project, it will be a portable stage production. Margrét always wants to produce something big; she wants to have a helicopter and huge ships and over 50 people involved. The stories will walk on the shores; each artist can only work with a artist from another country.
Another project is building with Haukur Þórðarson this floating stage in the harbor area, for the project Kræklingurinn, where there will be some kind of a monster coming up from the sea. I have actually many more projects in the pipes that are unconfirmed.
So how is life always on the run?
Well my advice is to enjoy the people that you meet, that you take time to talk and listen to people´s experiences, that you show that you appreciate when they do things for you, in my case lending me stuff, for example props.
I also recently moved here to this great apartment, where I have a garden so I also try to enjoy non-work related things. I am growing cabbage and planting other things, which I absolutely love. I think it’s necessary when you work so much with your head and in the computer that you don’t forget about the meditation of working with your body. I also have a grill in my garden that my father made. He actually built it for my mother, out of barrels. There is a rail that is connected to a motor, so it turns inside. I can grill around five legs of lambs in each one of those.
I used the grill at my tenth year wedding anniversary the other day, my father moved the grill to my house so we could grill lambs for dinner.
We went outside in the garden for a short while, where Tinna showed us her grill and her growing cabbage that is flourishing in a little square of her garden. We left this peaceful place, remembering her strong presence, wishing her a bright future producing sets in all sorts of mediums. Tinna will surely be one of the production designers to watch out for in the future.
Interview: Ása Baldursdóttir
Photographs: Nanna Dís