A grand design

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St. Albert native Melissa Krystofiak has applied her knack for design on film, Ferraris and food

Melissa Krystofiak has got a grand design for what she wants to do with her life. That’s just it. Her passion is for designing, and that passion has taken her all the way to Hollywood and beyond.

The St. Albert Catholic High School grad has just returned to the city after spending a few years playing with military helicopters and giant alien robot vehicles. She worked variously as an art director, set designer, digital and graphic artist, digital modeler, graphics assistant, set dressing co-ordinator and production designer in movies and TV projects including Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Glee and Zero Dark Thirty.

It all started when she went to the University of Alberta’s industrial design program. Somehow, making chairs turned into creating fantastic imaginary worlds, all because of one auspicious magazine.

“Industrial design was designing furniture and products and all that jazz. Then my aunt gave me this subscription to Martha Stewart magazine,” she remarked, remembering that she suddenly wanted to be a photographer or graphic designer.

“I opened the pages and noticed every page was sprinkled with design. From the food styling, to the photography, to the art direction, to the graphics and composition, I wanted to do it all (not really knowing what ‘it’ was).”

“Whatever makes this magazine beautiful, I want to do that.”

She said it was great to design tables and such to develop her “design palette” and see where she wanted to go with her career. She figured that she loved movies enough to want to get into that business. This path was paved a bit in the way that many Hollywood careers are: by knowing people. There was a cousin of her favourite U of A professor who had a cousin who taught at the American Film Institute.

Krystofiak was one of a select 14 candidates from hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants accepted into the production design program at the prestigious AFI Conservatory, one of the world’s top film schools. Its alumni list includes such acclaimed cinematographers as Janusz Kaminski and Wally Pfister, and such esteemed directors as Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Ed Zwick, among many others.

Word of mouth

When she got out of that program in 2009, she went to Los Angeles to find work, again relying on friends and contacts to help her out. That’s how these things are done, after all. There are no talent scouts, she said. No student placement program either.

“I guess it’s part of the business. You have to make it or break it on your own.”

She had already started working as the set dressing co-ordinator in early pre-production on Spider-Man 4, doing pre-visualization (or pre-vis) models and research boards before the studio pulled the plug on the whole movie, deciding to reboot the entire franchise instead.

“It never made it to the screen,” she laughed. “From there, I worked on some independent films, some pilots that never got picked up. I worked on Transformers 3. That was my first big job. That was very exciting. It was a bad film but it was really fun to work on.”

Thankfully, Tinseltown works on word of mouth.

“In order to get the internship, I literally had to ask my friend who worked in sound editing at a different part of the Sony lot to ask me out for lunch so that I could get onto the lot. Then I called the co-ordinator, and I was like ‘Hey, do you need any more production assistants or an intern?’ I walked with my portfolio book while she was running errands to the post office and back. It’s a fast world.”

That movie contains elements of her handiwork, her 15 minutes of fame preserved for all time in a Michael Bay film.

“There’s this one scene. It was in the trailers so it was very exciting. Samuel Witwicky goes to work and I was in charge of making all of the binder spines for this library set. A Transformer smashes through all of that. I was like, ‘Yes! I made those!’ It got some screen time. It was very exciting.”

From there, she worked on the second season of Glee for six months, then did drafting and visual development, and making 3-D models on a stop-motion animation film called Hell and Back. That project, she said, was immensely satisfying.

“It was so neat to do animation because you have to create everything from scratch. That was a joy being a designer, being something so amazingly creative, like ‘blue sky’ thinking, you could make anything you wanted,” she said, referring to an industry term in which the sky is the limit.

“You have to develop every little piece of everything that you see from sets to characters to props to little set dressing. The challenge of stop motion is that everything is to scale. You have to be creative with what makes things look like other things at that scale.”

She’s done film logos too and has also put her efforts toward theme park attractions like Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi and the new Pirates of the Caribbean ride at the new Disneyworld location in Shanghai.

“It’s going to be a complete reboot of the classic ride. They want it to all relate to the films and not the other way around. I helped develop the model for that and got to design little bits of it. I’m not sure if it made the cut or not. We’ll see when I go to Shanghai!”

This is common for people in her line of work to freelance on films and then find other design work for such theme parks. The work is much the same.

“It’s a weird industry, the film and theme park world. It’s just a lot of major companies. They’ll cycle through talent and you just jump from job to job. My longest job was eight months and my shortest job was two weeks. You just network and find work that way. When there’s a lull in the work, I’ve come across some set designers from the film and theme park world. They try to fit together as best they can just to stay afloat with work.”

Taking a break

Now 28, she’s taking a bit of a breather from the industry, chilling out in St. Albert while still maintaining contact with people in the industry as she figures out the next stage of her life and career, whether it keeps her in Edmonton, off to Calgary, away to Vancouver or other parts abroad.

When she isn’t designing on paper or on the computer, she’s designing food. Yes, she’s a major foodie too. She once even had a job as a food stylist on a commercial.

“I love to cook and bake!” she said. “I used to host and throw dinner parties back in LA. We did a Christmas party for 25 people. It was a sit-down dinner and I made the menu.”

She still harbours a dream of establishing a restaurant, or, as many modern gourmands prefer, the now commonplace food truck. Should such an enterprise work out, Krystofiak admits that it would probably feature ethnic foods based on her own background.

“I’m a Polish-Ukrainian – so it’d be a lot of borscht and perogies probably. And delicious looking cupcakes because I love baking. It’s so delicate and needs to look pretty. More design aspect. I love it! It’s art!”

Melissa Krystofiak, Q&A

What’s your favourite book?
“Couldn’t pick a favourite, but I love the authors Gillian Flynn, Joe Nesbo, and George R.R. Martin.”

What’s your favourite movie?
“Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series, and everything Disney princess related.”

When you were still a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
“I wanted to be Robert Ballard, and look for lost liners on the ocean floor.”

Do you have any superstitions?
“Nope.”

Pet peeves?
“Horrible drivers. After living in Los Angeles for seven years, I think my patience on the road has left me.”

Rolling Stones or Beatles?
“Stones for life.”

Samples

People can see more examples of Melissa Krystofiak’s work at her website: www.melissakrystofiak.com.

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.