Summer 2019

Song and Dance Routine

Kenny Ortega and production designer Mark Hofeling are in sync when it comes to serving young audiences

By Matt Hurwitz

Director Kenny Ortega and production designer Mark Hofeling map out shots for their Descendants 2 cast during dance rehearsals. (Photo: Disney Channel)

Kenny Ortega has long been a double threat. His work as a choreographer on music videos and concert tours for the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson made him a well-known commodity in the pop world.

He has since become a kind of 'tween phenomenon, having directed two of the Disney Channel's most popular made-for-TV film franchises, High School Musical and Descendants, which earned him DGA awards for children's programming in 2007 and 2016, respectively. Mark Hofeling, Ortega's longtime production designer on these series—both cash cows for the Disney brand from the beginning—hints at the kind of zealous following these movies inspire. "This is an audience that loses sleep for two weeks before these movies air, and then they watch them 50 times," he says. "They completely inhabit the stories—their imagination is halfway down the road by the time you meet them."

Descendants, which centers around the offspring of Disney's most iconic villains, is about to see its third entry hit the airwaves on Aug. 2. And, as on the previous incarnations of that and the High School Musical series, as well as 2006's The Cheetah Girls 2, the director and production designer worked in close collaboration to create the magic.

DGAQ: How did the two of you come to work together?

Ortega: Disney brought me out to Salt Lake City prior to the start of the first High School Musical (2006). There was a line producer named Don Schain there, and Mark was Don's main production designer. And we just hit it off immediately, shared a language right off the bat.
Hofeling: And it was interesting for me: I had never made a musical before. It really wasn't part of the culture I grew up in. But then Hurricane Kenny blew into town. And I'd never worked with anybody with quite his energy or commitment to doing something great.

DGAQ: How does your target audience of young teens and ' tweens affect how you approach your design?

Hofeling: A lot of people make a lot of assumptions about that, and they can generally be wrong. Obviously, the most apparent thing is a colorful palette, which young people certainly respond to.
But the biggest mistake you can make in designing films for this audience is to underestimate them. They are incredibly sophisticated consumers of media, more than you and me are, actually. These kids play video games that have amazing graphics and backgrounds and storylines, and they're reading Harry Potter. So that's what we're competing with as creatives.
Ortega: We tested these (Descendants) movies in the beginning, and asked the kids, "If you could visit Auradon (where the good folk live) or the Isle of the Lost (where the baddies live), which one would you want to visit?" And the kids said "Isle." I wanted to create a place that had edges and darkness and trouble, but also showed that you could turn it into something that worked for you. That where you come from doesn't have to be your prison; you can turn it into your own paradise.

DGAQ: You had a particularly ambitious opening sequence in the first Descendants film, "Rotten to the Core," which introduces all of the young offspring characters, as well as their world, and culminates in a huge dance number.

Ortega: I draw from my theatrical background, in this case my love of Oliver, Carol Reed's film that has a musical number, "Consider Yourself," where they took you through the streets of old London and met the orphans, introducing them to the world, and then landed somewhere in the end. So here, I wanted to show our characters' world, what they were up against. So we find them moving through this world.
Hofeling: Our idea was that this was a slum and a prison, but it's ridiculous. I pitched it as a combination of Alcatraz, a Turkish bazaar and John Waters' Baltimore.
Ortega: Fortunately, [the Disney people] hadn't watched any John Waters. So we were safe there.

(Top) High School Musical; (Bottom) Descendants. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Disney Channel)

DGAQ: What are things that make these films "Disney"?

Hofeling: It's actually less restrictive than you imagine. Disney will give you the content, they give you the script, and then they say, "Show us what you want to make out of this." So, there isn't a rule book, essentially. Maybe it's just in all of our marrow, in our DNA, that we all grew up with it, that we have an idea of what that certain universe is.
Ortega: We'll go into a space—like the Isle of the Lost—and Mark will ask me about color and palette: "What are you seeing?" In that case, I said, "Mark, do you remember when we were kids, and our candy fell out of our mouths and got dirt on it?" And he said, "Dirty candy." And I said, "Yeah, I think that's the color here—dirty candy." We would just have fun in imagining what the color basis for the entire Isle of the Lost was. It's a once colorful, exciting place that has fallen into ruin.

DGAQ: What are some of the things that distinguish designing for a musical as opposed to a narrative film?

Hofeling: That's actually fascinating. In the typical narrative, you design and shoot it for the standard human POV—shot at eye level, a lot of 50 mm lens. It's the world as it exists. The strike zone is the typical two-shots and close-ups.
But when you push past that convention, into the musical space—especially for television—you're suddenly shooting 20, 30, 40, 70 or 100 people, head-to-toe in a space. That movie is an exploration of ceilings and floors. So you're treating and protecting for a much taller world than is normal for television, or even most films. Luckily, they bring the DPs on earlier than the normal process here.
Ortega: Mark is always considerate of camera while he's designing. He's considering much more than choreography—everything is designed for the camera.
Hofeling: We're typically shooting choreography from several camera angles, but use of the Technocrane is especially important. That Technocrane is every single seat in the theater, and every pair of eyeballs in the theater, through one lens. So, in a weird way, we're creating, designing and shooting choreographed film like a live theater event. I'm suddenly protecting for hundreds of sight lines, rather than just a couple.

DGAQ: Kenny, how do you map out your work with the dancers in absence of the as-yet-built sets?

Ortega: We've been very fortunate—we have an A, B and a C stage. The A stage is the largest, about 80 feet by 40 feet deep. And so for our larger sets, Mark will come in and have a crew tape everything out. So green tape for one location, red tape for another, etc. Some of them don't fit on there, but we get enough of it, so that we can stage. And he'll also bring models, based on the designs he's been developing.
And we have a B stage that's slightly smaller, and then a C stage, where our cast can go and work, one on one, with a choreographer or with a partner.
The tape is important. So I can say, at the end of a run-through of something, "By the way, you guys, you just ran through the staircase over there. Pay attention to the tape on the floor."

(Top) The Cheetah Girls 2; (Bottom) Hofeling and Ortega on the set of Descendants 3. (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Disney Channel)

DGAQ: Kenny, will Mark interact with or see the work you and your team are doing as Mark is designing? How will things evolve?

Ortega: Well, that's a wonderful thing. [In the theater], everybody was so close to one another during the process of building a show. Wardrobe and props were backstage, there was a rehearsal space, an orchestra room.
[But] for our movies, we had our stages for the interiors, our production offices, our wardrobe and props and scenic build. We created a kind of factory for us, kind of like old Hollywood. Wardrobe people could come in and watch what we were doing. It enabled us to move more quickly, and everyone to be aware of what everyone else was doing on a daily basis. If we had been spread out, I don't know that we would've been able to accomplish all the things that we've been able to with our short schedules and budgets.
And Mark's office was just upstairs from the stage. He could come in and show me a new piece of art, and I could share it with the cast.
Hofeling: I can't state enough the importance of that synergy. On two of the Descendants movies, I could just walk 10 seconds downstairs and sit there and watch [rehearsals]. And I would catch something. I'd see a moment happening, I would see something developing, and I would think, "Oh, here's what I can give you. Here's how I can help you with this." And I wouldn't be able to do that if I was miles away from the studio or the rehearsal studio.

DGAQ: At what point are things considered locked, in terms of the design?

Hofeling: When you're working choreography, the process is so expensive, with all those bodies, that it can only happen in a brief part of the prep. So they could completely change what I'm doing—anything from sets to props to wardrobe.
So part of what I try to prep my departments for is that you're not going to have everything zipped up by the last three weeks of prep. There's going to be a tremendous amount of flexibility you need to build into your thinking and your budgeting system, so that you allow for that. We're not going to tell the choreographers they "can't have that." We're not going to tell Kenny he can't do this. We're going to figure out how we can make it work, until somebody way up the food chain tells us to stop. If Kenny is doing something that changes the narrative or the way the space needs to work, the only answer is yes. Otherwise, you're not doing your job as a designer.
Ortega: Another thing, too—we don't stop designing at Day 1 of shooting. When you have seven or eight musical numbers, and you've got a month to put all that together, the only way to achieve it is with an incredible schedule that your AD helps you put together. It needs to keep the musical numbers stretched out enough, so that, in between each one, people get a chance to catch their breath and get prepped for the next one coming up. It's a continuous machine that is driving all the way until the finish.
Hofeling: It's a layer of creative that is atypical—to have that, as Kenny says, machine of choreography and dance going on while we're still delivering huge sets. They're still shooting every day, there are still all the problems of production. But you know that every Saturday or every Sunday, the set that you're preparing for the following week has to be basically done for a full tech rehearsal—with choreography.
Musicals are a pretty special animal. They look great, but they're not for the faint of heart to make. They will chew you up and spit you out, if you aren't ready for it. So I'm very fortunate that I've had an amazing tutor and mentor, helping me survive.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

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The latest DGA Quarterly includes our cover story on Streaming's Expanding Landscape, the DGA Interview featuring Jean-Marc Vallée, features on televisions's producer/directors, Homeland, Game of Thrones, American Ninja Warrior and more!