It may seem an unlikely place for an architect to land, but Matthew Sama, assistant art director for NBC’s “The Blacklist,” says his UB education uniquely prepared him for what he’s doing today — illustrating and modeling set designs for the hit crime drama series. Sama says the architecture program’s Situated Technologies Research Group and its curricular connections to UB’s media study department allowed him to turn his passionate interest in cinematography and CGI (computer-generated imagery) into a powerful set of design skills and sensibilities. Today Sama counts major motion pictures “The Amazing Spiderman 2” and “NOAH” among his completed works. We had a chance recently to chat with Sama to learn more about his journey into cinematography and film.
You came into the architecture program with a passionate interest in cinematography and CGI (computer-generated imagery). When was that Eureka moment, when you saw that the two could be combined into a single academic pursuit?
CGI has always been a huge interest of mine. I am intrigued by the potential to create practically anything and bring that design into the three-dimensional world for others to see. In one of our undergraduate courses, our class 3D modeled an existing building and then using that model, we had to produce a computer-animated walkthrough. That was probably the moment that I saw the potential within architecture to explore these fields. It wasn’t exactly Eureka – more of a slap in the face – because it was also the moment that I realized I knew nothing about cinematography, and I needed to explore it.
“I am intrigued by the potential to create practically anything and bring that design into the three-dimensional world for others to see. In one of our undergraduate courses, our class 3D modeled an existing building and then using that model, we had to produce a computer-animated walkthrough. That was probably the moment that I saw the potential within architecture to explore these fields.”
You probably get this question a lot. But how did you translate this into a career in film?
My academic pursuits were never directly in line with what I’m doing now. Apart from architecture, I was experimenting with acting classes and cinematography courses, trying to understand how I could connect them all into a single career. It was actually doing extracurricular work through an acting professor that I discovered scenic design and knew I wanted to pursue the field after graduating.
As for the actual transition, going from architectural design to film design was actually much more of a direct translation than I thought it was going to be. The skills are all the same – drafting, illustrating, modelling – but the thought process behind the design and construction of the final product is much different. In the simplest sense, designing for film mostly deals with aesthetics and details; you don’t have to worry about the bones and guts of a building behind the finished surface like you would in architecture.
Describe what you do – on a broad scale and day-to-day – as an assistant art director for a major network series? How does your architectural training add value to and color your work?
As an Assistant Art Director, my duty is to translate the designer’s concepts for multiple sets into renders, illustrations and ultimately construction documents for a team of carpenters to construct. On “The Blacklist,” that translation usually takes place over a one-week period, depending on the size of the set, before it is handed off to the carpenters, painters, dressers, electricians and other people who bring the set to life. Having been trained architecturally, I definitely feel at home in this type of rapid production timeline. I also think my architectural background gives a slightly different context to my design decisions – for both good and bad. Architecturally I was trained to think on a larger scale – high-rise buildings, the site, the city. Now I operate on a much smaller level, designing one or two spaces for each set, sometimes it’s only a couple of walls.
"Working on ‘The Blacklist’ has been my most rewarding experience so far, as I’m much more involved in the design and production of the sets at all of the development stages. At the beginning of the first season, I was a little alarmed when I was told to start drawing a derailed train car that we had to start building in three days...! Design challenges like that can be difficult, but that’s also what makes ‘The Blacklist’ so much fun.”
We have to ask, what was it like working on the production of “The Amazing Spiderman 2”? Of all your works, which has been the most interesting, and why?
“The Amazing Spiderman” was actually my first professional scenic design job, for which I am very grateful to have been hired. Having grown up on super hero movies, it was very nostalgic and felt very full-circle at the time. I was one of three model-makers on the production who were building physical-scaled models of the sets that the other designers were drafting. The position was really informative because it allowed me to witness a lot of the aspects and steps in designing a set from start to finish, while simultaneously being a part of the design process.
Both “The Amazing Spiderman” and “NOAH” were probably the most interesting projects to work on because the scope of both movies was just enormous. The subject matter really allows the designer to get into some interesting concepts, and the sets were really spectacular to stand in.
Working on “The Blacklist” has been my most rewarding experience so far, as I’m much more involved in the design and production of the sets at all of the development stages. At the beginning of the first season, I was a little alarmed when I was told to start drawing a derailed train car that we had to start building in three days...! Design challenges like that can be difficult, but that’s also what makes “The Blacklist” so much fun.
On any production, however, I think it’s interesting to see your finished design on screen so quickly. You spend a lot of energy designing the set in such a short time, and all of sudden there it is on screen, and now you think of all the things you could have done differently if there had been more time. Just as quickly as it appeared, the scene is over and the set is gone. I think that’s where a major disconnect occurs between architecture and scenic design; a building can stand for decades, while a set stands for only days and lasts on screen for merely seconds.
You open your thesis (Kinesthetic Interfacing with Architecture) with an elegant statement: “Architecture can be defined as the choreographic arrangement of space in relation to the moving body.” Is it fair to say that this notion of space and movement is the connector between architecture and media/cinematography?
I think there is a very close correlation between architecture and cinematography in regards to space and movement. Cinematography is fascinating to me, because it forces us to move through space in ways in which we would not normally experience architecture. It also has the ability to visually move us in ways that we cannot physically move through space.
In what direction do you see these two fields moving in the future? Will they continue to move closer together both in research and in practice?
I think the two fields [architecture and scenic design] are, and always will be, very much intertwined. Scenic design, for example, often deals with specific historical periods, where the sole purpose of the design is to match an architectural style in order to transport the viewer to that specific time period. On the other end of the spectrum, it fantasizes about what kind of buildings and technologies could exist based on modern design, or even what is thought could never exist. I think that idea is what fuels architecture to continue to push its limits of design.
What’s next for you and your career? Might you ever “go back” to architecture?
I don’t think I could “go back,” but I would never say I’ve abandoned it; it’s deeply embedded in my design skills and mentality and, because of that, I’ve been able to pursue my career. I’m glad to say that I love what I do. It excites me to get to do what I do for a living, and I think that kind of enjoyment can be hard to find in a career.
I would love to work on another super hero movie, or something fantastical like that, where the design has to create a whole new believable world for the viewer. I think those kinds of jobs are exciting, and you can really have some fun designing those worlds.
What was one of your most memorable experiences – academic or otherwise – from your time with the School of Architecture and Planning?
I miss the studio sometimes. Just working closely with your friends and sharing ideas and discoveries with each other was great for creativity. I sure don’t miss the all-nighters though.
Any single piece of advice you can offer to current students as they prepare to transition into the profession?
I’ll just share some words my dad would always tell me that kept me going.
“The words ‘I can’t’ are not in your vocabulary.”
“’The third time [try] is a charm”
And, personally, I’ve always liked, “Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”