*EXCLUSIVE* CM Graphic Designer Dylan Hay-Chapman Talks Art & Inspiration!
Ever wonder just who it is that creates the signage, logos, set dressing, public works identity, transportation, and everything else you see (or don’t see) when our BAU team goes to a new town each week? Wonder no more dear readers, and meet the insane talent that creates or manipulates nearly every piece of static art you’ll ever see on-screen. Dylan was kind enough to chat via phone to share his history, and to expound at length about what makes the Criminal Minds Art Department a special asset to the show, and a great place to work!
“We wrote a song for Paget…”
TJ: When did you know you wanted to be a designer? Are you self-taught or did you seek out a degree in design?
DHC: I always took art classes and some design in high school, but I was also a band nerd playing trombone. I ended up as music major w/education minor, and the music dept was horribly mismanaging my schedule. I was doing in house advertising for the video store I was working at at the time, and I drew comics with friends all through high school, and I got a job at a sort of design house, as a negative scanner. So they were training me to use Photoshop to do all the negatives, film scans, so they could have digital photos because that’s how it was done back then. Like 93-94. So I got pretty disillusioned with the music department.
One day at the video store I was working in, a lady came in looking for a laserdisc of Across 110th Street. I’d seen it a billion times as I’d put inventory away, but for some reason it was out of our system, I don’t know what happened, one of the owners sold it to somebody, I don’t know… but she kept saying “Well our director’s going to be upset because he saw it in here yesterday” and I stopped her and said “Wait what are you talking about, ‘director’?” And she said “We’re making a movie and the director sent me to pick up some laserdiscs because he’s busy today.” I said “Oh, who’s in the movie?” She said “Samuel L. Jackson, do you know who he is?” Pulp Fiction had just come out, but I already knew who he was anyway from Jurassic Park and Eddie Murphy RAW… so I asked if she could get me an autograph. She said “Well I can get you a job. Do you have a resume?” So I crossed my fingers behind my back and said “Yes”, and she said do you have a fax, and I said “Yes” even though it was the video store’s fax. So I sent it in, and before I knew it I was taking leave from all my courses at University of Nevada to work on this movie. It was Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movie, Hard Eight. I started doing then commercials, music videos, did graphics for props, switched to digital media and design at school, worked on Phenomenon and Kingpin…. worked pretty steadily on stuff.
The Hard Eight crew asked me to come work on Scream 2, so I quit school, quit my job as a food server. Got a Uhaul, moved down and then BAM. Scream 2 was delayed for 6 months. I then got one day on Godzilla as PA, and the next day got a call from this guy I’d worked with on Unsolved Mysteries for some kid’s show, he said “Can you come to LA?” and I said “I’m already here!” So I started working on that as a set dresser, then got a feature with Janine Garofalo and Jerry Stiller that turned union. So once I was in the union, I thought who can I call for some union work, so I called the decorator from that first PT Anderson movie and said if you have any days, I’d love to have them. And he said yeah come on in, I’m working on this show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So I went in for a few days and they kept me on. I actually designed the cow/chicken for the episode Doublemeat Palace. And I got really stoked when I saw a register sign that I had created made it into production on the Anya Magic Box action figure. Too bad the “shoplifters will be transfigured” sign didn’t get made, but the one that got made was a holdover from the Sunnydale U bookstore. Just watched that episode 3 or 4 weeks ago! Also, when Michelle Trachtenberg came onto CM for Zugzwang, she was kinda looking at me like maybe “Hey do I know that guy…?” Then I mentioned Buffy (Michelle played Dawn, Buffy’s kid sister and mystical ‘key’). The realization hit her face. I was like 25 then and she was around 14 or 15.
Then I jumped over to Firefly and did graphics full time instead of just loading/unloading trucks. When Joss brought Firefly up and that Production Designer Carey Meyer was going over there, I went into Carey’s office and said take me with you and I’ll do graphics. And that basically changed my life!
TJ: How long have you worked for CM? What made you decide to work for the show?
DHC: I came on season 5 so this is my 8th season, and there’s actually another Buffy connection here. I was working on CSI:NY right as the recession was hitting, then there was this across the board request from CBS to downsize the departments. We kept seeing other departments discussing who wasn’t coming back next season, but the art department hadn’t done that yet. So I started to get very suspicious thinking “Is it ME?”, so I cornered the art director and asked what was going on. He confessed it was me that was going. So they knocked my time down to almost nothing, not really making it worth my while to have myself available all day when I could be getting better hours and better pay on another show.
Like two days later I got a call from Victoria Ruskin, art director on CM at the time, and was set designer on Buffy when I was working over there. She was basically offering me the same deal that I was about to lose on CSI. So I left CSI to go to CM… shorter drive to work every day, really nice, and everyone on CM has been great. The most women I’ve ever worked with on a show, representation is higher than any show I’ve ever been on, and of course Messer, our showrunner is just crushing it. Criminal Minds was an excellent move, I’ve been really happy. I remember my first season there people would ask me what I was working on, and I’d say Criminal Minds and they’d go “What?” Nobody knew what it was, and now everybody knows. Now people always tell me ‘It’s my favorite show, my wife’s favorite show, my mom’s… even my kid’s’! But, haha, adult supervision is key.
TJ: Can you tell us what aspect of design you create for CM? (signage, props, screens, etc…) and how much lead time do you get for projects?
DHC: I do everything that often gets described as ‘production graphics,’ so that’s everything that goes in front of camera. Set dressing, props, things that end up going over to VFX or playback graphics (the on-screens stuff), crime scene photos, etc. I don’t compose the playback graphics, another artist makes that and a technician runs them as a movie. But after a photo shoot everything comes through me, everything gets labeled and catalogued just the way I like it. And there are things like retouching photos, removing crew members’ feet, taking “LADWP” off of manhole covers, and sometimes those photos and logos I have designed go to VFX for adding to exterior buildings, removing eyelids, and the like. A lot of things that I do go their way… hand props, paperwork… basically anything that’s gonna get featured we have a process with the writers and their assistants, we make sure everybody has a first and last name for the props, that kinda stuff. Just anything that goes in front of camera is usually done by me.
TJ: Do you get assigned to projects, or do you have to pitch your concepts? How many designers are in your department?
DHC: I’m the only graphic designer, and we have the production designer, Vincent Jefferds. He has really good ideas, intentions, and overarching input. He works with the directors to control the look of the episode. Then there’s art director Craig Keller, our ‘field general’, making sure that sets get built and painted, everything scheduled, he does the breakdowns, he’s the hub of information. Then Arthur Chadwick designs the sets and works with those two guys in terms of designing plans for construction, he’s great. Our art dept coordinator Julia manages us all and keeps information and invoices moving, and is quite a talented artist herself. Our assistant Jessica is awesome. She’s really doing it the right way, learning and helping everyone, and getting the work done. Then finally comes down to me. Vincent and Craig have a lot of preconceived notions, but I get a lot of input into what we do in terms of signage, and style.
We alter locations, sometimes explicit California looks need to be removed. We have a lot of stock from over the years, because things get pretty specific. It goes all different ways, like we need public works for Pittsburgh, then we see it all over the episode. Then another time Reid will have a book or something, and I need to put the concepts together… but we get really close to the final intent in meetings, it usually just gets handled, in the meeting phase. Having to pitch concepts isn’t something we have to do all that often. We’re pretty organized.
TJ: You told us you previously worked on Buffy, then Firefly. Were you a fan of those shows before working on them? Do you feel like there’s a commonality within the three shows in any way that may have drawn you to them?
DHC: It’s just been kind of coincidence actually. The design team on Firefly, once it was canceled we all went over to CSI: Miami, then we did a spinoff episode that became CSI: NY so we all went there, and I hadn’t been available to get calls for other jobs. I’ve managed to sneak in a feature here and there, but I just haven’t had the luxury of being able to pick and choose projects, but I guess I’m picking and choosing to work with awesome people!
TJ: Where do you look for artistic inspiration when creating for Criminal Minds? What inspires you?
DHC: Realism, verisimilitude. Realism is the most important thing for me. Without disparaging my colleagues, sometimes when I’m watching a show, I see things that are very ‘designery’, that sort of jump out. Like I’ll see something that would never exist in the functional real world. Like a parking sign that wouldn’t be practical, and looks goofy unless it was meant to be a plot point, which it wasn’t. So, if we’re doing an airline, try to make it look simple, realistic, distilled down to almost an icon with lots of contrast, readability… I’ll pull up airport logos from all over, to know what to stay away from, I don’t want it to stick out, I want it to vanish. Realism is the most important thing.
TJ: What’s your favorite, the piece of art you’re most proud of creating for CM? For any of the shows you’ve worked on?
DHC: My favorite is … that’s hard! There’s lots of things. Fun poster for Gods of Combat, the video game, we shot our prop master in tactical gear, then made the photos beautiful and put big GI Joe explosions behind them. So we needed a movie poster for Criminal Minds, and so we tweaked that, then a couple seasons later we’d already cleared Gods of Combat so we made a movie poster for Gods of Combat II, it worked out really well. When I did the Negro League baseball posters, they were really something special. The character had been collecting all this memorabilia so it really needed to look real. We got some public domain photos of actual players and we shot some stuff ourselves, pulled all this deep research. There was a really great level of detail.
The menus and signage for Harry&Glenn*s restaurant in Entropy – Vince Jeffords did the caricature that’s inside… sometimes there’s inappropriate language like on the menus. I do it to be funny, ironic, sometimes I wouldn’t really say that stuff but it’s all in fun. In season 5 the grim reaper that was all over, everywhere they went, a death harbinger painted on the side of a barn, a big appliqué, “Santa Muerte”. Favorite Firefly stuff? Inside the cargo bay, we had the big boxes that had the spacesuits in them, I did an infographic on how to put the spacesuit on. Vitruvian man w/spacesuit and instructions. Also, we had no money on Firefly and we were trying to achieve a larger scale. We had all hand cut stencils (because large-format printing was too expensive), all of Jayne Cobb’s t-shirts… a favorite one was like what if wingdings from Microsoft were like this elevated art form in the future? Are people gonna hate this, or get the joke?
TJ: Is there much interaction with the cast? Can you share any funny or poignant anecdotes?
DHC: Not a huge amount of contact any more because I work remotely now… but for the first 6/7 seasons, you know, we’re the art department so we’re kind of in the ivory tower. Shooting crew comes and goes in terms of location and stage, they can be up shooting all night, sometimes we don’t see them for a week or more. That being said, we have cast members that also direct, and when that happens we’re in constant contact. They come in and do meetings… I got pretty friendly with Gube, somebody told him I’m from Nevada, and I don’t even remember when it happened but one day he just popped up “Hey, I’m from Vegas!” and I’m all “I’m from Reno!” and we sang the state song. So we’ve been pretty good pals, especially since his episodes have such special requirements. We’ve done marionettes, we’ve done stage pieces, we’ve done paintings where y’know, the poor guy is in there doing the paintings and drawings himself. He loves that, he’s an artist with crazy origins on top of being an actor and all that. Joe’s in and out all the time, Thomas, we hung out socially. Other than that, it’s mostly ‘Hellos and how-do-you-dos’. At one point I appeared as an UnSub intl terrorist meth dealer. The Playback graphics guys stick my face in there, sometimes.
The art director before Craig, his name’s Adam Rowe, we had our first and only crew talent show that Adam and I won. Gube hosted, we won a pair of Gube’s underwear and 500 bucks in cash to split, but we wrote a song for Paget because she was leaving that year. I don’t know if anyone has video of it, but it was really pretty sad, and it was probably mean of us to invoke that kind of emotional response! We were all going to miss her, and I can’t speak for everybody but it was emotional for all of us, and emotional for Paget especially. I’m really glad she’s back. Another thing, I’ve had Gube retweet me like once a year, and my phone is unusable for about four hours, he’d brick my device! I really don’t know how he deals with that. He’s a merry prankster for sure, maybe if he reads this, he’ll find out how momentarily inconvenient he made my life, and he’d laugh, and then be all “Alright, I’ll just go retweet you right now you ungrateful piece of shit!” BZZZ BZZZ DING BZZZ BZZZ!
TJ: What’s the best/worst part of being the graphic designer for Criminal Minds?
DHC: The best part is I’m the only one! Hahaha, we do some cool stuff. I get to do everything from stained glass to lottery tickets to mini mart shelving… it’s never the same thing, we have our ‘greatest hits’ we have to play for every episode… but it’s never the same thing – except for bloody crime scene photos – that’s always the same thing. Worst thing? While we’re working on the show and just throwing ourselves into it, I’ll create all these things, and then our brains just get emptied 8 days later for the next episode. The ep will air in a month or so and I’ve just forgotten all about it – occupational hazard, you could say. That’s the only thing I hate about it. It’s like this memory purge. But I just feel really lucky to have gone from Buffy to Firefly to Criminal Minds, I’ve really enjoyed it, and I still enjoy it and I hope we get to do a 13th season!
Thank you, Dylan!
You can check out more of Dylan’s artwork here at his website.