Andrea Onorato ’08: The Hollywood Set Designer

Is there a connection between the hallways of Moorestown Friends and the studio stages of multi-million dollar blockbuster films in Hollywood? If you ask Andrea Onorato, both are prime spaces for a set designer to bring unbelievably stunning structures and ideas to life. Although in the past three years she has worked on multiple high-profile sets, including her current work on the HBO sci-fi western thriller series called Westworld, Andrea’s first design feats of engineering were decorating the Upper School hallways for Spirit Week.

“I loved Spirit Week and was always in charge of hallway decorating [one of the competitions among the Upper School grades to create an elaborately themed section of hallway],” said Andrea. “Those experiences had a big impact on me because, as my whole family likes to joke, I had no idea I was set designing a hallway and it’s now what I do for a living! It was a collaborative effort, as we would spend weeks planning and painting props in advance. Then during the one night in October, when we were allowed to actually install everything at school, we would only have a certain amount of time to finish. We were racing against the clock, which is exactly the same as the film business.”

As an Original at MFS, beginning as a Preschool student and graduating 15 years later, Andrea attributes much of who she is to the school, in addition to the family and friends who helped raise her.

“At MFS, we were always in an environment where we felt comfortable to express ourselves and be courageous enough to create things,” said Andrea. “At work, I have the self-confidence to propose any new idea. Especially in my industry, you have to be courageous and willing to move to L.A. without a job at first, like I did, or show up for a job you know nothing about because it’s confidential, like my work at Interstellar. Also, because everything in film is project-based, so much of my job requires networking with veteran professionals. Students that come out of MFS have that ability to communicate really well because of the respectful environment in which we communicated with teachers, and that has been keeping me employed.”

Academically, she credited her arts education, studying art history and drawing and painting in different mediums with Art Teacher Richard Marcucci, as incredibly valuable for her career. Andrea also specifically noted one physics project in Science Teacher Tim Clarke’s class that guided her college path. The class constructed a bridge and seeing the resulting functional structure that combined her love of art with the science of engineering helped Andrea decide to study architecture at Cornell University.

At Cornell, Andrea learned how to 3D model, by drawing on digital design tool AutoCAD, and how to fabricate those models by carving foam shapes or laser cutting cutouts onto cardboard. A rigorous technical curriculum, the Cornell architecture program provided Andrea with a 3D modeling skill set, but internships at various architecture firms made her realize that firm life wasn’t as exciting as Andrea had hoped. Her interests transitioned definitively towards set design after a course called “Architecture in Pop Culture,” where her professor exposed how architecture could be applied in many industries, including film.

“In that class, we would watch a scary movie and comment why the house seemed scary,” said Andrea. “Concrete and glass materials showed physically why the house was not warm and cozy. Sets really influence the narrative of a film’s story. After that, I became so excited about how amazing set design sounded as a career. Every time I watched a movie I started looking at the credits, studying the different positions of people who worked on the movie. That introduced me to animator, designer, cinematographer, and different behind-the=scenes positions in film.”

After graduating from Cornell in 2013, Andrea decided to move to L.A., without a job offer. After three weeks, a visual effects company called New Deal Studios, where Andrea previously interned, offered her an eight-month gig, which ended up being a designer for the movie Interstellar.

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“The director Christopher Nolan likes his sets to be realistic so we created miniature spaceships for practical in-camera effects,” said Andrea. “But these miniatures aren’t exactly small, the spaceships were about the size of a vehicle. On a daily basis, we’d receive 3D models from set designers in the First Unit Art Department and we’d edit their models and fabricate them in real life. In the film, the spaceship Endurance had circular ship pods that had repetitive surface details. With a short amount of time to make all these parts, sometimes the shop with the carpenters and sculptors couldn’t do it or it was too difficult to make, so I’d 3D print pieces from the computer.”

The project was a constant collaborative effort and Andrea was even able to work side by side with Ian Hunter, the owner of New Deal Studios, who accepted the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects on behalf of the team.

After Interstellar, Andrea joined the Art Directors Guild union, which afforded her the opportunity to work on other blockbuster films, including Captain America: Civil War. For the Marvel film, she focused on the Raft underwater prison. During the design stages, Andrea received the height measurements for all the actors involved in the Raft scenes so the prison cell bars would be aligned properly, not blocking the actors’ eyes. She remembers fondly that while watching the film in the theater, she felt very proud when she saw a great shot of Robert Downey Jr.’s face through the prison cell bars.

Seeing a set through the entire process, from a 3D model on her computer screen to the studio stage to the silver screen, is the most rewarding aspect of the job for Andrea. Physically walking through a space that she visualized on the computer only a few months earlier amazes her. Even when production schedules change or projects are ordered last minute, Andrea still finds the process exciting.

“The film business attracts people from all walks of life, and I’m surrounded by such talented people,” said Andrea. “I’m particularly humbled by the artistry of the craftsmen and tradesmen that build the sets I design. We are all so passionate for what we create, that is what keeps me showing up on Monday mornings without knowing what’s going to happen.”

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