Backstage with Misty Buckley

Backstage With Misty Buckley
Backstage with Misty Buckley

Behind every breath-taking show is a Production Designer who helped make it happen. YTL Arena Bristol had the pleasure of speaking with Misty Buckley, a hugely talented Production Designer for live touring shows, TV and large-scale events. 

Some of her spectacular work includes the Brit Awards, set designs for artists including Coldplay, Stormzy, Ariana Grande and U2, Victoria Secrets Fashion Show and the much-loved Glastonbury Festival. But enough of us talking… here’s Misty herself sharing how she got into this career, how music inspires her work, and much more.

What was the first gig you ever attended?

The first gig I ever attended was Pearl Jam at Brixton Academy in 1993…. It was unbelievable… I had never been in a place surrounded by people so charged with emotion and full of love… 

Can you summarise your career in 3 sentences?

I started as a painter with a passion for 3D making - props/sculptures at Camberwell Art School where I got picked up by Central St Martins to study Fashion, then during my final show, I  realised I didn’t love garments, but was obsessed with Alexander McQueen’s live shows, for me it was more about movement, music, energy, experience for audience and performer.  I spent my evenings training in drafting and working on sets wherever I could, film/TV/music videos, but I had to work in bars, shop and even in a gym, so I could afford to attend the courses and pay my rent ! I was so lucky, I had an amazing tutor, Kyz Kistell, who introduced me to a designer, Bill Laslett, who she used to assist, he took me on as an assistant and taught me how to design Music shows for TV and since then have designed for bands on their touring sets, as well as large scale live events and televised music shows.

What inspired you to get into the production design industry?

I went to the Rolling Stone Voodoo lounge concert when I was a kid and was blown away by their stage sets, designed by the late and wonderful Mark Fisher.  Then when I went to Art school, I got really in to opera and would buy the really cheap student tickets.. I loved the scale of the sets and the drama of the music…  Alexander McQueen was also a huge influence on me… I loved the darkness of his work coupled with the romanticism… and again the scale of his work was awe inspiring.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to get into the industry? What training / qualifications are needed? And what path did you take?

I would advise to do a Foundation in Art, and then a degree in the Arts…  It does not specifically need to be in Set or Scenic Design… But the whole experience and process of an Art degree, teaches you valuable lessons in analytical, creative thinking, accessing your creativity… and being able to self edit… It also teaches great lessons in taking criticism for your designs and learning how to improve upon them, as well as how to work collaboratively.  I would also take loads of short courses to figure out the bits you like and the bits you don’t love and pick up any work you can in an Art Department for film, TV or music videos.  There are so many aspects to Production Design and often people think they want the whole package and then realise they just love the rendering side or the 3D model making…  or the Art department organisation side… This sort of specialisation comes once you have experienced all aspects of an Art Department… Then, after gaining that experience, you can decide which aspects you love… Each specialism in itself is a whole career… So there is loads to choose from.

What size team does it take to design and build a set?

It very much depends on the scale of the project.  We design an area at Glastonbury Festival, which spans a whole field and takes an Art department of 100+… When you consider the carpenters, welders, builders, scenic artists, sign writers, model makers, illustrators, sculptors, greens people (horticulturists), graffiti artists, installation artists, labourers, electricians… etc… and that’s just the art department… Then there are the technicians, the infrastructure workers, production… stewards… volunteers…. traders…. and of course the artists and performers themselves… and everyone who comes with them.

How long did it take to build the sets for The Brit Awards 2020? I remember reading they were designed and built in Bristol… what’s your favourite things about the city?

It takes several months to design the set… Then we move into the costing stage, which involves some back and forth… then, once we have the go ahead… it takes 6-8 weeks to construct the set, depending on how complicated it is.  Steel Monkey, in Bristol, build lots of my sets… and they always build the Brits set… They have such an eye for detail… and their teams are amazing…. welders, artists, carpenters, builders, drafts people...  If you have a Steel Monkey crew member on your team, you know they have your back… They really are an extraordinary bunch of people.

George Ezra performing at the Brits, photography by John Marshall.

Do you listen to music for inspiration? If so, what?

All the time.  I listen to every different type of music depending on what I am designing or thinking about… If I need a power moment (usually when I am struggling with a design), it’s Stormzy or Beyonce “Lemonade" … If I need a introspective moment, it’s Bon Iver, Surfjan Stevens or London Grammar…  If I’m working late at night, I will listen to lots of old french music including Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald… or Portishead is great for those really late nights  … At the moment, we are in lockdown and all I can listen to is Bob Dylan … I just find his lyrics a huge comfort.. and his stories really visual… and relevant… “Shelter from the Storm is on repeat”… I  have two kids, so I get to listen to the Spiderman in to the Spiderverse soundtrack at breakfast each morning… !

Stormzy performing live, photography by Andrew Timms.

Many of today’s artists and performers are pushing and supporting Green Touring. How do you support sustainable productions in your designs? Do you think this is important for everyone in the industry to take on board?

For years, I have been working with our team at Glastonbury on sustainable design.  We recycle pretty much all our scenery…or we construct our scenery out of found or recyclable materials.   We still have some scenery we built 10 years ago and we re-imagine it… re-paint it… take it apart and reconstruct it.… I also take a lot of my sets which are built for big TV specials and use those sets at Glastonbury… Some of the scenery from the Rubgy World cup opening ceremony was used by some of our friends who run other areas at the festival.. We all have our mind constantly on the environmental impact of what we are building.  Glastonbury are constantly re-imagining how large scale events can be done in a greener, cleaner fairer way.  That is why it is so special to be a part of.  I am continuing to spend a lot of time on researching and exploring ways of sustainable touring… It’s a hard nut to crack because by it’s nature it involves moving a lot of stuff around the world and encouraging people to travel to you.  However, it is more important than ever that we place priority on safe, sustainable touring.  In this climate, there will be many aspects of live events that will need to change. … But that is what we all do… We imagine and invent new ways of seeing and creating things.

Don’t Hate the Playaz, ITV2.

What’s your favourite ever project you have worked on and why?

That’s a hard one…  Glastonbury is up there because it is all about LOVE and community.  I love working with Coldplay… actually for the same reasons… as well as they are just constantly flowing with ideas and creativity… But then there is the project I did with Fulwell 73 for Kacey Musgraves, which was incredibly hard and mad but wonderful… and then there is the Brits which is where I started as an art department assistant and I just love.  Too hard.  I love my job.  I love working in collaboration with other creatives… Oh and the Paralympics closing…. was a game changer… and life altering moment… I’m sorry… I can’t pick one… It’s like choosing a child… impossible… 

What’s the most challenging brief you’ve worked on?

The Paralympics closing ceremony was really hard… For many reasons… I started it pregnant with my first child… and then had my baby… and then ended it pregnant with my second child… I mean, I must have been out of my head for most of it… But the brief was so tricky.  How do you close the ceremonies and the whole of the games… with the lowest budget of the ceremonies… but for the most incredible athletes… ?  I worked with Creative Director Kim Gavin and an extraordinary team of artists and creatives… We didn’t have enough money to achieve a fraction of what we wanted to… SO instead of sending everything out to expensive set builders, we brought in all the artists, welders, carpenters, creatives and we took over a workshop in East London and built the Paralympics scenery, trucks and vehicles from scratch with artist Joe Rush… as well as Bristol based Set builders, Steel Monkey… and Devizes based inventor, Will Trickett…. The South West is home to some of our finest creatives !!!

I can see you’ve travelled to some pretty amazing places for work. Where’s your favourite place you’ve travelled?

Jordan.   I did a recce in the Wadi Rum desert for the recent Coldplay Every Day life campaign…It was my first time in the desert and I stood there surrounded by these incredible rock formations and all I could see was  Tatooine form Star Wars… I was so excited, I face timed my 8 year old son, who was blown away by my location… (I totally regretted it when I got my eye wateringly high phone bill  that month!)… We actually ended up shooting the film (directed by Paul Dugdale) in the old Citadel in the city of Amman…Which was totally mind blowing.    I can honestly say Jordan was the most incredible, spiritual, magical place I’ve been… The moment the sun came up over the city… It was one of those trips where you know you have changed a little bit as a result. 

The Little Mermaid Live.

As a set designer, what’s one thing you would LOVE to see in a new arena?

I would love to see it solar powered or at the very least powered with renewable energy…  I would also love it to have the ability to rig a decent amount of weight/set anywhere in the arena to give more flexibility in how you use the venue… 

What does it mean to you for Bristol to have an arena?

It’s so exciting.  Bristol is a vibrant city with loads of creative energy… The city has always had such an interesting and slightly off beat scene, which I love.  Everyone is Bristol has an idea for something… a piece of work, a gig , a cafe, a project, a pop up.. I love it.. and of course some incredible musicians and artists have started in Bristol.  It’s cool… it feels authentic and not too gentrified.  Also, selfishly it’s only 40 minutes from my studio, so that’s great for gigs !

And finally… what’s your all-time favourite song so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?

It would have to be Radiohead "Fake Plastic Trees"…. it reminds me of our dear friend Octavia who we lived with in Bristol for several years… She adored Bristol… We used to sing this song a lot together… She was an incredible singer and sang at our wedding… She would probably be performing in this arena if she were still here today….