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Germany / Switzerland

Mona Cathleen Otterbach • Production designer on Milk Teeth

“The viewer should be drawn into the world you create, and you can use certain clues to do this”


- Discussing her work on Sophia Bösch’s new film, the production designer explains how you should treat a forest like a living, breathing character

Mona Cathleen Otterbach  • Production designer on Milk Teeth
(© German Films/Sebastian Gabsch)

German production designer Mona Cathleen Otterbach recently worked on the drama Milk Teeth [+see also:
film review
interview: Mona Cathleen Otterbach
interview: Sophia Bösch
film profile
by Swiss-Swedish director Sophia Bösch, which screened earlier this year at the Max Ophüls Prize and at IFFR. Her other recent works include the comedy-thriller Roxy [+see also:
film review
interview: Dito Tsindsadze
film profile
by Dito Tsintsadze and the tragicomedy Franky Five Star [+see also:
film review
interview: Birgit Möller
film profile
by Birgit Möller. As German FilmsFace to Face campaign unspooled at this year's Berlinale, we met up with Otterbach and asked her for some insights into her artistic approach.

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Cineuropa: What were the biggest challenges when it came to the production design on Milk Teeth?
Mona Cathleen Otterbach:
It was a huge responsibility to take care of the production design for the movie because it was based on a book that had a very wide reach. I'm a big fan of the book. It was an honour to be asked by the production company. Then I had my first conversation with Sophia, and we quickly realised that we spoke the same visual language and imagined the world for the film in a similar way. This world is exciting because it is set in the not-too-distant future and is dystopian. Time has stood still in it. There are no electronic devices. Many of the objects are supposed to represent remnants of older generations. It was a lot of fun to think about which things also enrich the story in the background. The character of Edith, for example, is considered a kind of witch in the community. The many books in the room were important because they indicated that she collects knowledge. The same applies to the dried herbs and the jars of pickled food in the kitchen. The camera may not capture it directly, but it gives the viewer a sense of the world.

But a lot of the movie also takes place outside. How do you handle that? How much can you actually design?
You can design anything: even a forest is a character. And in this movie in particular, the outside world is a big character. We have this river that represents a border. We have the forest, which you spend a lot of time in. A forest can be dense, or it can be open. There can be more light or less; it can be greener or less green. You can tell a lot about the choice of tree species. You can create a lot, but you also need to trust that the person with the camera will find the right images. The director, the DoP and I had some intensive discussions. I then had to let them do it on location; I knew that they would get the best out of what we had worked on together.

What is your working method, and what tools do you use?
My background is in architecture, and that's why it makes sense for me to work with a floor plan. I look at how actors walk within apartments, how to get from one room to another and how to divide up the rooms. I have a preferred floor plan that I like to give to the location scout. I say that it would be important, for example, for the kitchen to be quite large, or for the kitchen and the bathroom to be next to each other, because you have to look into the kitchen from the bathroom. The viewer has to find their way around, spatially. To do this, I think about whether you can differentiate rooms by colour because the viewer doesn't know this floor plan. The viewer should be drawn into this world, and you can use certain clues to do this. A room can be brighter, or there can be tiles on the wall to show that it's the kitchen or the bathroom. I make sketches of the different scenes, I assign different colours to the figures, and then I make suggestions within the available budget. This is done in close consultation with the director, the DoP and the production team. The novelist was also heavily involved in Milk Teeth.

Do you see it as part of your responsibility to make your work sustainable?
That is an incredibly large part of my responsibility. I am part of a production-design collective that researches which alternative materials can be used. We try to make used materials available for other productions. There is an exchange of props, so not everything always has to be bought new. Of course, we know that many materials don't last long, because they are only used for one movie. But recycling is important. I've been aware of this responsibility since I studied at the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy. There was always a small pool of materials, and we always recycled them, trying to create something new with them.

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