Production designer François Audouy was not a car person before he started working on James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari. Audouy, however, considers acquiring this previously unheld expertise the best part of his job.
“Every movie is completely different, and it’s a different eduction. You get to keep learning,” Audouy said. “Part of my job is to become a resident expert about the material. I’m a car person now after living in this world for about a year.”
The research for Ford v Ferrari started with director James Mangold, a fan of the research process and identifying rules of the period. The film isn’t a documentary, so Mangold and Audouy wanted to know when and how rules could be broken. The end goal, however, is still to create an immersive world for the characters. Audouy starts the process by creating a website for the research team – kind of a cinematic Pinterest – with input from any source available, including the Ford Museum and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest which runs the 24 Hours At Le Mans race. That lead to rare footage of the actual 1966 race depicted in the film.
One important distinction in the film is the visual contrast between the worlds of Ford and Ferrari. The Ford side of the film employed a visual dictionary steeped in modern architectural designs that were stark, glass-based, and full of right angles. These scenes boasted a color palate of steel blue and lacquered wood. The look flowed from the offices in the Ford Glass House management facility into the River Rouge factory. Ferrari’s Maranello factory heavily contrasted the steel blue hue of the Ford scenes, providing a sense of visual geography for a film that lacked location subtitles. Ferrari’s world boasted hand-made craftsmanship anchored in an earthy, naturalistic look and feel.
“When you go through the gates of the Ferrari factory, you’re met with a landscape of lavender and palm trees and a gravel driveway,” Audouy remarked. “We get to go on this tour through the factory into the racing department and see an extension of those ideas. Workers are hand-building aluminum engine blocks for the Ferraris, building cars one at a time. It’s a wonderful visual tapestry to be a part of in telling that story.”
But the most challenging aspect of the film was the recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race track. Nothing of the original 8.5-mile circuit still exists, including the original 1,000-foot long grandstand building that was demolished in the mid-1980s. The famous Dunlop bridge is the only original architectural element still standing today.
To solve this problem, Audouy and team split the sequence into four unique locations: three in Georgia and one in Southern California where they rebuilt about 500 feet of the grandstands and pits to scale.
“One thing that’s very interesting about this race course, fans can recognize each stretch of this race because it’s so esteemed in history and legend. We had this 30-minute long third act sequence where the cars would be going past very recognizable landmarks,” Audouy explained. “Jim [Mangold] wanted us to create a continuity of action where you recognize these locations again and again. There’s very little CGI in the film. It’s all old school, real scenery going by at 150 feet per second.”
Audouy worked in close collaboration with director of photography, Phedon Papamichael, to ensure the overall experience was seamless for the viewer through an environment nurtured by Mangold. This connectivity became especially important as the cars “lived” through the 24 Hours At Le Mans.
“They’re perfectly new at the beginning of the race when they leave the starting line, and then they get dirtier and it rains and they get wet and then dry,” Audouy laughs. “It’s sort of a continuity nightmare than requires a lot of communication and collaboration and integration with the assistant directors.”
Audouy equates the Le Mans racing sequence to that of orchestrating a 30-minute war sequence. It brings a thrilling and emotional conclusion to a film that emerges as one of the very best of 2019.