Nelson Coates ('84) | Hollywood Production Designer

nelson coates

When Sandra Bullock's romantic comedy The Proposal hit No. 1 at the box office, moviegoers didn't see Nelson Coates' image on the big screen. But the ACU alum's handprints were all over the project.

When you watch The Proposal, you can't help but think that everybody's having a great time, because we were. It was one of the most fun movie experiences of my career."

For Nelson ('84), The Proposal is the latest in a string of Hollywood films and TV shows bearing his hallmark as production designer.

Now he is working on a motion picture for Disney Studios based on bestselling author Nicholas Sparks' new novel The Last Song.  The book is set for release in September, and the movie – a coming-of-age drama starring Miley Cyrus, Kelly Preston and Greg Kinnear – is set for release in April 2010.

The Last Song is different for Nelson because it is "the first time for a Nicholas Sparks book to go to lens before the book is published," Nelson says. "And we've made many changes, even though the galleys haven't come out, but with his blessing."

Making every detail believable

One of the changes was the locale for the film. "I got him to agree to set the movie in Savannah, out on Tybee Island, because it will be more evocative for what we needed for this story," Nelson says. "The script is kind of like an outline, and we're actually shaping it and reworking it as it goes."

Nelson's hand is in all visual aspects of the storytelling process. As a production designer, he is one of the first people hired for a film. He answers only to the producer and director – and, of course, the studio executives, he jokes.

Whether replicating every detail of an actual event, or creating fake history or forecasting a future yet to come, Nelson's job is to "infuse the film with every visual detail to make the environments seem believable and plausible," he says. 

Sometimes that involves constructing a 30,000-square-foot White House replica in six weeks, as he did for Murder at 1600 – or building an entire church, inside and out, as the one scripted to burn in the opening scene of The Last Song.

Fast-paced job keeps things interesting

The quick pace of Nelson's job keeps it exciting.

"My ideas get realized so incredibly quickly," he says. "From the time I draw it until it's standing there is such an abbreviated period of time. I have hospital rooms and hallways that are just starting to build today (for The Last Song), and it shoots in two weeks. It will look like a full-fledged hospital. This church I just started building four weeks ago, and it shoots next week."

For Nelson, "the challenge of dreaming it up and making it happen on such a large scale so fast" is one of his favorite parts of the job.

Nelson is in charge of the concept and execution of the sets, props, costumes, hair, make-up, visual effects and creature effects. But his job involves much more than set design. He also helps create a color palette and orchestrates the use of symbolism for a film. Sometimes he will help rewrite a script to make it more believable.

"I say, this doesn't make sense, here's what would really happen," he says. Or, "we should rewrite this, here's what will make it believable."

"I can tell you lots of new endings of movies because of me," he says.

The Proposal one of Coates' favorites

Nelson lists The Proposal among his three favorite projects, along with Antwone Fisher and Runaway Jury.

"When you watch The Proposal, you can't help but think that everybody's having a great time, because we were," Nelson says. "It was one of the most fun movie experiences of my career."

The movie is set in New York City and Sitka, Alaska, but due to favorable tax benefits was filmed in and around Boston. Nelson created a book company in downtown Boston in a vacant office tower to simulate a New York Publishing house. "We shot several street scenes in Boston and changed out signage as well as bringing in NYC taxis and buses," he says. 

Sitka, Alaska, was a greater challenge, he says. "As most people are not aware of what Sitka looks like, we had a bit of latitude with the look. I used portions of Rockport and Gloucester, Mass., for the town of Sitka. We created storefronts and lots of signage as well as a lot of artwork and totems in the First Nations style so prevalent in Southeastern Alaska."

Challenges of set design

The greatest challenge, says Nelson, was creating the main house, which is described in the script as belonging to the "Alaskan Kennedys."

"Once I found the exterior, we proceeded to modify it to look the part," he says. "The interior was a greater challenge in that it was Colonial Revival style – so we actually constructed an entire house within that house so the look would be 'Alaskan lodge' and we could still see the great water views out the windows."

Not all stories may be deep life lessons, but I firmly believe God has given me incredible opportunities to work on particular projects and to make a difference in content and in the actual work environment, and in the final product.

Nelson's crew clad the other buildings on the property to match the style of the main house and introduced more than 50 mature evergreens to the landscape.

"A lot of my work on The Proposal dealt with interfacing with our visual effects crew," Nelson says. "I created computer renderings of every location to show how the mountains and ocean surrounding Sitka should interface with the sets and locations. In one particular sequence, we actually had to build our own buoy that could be placed to camera for a boat stunt sequence."

Nelson began work on The Proposal Jan. 7 and had about 11 weeks to find and prep locations and design and build all the sets. “We shot for about 12 weeks and wrapped up about the first week of June,” he says. The movie opened at the box office in the No. 1 position. 

Abilene roots run deep

Nelson grew up in Abilene, the son of education faculty members Drs. Ed and Jane Coates. He started ACU as a pre-med major, was involved in 30 collegiate and professional theatre productions while in college, and graduated with a degree in public relations and advertising.

"So even though I got a degree in mass communication, I kind of claim several departments," he jokes.

Nelson is the first graduate of ACU to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is a long-time member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. His credits include a lengthy list of feature films and TV shows, as well as an Emmy nomination for art direction on The Stand, a TV mini-series based on the novel by Stephen King.

ACU provides 'wonderful grounding experience'

Nelson especially appreciates the "nurturing environment" of the ACU community, which he describes as a "wonderful grounding experience." And he firmly believes more Christians are needed in the entertainment business, he says.

"Having a life built on faith provides the much-needed framework to maintain my work focus and to support a nurturing environment for creativity," he says. "Not all stories may be deep life lessons, but I firmly believe God has given me incredible opportunities to work on particular projects and to make a difference in content and in the actual work environment, and in the final product.

"I try to put good stuff out in the world," he says.

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