- WORLD BUILDER: Mitchell Crisp's work as a film designer has required her to recreate everything from ballrooms to Biblical cities.
"The world I grew up in was one where the arts were not a mystery," Little Rock-based production designer Mitchell Crisp said. "It was absolutely, positively everywhere I looked. People were making money off of being creative, so it was never that sort of mystery where it was like, 'Yeah, we'll give you crayons but you can't be in the arts.' "
So it may come as no surprise that Crisp is not your standard bohemian multihyphenate. She's an illustrator, painter, sometimes an actor and a singer, and all of these titles play an important role in her life as an artist. But she's also dedicated her career to the craft of set design for film and TV — a tough gig to hold down in Little Rock.
The production of "God's Not Dead 3," during which Crisp, as production designer, oversaw the burning of a church, just wrapped a few weeks ago in Little Rock. Crisp has worked on nearly every feature shot in Arkansas since the mid-2000s — "Come Early Morning," "Mud," "God's Not Dead 2" — and helped construct a replica of the original Dreamland Ballroom for the PBS documentary, "Dream Land: Little Rock's West 9th Street."
Kim Swink and Chris Spencer's "Valley Inn" features Crisp both as production designer and in front of the camera as an actor. Her band, Riverbottom Debutante, is on the soundtrack. "Sometimes we'll play months in a row, sometimes we'll go a year without playing," Crisp said about Riverbottom Debutante. "Everyone is middle-aged and busy and in other bands, but Brian Rodgers will call us up and say, 'Y'all wanna play?' And we will." Crisp also contributed the cover art and "Mitchell Crisp's Rainy Day Playlist" to Fluke Fanzine's "Lucky 13" issue, the 25th anniversary issue of Matthew Thompson's punk zine, born out of the Little Rock '90s punk scene.
Crisp, born in Texas, moved to Little Rock with her family as a sophomore in high school, carving out a niche in the small-but-blossoming film scene. "I'm one of those people who's been doing it my whole life. My brother-in-law is a director and producer, but I didn't really know what a production designer was until I was older." She remembers making movies with her cousins as soon as her family got a video camera. "I was real bossy," she said, "so I was the director and art director and the costume designer and wrote all the scripts."
After graduation, she moved to Oakland, Calif., to be a part of the emergent East Bay punk scene of the early '90s, working as a cartoonist, illustrator and storyboard artist in advertising. Eventually, she found herself in New York.
It was there, as a temporary worker on a TV set, that Crisp struck up a conversation with the art department coordinator of "Law & Order" because he was wearing a T-shirt featuring Texas hardcore band Big Boys. It led to a two-and-a-half hour conversation about punk rock — and ultimately, to a full-time job in the art department on "Law & Order." Crisp credits her punk background for getting her further than her resume ever could.
After 13 years at the grindstone in New York, Crisp moved back to Little Rock to be closer to her family as her son was entering kindergarten. "I like it here, my house is here, I love my neighborhood, I love my friends and my parents, and I like being here." Crisp committed to staying close to home while her son finished high school. "I did a lot of commercial work. A lot of commercial work. I've done a lot of commercials.
"I consider myself super fortunate because it's kind of rare for people to be able to work on commercials and features, so I've been able to support myself in the industry even here. However, most people have had to leave, because the bigger money jobs are elsewhere."
Now that her son is off to college in New York, Crisp is able to travel more for work, to places like Atlanta and South Africa, where she worked earlier this year on "Samson," an action feature. Part of her job involved the construction of several large Biblical cities.
"My house is here, and what's great about Arkansas is that my mortgage is less than my day rate, so I can leave my house, lock it up and go away to another country and work and make the money that people in my field make."
The tax credits offered by the Arkansas Film Commission for film productions in Arkansas are not competitive with those offered by Georgia and Louisiana, leaving much of the film production workforce in Arkansas either migrant or underemployed. "I think that the powers that be don't understand really the amount of money that actually gets spent when films get made here," she said. "We have a lot of really good crew here that has to leave because there's not enough of the bigger work." For instance, she said, "The movie that I just wrapped last week, my budget for the art department was brought in from another state and spent here. ... We spent tens and tens of thousands of dollars on furniture and lamps and stuff for all the sets, plus rental fees.
"... I think it's a little short-sighted when people are arguing against having film incentives because they think the money's not going here, because the money comes through here and comes through here again in so many different ways."
Now that her latest project has wrapped, Crisp said she's hoping to paint for a few months. "But if film work calls, I'll definitely drop everything and go."