Cindy Chao and Michele Yu like that they can be in two places at once, although the film industry requires them to be in three. The pair, who met in college—as it happens, working at a student magazine called The Scene—have made a name for themselves as production designers. The Los Angeles-based team has designed sets for all kinds of commercial films, from low-budget music videos and ad campaigns for the likes of American Express, Ford and Hulu, to indie films like Michael Mohan’s Save the Date and glossier, high-end features like Joss Whedon’s updated adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.
No two projects are ever the same. Each time there’s a different mood to convey—and curious props to provide. A card machine that deals out death sentences for the Michael Mohan-directed short This Is How You Die. A hand-built set of wall-mounted robotic arms for a deejay’s music video. In translating the sometimes-zany ideas they conceive on a mood board into a reality, it’s clear the women have learned to think quickly on their feet. They have become jacks-of-all-trades, masters of adaptation.
Chao’s and Yu’s creativity extends to their wardrobe. When we speak, Chao is wearing a dress festooned with cosmic hamburgers—she calls it “celestial funk”—while Yu glams up a gray T-shirt with a vintage gold and cream bangle she “just picked up at a flea market,” clasped over her wrist by a pair of enamel kissing tigers.
They share a workspace in Lincoln Heights, but they rarely use it, instead working wherever each project takes them—on set, in coffee shops and other people’s offices. “Our studio is more of a crash pad for the odds and ends collected on different projects,” Yu says. “It’s great not having a base. You get to travel around a lot, and see a lot that informs what you bring on set.”
Though they work mostly with props, furniture and fabrics, Chao and Yu’s work is really about people. Like actors, they get into character to create a set. On Save the Date, Yu says they “were able to put a little piece” of themselves into the movie in “unexpected ways.” Everything—from the artwork and furniture to the records the characters own—had “a story behind it,” Yu says. Music gear was borrowed from friends and boyfriends, and the records from a friend’s re-issue label. Hidden on set, there was a portrait of Yu and Chao playing Ouija board with one of the movie’s protagonists, drawn by graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown, who inspired the film.
Though the women find film rewarding and suspect they’ll always work in it, they’re keen to make their designs “more permanent” through interior design projects that would combine their love of restoring furniture and working with textiles. Then, as Yu puts it, “we can rule the world in other ways.”