Empowering Feminist Narratives: Inside the Creative Vision of Emma Koh, Production Designer of Oscar-Nominated Short 'RED, WHITE & BLUE'

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In the realm of filmmaking, where storytelling is both an art and a vehicle for social commentary, Emma Koh stands as a multifaceted force. As a Korean American artist, filmmaker, and production designer, Koh brings a unique perspective to her craft, infusing her work with a blend of cultural richness and poignant authenticity. Not only does she excel in her creative endeavors, but she also champions important social causes, serving as a vocal advocate for the #StopAsianHate movement. Most notably, Koh's recent venture into the realm of Oscar-nominated cinema with the production design of "RED, WHITE AND BLUE" further solidifies her as a dynamic figure in the industry.

This powerful short film, directed by an acclaimed filmmaker, delves into the urgent and deeply personal journey of Rachel, portrayed by Brittany Snow, as she navigates the fraught landscape of reproductive rights in contemporary America. As we delve into Koh's creative process and her commitment to authentically bringing feminist narratives to life, we uncover the profound impact of her work both on-screen and within the broader cultural landscape.  

PH: Can you share with us your journey from studying at Cornell to becoming an accomplished artist, filmmaker, and production designer, particularly highlighting the pivotal moments in your career?

Emma Koh: At Cornell, I was part of the Architecture, Art and Planning college, where I studied Fine Art with a concentration in sculpture and photography (specifically film B&W and color; large and medium format), in addition to pursuing pre-med with the anticipated goal of applying to medical school. I thought I wanted to be a doctor my whole life, mostly influenced by my mother, who is a Pediatrician. Watching her be a boss and helping sick patients looked and felt so rewarding - but truthfully, art always held a special place in my heart and was the thing that fulfilled me over time. 

Art was the gateway to everything I’m doing now. It’s intrinsically part of who I am and what I create — there’s just no question about it. After committing 100% of myself to a creative career during my third year of university, film just made the most sense. Production Design for me isn’t just about bringing the world of the film to life, but on a personal level, it’s a tool for healing. A lot of what I bring to my films are part of my story and my experiences, which help me be better equipped to bring the story to the screen. I later worked in VFX and saw how both worlds can be bridged together, which motivated me to go after my second master’s in Worldbuilding from Southern California Institute of Architecture, Fiction & Entertainment, in hopes to make me an even stronger and well rounded visual storyteller.

PH: As someone who has worked on projects that explore deeply personal and often sensitive topics, such as abortion rights in "Red, White and Blue," how do you approach storytelling and production design to ensure authenticity and empathy for the subject matter?

Emma Koh: Designing for film requires a great level of empathy in order to translate the look and feel of the film in a visceral way. As a woman, the overturn of Roe v. Wade greatly impacted me, and women and queer people all over the country. I knew I had to bring all of myself to the film. However, I’m not a white woman from the midwest, and I’m definitely not a single mother, so it was imperative I hired the right Set Decorator and the right woman for the job. Meeting Rebecca Keeling, our Set Decorator, was truly a luck of the draw; without her, I wouldn’t have been able to create Rachel’s world the way it looks now. 

PH: Your work often intersects with social advocacy, particularly with your involvement in the #stopasianhate movement. How do you see your role as an artist and filmmaker in contributing to broader social conversations and driving change?

Emma Koh: I made the conscious decision of going into film not only to create art, but to be of service to other artists in creating impactful work. I want to help tell stories told from a marginalized lens and help represent those marginalized communities. As an artist, my job is to create and adhere to my values and my truth in hopes to influence others; however, how they want to take it is completely their choice. I want to share my work and my creations in hopes that it can inspire others to think, and possibly even act, just a little bit differently. 

PH: Could you elaborate on your experience working with female director Nazrin Choudhury and an all-female department on "Red, White and Blue"? How did this collaborative environment influence the creative process and the final product?

Emma Koh: It was inspiring to work with a nearly all-female crew, especially in terms of Department Heads. I became very close with the producers, and we were able to commune, bond and support each other throughout the process. Through working on the film, we have become good friends. It truly was exciting to work on a film about women, for women, by women. 

PH: Indie filmmaking often presents unique challenges, especially in terms of budget constraints. Can you discuss your strategies for overcoming these challenges and leveraging resources effectively, such as your collaboration with Warner Bros. Prop House?

Emma Koh: The overall budget of the Art Department, including set decoration and props, was extremely tight and limited. This was possibly the smallest budget I’ve ever worked with and both the demands and expectations were high. I was not joking when I said meeting Rebecca was a luck of the draw. Because of her long and good standing relationship with Warner Bros. Prop House and the impending writer’s strike at the time, WB Prop House graciously allowed us to rent everything we needed for $200. Shout out to Robert Greenfield, your generosity will never be forgotten! 

Although the discount was a huge help, I still had to ration out the remaining budget to graphics, props, construction, scenic, and two identical picture cars. Situations like this, albeit at times stressful and challenging, help me tap into my grad school days and be super resourceful. Having to wear many different hats, I also had to produce my department and make deals with vendors and find the right people to make deals with that were not only trustworthy, but also genuinely good people. For example, my picture car vendor, Claudia, gave us an amazing deal for the hero picture car you see in the film. Additionally, she hooked us up with another vendor who had the same identical make and model. The only difference was that the interiors of the cars didn’t match, so I had the idea of getting identical car covers to cover the seats of the vehicles to maintain continuity in the film. 

Another huge proponent of Art Dept is acquiring clearances for art, graphics, and photos. Because I come from the TV world, I am very diligent about acquiring legal rights to every and any art used and seen on screen. However, since I didn’t have the budget nor the crew, I reached out to friends who had kids who had drawings they were willing to lend to us and acquired signed art and materials licensing agreements from them to help communicate the evidence of children living in that apartment.

PH: In "Red, White and Blue," you transformed LA-based locations into sets that accurately depicted the film's Arkansas setting. What were some of the key elements and considerations in achieving this authenticity, and what were some of the most rewarding aspects of this process?

Emma Koh: Some of the key elements used to accurately depict the look and feel of the Midwest, particularly in the diner, was the art used for decoration in the space. First off, shout out to the owners of Chef’s Coffee Shop in Arcadia! They were the kindest and most generous location owners I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. This diner had so much history to it, the current owner is the great grandson of the original owner and creator of the diner so the feel was intrinsically there. The biggest challenge was replacing the art and decorations that existed in the diner because they were literally mounted and plastered into the walls. There was just no way of taking the frames off the wall, so the only option was to replace them by mounting our cleared images of Arkansas on top of the existing frames. I had to measure each frame that you see in the diner and the hallway of the bathroom to its specific size, manipulate our cleared images to that sizing, and ensure they’re printed to the correct size. Printing these images was another huge challenge, as we didn’t have money to spend on printing. To work around this, I asked a favor from another Production Designer friend to help print these images out on her machine - shout out to Michele Yu, thank you so much!  

A challenge in selling the Midwest was also the driving scenes and making sure the car chosen was the right look and feel of “America,” and what’s more “America” than a Chevy! Due to logistics and scheduling, we could only shoot our driving scenes in Griffith Park, but the biggest element in selling that these women were driving through the Midwest was the moment Maddy sees the state sign “Missouri.” That was a cleared image I sourced and sent to our VFX Supervisor and friend, Kaitlyn Yang, owner of Alpha Studios — thanks Kaitlyn! 

When I did my research of Midwest interior homes, I saw a more muted and desaturated palette of colors and decided that’s what I wanted to portray in Rachel’s apartment. I wanted to really get the look right, so we used the diner as the initial template in terms of color and setting the tone. I also wanted to communicate the chaos of her living situation as a single mother of two while simultaneously bringing in the warmth and love she has for them. So, we stuck to more warmer desaturated tones in the family of brown, burgundy, and some light pinks and yellows, which is a huge contrast to what you see later on in the film at the hospital. 

PH: As a member of the Art Director's Guild DEI Committee, what initiatives or changes do you hope to champion within the industry to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

Emma Koh: Some of our initiatives in the DEI committee is to generate more interest within the guild for those who identify as POC. This helps incentivize younger and more diverse talent to join. Growing up, Korean was my first language and in order to assimilate, I felt forced to forget my native tongue in order to learn English. I remember at five years old, the principal and teacher called my mother in for a meeting, threatening to hold me back or even asking me to leave the school if I didn’t learn English asap. So holding space for diverse backgrounds and voices in my field is really important to me. Part of my contribution to the DEI Committee is managing the social media account on Instagram. Social media is the best way for us to be and stay visible within our guild and other IATSE organizations; amplifying what we’re doing as a committee and a community not only promotes diversity and equity, but is in itself a form of inclusivity. 

PH: "Red, White and Blue" tackles a highly politicized issue, namely abortion rights, in a poignant and urgent manner. What do you hope audiences take away from the film, and how do you envision it contributing to ongoing conversations and decisions surrounding reproductive rights? 

Emma Koh: I hope that audiences are able to have a different perspective on this issue and that the film pulls on some heart strings - namely the heart strings of policy makers and religious leaders in this country who have an aversion to pro-choice. Film and media is such a powerful tool when it comes to empathy and relatability. I hope that more people in middle America see the film and maybe even see themselves, their friends, daughters, wives, nieces, sisters, and aunts in these characters and have a change of heart and mind. 

PH: How does psychology inform your approach to character design and world-building. Could you elaborate on how you integrate psychological insights into your creative process, particularly when designing sets and environments?

Emma Koh: I don’t have an educational background in psychology; however, I’ve been in that space for over seven years because I myself have a therapist. Since starting therapy, I have taken a deeper dive in understanding not only myself, but other people and our society. A huge component of creating a world of a film is understanding the characters and who they are, why the way they are, and how they are. I’m a very curious person by nature and always ask my directors/writers about the backstory of a character to further understand them. This helps me further create their world and understand why I’m creating said world in the first place. I ask a lot of questions, and the more I know, the more informed I am as a designer, and the more informed the design of the film is. This both helps the audience in understanding the film and helps the director and the actors understand the story and the subtext to it, which contributes to possibly taking their roles and decisions a level deeper. All of this can only make for a better film.

Color has a lot to do with my designs and how I use them. I tend to lean towards yellows a lot. Yellow, to me, has far more range than any color because it evokes such an amalgamation of emotions depending on the shade, tone, and saturation of it. A bright neutral yellow can evoke pure joy, while a dark desaturated yellow can evoke confinement and despair and a gray light yellow can evoke mystery and confusion. Sometimes the film doesn’t call for yellow, and that’s ok, but I definitely try to sprinkle it in my films when I see fit. An example would be Rachel’s apartment. The wallpaper behind the oven is a daisy wallpaper with subtle accents of a soft mustard yellow. You only see it in the film for a couple scenes, but because the rest of the set is filled with browns, whites, and muted brown reds, it helps tie the set together in a very subtle and nuanced way while bringing in that hint of warmth and love in Rachel’s character. 

PH: Looking ahead, what are some projects or themes that you are passionate about exploring in your future work, both artistically and socially?

Emma Koh: Looking ahead, I want to keep working with good, kind and inclusively minded people. As mentioned, I have a Master’s of Science in Worldbuilding, which includes Virtual Production. That’s the next step for me in terms of putting my technical skills to work and advancing in that particular field within the Virtual Art Department, in conjunction with a traditional Art Department. 

There’s a couple films that are in the works: one I’m already attached to that is a Mexican-South Asian Musical, and another that I’m interviewing for about a Korean American adoptee (inspired by a true story). I’m excited for it all and can’t wait until IATSE contract negotiations are over so we can go back to making art!

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