Errol Kelly – Converting Dreams into Reality; An enriching close encounter with the extremely talented Production Designer, Art Director in Colombo

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Dr. Gitanjali Goswami

It was a sunny morning in the green town of Colombo, Sri Lanka when I met this gem of a person by the name of Errol Kelly. I had come to know about him from an eminent journalist and writer of Kolkata, Mr. Himanshu Chattopadhyay (now he is no more with us). He had told me, “Colombo te transfer hoechi shunechi, khub bhalo khobor. Colombo te Errol Kelly r sathe dekha korar chesta koro, onek kichu jante parbe, bishesh koe “Mother Teresa” chobi ta kibhabe korechilen.” (I heard you are transferred to Colombo, it’s a great news; try to meet Errol Kelly there and you will come to know a lot of things particularly how they made the film ‘Mother Teresa’). After that we shifted here in Colombo and I kept wondering about how I could set up a rendezvous with him, without knowing anyone from the film industry. Who would set up a meeting with him? However, one fine day my dream came true when one of my friends Gayan informed me that he was assisting Errol Kelly in a number of productions of different kinds.

And thus on one fine day, we landed up at Errol Kelly’s office. I had made an image of him as a tall strong man with stupendous enthusiasm. And when I finally met him, it was vindicated. What a simple and down to earth this person was. The eagerness to do something great was evident in his eyes. Errol Kelly has been conceptualizing the dreams and visuals of Directors, Producers and Designers and converting them into reality with grandeur.  Errol, a production designer and art director, counts over 30 years of experience in the Motion Picture Industry. He has designed and art directed many International and Sri Lankan films over this long period of time. Initially I heard his name just for the movie “Mother Teresa – in the name of God’s poor”, a film which was well appreciated by the critics and that highlighted the story of Mother Teresa, beginning in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, where she faced adversity from every direction and where she laid the foundation for her crusade to help the poorest of the poor. Today I would like to inform and drop a few words about this awesome movie. You will be surprised to know the work and detailing which has gone behind creating the sets of “Mother Teresa” which was not easy to be recreated in the current times, but Errol Kelly was the man who made it possible.

Errol was the natural choice as Production Designer on Hallmark Entertainment’s “Mother Teresa – In the name of God’s Poor”. The original place Calcutta had changed tremendously and it was not possible to show the early stages of the life of Mother Teresa. Errol did his research very well and the entire film was done in Sri Lanka. Using the abundance of colonial period buildings, Errol was able to duplicate almost all of the Calcutta locations in Colombo. Then came the hitch, the slum set, where Mother Teresa lived and worked with the poor, had to be built. No location could be used. Errol located an ideal playground that would work, if the set was built. The director Kevin Connor, producer Robert Halmi Sr. and Line Producer Peter Shepherd agreed that this was best. Errol conducted the drawings of the sets with his sketch artist and draftsman. Ably assisted by his art director, set dresser, construction manager and prop man and harnessing the talents of his set builders, a slum city of Calcutta was constructed in this playground off Colombo. The set was so authentic looking that it was absolutely amazing. Everything, a slum dwelling had, been there, but the conditions were very hygienic. Even the garbage dump was make-believe.

Meeting him from close quarters I came to know many more things about him. He was a perfect gentleman, punctual to the minute and firmest in his behaviour. Surprisingly his journey into the film world happened by chance. At the age of 19, he was called by cameraman Willie Blake, to help on the sets of the international production – ‘The Elephant Boy’. Being a linguist, speaking all the three languages of Sri lanka with equal fluency, he was soon able to get work done in the film sets with relative ease. Under his Guru Dharmasena Hemapala, Errol worked on “The God King”, an international production, directed by world renowned Lester James Peiris.

During these years he could very proudly boast, that he has worked with innumerable producers and directors in the Sri Lankan and international motion picture industry and these were productions with the highest quality of work. This is expected from a man who has worked in over 75 productions, a man who transforms every production to a greater, higher value than what is spent.

Errol was judged the best art director and received the presidential award, Sarasaviya Award and OCIC awards on different occasions.

Errol used the talent of his team of sketch artist, draftsman, set builders, craftsmen, painters and set dressers, to achieve this success. The crew has worked on many productions with Errol and under his guiding hand, produced sets in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines, Maldives and so on.

Many film and television projects have been production designed or art directed by Errol. The usage of the locations and the transformations are indeed magical. It could be an European bathroom set for Germany’s “Vita HoHe” TV Commercial, making a Japanese garden for the “Volvic Tea” commercial on a golf course, transforming the banks of the Bolgoda lake to the Ghats of Varanasi for “Water”, converting a cricket ground at a low income housing scheme, to the slums in Mumbai for “Midnight’s Children”, or change a bare land to a permanent, colonial street, studio set for “Bombay Velvet”. Errol’s work is almost like magic, but very real.

Deepa Mehta, an Indo-Canadian film director and screenwriter commented on Errol Kelly -“An integral part of every film is its design. And it’s the team of the production designer and the art director that make this important aspect of the film a possibility. We were very fortunate to have the extremely innovative, creative Errol on our team as the art director. Errol is unique, in the sense he has an almost intuitive understanding of the environment that the film needs and then he embellishes it with his own experience and creative bend. Then he is a collaborator, something that is essential on a film shoot. Errol always surprised me by bringing something extra, something unique, into the character’s environment. His prodigious talent has to be seen to be believed. Both Dilip and myself think he is awesome and it was such a pleasure to work with him. What he did for us in the film ‘Water’ is truly sublime”. I am pleased to meet this stalwart, who happily agreed to give his precious time out of his busy schedule and share his journey from the beginning till now.

I like to convey my thanks to Late Himanshu daa and my friend Gayan who helped me in this regard. I would like to conclude by conveying my special thanks to Errol Kelly, who shared his valuable time with us, in his lovely ways. Signing off with a desire to meet again…

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