Texas Tech University

Alumna Makes Her Mark in Hollywood and Marvel Universe

Amanda Castro-Crist

October 5, 2018

Jann Engel, a 1988 graduate of the College of Architecture, has spent her career on the sets of more than 60 films, including five in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Creating a successful movie or TV show isn't just about casting the right actors or writing a great script – it also means making sure people enjoy the experience of seeing it. Every single detail, from the color of a wall or the design of a logo, to the architecture of a building or the cut of a dress, must fit the timeline, setting, style and atmosphere or it risks detracting from an otherwise great story.

Jann Engel has spent the majority of her career focused on these details. As an art director and set designer, her impressive list of credits includes five films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – including 2018's “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2017's “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” – and several Oscar-nominated and -winning films. Engel, a 1988 graduate from Texas Tech University's College of Architecture (COA), said she wouldn't be where she is today without the education she received as a Red Raider.

“It was an outstanding program that provided me with a well-informed, well-educated, knowledge-based foundation of marketable skills and exciting design ideas that provided a successful launch into my career,” Engel said. “The experience I had in the College of Architecture was some of the best years of my life.”

Getting her start

Originally from Los Alamos, New Mexico, Engel fell in love with architectural design at the end of a semester of drafting class in high school.

“I really didn't like what they made us draw as assignments, but I loved drawing,” Engel recalled. “When we were assigned the final project – designing and drawing up a dream vacation home – that was it for me. I fell in love with design and could not stop sketching, designing, creating – it was like a dam of my ideas burst. I am still in love with architectural design. That's the best way I can describe my passion: It consumes me.”

Engel continued to focus on that passion in college, choosing Texas Tech because of what she called an outstanding, accredited architectural design program.

“Jann and her very talented classmates were some of the last Texas Tech University architects to pass though the five-year professional degree program, one of the very best architectural programs in the world at the time,” said Robert T. Ritter, who served as a professor, mentor and thesis committee chairman to Engel. “Each one of these superstars chose a diverse career path, taking them to all points of the globe. Their continued success and accomplishments provide tremendous purpose and pride to my life.”

Coming from a small town to a university where the student population was more than twice of the town could have been intimidating, Engel said. But during her first visit, she found an atmosphere that would foster the creation of lifelong bonds and friendships her entire time at Texas Tech.

“The friendly staff, professors and students made me feel welcome,” Engel said. “My favorite part of being a Red Raider was the camaraderie I felt in all aspects of attending Texas Tech. My favorite design professor was Bob Ritter. He was an excellent teacher and architect.”

Her degree program, which emphasized design and theory, included a wealth of information about a variety of topics and gave Engel the chance to refine skills she has continued to use in her current work. In addition to learning about things like design history, civil engineering, urban planning and construction materials, she developed her individual drawing style and learned how to sketch quickly and draw freehand in order to express her ideas aesthetically.

“I have learned that the disciplined focus I needed in college to complete and follow through on my design projects is the same intensity and focus required now, whether I am set designing or art directing,” Engel said. “Because of my studies in the College of Architecture, I learned how to design spaces and developed an eye for detail and good form. I learned about color, which is important for working in film with a camera, because ‘cool' is different for black and white, for film and for digital film. I am constantly referencing historical architecture and past design movements, depending on the time period of the film I am working on.”

Ritter said Engel was part of a thesis class that included the most talented, competitive and creative young architects he has ever known. At a time when architectural schools were composed mostly of men, Ritter said Engel rose above and stood out in her field.

Her dedication and talent was recognized with several design and academic honors, including the Alpha Rho Chi medal. The award is given annually by the national professional co-educational fraternity to a graduating architecture student chosen by the faculty at their institution. The honor recognizes the student for their leadership, service and what they offer the future of the profession.

“She out-worked, out-thought and out-performed her peers at every challenge,” Ritter said. “All have moved on to fabulous careers, but Jann's student work was always extraordinary. From the beginning, she demonstrated a very mature sense of place and a deep natural talent for the environmental arts.”

In addition to her required courses, elective courses allowed Engel to cultivate skills that complemented those she was honing in her architecture classes.  

“Photography was, and still is, a keen interest of mine,” Engel said. “I learned all about black and white photography one semester and really wish my curriculum would have allowed for more. I loved spending time in the darkroom and watching my photos appear in the developer.”

Engel also stayed busy outside of class, from playing baritone horn in the Goin' Band from Raiderland for four years to learning how to two-step and spending some of her weekends dancing at the local country-western hotspots popular in the 1980s.

“I also was president of Tau Sigma Delta, the national architecture honor society, for one year and was tapped for Mortar Board, the national honor society for college seniors. Those are two exceptional honors I am still proud of,” Engel said. “I was a Resident Assistant in Gates Hall for three years, which also was a fantastic experience that taught me a lot of people skills I still apply today as I art-direct large crews of people on short deadlines.”  

Just as important as the courses and extracurricular activities were the people she interacted with on a daily basis.

“I would not be where I am today without their guidance, instruction and good care,” Engel said. “Architectural students, faculty and staff become a close-knit school family, as our hours are intense and long while working on design projects, especially during the thesis year. I am extremely grateful for all the professors I studied from and the classmates and friends I made while pursuing my degree in architecture. My work as a set designer was the best of the fun I had in college – all design, fast and intense. I would highly recommend Texas Tech's College of Architecture to all students wanting to study architecture.”  

Success on screens large and small

Engel's first couple of professional years weren't spent in the movie industry – she initially worked for the Historical American Building Survey in Death Valley, followed by positions with a prominent architect in downtown Los Angeles and a landscape architect in Santa Monica. Her first movie job was as a junior set designer for the 1992 Tim Burton film “Batman Returns.”

“It was an outstanding design experience, as you might imagine,” Engel said. “Everything Tim Burton directs is visually exciting, so for a young set designer, it was a lot of fun.”

Since then, Engel has amassed a portfolio in set designing and art direction that includes more than 60 films and several TV shows, working for studios like Disney, DreamWorks and Paramount. She also has worked on various design projects, including a Universal Studios theme park in Wakayama, Japan. 

“I also really enjoyed working on ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,' which won an Oscar in the category of Best Art Direction,” Engel said. “Studying the beautiful architecture of Kyoto, Japan, and recreating a village for the script based on architectural history was a lot of fun to be part of. I was lucky to be sharing an office with a graphic designer who had spent 20 years teaching Japanese students English, so I also learned some Japanese terms during the design process, and that enriched the experience.”

Throughout her career, Engel said she's had the chance to work with people who have contributed to the education she began at Texas Tech.

“I learned the most from the highly acclaimed and respected late Ken Adam, a multiple Oscar- and BAFTA-winner and -nominated British production designer, whom I worked for as a set designer on three films when he worked in the U.S.,” Engel said. “He was a brilliant production designer and created the most magnificent illustrations.”

From architecture to set design, Engel has followed the same mantra through it all.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life is to give it away,” she said. “Designing spaces for people initially, in the form of architecture that is permanent, to now creating spaces we've never dreamed of, like in the superhero movies I've worked on, or taking the viewer back in time, like early 1900s Chicago in ‘Road to Perdition,' are all for the benefit of entertaining the public.”

Her efforts were recognized this year when she was nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award from her union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 800, for her work since 1990 as a set designer.

Ritter said the recognition comes as no surprise to him.

“I have followed her career achievements with excitement and awe, but you knew it was coming,” Ritter said. “We are all still watching, in amazement, her astounding achievements and unbridled talent. As an architect, artist, professor and a friend, she has made me very, very proud.”