Production Design
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Production Design

Architects of the Screen

Jane Barnwell

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eBook - ePub

Production Design

Architects of the Screen

Jane Barnwell

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About This Book

Production Design: Architects of the Screen explores the role of the production designer through a historical overview that maps out landmark film and television designs. From the familiar environs of television soap operas to the elaborate and disorientating Velvet Goldmine. Jane Barnwell considers how themes. motifs and colours offer clues to unravel plot. character and underlying concepts. In addressing the importance of physical space in film and TV, the book investigates questions of authenticity in detail. props. colours and materials. The design codes of period drama. more playful representations of the past and distinctive contemporary looks are discussed through the use of key examples ranging from musicals of the 1930s to cult films of the 1990s. The book also includes interviews with leading production designers and studies of Trainspotting, The English Patient and Caravaggio.

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The history of screen design and the production designer* are inextricably linked to the evolution of film and television. This opening chapter traces the histories of these related areas of film design, personnel, and the medium in which they work, examining origins and considering the route that has lead to their present form.
The intriguing figure of the production designer will be uncovered, leading to a greater appreciation of this role in the production process, which is so often misunderstood. Partially this has been due to the nature of the role which is linked to backstage, behind-the-camera notions of concealment. However, it is also perpetuated by a fundamental lack of understanding and therefore acknowledgement by critical or popular study. I have found this to be an exciting rather than negative aspect of this enquiry, as there is the sense of an increased awareness now ripe for further discussion. The examples of past and present work included here aim to trace a path, signposting key moments, movements and players. One of the most recognisable moments is the development of the Hollywood studio system, which created a highly organised art department that was responsible for some of the most memorable iconography in cinematic history. Yet huge contributions to art direction are also acknowledged as coming from Europe as early as 1903 and later with distinct movements, including German Expressionism, Italian Neo-realism and French New Wave, all of which challenged the Hollywood hegemony.
Only about 10–20 per cent of the job is about having ideas and designing. You’re listing everything that needs to be researched. You’re finding locations. You’re hiring crew. It’s essential to surround yourself with a strong team: a good art director and construction manager will take some of the responsibility off your shoulders so you don’t have to spend every waking minute worrying about the money and the time you have. (in Ettedgui 1999: 63)1
This contemporary account of the role of production designer indicates the parameters of the job today but how did it evolve to encompass these skills and responsibilities? It has been said that the art directors of the 1920s would not recognise their contemporary counterparts, so how has the role grown and developed to become what it is today?
A brief history
In Paris, on 28 December 1895, Louis Lumière publicly unveiled his Cinematographe. His films are considered the beginning of documentary film as they recorded real events as they happened; workers leaving a factory, trains pulling into stations. There was little additional scenery, dressing* or props* used to embellish either the story or the style of these scenes.
In contrast, A Trip to the Moon (1902), by Georges Méliès, used painted backdrops and props to create a sense of place. Méliès films combined realistic and stylistic elements, which are therefore seen as the beginnings of dramatic fiction on the screen. An essential element in his films was the creation of a backdrop; these trompe l’oeil* ranged from the everyday, such as a drawing room, to the fantastic, such as the moon.
Films were initially shot outdoors as sunlight was necessary to expose the film. Gradually an artificial space in which to shoot was developed, a glass studio where new worlds could be temporarily created. The studio* became a controlled environment, where practical concerns like weather and light could be manipulated. In 1894 in New Jersey, Thomas Edison’s company built the first dedicated film studio, the Black Maria: a shed covered in tar paper that rotated to make the most of daylight hours. Méliès subsequently built his own studio in France which was 50 by 30 feet in size and included a stage with painted backdrops.* These early structures evolved into covered studios where artificial light replaced daylight. Initially these looked dark in comparison to the natural light of the glass studios, but developments in lighting and the greater flexibility that this method afforded made them the practical solution to much outdoor and location* shooting.
At this early stage the camera was stationary, which meant that the action was restricted to one set*, where the actors remained through the course of each tableaux/scene*. Méliès’ use of trompe l’oeil was perfectly suited to the static camera as the viewer was kept at a constant distance from the backdrop, which meant changing perspective* was not an issue and the artifice retained an appearance of reality.
The static camera reflects theatrical traditions in that it gives the audience a fixed position in relation to the action. It is clear that at these early stages the possibilities of the medium were not being fully explored, and the static camera was merely recreating those of another. In essence this flat, two-dimensional approach was married to the notion of a fixed perspective, as in the theatre where the audience sits in the same seat throughout the performance. This was about to change. Once the movement of the camera through space, positioned at different distances from the subjects/objects in frame, became a technical possibility, the settings had to be adapted to suit.
The exploration into the spatial possibilities of film design had thus begun and this meant that Méliès’ trompe l’oeil would no longer be sufficient. Sets would need to be more convincing for the illusion of reality to be retained. A more three-dimensional approach was necessary for the camera to move through space otherwise a flat backdrop with scenery painted onto it would be revealed as exactly that.
Once the camera was on the move the construction of larger studio spaces that allowed the creation of more complex sets soon followed; these furnished the audience with multiple viewpoints. The multiple-room set was another device with which to further the apparent realism of the production. Thus a three-dimensional model* with which the designer created space was becoming the norm. Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) combined real locations and painted backdrops. However, when cutting between them their incoherence was apparent. One way around this was to build sets outdoors – which took place around 1910 – thus furnishing them with real views from the windows, tying the interior and exterior together to create a more coherent sense of place.
Key films are now recognised as exhibiting a growing awareness of the set as a three-dimensional space and the opportunity that afforded in strengthening the visual elements, enabling mood, character and story. Pathé led the way in modern design with their staircase and domestic interior sets from around 1903 and the films had an international influence. The detailed film d’art sets from 1908 created a new standard; and Italian spectacular design amplified this, building through many films to Cabiria (1914) which depicted ancient Carthage. Cabiria astonished audiences with elaborate texture created through the use of, stairways, different levels, and surface effects of marble, fresco, brick and stone, it explored and discovered new depth and perspective. In 1916, Intolerance and Civilization were two of the first American films to achieve note for sophisticated constructed settings. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (designed by Walter L. Hall) featured ‘Babylon’ with towers 165 feet high, ‘perhaps the first time the set is the subject of a scene’ (Horner 1977: 14), the unprecedented grand scale of which was to be emulated in future productions.
At this point American film was essentially theatrical, while striving for greater realism. For Birth of a Nation (1915), it was proudly announced that the interiors were exact reproductions. At this early stage the role of the designer was not fully recognised or acknowledged and the first Griffiths film to give an art direction credit is Way Down East in 1920. However, Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924) are considered America’s first masterpieces of art direction (see Sennett 1994), as they began to explore the spatial potential of the setting. Influenced by the scale of Intolerance, enormous sets were built including a castle that ate a quarter of the budget for Robin Hood. These developments were partially driven by economics in that the financial opportunities of the medium were being recognised and it was thought that in order to capitalise on them the product should embody higher production values*. A few foresighted film producers believed that more creative use of design would both give the product a greater respectability in the arts and drive up profitability.
The resulting longer format was successfully adopted. Alongside this development was the decision to spend more time and money on how the film looked, which had inevitable implications for the design. The construction* of believable sets that would work in a practical sense, and assist in the narrative and character development, became fundamental to the cinema. The building of more and more complex sets led to the standing back lots* that are now such an icon of film production. Sets were left in the back lot, where a bizarre mixture of periods and places would coexist: ‘The back lot became a gathering place for every stereotyped exterior setting required in the making of movies and many of these sets stood for decades, their outlines recognisable in film after film’ (Thomson 1977: 14). The fascination with the back lot in popular consciousness continues to this day and is exemplified in more recent films like The Day of the Locust (1975) and The Player (1992), where we are given a privileged, behind-the-scenes tour.
These developments made cinema a far more attractive proposition for potential employees, particularly artists and architects, such as Cedric Gibbons and Robert Mallet Stevens.2 The opportunities to design and create buildings which would be captured on film and seen by a growing audience was appealing to people who now had little interest in a painted backdrop but could see the huge creative potential of the new medium. Thus, by 1918, film design had firmly branched out from the stage design of its origins.
In Germany, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) signalled a break-through in film design which was highly influential in suggesting future possibilities that did not follow a realist route. Indeed architects establishing themselves in the cinema were keen to erase traces of the theatrical, artificial-looking set. In the theatre the audience can see where the set begins and ends, its artifice is highly apparent, whereas on the screen the audience is drawn in an immersed and a different relationship to the settings is created. The opportunity to create a self-contained environment which adhered to architectural principles in appearance though not in practice presented an exciting challenge to the new workforce. Thus, practical construction needs were met by increasingly specialised craftsmen, such as carpenters, plasterers and set painters. By the 1920s, film designers were looking at a wealth of opportunities and possibilities at their disposal. The theatrical flat had been superseded by the constructed set. The glass studio was now a soundstage where light could be manipulated.
Artist, architect, technician, visual director?
The term art director* was explained in an article in Photoplay magazine in August 1916, which pointed out that it was the property men who had previously been responsible for the sets. There is even some debate around who the first art director was: according to Sennett (1994: 30) the first art director was Frank Wortman who was D.W. Griffiths’ chief carpenter; while Leon Barsacq claims, ‘the American cinema’s first real art director joined the industry in 1914 when the great theatrical designer, Wilfred Buckland, was signed by Famous Players-Lasky’ (1976: 56). Buckland is also credited with the move into the studio by Perry Ferguson, who says: ‘It was Buckland who brought the movies inside when he introduced artificial lighting and so revolutionised movie making’ (1980: 28).
The title ‘technical director’ was one of the earliest credits used in the US, then ‘interior decorator’, only moving on to ‘art director’ in the 1930s. There has been confusion over the various terms describing roles within the art department and this is for a number of reasons. However the changing terms reflect the changing complexity and focus of the role over time. Firstly, the job has evolved alongside cinema and television. Secondly, the job and its responsibilities have often been undefined, leaving ambiguity. ‘Artist’, ‘architect’, ‘technician’, or ‘visual director’, are all terms that have been used to describe this person. It is not surprising then that the job description is equally ambiguous and elusive to pin down. That is not to say that there have not been attempts to raise the profile and understanding of the job. As Kathleen Foley explains:
Until 1924 these artists worked either as independent contractors or as a part of the budding studio system. In that year, in a room at the rear of a Sunset Boulevard bistro, some 63 fashionably dressed artisans led by Menzies and Anton Grot, signed a document establishing the Cinemagundi Club, the principal purpose of which was to let the world at large know the extent of their contributions. (1989: 54)
The studio system in Hollywood saw the creation of a production line approach to film and this included the budgeting aspects. It is clear that the amount allocated to the art department is considered an indication of its importance to the overall success of the production and as this was second only to the percentage that went to the stars, their role was clearly valued: ‘In a million-dollar production of the late 1930s the direct cost of the sets and related personnel accounted for 12.5 per cent of the total budget, exceeded only by the 30 per cent devoted to the salaries of the performers’ (Albrecht 1986: 78).3
Hollywood used a system that divided responsibility between a supervising art director, who established the mood/concept, and a unit art director, who actually carried out the design. After receiving a project from the supervising art director, the unit art director developed a design based on the script, sometimes in consultation with the director (see Affron & Jona 1995). The consultation process is quite ambiguous and has never been formalised, thus some directors have more influence in the look of the film than others and much depends on the individual director.
A studio like MGM had one supervisory art director, eight or nine unit art directors, thirty draftsmen and five or six illustrators. In British studios during the 1930s it was normal to have five productions going at once, each with thirty to forty sets, each of which was the responsibility of one art director without an assistant (see Carrick 1948).4 According to Cedric Dawes, who worked at Elstree, they would shoot on around five sets a day, while working on drawings and dressings without d...

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