THINGS TO COME (UK, 1936), like ALEXANDER NEVSKY, was made in anticipation of the Second World War. NEVSKY took place in the thirteenth century, so its genre would be the historical drama. THINGS TO COME stretches 100 years into the future, to the year 2036. So its genre is science fiction.
They are more than that too: NEVSKY is a meditation on power, and the fate of nations, and THINGS TO COME is a philosophical film, based on a ponderous book and screenplay by H.G. Wells, which often grinds to a halt beneath the speeches of flat, unengaging characters. No matter. This week our subject is production design, and THINGS TO COME is a great example of that, and of the frequent merge between design and special effects, and so a good place to begin.
THINGS TO COME was directed by William Cameron Menzies. It was his first film as a director. He was already a renowned art director: among his credits were THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (USA, 1924) and RAFFLES (USA, 1930) — lavishly dressed fantasies. Though the credit for “setting design” went to the producer’s brother, Vincent Korda, it’s generally thought that Menzies was the guiding light behind the film’s design.
In THINGS GO COME Menzies crafted the most ambitious, the most expensive, and the most elaborately designed film the British industry had ever made. Model shots and matte paintings were used – as with KING KONG, it was cheaper to build sets in miniature, and hang them in the foreground, with the actors in the distance (a “foreground miniature”) or to incorporate them into a painted backdrop via a “matte”) than to build enormous sets. But enormous sets were built as well.
Following his “March of War” sequence, Menzies moves from a wide establishing shot of the ruined city (SFX – a painting) to a foreground miniature or glass paining, to an actual built environment: the outdoor set with ruined columns. Then he moves to interiors: more sets, built on a sound stage.
Making THINGS TO COME was a giant undertaking. Three years later, William Cameron Menzies went to work as an art director for the Hollywood studios, on GONE WITH THE WIND (you may recall that as the film to which director Victor Fleming was transferred from WIZARD OF OZ). GONE WITH THE WIND, a romantic tale of southerners during and after the Civil War, was another giant undertaking, and watching his art director work, the producer, David O. Selznick, came up with a new term to describe all that Menzies was doing: PRODUCTION DESIGN.
Menzies was the first person ever to receive a “production designer” credit, and he certainly deserved it. But the origins of film production design weren’t in super productions such as these.
Early dramatic films were modest undertakings. The job of the art director might just be to assemble a handful of props, to prepare a painted backdrop, to paint a wall, or at most to build a room interior — a three-walled box like the one W.C Fields inhabits in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER.
At the same time, since films were shot in warehouses, or stages, sound stages, there was no such thing as a ‘real’ environment. Everything, whether the location was a humble home or the surface of the moon, had to be brought in. The environment had to be created. As we saw in DAY OF THE LOCUST, Hollywood didn’t go to Europe to film Napoleonic battles; they built Europe on a sound stage, in Los Angeles.
So, though some films were “naturalistic” – in that a realistic environment was desired, and created – there was a natural tendency, as one was building the environment in any case, to build it up, to make it bigger, grander, more dramatic — in other words, the designed set could help the film, not just by providing a background, but by visuals which told the audience about the characters, which advanced the forward movement of the plot.
And since narrative film relied on a temporary, purpose-built environment, big, impressive sets became a part of the story-telling world.
We look at some of the Babylonian scenes from D.W. Griffiths’ movie INTOLERANCE, made in California, in 1916. All the sets were built full-size, between Sunset and Hollywood Bouldevards in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles. No designer or art director was credited on INTOLERANCE, though clearly hundreds of people worked in the art department. INTOLERANCE did not do well at the box office, and Griffith was unable to afford the demolition of the set. It stood decaying for several years before it was finally pulled down — this is the fate of movie sets! Only rarely are they built to last. Carlo Simi’s set for FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, built in Almeria, Spain, was an exception: it endures as a tourist attraction to this day, like the “Old Tucson” movie set in Arizona.
Such an extra-ordinary, non-naturalistic approach to film design wasn’t limited to big-budget productions. In 1919, Robert Wiene filmed THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, in Berlin, Germany. This was one year after the end of the First World War, and money and resources were in short supply. Yet the design of the film was both innovative, and ambitious. For CALIGARI, everything was built on a stage, with a mixture of obviously painted backgrounds and exaggerated perspectives. Three people were credited with “design” on the film: Walter Reimann, Walter Rohrig, and Hermann Warm. A later German production, directed by Fritz Lang in 1927, pursued an epic design, quasi-realistic, approach with a much bigger budget: METROPOLIS.
In the factory scene, the built environment, combined with stylized acting and special effects, tells the story: showing us how the workplace of the future has become a nightmare monster, eating human beings, in the fervid vision of the young hero. This early science fiction film established the movie convention of juxtaposing amazing, futuristic cityscapes (model shots or paintings, or later CGI) with large interiors built on the sound stage.
In METROPOLIS, after his vision in the factory, the hero tells his chauffeur, “To my father’s office – the New Tower of Babel!” We see a succession of shots of skyscrapers, increasingly enormous, with highways rolling through them, then, finally the New Tower of Babel Building, higher and taller than the flight of airplanes. Inside father’s office, the biggest window possible overlooks the entire city.
All the exteriors are model shots with painted backgrounds. This is production design helping to tell the story. We know who the protagonists are, based on their environments.
And though I’ve screened these grand examples (and we’ll see more), production design can also serve the film by being low-key, what we call “naturalistic”, i.e. not exaggerated or eye-catching at all.
As an example from a film of mine, the last act of SID & NANCY took place in the Chelsea Hotel in New York city. We had a good relationship with the Hotel, and they gave us permission to shoot in there – this involved bringing in a medium-sized film crew, lights, cables, and all the rest of it. The problem we faced was that, as Sid and Nancy degenerated, they got moved to smaller rooms, to the bowels of the Chelsea Hotel. Finally they were in the smallest room in the place, Room 100. There was no way for us to get the cast and crew into a space so tiny. So instead the art department conceived the plan of shooting the room interiors on a sound stage, in an environment they would build.
This enabled us to take advantage of the production value of the Chelsea – its lobby, its balconies, its staircases and corridors – but to shoot the small room scenes in a set, where we could remove walls, set up lights, and do special effects, such as the scene in which Sid and Nancy set fire to their room.
That sequence began in a built set on a sound stage (the only place we could have got permission to stage a fire like that). It cuts to a hand-held shot by Roger Deakins, the DP, done in the Chelsea Hotel in New York, coming down the hotel stairs and into the hall. Then another cut takes us back to the Los Angeles sound stage, to a corridor and hotel room built there by the production designers, J. Rae Fox and Lynda Burbank: their own take on the room Sid and Nancy finally inhabited, in New York.
The idea there was to provide a seamless transition from stage, to location, back to stage again. It succeeds partially because Fox and Burbank matched the green-gray color scheme of the Chelsea to their built environment in LA.
Do naturalistic-looking sets always go with naturalistic narratives? Not necessarily. SID & NANCY tells an extreme and exaggerated tale against a naturalistic background. DR CALIGARI tells an extreme story, of murderous hypnotists, somnambulists, and madness, against an extreme background. KILLER OF SHEEP (USA, 1978) is a film of subdued performances, and subtle themes, shot on real locations. (By “real” I mean that the production circumstances weren’t sufficient to permit renting locations or painting the walls of the set; the filmmakers shot, mostly, in environments as they found them.) Real interiors often present a problem because interior walls tend to be white or beige, while darker walls provide a more supportive, dramatic background. Can you afford to paint the walls of your location? It will make an difference, if you can.
Costumes are usually separate from the production designer and the art department. Even though both the sets and the costumes contribute to the mise-en-scene, the visual identity of the film, these elements are usually provided by separate department heads with separate teams. There are exceptions. Carlo Simi did both sets and costumes. So on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, one person was responsible for building the town, the ranch, and the railroad stations, and picking all those long coats and designing Claudia Cardinale’s dresses.
One person and a huge, huge team. On a small film, the production designer will have one or more art directors, a set decorator, perhaps a set dresser (to represent the art department because the rest of them are working on the next location), and a prop person or persons. A small art department might be three, or four, or five persons. If any construction is involved, the art department may hire carpenters, painters, riggers, and finally a scenic painter (to paint the sign saying “Doc Holliday: Dentist”). On a big film, the crew roles will be the same, but there will be many more people. The construction crew will be bigger, there may be a greens man, to move potted plants around, and there will be illustrators to depict what the designer has in mind, and draughtspersons to interpret it. Plus a separate costume department, small or not so small.
As an extreme of the built environment, consider the rope bridge set built for SORCERER (1977). The bridge was a complex structure supported on hydraulic lifts to control its motion. It was first built in the Dominican Republic at a cost of a million dollars. When the river there ran dry, the huge set piece was relocated to Tuxtepec, Mexico, at a cost of another million dollars. That river too began to dry up, so the special effects crew created an artificial current and rainstorm. The entire sequence took three months to shoot. SORCERER’s production designer was John Box, most famous for his work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (US/UK, 1962)
As an example of production design on a grand scale, we’ll watch a film directed by Akira Kurosawa: RAN (Japan, 1985). It takes place in sixteenth-century Japan, but the source material is a play by Shakespeare, written in the same time period — King Lear. RAN was the most expensive Japanese film ever made, in its day, and the last of the director’s samurai epics. It’s big in every way: it has huge battle scenes, and massive sets, including Hidetora’s castle, which had to be constructed, then destroyed.
Almost thirty years before, Kurosawa had directed a samurai film based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth: THRONE OF BLOOD (Japan, 1957). Both films shared a production designer, Yoshiko Muraki. We watch Toshiro Mifune’s last scene from THRONE OF BLOOD, to see how Muraki’s set design assisted Kurosawa’s storytelling on that occasion.
RAN was directed by Akira Kurosawa in Japan in 1985. Kurosawa had an epic career, beginning with propaganda dramas during the Second World War, and drawing international attention at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, winning the Golden Lion prize for his period drama, RASHOMON. Thereafter Kurosawa alternated between big-scale samurai stories such as SEVEN SAMURAI (Japan, 1956) and modern-day social dramas, of which the best is probably IKIRU (Japan, 1952), plus adaptations of Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare.
But to use words like ‘best’ when talking about Kurosawa’s work is risky. This director made so many very good films: out of 30 films, maybe 15 can be considered “classics.”
We screen RAN, Kurosawa’s version of the King Lear story, with a soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu. The production design is extraordinary, as is the sound design – especially in the battle scenes, where naturalistic sound is abandoned, and music is the only audio element.
From 1954, Akira Kurosawa worked almost exclusively with one production designer, Yoshiko Muraki, or with the team of Muraki and his wife, Shinobu. Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa’s script woman and producer, called Muraki sets “strong and spectacular: nothing little and fussy about them. Their strong presence must be what Kurosawa liked so much.”
Those years were a period of outstanding success, and significant failure (DODES’KA-DEN, Japan 1975) and director and production designer clearly shared a vision – which they also shared with Takao Saito, who shot eighteen of Kurosawa’s films. Whereas this was the first time Kurosawa worked with costume designer Emi Wada. Let’s look at one more example of Kurosawa’s cinema, and how design and costume work for it. The film is MADADAYO (Japan, 1993), shot by Saito, designed by Muraki, costumed by Kurosawa’s daughter, Kazuko.
It’s the story of an old, revered writer, and his relationships, in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.
We watch the scene in MADADAYO in which the author’s fans march around the dining hall to the “One-Two Medicine” song. The central character in MADADAYO is inordinately revered by those around him – especially his former students. This is a short portion of a long scene in which they salute him and entertain him. The costuming – naturalistic as it is – serves to make the men similar; the set, with no functioning windows and grimy walls, isolates them in nowhere-in-particular as they march to his comic song. The characters are good humored, passionate about their old sensei; their world, as he observes, is meaningless.
This is relatively modest design, helping the narrative via its colors and its anonymity. There is also production design which says, look at me! And for an example of that we need only turn to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, SPELLBOUND (USA, 1949). For this film, dealing with psychoanalysis and murder, the art director was James Basevi, but the director also hired the artist, Salvador Dali, to design the amnesiac hero’s dreams.
Dali had, famously, collaborated with the Spanish director Luis Buñel on two Surrealist short films — one of them, THE ANDALUSIAN DOG (France, 1929), we’ll see later in the semester. But now he was working for David O. Selznick, producer of GONE WITH THE WIND, and there was money to spend! Not enough, of course. Somehow there is never enough money. But there was a lot more than a Surrealist film had had before, and the results were unheard of, in a Hollywood film. We watch Gregory Peck’s dream sequence from SPELLBOUND.
Surrealism was a cultural and artistic movement which arose in the 1920s, mainly in Paris. It believed in the crucial importance of dream life, and attempted to incorporate Freudian analysis, free association, and startling juxtapositions into life and art. Dali and Buñuel, both Spaniards living in Paris, were drawn to the movement and became two of its foremost exponents.
Surrealism had pretty much run its course as a movement prior to the Second World War. Buñuel struggled to continue to make films with Surrealist elements. For painters like Dali, Paul Magritte and Yves Tanguy Surrealism remained a viable – i.e saleable – art form. Dali’s paintings hung on the walls of filmmakers’ homes; it’s inevitable that he was invited to Hollywood. But by the time SPELLBOUND was made, Surrealism was a visual trope, not a lifestyle.
Dali storyboarded twenty minutes’ worth of dream sequences, only a fraction of which were filmed. But the filmmakers did incorporate certain of his images, and follow his insistence that everything be in sharp focus.The result works to propel the narrative, and to give clues as to the hero’s innocence, and the identity of the murderer.
In the fifties and sixties, films were increasingly shot on location, which meant a different, more “natural” look, and gave less work to the art department. Bigger budget films fought back against this new “realistic” aesthetic by spending more money on star casts, and on the art department. Action films like the Italian Westerns and the James Bond series followed this prescription.
Ken Adam – another German emigre who had fled the Nazis – designed Stanley Kubrick’s film DR STRANGELOVE (UK/US 1963) and was particularly praised for his War Room – a creation of lights and screens inside a sound stage at a British film studio. Kubrick asked Ken Adam to design his next film, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But Adam turned him down. He felt that Kubrick was too interventionist, and since the director was already working with NASA engineers on the spacecraft designs, the designer was going to get the short end of the stick. Instead Adam concentrated on the James Bond series, which followed DR STRANGELOVE’s motif of a high-tech, underground villain’s lair. We watch a brief clip of the huge interior Adam built for the James Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (USA, 1967).
A film disappoints if it has one great element, and the rest doesn’t live up to it. Here, Ken Adam provided an amazing built environment on the largest sound stage in the world – and it was put to such conventional, formulaic use. The director cuts from a shot of men with guns, to single of a man with a grenade, to a cloud of colored smoke and two stuntmen jumping. The wide shot of scores of people rapelling into the vast interior makes use of Adam’s set and is stunning. The rest isn’t. The problem is that the James Bond series is a studio franchise, and the power resides with studio bosses who pick directors for their compliance, rather than their talent. It would have been extraordinary to see a Bond movie directed by Kubrick, or Ken Russell, or William Friedkin. But such things do not occur.
In 1975, Ken Adam worked with Stanley Kubrick again, on BARRY LYNDON, an expensive historical drama based on a 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. The exteriors were shot in Ireland, Scotland and Germany, and the interiors were all existing locations, in Ireland and Southwest England – so the assignment was very different from before. Production design became a job of location scouting, of set dressing, and of special effects.
BARRY LYNDON is famous for its night interiors. Some scenes were actually shot by candlelight. Previously this had been considered impossible. Lenses for 35mm film cameras weren’t “fast enough” – that is, they didn’t open wide enough to allow the candlelit scene to be recorded on film. The technical term f-stop is the measure of the aperture setting of a lens. How wide open is the iris? A “fast” lens with a low f-stop number (such as f/2.8), when wide open, lets a significant amount of light through and can be used in low-light situations. A high f-stop (f/11, f/16, f/22 and so on) lets much less light in, but offers greater depth of field. In 1975 it was thought that no lenses were fast enough to permit shooting by candle-light alone. But Kubrick’s friends at NASA found him three 50mm f/0.7 Zeiss lenses, left over from the moon-landing program. These lenses, wide open, were used to film the candle-light scenes.
In the scene in which Barry and his mentor the Chevalier cheat Lord Ludd at cards, the only light beyond that of the candles came from metal reflectors which the DP, John Alcott, put above the chandeliers. These reflected the candles and created a “top light” – and they stopped the ceiling from catching on fire.
The work of the designer, and of the costumer varies tremendously from film to film. Big design-heavy period films like RAN and BARRY LYNDON will have giant art and costume departments. A small contemporary drama, shot in one place or on location, can work with smaller crews, and go faster.
But production design and costumes are always a consideration, because they contribute to the mise-en-scene, and – when done well – help to tell the story.
Consider the work of Carlo Simi, designer and costumer of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. He had to build a town, and fit out a luxurious railroad car. And dress a beautiful woman, and two gangs of outlaws, and a disabled millionaire. Let’s consider just the McBain ranch house, which we see at the beginning, and which remains a character throughout the film – representing McBain’s and his widow’s unshaken determination to stay, to impose themselves in hostile circumstances.
The ranch house of a real desert rat would be one storey tall. It would be sunk into the earth, with adobe walls and a sod roof. That would be the McBain ranch of reality. But ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a fantasy and its design reflects that. The ranch in the film is like an Alpine ski-lodge, two storeys tall with a big gable, a balcony, and foot-thick walls. Where did they get the wood for that, in the middle of this desert?
In fact the wood came from another movie, Orson Welles’ film CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, which had finished shooting on location further north in Spain. Carlo Simi’s crew bought all those logs from the production, and brought them south, to the desert, so as to build the ranch.
Sometimes a film has limited resources, and puts them all into one interior set: space-travel movies in particular favour this approach, and as an example we look at a couple of scenes from ICARUS XB-1 (Czechoslovakia, 1963) which show the interstellar spacecraft interior to good advantage.
Unless the film is all shot on a stage, the art department is always on the move, thinking ahead, planning the next location. Big or small, it seeks to do its best, and to add storytelling value to the film. Sometimes it goes unnoticed – as in Richard Sylbert’s unobtrusive but thoroughly effective design for FAT CITY (USA, 1972), a story of down-on-their-luck boxers in New Orleans. Sylbert is a versatile designer, who also created the stylish period detective movie sets for CHINATOWN (USA, 1974). In 1990, the director Warren Beatty gave Sylbert carte blanche to create a unique “look at me!” design for his cartoon-based feature DICK TRACY.
Naturalistic, DICK TRACY is not. We watch the opening – but the credits aren’t a stand-alone sequence. As the ensuing scenes show, this over-saturated, primary-couloured, make-up intensive mise-en-scene is the visual aesthetic of the entire film.