Architects of illusions on a silver screen

Production Design and Art Direction. First Edition
June 1, 2001

The role of a director, cinematographer or producer has always been easier to describe in film language and film criticism than that of a production designer. "Celluloid Dreams", the recent exhibition of the visionary work of movie production designer Ken Adam at the Serpentine Gallery, went some way to raising awareness of film design among the general public. It was the first public gallery exhibition dedicated to the work of an individual designer. There is also a paucity of good books on the subject, one of the few such being Edward Carrick's Art and Design in the British Film (1948). It is therefore a welcome sign that RotoVision is paying attention to the neglected subject of production design and art direction in its admirable series of books, Screencraft, of which Production Design and Art Direction is the second.

In his lucid and informative introduction, Peter Ettedgui explains his mission by defining the role of the production designer as "the architect of the illusions depicted on the screen". He then employs a designer-by-designer structure, choosing a range of nationalities, 16 men and women with individual approaches and fruitful visual collaborations with directors. They include Adam with Stanley Kubrick, Dean Tavoularis with Francis Ford Coppola, and Dante Ferretti with Federico Fellini and Terry Gilliam.

This is a well-considered selection. It is just a little surprising that neither Assheton Gorton, Norris Spencer nor Arthur Max, all of whom have collaborated with Ridley Scott, is included, nor any of them represented. Scott said recently in an interview about his film Gladiator : "When I'm in prep on a period film, the people I probably do the most work with are those in the art department... I always make sure I've got... the best production designer."

To have avoided the question-and-answer interview was a felicitous decision. The text flows well and the explanations of the design process and examples are illuminating. Some common themes emerge and are a strength of the methodology in this book, which does not attempt editorial analysis or comment on individual designers but rather encourages readers to find their own comparisons and contrasts. One theme is the importance of the script as a starting point. Dan Weil, designer of Luc Besson's Leon and The Fifth Element , insists that "the script is the bible" and describes himself as a "creative partner".

Another theme is the crucial importance of research to all designers. For example, Christopher Hobbs researched the period of Mansfield Park and discovered that poor people who could not afford paint used pigs' blood mixed with lime to paint their homes red. It will probably come as a surprise to most people to find Weil quoting the French master designer Alexander Trauner to the effect that film design is only 60 per cent research, the rest of the effort going into management (30 per cent) and creation (10 per cent).

A third theme is studio versus location. Some of the designers, such as Ferretti and John Beard, are more at ease with designing in the studio. Ferretti compares an empty stage for a designer to a blank page for a writer. For Fellini's And the Ship Sails on , he created an ocean liner at sea and the sea was made of cellophane.

All the interviewees speak of creating worlds, whether in the studio or on location. Allan Starski believes that all film stories are fictions but that it is the designer's job to make the audience believe that the artifice they are watching on the screen is real. Hobbs echoes this conceit: "Everything you see on films is lies." He is the most "hands-on" designer in the book and achieves illusion very economically. On Caravaggio there was no money for a shiny marble floor, so he covered the concrete floor with water. All the designers discuss their approach to cinematic space and the volume of a space. They vary in how they communicate these spaces in three dimensions during the planning of a film.

The variety of the stills, sketches and story-boards is excellent, drawing on rarely seen visual material, but unfortunately the small size of image makes for a lack of clarity. The working drawings, which are the designers' vehicle for expressing, by superb draughtsmanship, the complicated architectural structures to the craft departments that will build the sets, are lamentably small or indistinct. The key is to juxtapose images that connect with each other and show "process". One of the illustrations measures less than half the size of a typical postage stamp. Furthermore, captions throughout the book lack clear connections with the images.

Film design students will appreciate the range and diversity of the designers in this book and gather some useful pieces of advice. Beard sees a lot of opportunity and thinks it is a great time to get into film-making. He advises aspiring designers to obtain experience as an assistant on two or three films because "this is really how you learn how design is applied and sets are used". Another designer advises young hopefuls to work for no salary in order to make the contacts. Stuart Craig stresses the conservative nature of the industry. New talent, he says, struggles for the first break. He sees two routes, one via short films, pop videos and commercials and the other via a more traditional apprenticeship in a big art department.

Very little mention is made of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and there are virtually no examples in the book. Craig rightly asserts that in future many more elements will be computer generated and the designer will have to add the computer to his working tools. Hobbs is less convinced and says that you get the most out of CGI by combining it with the old tricks and optical illusions that are effective and cheap, while CGI remains very expensive. Anna Asp, designer of Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice , reckons that she can envisage a day when new technology makes the work of a production designer redundant. On the strength of this book, I hope this will not be the case.

Moira Tait is head of screen design, National Film and Television School.

Production Design and Art Direction. First Edition

Author - Peter Ettedgui
ISBN - 2 88046 364 5
Publisher - RotoVision
Price - £.50
Pages - 208

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