The Detailed Eye: Art Direction & Design In Film

When concerning art in cinema, it is particularly important to note that everything within the frame has been meticulously positioned, propped or placed there for a reason. A good production designer can devise creative methods to help carry the story. The great production designers can instil in us a certain mood, or sway our inner-most feelings.

Every object placed within the frame plays a purpose in the grand scheme of plot, theme and setting. The foundations of this artistic process form the nuts and bolts of what is referred to in the cinema world as mise-en-scéne.

King Of Jazz took out the 3rd Academy Award for Best Design in 1930

Mise-en-scéne encompasses everything that appears within the frame. This includes sets, props, actors, costumes and lighting. Simultaneously, the term also refers to the film’s composition, positioning and movement of actors and objects within the shot. By the time the clapper-boy strikes the film slate and the camera is rolling, the director will have already worked closely with the production designer to consider all of these elements.

So too does the set designer take much consideration in understanding the penultimate message of the film… breaking down into components what is exactly being said in every camera set-up, juxtaposed image or frame. From the angling or positioning of a specific prop, a bleak shadow or striking light source, a certain disposition or subtle movement between the actors in frame, everything affects the overall aesthetic of mise-en-scéne.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Academy Awards in 1950.

In Hollywood, those who produce visual works with an outstanding eye for detail are nominated annually for the Oscar for Best Production Design. Known as the award for Best Art Direction until 2012, the accolade has been shared with the art director and set designer since 1947.

Within the industry, a certain titan of art direction still holds his rightful dominion as the most influential artistic director in cinema history. With a record 11 Academy Awards and over 38 Oscar nominations, he revolutionised motion picture architecture and set design, particularly in the 2 decades between the 30’s and 50’s. His name was of course Cedric Gibbons; and much of the plush, Art Deco and Art Moderne detail of theatre and cinema sets can be attributed to his legacy. Even the Oscar statuette design that has become synonymous with popular culture was a design of his.

‘Cedric Gibbons was the grand cardinal of the art department…’ (Vincente Minnelli)

Upon commencement of his studies at the famous Arts Students League of New York, Gibbons went on to work briefly with his architect father, before signing with Samuel Goldwyn in 1918 and working under contract with MGM studios for the next 3 decades. When he retired in 1956, Cedric Gibbons had roughly 1500 films credited with his name. Despite his creative role evolving into more of an executive art director and overseer of film design through the latter part of his career (it stipulated in Gibbons’ contract that he be credited as art director on every MGM release in the USA during his employment) this does little to take away from the fact that most of the films within this period would have had his influence, or in some cases, his own artistic fingerprints. Not to mention the reputable prowess to have been granted such an affirmative nod from a major motion picture studio.

An Art Deco inspired set.

Gibbons definitely materialised the notion that anything that can be imagined or dreamed can be created and designed on set. And he most certainly dreamed big. His legacy helped forge a path of possibilities and creative avenues for subsequent art directors and set designers that would come after him. 

Over the decades in modern cinema, there has undoubtably been a plethora of outlandish, ambitious, extravagant and ingenious designs that have propelled the art into a new and inspiring frontier.

Ingmar Bergman’s stunning drama Fanny and Alexander 1982.

Let us consider a handful of these important Academy Award winners, with exceptional design and imaginative flair…

King Of Jazz (1930 Academy Award winner Best Art Direction)

Considered a lost film until the early 70’s, the film looks- even by today’s standards, as lavish (and exorbitant) as they come. With highly imaginative sets (including gigantic pianos with an orchestra of musicians inside it’s chamber) and sumptuous costumes, King Of Jazz is brimming with lively music and fine-tuned choreography.

John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley 1941.

How Green Was My Valley (1941 Academy Award winner Best Black & White Art Direction-Interior Decoration)

Considered by many film critics as the best film of all time, most wouldn’t be surprised if they were told that Citizen Kane would have taken out the Oscar for Best Black and White Art Direction in 1941. As visually impressive as the film may be, unfortunately for Orson Welles it was not to be.

That award went to John Ford’s ambitious working class drama based on Welsh writer Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel of the same name, How Green Was  My Valley. When war disrupted the production team’s plans to shoot on location in Wales, 20th Century Fox had the studio construct an 80 acre Welsh mining town on a lot in Malibu, California.

Gene Kelly (left) in An American In Paris 1951.

In John Alton’s classic cinematography opus ‘Painting With Light’, Todd McCarthy points out that initially Alton turned down Vincente Minnelli’s celebrated 1951 musical An American In Paris, but agreed to shoot the ballet because:

‘The painterly inspiration of the extravagant 20-minute sequence inspired his imagination…’

With stunning costumes, imaginative studio sets and Gene Kelly choreography (the final 20minute ballet sequence alone cost the studio almost $450,000) An American In Paris was a box-office success for MGM and Cedric Gibbons.

As far as big budget films go, very few could stand alongside MGM’s hefty priced epic Ben-Hur. On a scale that was unprecedented for the time (as much as $14.7million was spent on publicity and marketing alone), this biblical mammoth took out 11 Oscars, including Best Art Direction-Set Direction-Color and Best Costume Design-Color. With 300 elaborate sets sprawled over 148 acres, this William Wyler directed epic called for more than 100,000 costumes and 1,000 armoured suits, 10,000 extras and hundreds of camels, donkeys, horses and sheep. Dismantling the sets alone cost upwards of $125,000.

One of the major grossing motion pictures in the USA and Canada, David Lean’s 1965 large-scale romantic period drama, Doctor Zhivago received 5 Oscars, including Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction-Color over such films as The Sound Of Music.

Russia in Spain. The cast on set for David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago 1965.

With the Boris Pasternak novel from which the film was based banned in the Soviet Union at the time, the art direction team of John Box, Terence Marsh and set designer Dario Simoni had to build Russian looking sets in Spain. Lean had shot segments of Lawrence Of Arabia in Spain 3 years prior. Knee-deep in the middle of a heatwave, parts of the film were even shot on studio sets equipped with artificial snow.

A world of fantasy. Ivana Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth 2006.

As aforementioned, in much the same fashion as cinematographer John Alton’s inspiration to shoot An American In Paris, in 2006, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro disclosed that most of his ideas for the costume and design of his award winning fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth came from ‘doodles, drawings and plot bits’ in a personal notebook he had been keeping in his pocket for 20 years.

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