ex machina

Episode 10: Scenic Design in Film

For many of us, watching movies is a chance to escape, explore, and adventure outside of reality.  While a gripping plot line, or engaging actors might be what we talk about after the film, the sets designed in each scene are the gateways to our complete immersion into the story.  We may think of set design as simply a location for the story to take place, but really it serves a much larger purpose than this.  Through scenic design, we can learn background information to the story or characters as well as sense the mood and tone of the story.  To best understand the role of the scenic designer in films, let's start from the beginning, with the man who invented the title "Production Designer" as the job of art direction on a film,

WILLIAM CAMERON MENZIES

 

As well as production designer/ art director, Menzies also worked as a screenwriter, director, and producer over his 50 year career in the film industry.  Getting his start during the silent film era (1895- 1936!), he established himself on large scale films for his elaborate settings.  He also proved to be adaptable by flourishing with color once films moved away from black and white, working with legendary producer David O. Selznick on such films as Gone With the Wind. 

Because Menzies was considered a pioneer of scenic design on films, he invented the title "Production Designer" giving him the final say on all artistic and aesthetic decisions having to do with the set.  However, this is not always the case.  Each director will have a different relationship with their production designer, even calling that role by different names: Set Designer, Scenic Designer, Production Director, Art Director...   A director with a strong visual style like Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, might give their production designer less independent freedom and collaborate more on the director's vision.  On some film sets, the production designer might even be involved with the decisions on costumes.  Being a scenic designer means collaborating with many other departments on the film set, such as the lighting designer, costumes, cinematographer, and camera operators.  This is what especially separates the scenic designers of theater and film.  It is one thing to create a location for actors to move through, but when making a movie, that location shows dimension.  This means that not only actors are moving through it, but also cameras and sound recorders.  The designer must keep in mind not only the purpose of the location they are creating for the scene, but how actors and crew members will both be using the space .  It is quite the dance to have so many moving parts go unseen!  

Ultimately, the world on screen that the scenic designer creates must appear convincing to the audience in order for the rest of the story to succeed.  This is not exclusive to biopics or true stories, but to narratives and experimental films as well.  Once an environment has been created, details in props are used as thematic symbols for the story and characters.  For example, a bedroom only needs to appear messy if the story needs that detail to connect to the character.

For the purposes of this episode of FATCAT, we will be focusing exclusively on interior set designs for films and allow ourselves to dive deep into the worlds being created, whether it's the historic past, or the imagined future.  While viewing the following examples, take extra time to note color, mood, and props of each scene.


SIMPLE SET DESIGN

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)

Director: James Foley     Production Design: Jane Musky

An example of simple set design.  An office created to look how one might expect.  Colors are drab and matching the clothing of the characters.  Piles of papers and old posters make the office seem out of date and suffering like the character Shelley, played by Jack Lemmon.

AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

Director: David O. Russell    Production Design: Judy Becker

A film set in the 1970s is now considered a period piece! This story of con artistry is known for being shot largely indoors.  This was a choice made by director David O. Russell to avoid having to dress outside city scenes with cars from the era.  Instead, Judy Becker strongly places this story in the 1970s through set design and costumes, letting us know when and where we are through the vinyl walls, color schemes of yellows and browns, and the introduction of the "science oven".


THEATRICAL SET DESIGN

ANNA KARENINA (2012)

Director: Joe Wright    Production Design: Sarah Greenwood

A scene from the fast paced, re-imagined, Russian masterpiece by Leo Tolstoy, this film asks the audience to use their imagination as they would seeing a stage production.  Magic is added to this scene with the fluid choreography of camera and actors.  The transparency of the scene change allows the viewer to not only be immersed in the story, but also the telling of it.  

CURIOUS: How does this effect the mood of the film?

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)

Director: Wes Anderson           Set Decoration: Gretchen Rau

A director who is well known for his ornate and detailed set designs, Wes Anderson is sometimes accused of focusing too much on style over substance.  In this scene, we see how the ship, where most of the story will take place, is presented to us through what seems to be a large scale model.  The introduction of the lighting behind the scrim (a theatrical technique used to hide and then reveal parts of the set) tips it's hat to the theater days and an old style where the main character introduces the story at the start.  His master work comes through once the camera moves inside the model floating through each room as if we are one of the dolphins swimming alongside the submarine.


FUTURISTIC SET DESIGN

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick    Art Direction: John Hoesli

In this futuristic space epic, Kubrick and Hoesli broke down barriers with the visual style of this film.  Many sci- fi and space films since have used techniques and stylistic choices that were presented in this movie.  Notice the clean, sterile, whiteness of the inside of this vessel.  The future is clean and organized.  It also defies gravity not only for being in outer space, but in how it was shot.  The surreal modernism of this set enhances the location by showing the two astronauts, Dave and Frank, moving casually through this odd sphere no differently than going for a jog down a suburban street, or walking to the dinner table.

TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam    Production Design: Jeffrey Beecroft

Another story that takes place in the future, but with quite a different approach.  Terry Gilliam's future is much dirtier, bleaker, and packed with junk, unlike the crisp whiteness of Kubrick's future.  Gilliam also shows new technologies, and gives us a definite sense of this being beyond our time, but his version shows new technologies as being messy hodgepodges of technology we are familiar with today.  If anything, Gilliam and Beecroft's future looks closer to the machinery of the Industrial Revolution!

Terry Gilliam is known for his fantastical mind, often letting us travel to the future and made up worlds.  In his film Brazil (1985) he shows us a retro- futuristic world in a similar fashion.

Like Kubrick's future, Ex Machina (2015) shows a very clean and organized design of the future.  Directed by Alex Garland and designed by Mark Digby, the scenery uses sharp long lines to depict a feeling of order and control.

Another director with a strong visual style is French director Michel Gondry.  Known for his whimsical in- camera trickery and often home made looking set designs, this director has transported us to worlds of imagination and creativity.  A lot of his work has been done with director and set designer, Lauri Faggioni.  Here is a clip of how Michel Gondry uses scenic design to alter reality before our eyes on the set of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

This FATCAT is not only an exploration into the creation of worlds, but also a way for you aspiring new filmmakers to see how effective scenic design is not solely dependent on a big budget.  The beauty of the relationship between the camera and the set is how the camera can capture more than what's there.  Use this to your advantage!

When starting to approach production design on your own film, keep these three points in mind:

  1. Identify the mood of your film.  Who are the characters? What kind of story is this?  This can affect colors as well as objects and props used on your sets.  Collect artowrk or other film scenes to create a look book of inspiration to help guide your set design choices.
  2. Make your space look lived in.  What are details in your own environment that show you live there?  Notice and use these findings to add detail to your own set.  These details make a huge impact on creating a well developed character.
  3. Consider the spectrum of realism of your story to influence the stylization.  This may be predetermined by the genre of the film you are working on, but is not exclusive to it.  As we saw before, 12 Monkeys takes place in the future, but portrays it very differently than we might expect.  Stylization in a contemporary story can create an alternate reality with it's own rules and logic.  

AND OF COURSE, DON'T FORGET TO FEED THE FATCAT!  LET US IN ON MOVIES THAT STAND OUT TO YOU FOR IT'S SCENIC DESIGN!


WORKS CITED:

  1. FILM REFERENCE: PRODUCTION DESIGN   http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Independent-Film-Road-Movies/Production-Design-REALISM-AND-STYLIZATION.html
  2. LIGHTS FILM SCHOOL: HOW TO USE PRODUCTION DESIGN TO MAKE YOUR FILM STAND OUT   https://www.lightsfilmschool.com/blog/how-production-designcan-inspire-your-filmmaking
  3. TASTE OF CINEMA: 10 FILMS THAT CAN TEACH YOU EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PRODUCTION DESIGN   http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2014/10-films-that-can-teach-you-everything-you-need-to-know-about-production-design/