Art Direction: Activity 1

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Creating the Look

Art direction is a broad concept encompassing many visual elements of film production—set design and construction, locations, décor, props and costumes. Over the decades, the nature of art direction has changed considerably. The first film sets were devised by pioneer French filmmaker Georges Méliès at the turn of the 20th century. With their painted backdrops, Méliès’ sets resembled traditional theater scenery—immovable and two-dimensional. In 1916, D. W. Griffith’s silent epic Intolerance made cinema history, in part because of its full-scale sets. Unlike his predecessors, set builder Frank Wortman considered Griffith’s moving camera when designing for Intolerance, devising a completely integrated, three-dimensional space.

William Cameron Menzies, designer on such classics as Gone with the Wind (1939), is considered the father of modern production design. Menzies’ sweeping cinematic vision and distinctive personal style helped elevate the art director’s position in the Hollywood hierarchy. In the 1950s, as film production became more costly and complex, the scope of art direction expanded. Studios recognized the need for full-blown production designers—artists who would be responsible for the overall look of a film—not just the sets.

Production designers collaborate closely with the director and cinematographer to visualize the screenplay. Together they determine how visual components can best be combined to tell the screen story. As award-winning production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein notes, “The most beautiful ballroom on earth means nothing unless it helps the context of the story.” When devising sets or considering locations, production designers must first determine the volume, or overall size and shape of a space. Does the scene call for a large, rectangular space, such as the Xanadu mansion in Citizen Kane (1941), or a claustrophobic enclosed space, such as the submarine in U-571 (2000)?

Just like painters, production designers exploit perspective to direct the viewer’s eye toward a particular spot in a set or to create a sense of depth. Scale can be used to evoke feelings about a space. The stairway in Scarlett O’Hara’s Atlanta mansion in Gone with the Wind, for example, is outsized. Its large size suggests Rhett’s excesses and his power over Scarlett. This sense of power becomes especially obvious when Rhett forcefully carries Scarlett up the stairs to the bedroom. Although architectural elements apply most significantly to sets, they can also be used in location filming. The mental institution in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a real place, but its chain-link fences and barbed wire were manipulated to emphasize the inmates’ feelings of oppression.

Ultimately, what separates production designers from their theater equivalents is the camera. Every set or location must accommodate the camera’s changing three-dimensional view. Whether the camera itself is moving, or the framing is changing, the set should facilitate the movement. A good designer will consider how the set or location will look from various angles and distances, and in different lighting conditions, as demanded by the script.

Encourage your students to “see” the architectural components of production design by studying photos or paintings by artists like Vermeer and Giotto and point out examples of the defined architectural terms. Then have them focus on one scene in a selected film and discuss how camera movement and lighting work with the basic set design.

Supplementary Activity:
Have students videotape a short scene in various locations around school, including at least one outdoor setting. Screen the tapes and discuss how the architectural elements in each setting affected the scene. Alternatively, have students photograph or draw various locations around school and discuss how a scene could be set in each setting..

Animation: Creating Movement Frame by Frame

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Complete Art Direction Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: Creating the Look

Activity 2: Setting the Stage

Activity 3: Color and Texture

Activity 4: Learning from the Best

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