Art Direction: Activity 2

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Setting the Stage

Once the architectural elements are in place, production designers must decide how to decorate their sets and locations. Set decoration includes all props and furnishings, including foliage and food, used in a given scene. Sometimes individual props and furnishings can be crucial to the story: the witch’s hourglass in The Wizard of Oz (1939), or the sled in Citizen Kane, for example. More often, however, the effect of set decoration is collective. As in real life, we make assumptions about film characters based on their environment. How characters decorate their living room, or what they put into their medicine chests, can tell us as much about them as the dialogue or action.

To get the most out of set decoration, production designers study the script’s characters. Whether the story is contemporary, futuristic or period, designers strive to create a credible everyday world. For period pieces, designers conduct research at libraries and archives to help them achieve authenticity. For futuristic or fantastic stories, they consult with scientists and engineers to create sets that are both imaginative and believable. Sometimes, however, designers choose drama over realism, selecting props or furnishings that may not be absolutely accurate, but are emotionally true.

Students can learn about the connection between set decoration and visual storytelling by creating a detailed environment for a specific character. To test whether they have picked appropriate details, have them share their descriptions with their classmates.

Supplementary Activity:

In teams, have students research a recent past decade (1950s to 1980s), then find or make props that represent the period. Have them create mini-sets and videotape a scene using their set.

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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