An account- of some oj the innumerable problems which confront the man responsible for the building oj film “ sets ” ; contributed by the well-known Art Director who has worked at the A.S.F.I. studios at Wembley.
by O. F. Werndorff
MUCH of your entertainment in the cinema depends on the work of the Art Director. I always think of art directors that the less you hear about them the better they are. Good art direction must give you the atmosphere of the picture without being too noticeable. The best" sets,” in my experience, are those which you forget as soon as the film is over and the lights go up again in the theatre. The first essential in the film is the action of the characters. The art director’s job is to provide them with a background—and a background it shov’d remain at all costs.
But have you ever thought of the man who provides you with all the realities and unrealities that you see on the screen, quite apart from the acting and dialogue ? Have you ever thought of the almost unlimited imagination and experience of life which he must possess ?
He must be as much at home in the luxurious palaces of the rich as in the bare and squalid houses of the slum dwellers. He has to design and build the glades and woods of the fairies as well as settings in old and forgotten periods, their furniture and their dresses. He has to create the background and the general atmosphere of, modern industry, with all its machinery ; and the complicated apparatus of the present and even the future, whenever author and director demand such scenes for the story and action of a picture.
A.11 this is his business, and all this
knowledge can be obtained by study. But there lies the difficulty. Filmmaking is a quick business and involves doing the best possible in the shortest possible time. In most cases, the art director is faced with the problem of inventing, designing, and building his sets overnight, spending a minimum of both time and money.
Of course, most difficulties, although apparently insuperable at first, are eventually overcome by much brain work, and after heart-breaking arguments with the producer, the director, and dozens of other collaborators.
There is one collaborator whom it is impossible to " get round.” Pitiless, hard to please, ever critical, possessed of an eye clearer and sharper than that of any human being, the camera is the task-master for which the art director has to work. Hundreds of optical and physical principles of the camera have to be taken into consideration and everything must be arranged so that, on the screen, every detail shall look as if seen through human eyes.
Now, the human eye is even more wonderful and complicated an optical instrument than the lens of the camera. For example, if you enter a room and glance round it, you immediately, though subconsciously, get a full impression of its character. If you fix your eye on one point you never lose consciousness of the general surroundings. This is due to the
construction of your eye and the speed of the process of " seeing.”
The eye of the camera is different.
It gives you only the picture of things in its exact range and optical angle, within rigid bounds of height and width. It is here that the art director’s work comes in.
There is no use for him to build super-realistic sets, with marble fireplaces and plates of real gold on the table, if he forgets even for a moment their relative photographic value in the special shot for which he is designing. Money could be saved in many productions if only producers and directors would not “go on the floor ” until they had listened to the opinion of the art director, with his experience and artistically-trained eyes.
The basis of all film work is photography, and photography means— “ writing with light.” Therefore, the art director has to design and to build with light and for light. Every alteration of position of objects in the background, as well as the foreground, can entirely alter the whole effect of a scene in perspective. The angle chosen to photograph a piece of furniture, a room, or a person decides the character of the picture on the screen.
By altering the lines or the lighting
of a scene, or even its colour, you emphasize or detract from its importance in the sequence and in the whole story.
So long as the art director remembers that the character of an interior and its furniture, the line of trees or hills in a scene, or even the design of a single vase or ornament may help to create the mood sought after in any particular picture, his problems are almost solved and he will achieve his duty. There are tricks involving models, back projection, and hundreds of other special jobs which he must study, all of them highly specialized and technical.
But you will have gathered, perhaps, from my general remarks, what I meant by saying that it is the sets of which you were never aware which are really the best. The art director’s task is to prepare good “ sets ” for his picture ; but his greatest reward is when an audience does not take particular notice of them and, most of all, when his artifice appears to them most like the real thing. He knows then that he has been successful in reproducing background and nothing more.
The world film encyclopedia, 1933
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