02 · 22 · 18

What Is Art Direction in Cinema?

By: Gabriela Martínez @GabbMartivel

The art direction araises from the need of the artistic department of preproduction in cinema to supervise that the sets, costumes, locations, makeup, lighting and the general atmosphere of a film, have aesthetic coherence. In this way, the art direction decides which colors should be used, the appropriate materials that fit the budget, and so on.

Amadeus (1984, dir. Miloš Forman)

Amadeus (1984, dir. Miloš Forman)

According to the historian of film design, Léon Barsacq, it was from 1908, when the film camera was able to separate from the tripod and could move to the interior of the stage, filmed theater was stopped being made -which resorted only to fixed sets- to give way to three-dimensional sets that incorporated more elements. Thus births this figure in charge of supervising that all the elements are adapted to the ideas of the director and the cinematographer.

“People think you choose curtains, towels and chairs, but the main responsibility (of the production designer) is to translate the story in visual terms so that the vision of the director and the director of photography can come together and the dream comes true” . Patrizia von Brandenstein, first woman to win an Oscar in Production Design by Amadeus (1984, dir. Miloš Forman).

William Cameron Menzies was the first to obtain the title of production designer for his work in Gone with the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming), as he took advantage of the arrival of color cinema to make one of the most memorable scenes in cinema: the fire in Atlanta. As the writer James Curtis describes it in his book William Cameron Menzies: The shape of films to come, the scene of the fire included real fire. The film sets of King Kong (1933, dir. Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack) and The King of Kings (1927, dir. Cecil B. DeMille), which were about to be thrown away, were redecorated to resemble the era of the Civil War in Atlanta and they were totally burned. It was the first time such a scene was done in real life instead of using a scale model. Every detail of the set, from the rust on the cars to the pipe network, was meticulously thought out to get the most realistic effect possible before setting it on fire.

Incendio en Atlanta, Lo que el viento se llevó

Fire in Atlanta, Gone with the wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming)

The production designers are responsible for the overall design of the film, while the artistic directors are responsible for the budget of the department, organize the team and supervise the process of construction of the sets. This division of labor between both offices is sometimes diffuse but both have the same objective.

Mexico has had talented production designers who have managed to conquer Hollywood. Emile Kuri, for example, won two Oscars for Best Production Design, for The Heiress (dir. William Wyler) in 1949 and Twenty thousand leagues of underwater travel (dir. Richard Fleischer) in 1954.

The Heiress (1949, dir. William Wyler)

The Heiress (1949, dir. William Wyler)

Another example is Eugenio Caballero, winner of the Oscar for Best Production Design for Pan’s Labyrinth (directed by Guillermo del Toro) in 2006.

El laberinto del fauno (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)