Hollywood’s production designers, art directors and set decorators may not have the most recognizable names in the movie industry, but their astounding creations are justly famous. These technical geniuses have been working behind the scenes of our favorite movies for decades, and now, thanks to author Cathy Whitlock and the Art Directors Guild, there is a new book showcasing hundreds of photographs from Hollywood’s most memorable films.
“Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction” is a nearly 400 page visual stunner that takes readers on a visual journey through dozens of familiar, breathtaking sets. Movie fans can look at one still photograph and be instantly reminded of the beauty of the entire film: the ancient Roman streets of “Cleopatra,” the dark temples of “Indiana Jones,” the battlefields of “Saving Private Ryan,” the lush forests of “Avatar’s” Pandora. Whitlock’s writing process fills the reader with information about how each of these various sets was created, how long construction took, the men and women behind the designs, and so much more.
Perhaps the most iconic set of all time is the Emerald City from “The Wizard of Oz.” The green skyscrapers were actually modeled after a pre-World War I sketch of “test tubes upside down,” notes production designer Jack Martin Smith. When filmed up close, many of the structures utilized the process of matte paintings, “a photographic technique that uses a painting by a matte artist,” and then combined those paintings with actual footage.
Fans of “Oz” would also be delighted to learn that the visual effect of coloring the various horses was actually created with Jell-O powder. The powder had to be reapplied frequently because the horses kept licking off the Jell-O due to its sugary taste! As good as the Visual Effects, Art Direction, and Cinematography were for its time, the film didn’t win any of these Oscar nominations, instead taking home only Best Original Score and Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”).
This year’s Oscar champ for Art Direction, “Alice and Wonderland,” just missed the cut to be included. However, the film’s production design winner Robert Stromberg still receives a mention in the book for his previous work, “Avatar” (2009). Citing that film’s production designs as one of the most groundbreaking of the past hundred years, Whitlock describes the flawless melding of “digital techniques, physical design, live action, animation… and three dimensional visual effects.”
Two different art departments were required to film “Avatar” — the first focusing on Pandora’s original animals and unique plantlife, and the second for machinery and other human aspects. The main challenge of the film’s art departments were to make the “dream world” and the “real world” interact flawlessly. Audiences responded in record numbers. The James Cameron epic remains the highest-grossing film of all time, winning three Academy Awards in the process: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects.
With “Designs on Film,” Whitlock and her team from the Art Directors Guild pay the ultimate homage to cinema, and invite you to join them.