grand-budapest-hotelThink of the last great movie you saw. Can you remember how it looked? What about how it felt? Your eyes immediately narrow in. “What is this place? Where am I? Have I been here before? That looks familiar. I’ve never seen that before!” The space must draw you in but never distract from the story at hand; visible and invisible at the same time. This is an extremely delicate balance.

Production design is a tricky business and its best are some of the great unsung heroes of the movies. Rick Carter (JURASSIC PARK, AVATAR, LINCOLN ), Dante Ferretti (GANGS OF NEW YORK, COLD MOUNTAIN, THE AVIATOR) and Catherine Martin (ROMEO+JULIET, MOULIN ROUGE, THE GREAT GATSBY) are each as vital to the success of a film’s ambience as a cinematographer like Roger Deakins or an editor like Thelma Schoonmaker. Yet Production Designers are lauded less as artists and more as fancy furniture movers. Why is this?

We may believe that we are conscious of it, even going so far as to say we know the difference between good production design and bad.  But if I were to ask you what it is that production designers actually do, I suspect the answer would be along the lines of, “Well, they put lamps on tables and stuff.” Though not exactly wrong, this is a doleful understatement of what these artists bring to their craft.

The Production Designer is responsible for the entire Art Department. He or she is tasked first with reading a screenplay and assessing the visual qualities of its atmosphere, then preparing a meticulous breakdown of the script, meeting with the Director to hash out how the film is to be shot, on set or at location, deciding what is the visual theme throughout, calculating budgets, conducting intense research, sourcing ideas from books, photographs, paintings and finally delivering their sketches (detailing mood, lighting, composition, color and texture) to the Construction Department where their work is finally realized.

The joy of production design lies in the opportunity to bring into being space that does not but could exist. Let us examine two very disparate films, both nominated this year by the Academy Awards for excellence in Production Design-THE IMITATION GAME (Morten Tyldum) and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson). Imagine if you will, there is a production scale that ranges from “real” to cinematic. We could comfortably fix these films on nearly opposite ends of that spectrum. While it is not difficult to distinguish the differences between them, what is more interesting is how these contrasting worlds both achieve such a beautiful effect.

GAME is a drama/thriller/character study set in World War II England whose aesthetic offers subtle period detail in harmony with the oppressive pallet of British institutionalization (that somehow manages to make even wires exciting). There is a true-to-life quality about the film that speaks to a time in our history that is not only well-documented but has been much-visited by the cinema across the decades. BUDAPEST takes place in a similar time frame but in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Here we find a profusion of pinks and golds and deep reds twirling, whirling in lavish pirouettes while still remaining faithful to its 1930’s Eastern European fashion. So absolute are these cinematic worlds, that they become extensions of the characters themselves. To closely examine a film’s production design is to glean what a character is feeling based on his or her surroundings.

Take Richard Sylbert’s work on THE GRADUATE (Mike Nichols). For the first half, everything around Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) seems opulent and unnecessary. Ben is isolated, unable to share himself with others; adrift in a swimming pool or staring aimlessly through a fish tank. Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is drawn as decadent and licentious, her home besieged by intricate linear designs and flowing curves. Everywhere are twinkling bottles of booze and exotic ferns sprouted to the ceiling; the jungle atmosphere foreshadowing the affair that she and Ben are about to consummate.

If movies are like dreams, Production Design is the stuff that dreams are made on. We the dreamers are constantly trying to poke holes in that world so as to deflate the illusion so to speak. This is only natural, the mind doesn’t like to be fooled and the heart less so. Pay close attention to the setting a film is perpetuating. Does the milieu cohere to the narrative? Does it enhance the narrative? What does the background tell me that the characters can’t? All of a sudden, you are no longer watching a movie you are reading it. That alone is worth the price of admission.