Oscars does not have an award for Best in Production Design. It has one for Art Direction. They have one for Best in Costume and Best in Make Up. The assumption is that in production, both these categories are under the Art Director and Art Direction includes the Production Design. Under the Production Design is Make Up and Costume. In a low-budget film, all these would usually be done by that same person.
Unfortunately, this is also one department given the least attention when money starts to get tight. It shouldn’t.
Production Design should be treated with the same amount of sanctity as the script and cinematography. A film is a visual medium and even in scriptwriting, the principle of less talk and more visual is encouraged. Art Direction is the visual side. It can communicate an entire story in a single shot, it can solve a mystery in a split second, it can comprehensively present a back story, it can provide missing pieces in the narrative, it is the one element in the movie that cannot and should not lie.
It Can Hold The Answer To A Question That Would Reverberate Through Decades
In Inception, there is one outstanding question that, to this day, is being speculated, debated and thought about. Was Cobb (Leonardo De Caprio) in his dream or in reality at the end of the movie?
(possible spoilers) The first instinct was to look at the totem, the top. But remember that the top wasn’t even Cobb’s totem. It was his wifes’. It was clear from the beginning. Cobb’s totem was emphasized from the very beginning via the production design. Let us go back.
In the opening sequence, we are presented with a gloomy room. It is a function of both the cinematography and production design. We see Cobbs in a room where everything was either dark wood or painted in deep Earth tones. As Nolan pulls out, we see Cobbs hand slightly pushed forward emphasizing his hand. And on his finger is one thing that distinguishes his dream from his reality, his wedding ring. Because the set was so dark and the ring was shiny, it made the ring impossible to miss.
By the end of the movie, everyone was waiting for the top to fall. It was a red herring. The answer was the wedding ring. Was he wearing it at the end of the movie?
And that was emphasized by the production design from the opening of the movie in the very first scene of the movie.
Make Someone Stand Out
Alpha Dog is always recollected with snickers of disbelief and nod of satisfaction. There were so many ways the movie could have gone the wrong way and so many times it could have made the wrong turn but each time, it managed to keep on the right track. Looking back at the movie, it was pure jazz. It made an unbelievably crazy person look intellectually respectable. The movie was fast and loose and the story was inherently ugly. If it wasn’t based on a true story, it would have never gotten the credence it gained.
One of the many things it succeeded in doing is launching the acting career of Justin Timberlake. This was 2006. Two years before, the world were treated with his wardrobe malfunction controversy in the Super Bowl and then shocked with his immaturity by denying any responsibility. He launched a successful solo album but his sophomore music venture was being casted in doubt. He was still a boyband member in so many eyes.
Then the brilliant costume designer of Alpha Dog, Sarah Jane Slotnick, did something very simple, she made Timberlake wear a fedora hat. It was a device that automatically made him the 50% of the screen. Whenever he was present with a fedora hat, it was like we were seeing an invisible arrow across the screen pointing to him. He wasn’t just taller than most cast, he was taller with a fedora hat.
It was a simple detail but it worked in making us notice Timberlake. The fedora hat didn’t change his acting but it helped us notice that he was doing a good job. That’s how powerful a simple detail in costume design can do.
It Can Be Your Movie’s Identity Through Eternity
I don’t think there is any other movie that could be as fetishistically futuristic as A Clockwork Orange. Decade after it is shown, it still is futuristic. Much of it is the story, of course, but the other half goes to the art direction. Everything was hyper stylized and every detail told a story. Every single piece contributed to the story that removing any element, no matter how small, could take away from the narrative.
When Director Stanley Kubrick opened with an extreme close up of Alex’s face and then pulls back to show the environment, the whole backstory was already told, the characters fully introduced and expectations were set.
As it progresses, more and more of the story was told through the visuals and it was a triumph in style from beginning to end: Alex’s false eyelashes, the droogs’ white thug outfits, the striking colours of everyone’s costume in the cast except the lead actors, with their crotch-emphatic outer jockstraps and bowler hats, the unbalanced and crooked furniture shapes, the out of place and oversized decors and the giant plaster penis that Alex uses as a murder weapon. The production designer created a whole new universe that was so familiar yet so strange.
That’s how much power a production designer has, it can create an alternative universe, break trends and put the film ahead of its time. Most importantly, it can transcend the narrative. A Clockwork Orange, perhaps, is the only movie successful in doing so.
It Can Create Landmarks and Turn You Movie To a Cultural Wealth
There are movies that pay tribute to pilgrimages like the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Pyramid of Egypt.
Then there are movies that create new shrines like a cafe and a green grocery in the shadow of a painfully ordinary street. This is what Amelie did. Using the eclectic and unbelievably cute heroine named Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) , it created new landmarks by making fairytale dreams turn into whimsical realities happen in locations that pop out like photos from a story book.
The strategies used were simple. Amelie is the quirky girl that does anonymous acts of generosity in order to grant wishes of the people around her. Her quirkiness had to stand out but it also had to be reflected in the whole movie. To achieve this, the production designer opted to paint many of the props used with bright eye-popping colours and surround the characters with it. There is the guy shot against the shockingly bright red table, there is the brightly lit fruit stand against the monotone street, there is the green apartment in a row of beige walls.
It has actually inspired a whimsical clothing, handbags and shoes brand and the real-life places that Amelie frequented are now landmarks and tourist attraction.
It Can Turn a Taboo to Something Truthfully Cool
It’s easy to miss the contribution of older films like Reservoir Dogs and much older ones like On The Waterfront simply because new movies pop up so fast and could bury the old ones so deep and so tight, it takes a lot effort to remember it. More than what you are willing to give for something that is supposedly easy.
But I can’t let it slide for this post. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) was ghetto. He was a has-been and has nowhere to go but there was something in Brando that was inarguably hard to miss. He was hot. He walked with an air of arrogance and spoke with a tone of inherent pride. Even in his most desperate moments, he was tough. For all the faults the leather jacket was associated with at that time, it was undeniably tough. By making Brando wear it, the production designer changed the image of leather. From then on, it became the mark of real rugged guy.
It was the same trick used in Reservoir Dogs. Although Godfather undeniably glamourized the mafia life, it featured the families on top. Reservoir Dogs glamourized street crime and street criminals. The white shirt, black suit, black tie and black sunglasses flipped our image of small time criminals. Suddenly, they were hot and being one is so cool.
There are many more movies that should be mentioned and we will in future posts. For now, recall and revisit these movies and notice how small details and big executions of production design can change an entire culture.