THE ART OF ART DIRECTION
By Shailik BhaumikOn a film set, an art director is responsible for all of the artistic and visual designs used for a production. It is the Art Director’s job to realize the Production Designer’s creative vision for all the sets and locations that eventually give productions their unique visual identity. They work on feature films, commercials and some types of television productions.
In feature films, they act as project managers for art departments and are usually appointed by the Production Designer. They are responsible for the Assistant Art Director, the Draughtsmen (the term is used for both men and women), the Art Department Assistant(s), Graphic Designers, Storyboard Artists, Model Makers and all Construction personnel.
In large art departments on television productions, Art Directors are also responsible for the work schedule and making the best use of the art department budget. On some TV dramas the art department may consist of only the Production Designer, Art Director, and Production Buyer, while on smaller television productions the roles of Production Designer and Art Director are often combined.
The Art Director starts work when they receive the script and final schedule, detailing the precise shooting order of the scenes. They analyze the script to identify all props or special items that may require longer lead times. At the same time, they oversee the drawing up of plans of sets and locations by Draughtsman for the use of the Construction Managers and their teams. On a big budget film or TV production, this can start four to five months before shooting. On low budget productions, it can be as little as four weeks.It’s important for the Art Director to work across departments. They work with the relevant teams about any visual or computer-generated effects that may be required. They are involved in the use of any vehicles (from cars to horse-drawn carriages) and animals, and their on-set requirements, including kenneling in studios. They liaise closely with the Location Manager to negotiate about when locations can be prepared. On bigger productions, they have weekly meetings with the Accountant. They must find cost-effective creative solutions which also provide practical answers to construction and decorating problems.
During production, Art Directors oversee the construction, dressing and striking (dismantling) of all sets. On location, they also source suitable materials to adapt locations to meet the Designers’ creative brief, working strictly to the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures. On smaller productions, particularly in television, Art Directors also monitor every scene as it is shot. After the production wraps (shooting is completed), in collaboration with Location Managers, Art Directors must ensure that any remaining sets are struck and locations cleared and that the art department budget is balanced.
Where more permanent sets are required for television productions the designs and construction must be more robust and durable, e.g. as studio backgrounds for news or back-lot builds for soap operas. In these circumstances, Art Directors may have to negotiate with planning authorities and structural engineers. Art Directors are also responsible for the maintenance of such sets, and must monitor scripts for any changes or rebuilds in fixed sets.
Art Direction for Realism:
As in every cinematic sub discipline, designers begin with the script and make their contributions within the limits and opportunities the story provides. The options available to them move, along a spectrum from realism to stylization. (In this context, “realism” should be understood as a particular style that seeks to convince viewers they are watching events unfold in the real world.) The approach a designer takes (strict realism, heavy stylization, or something in between) has been often pre-determined by the genre of film on which he or she is working.
At the “realistic” end of the spectrum are stories such as war films, police dramas, and westerns. These genres derive much of their power from the illusion of occurring in the here and now. The violence and horror of the war film are most effective when viewers believe a soldier can be maimed or killed by the grenade dropped in the trench next to him, while the police drama convinces audiences that real criminals are being chased when both pursued and pursuer pound the pavement of real cities.
Such a strict notion of realism, however, is just one approach to production design. Another, at the opposite extreme, creates thoroughly unrealistic, heavily stylized environments that make no attempt to convince viewers they are watching any real, lived-in or live world. Instead, these designs try to create an alternative environment with an internally consistent logic that lasts as long as the film’s duration. Films from genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and the musical are often heavily stylized. Fantasy and science fiction require an extreme attention to consistency, self-referring design because of the extra difficulty of creating a world that by its very nature appears odd. In musicals, the alternative reality is less one of space and technology than of psychology, as the characters live in a world in which they express themselves through song and dance.
Somewhere between these two poles of realism and stylization are genres such as the period film or the detective story. Period films are unique because the antiques they pull together to provide the realistic illusion of a particular period are by definition different from contemporary reality, and therefore provide a form of stylization. For example, the audience’s expectation of realistic spatial representation would immediately mark an automobile or cell phone that appeared in a story set in 1700 as “wrong.” Disbelief could not be suspended, and the reality of the fictional world could not be established. At the same time, objects that period characters might take as everyday objects, such as handcrafted woodworking tools, are unfamiliar to contemporary audiences.
Art Direction for Surrealism:
“It has never been my object to record my dreams, just the determination to realize them.”
– Man Ray
Surrealism revolutionized the art of cinema with new techniques and approaches that freed it from traditional storytelling, transforming the medium into one that could explore, reveal, and possibly even replicate the inner-workings of the subconscious mind. Surrealist films often leave us with shocking images that lodge themselves into our psyche and deprive us of easily legible narratives, while at the same time prove compelling in their deep, ultimately neo-romantic expressions of desire. The movie screen becomes a portal through which the viewer can journey where the traditional common constructs can no longer be reliable guides, from a clergyman’s sexual dreams to a poet’s quest through a mirror, from an obsession with a starfish to a wound that emits live ants.
To an extent, almost any stylized film could be labeled ‘surreal.’ From the stark shadows of German Expressionism to the independent neo-noirs of David Lynch, films create visual worlds and experiences unlike reality. However, most of the aesthetics labeled surreal today owe a great deal to the work of surrealist artists during the 1920s through the late 1940s. During that time, surrealist cinema was its own unique and powerful film movement.
It began in France because of a fortunate combination of easy access to film equipment, film financing, and a plethora of interested artists and audiences. Surrealist artists realized that the film camera could capture the real world in a dreamlike way that their pens and paintbrushes could not: superimpositions, overexposures, fast-motion, slow-motion, reverse-motion, stop-motion, lens flares, large depth of field, shallow depth of field, and more bizarre camera tricks could transform the original image in front of the lens into something new once exposed on the film plate. For the surrealists, film gave them the ability to challenge and mold the boundaries between fantasy and reality, especially with space and time. Like the dreams they wished to bring to life, film had no limits or rules.
Since Surrealist filmmakers never desire commercial success and often opposed to it, their work was screened at limited venues and considered to be avant-garde. Although surrealist elements can be seen in post-war American avant-garde films (i.e. Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger), surrealist cinema was rooted in the French avant-garde. Some of the most popular surrealist filmmakers were Man Ray, Jean Epstein, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, and, perhaps most famous of all – Luis Bunuel. Bunuel’s filmography spans over thirty years, ranging from the avant-garde to documentary to erotic dramas.
Often controversial, his films confront issues of poverty, politics, romance, sex, and race. Bunuel’s career began when he borrowed money from his mother to make Un Chien Andalou (1929) with his close friend Salvador Dali. In the film, Bunuel aimed to create a purely visual piece of cinema that challenged the conventions of narrative, plot, cinematography, and theme. The most iconic and disturbing image of the film is the opening sequence in which a man slices a woman’s eye open with a razor blade, foreshadowed by clouds slicing across the moon in the night sky. However, ants crawling out of a man’s hand, a severed hand in the middle of the street and bleeding cattle on top of pianos being dragged across the floor are equally disturbing images presented in the film.
Bunuel and Dali derived the ‘story’ from a series of dreams. Like dream worlds, Un Chien Andalou does not obey physical rules of time and space. For instance, at the end of the film, the woman leaves a dark room where she teases the man and enters another room. The new room is brightly lit and windy. The scene then cuts to a long shot of a man standing on a beach that turns around and faces screen right. Then it cuts back to the woman as she waves and runs towards the camera, screen right. Next is a medium long shot of the man on the beach and then a quick cut to him in a long shot as the women enters from screen right and runs into his arms.
From these five shots, the real dimensions of space (separate locations of an interior room and an exterior beach) are disregarded as the real dimensions of time (the amount of time it takes to move from an interior to an exterior) are disregarded as well. While most films do break conventions of time by cutting from one scene to the next and omitting unnecessary actions, Bunuel pushes space and time further by eliminating their physical rules and allowing for a cinematic stream of consciousness from one image to the next. Considered a classic of avant-garde and surrealist cinema, Un Chien Andalou continues to shock audiences with its illogical narrative structure and graphic imagery. Although a Bunuel’s first masterpiece, it certainly wasn’t his last as he went on to make L’Age D’or (1930), The Young One (1960), and Belle de Jour (1967). For Bunuel and other surrealist filmmakers, the camera was more than just a means to capture the world and tell stories; it was the lens through which they could twist and transform depictions of the world into how they truly saw it.
Shailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film “Dasein”, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.