Art Direction & Production Design – capsule review

Art Direction & Production Design (I.B. Tauris 2015), edited by Lucy Fischer, is a must-read for anybody – scholar or otherwise – who hopes to deepen their understanding of how film design has grown and developed from the earliest days of filmmaking to the present day. The book’s chapters are organised chronologically: 

  • “The Silent Screen, 1895-1927” (Fischer); 
  • “Classical Hollywood, 1928-1946” (Mark Shiel); 
  • “Postwar Hollwood, 1947-1967” (Merrill Schleier); 
  • “The Auteur Renaissance, 1968-1980” (Charles Tashiro); 
  • “The New Hollywood, 1981-1999” (J.D. Connor); 
  • “Hollywood’s Digital Backlot, 2000-present” (Stephen Prince). 

While the chapters do include some discussion of European influences (particularly during the various eras of European immigration to Hollywood) and independent cinema, the collection’s main area of focus is design and Hollywood cinema. Its particular focus is mainstream Hollywood cinema, as produced and distributed by the studios and, later, the joint efforts of studios and production companies that reconstructed Hollywood filmmaking in the wake of the studio era’s demise.

The chapters are structured somewhat similarly, with mild variations dependent on the era in question, available archival material, or each writers’ individual approach. Chapters generally begin by laying out the industrial state of production design at the start of the era in question, and the book has been thoughtfully edited so that each new chapter slightly revises the preceding one. Thus, if you hadn’t read, for example, Shiel’s chapter on “Classical Hollywood,” Schleier’s chapter on “Postwar Hollywood” quickly brings you up to speed on the state of production design in the years leading up to 1947. 

Chapters then tend to lay out the various labour and industrial changes that the industry underwent during the era in question. These sections draw on extensive archival material as well as reports from contemporary trade publications and guild publications. So readers of the entire text will learn how art direction as a distinct department became a necessity as silent-era films grew bigger and more complex, and how those departments eventually became responsible for determining overriding “house styles” for each studio, marshalling huge budgets while doing so. They’ll learn about the transition from “art direction” to “production design” (as well as other quirks of terminology that can sometimes confuse), and how production designers reconfigured their roles post-studio breakdown. And they’ll read about the ingenuity and artistry of the production designers of the ’70s and ‘80s who did so much to craft the look and feel of that era’s distinct slate of films. Throughout, there is also coverage of labour movements within the production design world, with important information about the CSU strike of 1945 (which, by the way, deserves a book of its own. If any reader knows of one, please do let me know).

Schleir’s highly informative discussion
of the Reata house in Giant –
its production and meanings

The chapters then generally move on to analyse one or two films of the era in question and how the films were designed within the context of the industry at that time. These analyses tend to include two discussions. First is the practical role of the designer(s) in question, particularly their relationships with directors, producers, and (thankfully) cinematographers, their power and status at the time, and their ability to work within prescribed budgets. Second, they also include analysis of what the design adds to films such as The Thief of Baghdad (1924, art director William Cameron Menzies); Giant (1956, production designer Boris Leven); and several of the films designed by Dean Tavoularis, amongst others. These analyses focus on the way that design responds to, influence, and expands a film’s narrative and its depiction of characters.

All of the chapters are insightful and well researched, but for me the chapter I found most illuminating was Schleier’s on Postwar Hollywood. As a scholar of ‘70s Hollywood, I tend to allow myself to fall too readily into a trap fairly typical of my cohort of thinking everything “new” about Hollywood began with Bonnie & Clyde (1967, production designer Tavoularis). In reality (as I know, but tend too easily to forget), the two decades between the labour strife and major legal disputes of the 1940s (such as the De Havilland Law of 1944 and the Paramount Decree of 1948) and the emergence of the “New” Hollywood in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde were rife with developments in labour, production, style, performance, technology, standards, and more. All of these developments made the ‘70s-era cinema possible. Schleier’s in-depth discussion of the postwar era’s production design is a fantastic reminder that the ground-breaking work of Tavoularis, Richard Sylbert, Polly Platt and others developed out of a trend that was decades in the making.

Regardless, though, of a reader’s era of interest, this really is a necessary book for a better understanding of the vital role that production design and its practitioners have played in shaping what Hollywood films look like and what they mean.

This entry was posted in Production Design and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply