Baltimore Sun

Emerging from the background

Production designers are routinely charged with creating worlds a little unlike anything we've seen before. Researching centuries of architectural movements, mixing them together and adding healthy dollops of their own imagination, they erect entire cities and villages and dreamscapes on budgets a fraction of the cost of an actual building. They make plastic foam and wood look like iron and concrete; they make 20 feet appear to stretch into 200.

Then, they sit back and watch as the director gets all the credit for the stylish visuals.


Though many "event" films rely on budget-busting special effects or hair-raising stunts, production design is always essential to establish a movie's mood and sensibility. Nonetheless, movies in which the production designer's work receives enthusiastic notice usually come along sparingly, with maybe one or two big productions a year that blow audiences away.

Two recent favorites among production designers are "Blade Runner" and "Brazil" (ironically, neither won an Oscar). Bringing comic books to big-budget live-action movies often results in memorable visuals, if sometimes flimsy story lines -- "Batman" (which won the late Anton Furst an Oscar) and "Batman Returns," "Dick Tracy" and"The Flintstones" are recent examples.


This summer boasts a number of films that promise to give audiences an eyeful. "Waterworld" imagines a planet in which the oceans have consumed the land and survivors float about on rag-tag cities or powerful warships.

"Braveheart" offers a lavish look at the days of yore, as does "First Knight," which opens Friday. "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Virtuosity" explore the futuristic worlds of cyberpunk. And once again, comics have been extravagantly brought to life in "Casper," "Judge Dredd" and "Batman Forever."

"New worlds to me are so exciting," says Barbara Ling, production designer on "Batman Returns." "I loved them as a kid; I love them now -- going into a place where you have no sense of what things will be and nothing's quite what you think it should be. To have worlds where imagination just goes crazy is great for all age groups."

Two production designers -- the title used to be "art director," which today refers to someone who assists the production designer -- are largely credited with elevating their craft to an art form. Cedric Gibbons won 11 Academy Awards for his "An American in Paris," "Julius Caesar" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me." (He also designed the Oscar statuette.) William Cameron Menzies was similarly versatile, responsible for such eye-popping fantasies as 1924's "The Thief of Baghdad" and 1936's "Things to Come." He won a Oscar (one of two in his career) for his work on "Gone With the Wind."

Les Dilley, who worked as an art director on "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Alien" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" before advancing to production design, says: "You should be able to take on any subject matter, really. At first, I only did science-fiction films, and it took a little while to get in the stream of things with other subject matter. Now I've got a good across-the-board history." Mr. Dilley designed "Casper," as well as the soon-to-be-released "How to Make an American Quilt" and "Diabolique."

Production designers also work with set decorators, prop masters and costume designers to ensure that a film's visual style is consistent.

"Getting the right people behind the camera is just as important as getting the right cast," says Joel Schumacher, director of "Batman Forever" as well as such visually opulent movies as "Flatliners" and "The Lost Boys." "The director of photography has to light [Barbara Ling's] sets in just the right way, and the costumes have to look right on the actors, and both have to look right in front of the sets. That chemistry is just as important as the chemistry between the actors."

And budget can have little to do with it: Ken Adam and Carolyn Scott, for example, won this year's Oscar for the modestly priced "The Madness of King George."


Here are the stories of a few of the production designers who are dazzling audiences this summer.

John Box: 'First Knight'

"If I do my job well, nobody should notice there's been a production designer on the film," says Mr. Box, a four-time Oscar winner most celebrated for his collaborations with David Lean ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago"; his other wins were for "Oliver!" and "Nicholas and Alexandra"). "We have a saying: 'No picture postcards, please.' Never be self-conscious. Never show off. Don't show people how clever you are."

Besides his period pieces, Mr. Box also created, virtually from scratch, the game of Rollerball for the futuristic film of the same name. Still busy at 75, Mr. Box demonstrates a vast knowledge of film technique, frequently describing how he plans his work to coalesce with the editing and musical score.

"How you approach a project depends on the casting; something works for one person and not another," he says. "Design must be emotional, and it must have a direct bearing on the characters. For 'First Knight,' we didn't want to film a lot of old knights clanking around."

For his take on the Arthurian legend, Mr. Box built Camelot from scratch. And he had no less a personage than Sean Connery playing King Arthur.


"He was the upright character. He stood for good. It's corny, but that's the reason the legend of Camelot has gone on for years. He's someone to look up to; he's inspiring. My basic idea for him was a triangle, pointing

upwards. It's not always obviously there, but I've got this upward, reaching-for-something motif. . . .

"I wanted the introduction to Guinevere to be round, not necessarily soft, but not angular like Camelot. So when we first see her, the first cut is to a windmill, with the sails gently going around. It's also a round building. You hear laughter. The colors were warm.

"All these things add up in the end to create an emotional response," Mr. Box concludes, "though the audience may not realize it."

Les Dilley: 'Casper'

Mr. Dilley, who was the production designer on "The Abyss," legendarily one of the toughest shoots in Hollywood history, says that in some ways "Casper" was an even more daunting task.


"Casper" updates and hips-up the old comic book -- here, a girl (Christina Ricci) moves to a creaky old house and befriends a friendly ghost, who must convince the other pesky ghosts in the house to straighten up and fly right.

"I wanted to create a different kind of haunted house, starting with the architecture," Mr. Dilley says. "Instead of the more traditional Victorian or Edwardian types, I went for the turn-of-the-century art nouveau, which had its own problems, because there's little furniture around compared to other styles of architecture. Everything was done by hand; there are no multiples of anything. It's very expensive to purchase -- some is available for rental, but very little. It's peculiar-looking. Apart from being very attractive, it is a little strange. It went with the ghostly feel.

"There's a lot of texture in 'Casper,' deliberately so," Mr. Dilley adds. "One reason is, these ghosts, unlike in the animated version, are actually transparent. You can see through them, so you're always seeing the set. Therefore, you've got to have it fairly busy, not just flat walls."

Dennis Gassner: 'Waterworld'

"Bugsy" won Dennis Gassner an Oscar for its elegant polish. "Waterworld" features anything but, in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world of grubby, floating villages pieced together by whatever happens to be available.

Mr. Gassner, who also created the witty, art-deco-on-peyote worlds of the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy," had never done an action picture before. And there was, obviously, not much in the way of reference points for architecture on planets without dry land.


"The exciting part was the unknown, starting from scratch," Mr. Gassner says. "Taking that original conceptual aspect and building from there -- that was the challenge from the movie, and also there was the challenge of doing it on water, which was the ultimate challenge. It was the biggest challenge of my life in the sense of taking on the physical world -- how do you float a 4,000-ton city? It's no small feat."

To approach his subject matter, Mr. Gassner works in a more instinctual way than some production designers -- he places himself in the story. "I basically had to do my own back-story: What happened if the polar caps melted. I projected myself into that world -- what I, as the Mariner [Kevin Costner's character], would be like. I had to become that character and live that fantasy.

"The Mariner wanted to be Errol Flynn, a bigger-than-life-type character. He's basically a hunter-scavenger-type character; he trades and barters. His vessel needed to relate that. I ended up with a world-sailing trimaran [a boat with three parallel hulls]. He used a wind-powered transforming device to power him and give an illusion -- at one point, his boat looks like one thing, then it turns into a sleek sailing vessel when he needs to escape from something. . . . It built his character into something unique. Once you establish that about his character, everything else evolved around that."

Barbara Ling: 'Batman'

"The thing for me was, if we were going to do this, we'd just start over -- there isn't anything from the earlier movies," says Ms. Ling of "Batman Forever." Her previous work includes "True Stories," "The Doors" and "Falling Down." In the third installment of the adventures of the sullen superhero, many things changed -- Val Kilmer replaced Michael Keaton, director Schumacher stepped in for Tim Burton, Robin (Chris O'Donnell) signed on, and everybody, in general, lightened up.

And Ms. Ling got to go design-crazy. "The idea this time was to open the film up and see areas and regions of Gotham," says Ms. Ling, and hence, "Batman Forever" boasts more than 70 new sets -- compared with about 30 for the first two films.


Ms. Ling's final product is, like any megalopolis, a wild mixture of different styles of architecture. "I'm a big book collector; I have thousands of books," she says. "For this, I went back to early futurists, which I'm a big fan of, American and Russian and Japanese. It's a very big mixture of playing with early Russian constructivists and Japanese futurist architects."

For example, Ms. Ling says, the walls of the Batcave are based on a design from the Finnish exhibit at the 1935 World's Fair, while the apartment of Batman's love interest this time around (Nicole Kidman) is inspired by a place that she loves in Prague in the Czech Republic.

"The first sense of where to build from was over-scale -- what I call 'World's Fair Dungeon,' " Ms. Ling says. "Man is tiny, walking amongst these wonderments. Gotham should have that sense of wonderment, and man is small, so there's a sense of oppression. Hence, there's this vigilante running around in a bat suit helping police. It had to be bigger and stranger than life to have this guy be such a savior. Those styles, ironically, blend well together." And, everywhere, Ms. Ling and Mr. Schumacher agreed, cartoonish splashes of color would brighten up the film.

For the $80 million film -- $10 million of which went to set construction (there were 250 construction workers on this project; an average film hires about 100) -- Ms. Ling and her staff of 50 secured four sound stages on the Warner Bros. lot and one on the Universal lot, as well as Howard Hughes' former airplane hangar in Long Beach, Calif., which Mr. Schumacher estimates is the size of 10 sound stages.

As gorgeous as "Batman Forever" may be, Mr. Schumacher warns that, in movies as in life, being pretty isn't enough. There has to be some substance, as well. "The danger is when you spend all your time working on how the film will look," he says. "Audiences have become very sophisticated. When they're watching a very visual movie, they become conditioned to that after about 20 minutes, and then they'll refocus on the characters in front of all those sets. If you don't place the characters in an interesting story, all the set design in the world isn't going to save the movie."