Set decoration highlighted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences!
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences focuses on set decoration in the new exhibition, Pulling Back the Drapes: Set Decoration Revealed, which runs from May 16 through August 24, 2008, in the Academy’s 4th floor Gallery.
Visitors walk through vignettes and portions of sets re-created from seven current films typical of a range of challenges engaged by set decorators. Guests at the
which is open to the public, can view behind-the-scenes footage, watch interviews with the set decorators and take a look at some of the tools of the profession.
The AMPAS presentation describes the set decorator’s role:
As part of the production design team, the set decorator is primarily responsible for giving a level of physical reality to the environments chosen by a film’s director and production designer.
Whether it’s a character’s bedroom, office or secret hideaway, the space has to convey something about that character’s personality, past experience or present emotional state in just a few seconds of screen time. The set decorator makes those decisions, large and small, about furniture, fabrics, color, personal items and the plethora of objects that give the audience a window into the character’s mind or heart.
“Pulling Back the Drapes” highlights the creative work of the following Academy members, who donated many hours of work to pulling together these vignettes:
K.C. Fox, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
– Among the many settings in this contemporary romantic comedy is an elaborate Hawaiian hotel suite, part of which is re-created in the Academy Gallery.
Lauri Gaffin, IRON MAN – The Marvel comic book character comes to life in some stunning environments, including a re-created cave set.
Anne Kuljian, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR – This installation features oversized pieces inspired by local Chinese art techniques and artifacts - all to “great” effect.
Jan Pascale, THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES – Based on a successful series of novels for young readers, this production required unusual, and some might say haunted, environments, including a mysterious attic, re-created in the gallery’s alcove.
Leslie Rollins, GET SMART – A reproduction of the Chief’s office contains references to the original television series from a generation ago.
Susan Bode Tyson, BABY MAMA – The main character’s bedroom is a focal point in this modern-day domestic comedy, in which a successful but childless executive hires a woman to give birth for her.
Larry Dias, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL – For Indiana Jones to agree to one last caper, the adventure had to be fantastic. His home library and desk on view say a lot about Indy’s past and his interests.
Pulling Back the Drapes…
The ability to meet challenges and problem-solving are inherent in the position of set decorator. Creativity is required for more than visual impact and credibility.
The exhibitors pulled back the drapes and shared some of the innumerable challenges they met for these sets….
While some might envy K.C. Fox’s opportunity to decorate a posh Hawaiian resort for FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
, a film set has numerous requirements that go beyond the decor. Filming on location has limitations as well. Fox reveals, “Prior to leaving for Oahu, I queried fellow SDSA set decorators as to what kind of challenges they had faced working in the islands, and was told to bring most everything. They were so right! Finding any kind of furniture in multiples would have been nearly impossible on Oahu, and the shipping charges incurred on a per piece basis were exorbitant. I brought to Oahu three containers of dressing and shipped more over after I got there. It was great to have sets of 20-30 somethings (lighting, backrests, towels, candles, glass bottles, etc) when they added a new location!”
Conversely, Fox shopped in the islands for a Hawaiian bar scene that was scheduled to shoot in Los Angeles. “I did do very well in the islands with the brightly colored Hawaiian motif pillows I used throughout the film and Hawaii-specific items.”
Fox also was able to salvage a last minute major change. “We lived at the Turtle Bay resort and redecorated every portion of the hotel prior to filming. The staff was extremely accommodating as we turned parts of the hotel upside down. The real, operating front desk was actually on the inside portion of the lobby, so we built our own closer to the magnificent views of the ocean. Production Designer Jack De Govia designed terrific graphic cutout screens based on a classic Hawaiian motif. Those and a few flats allowed the real lobby to stay open while we were filming.”
“Jack and I liked the idea of a graphic bright orange carpet running thru the lobby in a geometric, Adlerian fashion. It had been presented to the powers-that-be in a pre-visualization and had not garnered any disapproval. But the night of installation, it was seen differently and was quickly pushed to the reject pile.”
“The next day, the hotel staff came to us with a problem. That same night they were expecting 500 VIP guests for a formal event. We were shooting in the lobby, so the hotel needed to route the guests around the lobby and into their ballroom without it looking like they were being made to go through the side entrance.”
“Luckily, we had just the ticket: hundreds of feet of beautiful orange carpet! We rolled it out and established an alternate entrance, complete with crossed bamboo, forsythia balls, wild forsythia sprays and giant Boston ferns(silks)—all to be used the next day in one of the film’s many wedding scenes.”
Lauri Gaffin had two opposite worlds to deal with for the super hero action film IRON MAN
. The sets for Tony Stark’s contemporary lavish lifestyle and cutting-edge technology contrast heavily with the remote, primitive cave in which he is imprisoned. Gaffin used a mix of elements to produce a realistic cache and cell for the cavern set, which was built on stage, and part of which has been re-created for the exhibition.
“We wanted to create an authentic atmosphere that made you feel you were in a rugged cave somewhere in the region of Afghanistan,” says Gaffin. “So we made it look dark and dreary, dirty, cold and harsh.”
Gaffin notes, “Our job is to fully facilitate the story and create direct references for the actor. For this film, a big challenge was how to demonstrate Stark’s character. The cave is a crucial set because it tells the story of Tony Stark's moral fiber that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. At first Tony is a prisoner here, helpless and dying. Then his relentless creativity and ‘can-do’ spirit urge him forward to turn the weapons cache and filthy junk around him into the first Iron Man suit, which will save his life and allow him to ultimately save humanity. Our objects had to facilitate this pivotal story point and make it entirely believable."
Much research is involved to create any set. This one included missiles, welders and braziers. Some items were found at flea markets, junkyards and prophouses, but Gaffin also had many pieces fabricated, including practical lighting. She and her team worked with Director of Photography Matthew Libatique to determine what would be appropriate, ranging from stark lamps run on generators, to the glow from a forge, and the muted light of lanterns and candles.
Although THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR
is a fantastical adventure, the sets are grounded in history. The story takes place in China, in two very different times: the Qin dynasty, 50 B.C., and in Shanghai, 1946. History was an essential part of the story the sets had to tell. Set Decorator Anne Kuljian traveled to China on the first scout for the film, established relationships and hired her Chinese crew. “A team who mainly didn’t speak English,” she describes, “but all knew the history of China, and they began to educate me.”
“They truly are artists and talented fabricators, able to make anything we needed. I would hold up a photo or drawing and sometimes tell them that I wanted to change out the legs on something, or the shape of a part. And within a day, I would have the new piece.”
She had everything fabricated in China and ended up freighting containers of set dressing to Montreal, Canada, for sets shot on stage there.
The Emperor’s Throne Room was a massive set with oversized, but highly detailed components. Kuljian brings replicas of some of the pieces, including part of the throne, to the exhibition.
At the end of his description of the shoot, Director Rob Cohen gives what could be the set decorator’s mantra: “Every film is a journey in which you learn new things about life at every level. This film [was] packed with new knowledge…We shot all the scenes in the Emperor’s Throne Room with a team of Chinese culture advisors constantly helping with Qin dynasty language, ceremonies and behavior. …The film gods dwell in the details…Generalize them at your own peril.”
Indeed, details give credulity to the arcane naturalist’s realm of THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
, and exhibition-goers will be mesmerized by the intricacies of the set.
Set Decorator Jan Pascale reveals, “From the moment I read the books that are THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, I dreamed about the sets. I could feel the cobwebs and smell the dust of the Secret Study, the workshop of a possessed man who studied the natural and supernatural worlds around him. The trick was to find enough of the right things to convince an audience of its authenticity, and to show that it had gone uninhabited since he disappeared almost 80 years ago. I knew that the set needed layer upon layer of detailed and annotated research, and it had to convey Arthur Spiderwick’s intense, frenzied state in trying to protect his family and house.”
Pascale had a team of Canadian set decorators, headed by Paul Hotte, working for months on the Spiderwick House. Philippe Lord was assigned to focus on shopping for the Secret Study. He found a nature photographer with large format period negatives and photographic equipment, which quickly became Arthur’s.
The discovery of a museum’s turn-of-the 20th century naturalist’s collection of specimens and sheaves of pressed leaves was both delightful and daunting. Handling the rare and delicate 100 year-old pieces and the bird and butterfly assemblages also on loan from private collectors added a unique degree of difficulty to the set decoration. And then there was the inevitable script change! Pascale explains, “One of our many challenges arose when the script changed to include a violent, angry ogre destroying the study in a thrilling new finale. There was a mad scramble to reproduce breakable and destroyable specimens, glassware and other laboratory elements.”
A bonus to the exhibition is a re-creation of Thimbletack’s Nest, which was hidden in the house’s dumbwaiter. The living space for Thimbletack, the house brownie and protector of Arthur’s secrets had its own set of obstacles. “He spirited little things from the family he loved and protected, so each item needed to reflect the different individuals,” describes Pascale. Since the storyline has the children inadvertently trashing the nest, Pascale and team had to come up with identical pieces for this tiny set that is seen only for a few moments.
The re-invention of the iconic TV series GET SMART
into a smart action spy-thriller film presented an unexpected challenge: the dictum that unlike the original series, the sets could not be joke-ish or “too self-referential.” Set Decorator Leslie Rollins explains, “Director Peter Segal’s concept was to let the actors, not the environments, bring the humor. Still, we wanted to incorporate some of the series’ tongue-in-cheek attitude in this loving interpretation of the original.”
He researched the original Chief’s Office set created for the series by Set Decorator Don Sullivan. “It was a fairly classic late ‘60s aesthetic but with a lot of humor. The set was different in almost every episode with gags being added or changed depending on script requirements. We could not be so obvious as to reproduce the display of medieval weapons but I wanted to bring an element of sly wit and to capture some of the nostalgia from the original. I settled on using references to what I call ‘the ‘60s ancient warrior aesthetic’ that was evident in some of the art in the original Chief’s Office. As a child I remember seeing reproductions of cave paintings that fascinated me. We had one made for the set showing a group of stick figures waving spears at a fleeing mastodon. This sort of summed up the whole power/warrior thing for me and would be a fitting centerpiece for the Chief’s Office. We also used Persian, Greek, Roman, American and Aztec military and tribal motifs and figures.”
“Assistant Set Decorator Matt Callahan and I gave the Chief the usual ‘power dressing’ of pipe rack and humidor (lifted from an old episode), American eagles (also a motif from an old episode) and the modernized version: obligatory computer, huge video screen and high tech gadgets.”
Opposites come up again in the film BABY MAMA
, but this time it is different personas that have to be visually conveyed. Susan Bode Tyson’s depiction of the dueling traits between the classic, seemingly in-control career woman desperately wanting to be a mother and the child-like uninhibited surrogate carrying her baby is clearly defined in the set Kate’s Bedroom.
Tyson describes, “Kate is a very buttoned-up, organized person. The set was originally mildly interesting, but when the Angie character moves in with her, you get a sense of their very different worlds. And their worlds somewhat collide.” The set takes on layers of both things and personalities. There is evidence that Angie tosses and dumps everything anywhere and everywhere. The bedroom as a microcosm of our lives is clearly depicted in this set.
When queried about the need for realism in such a personal set, Tyson replies, “I think that’s always the case, no matter what movie you do, you’re always creating or helping to enhance a certain reality. That is what we do.”
The name Indiana Jones conjures up wild adventures at the far corners of the earth, but by 1957, the time period for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
, the maverick archaeologist spends more time as a professor at Marshall College. His home has been updated by Set Decorator Larry Dias and Production Designer Guy Dyas, building upon the Art Deco bones of the earlier incarnation. His home library/study, tucked into the corner of the living room, is on display as part of the AMPAS exhibition.
“Indy’s not only a little older, but also a little more settled. The former set was very stylized and rather spare. Our intent was for something a little more realistic,” Dias explains, “like somebody actually lived there. We wanted to make a home that someone who has now been teaching for a number of years would have settled into, not just a place where he occasionally sleeps.”
“We worked with the Strand bookshop in New York to compile Indy’s library, with a broad representation of theology, anthropology, archaeology and history.”
Dias referenced Indy’s personal history with artifacts and photographs, including photos of characters from each of the other Indiana Jones films and “relics” representing past escapades. “The previous movies have shown him all over the world. He’s a ‘been everywhere, done everything’ kind of person, so the choices in cultural iconography are pretty wide open. Probably one of the most challenging aspects of this set was having to edit the set dressing, even though we filled every drawer. And, of course, among the contents in the closet hang Indy’s hat and whip.”