Thursday, May 1, 2008

production design blog-a-thon

At this stage in the development of the discipline, I think we're all prepared to recognize the benefits that auteur theory has bestowed upon film studies. However, critics of auteur theory are quick to point out that any theory that champions the director as "author" also has the unfortunate tendency of eclipsing the deeply collaborative nature of film production, and will inevitably underplay the contributions of other people such as the screenwriter, the editor, and the cinematographer.

Perhaps even more maligned in this hierarchy is the production designer: the individual responsible for the overall "look" of the film, coordinating set designers, property masters, and costume designers to create an overall visual "feel." With a little effort, it isn't difficult to think of films where we have been delighted by the product of production designers' labor and aesthetic, but they have nevertheless received a saddening lack of sustained appreciation, even from the most attentive of critics.

Film bloggers may not be able to change this state of affairs permanently, but I'd like to call for us to take just one week to focus our collective attention on the role of these under-recognized creators. So for the week of May 19-25, I am inviting your participation in the Production Design Blog-A-Thon. During this week, I will use the Film Club blog to collate posts in which you write on any aspect of production design or art direction. Use this week to celebrate your favorite production designer (or lambast one you can't stand). Inspect your DVD collection for the most striking costumes and sets. Look for recurring interests in a production designer's overall body of work. Have fun with it.

If you're thinking about participating, either comment below or send me an e-mail at projects [at] so I know to check your blog during the week; if you could also ping me once you've got something up that would be helpful. Promotional images can be found way down at the bottom of this post.

Day One (Monday, May 19)

Things kick off with my own post on production designer William Arnold, and his aesthetic of "no-places" in Punch-Drunk Love.

Then we have "The Colors of Star Wars," at Gee Bobg: "There is almost no color in Star Wars," Bob writes, "except when lasers are firing, lightsabers are clashing, and spaceships are exploding."

Bob is followed up by Jaime, writing on "Le Samourai," at Chicago Ex-Patriate, who writes: "Virtually every other scene shows that [Melville's protagonist] lives in a modern world, yet maintains an old-fashioned simplicity in his own world."

Day Two (Tuesday, May 20)

Today we're joined by Gina R., of Project Film School, who observes, in her piece on "Meditations on Color, Light and Object in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lola", how "the visual clues in Lola are more indicative of Fassbinder's point than perhaps the actual outcome."

And of course there's Film Club co-founder Harvey P., who in his piece "Real Estates" (at Skunkcabbage) appreciates Bo Welch's production design on Beetlejuice as a way to "visually represent what is at stake in the narrative's conflict":

Day Three (Wednesday, May 21)

Day Three gets underway with "I Think We Lost The Horizon," in which Jonathan L. (of Cinema Styles) appreciates Frank Capra's 1937 film, Lost Horizon. Lost Horizon, in Jonathan's estimation, has "[c]razy politics, a disturbing message and beautiful, and I mean beautiful, production design."

I follow up with my second go at it, this time looking at the balance between "beautiful places" and places that are "falling apart" in David Gordon Green's George Washington (production design by Richard Wright):

Then we're joined by Anaj, of !anaj, em s'taht, who writes on how the very palette of a film can be oppressive, in her piece on Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem, "Suffocating in 1970's Must and Tapestry."

"Production designer Christian M. Goldbeck," Anaj writes, "sets the scene for a suffocating trip into the 1970s where the brownish colour of wall-to-wall carpeting seems to smother all of Michaela’s hopes and ambitions."

Next, Weeping Sam at The Listening Ear appreciates the "stagy" quality of 2005's Princess Raccoon. "Frontal, artificial, performative," Sam writes in his post, "all the way through."

And, finally, creeping in just a hair before midnight, we have Bob Turnbull of Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind contributing an appreciation of "The Look of The Loved One," Tony Richardson's 1965 film, featuring production design by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. Bob observes the way that, in this film, "the rooms are so stuffed and almost overflowing that they can barely fit the people in":

Days Four and Five (Thursday, May 22 / Friday, May 23)

Thursday was a slow day, with no new entries coming in: just as well, as I was moving about the country (visiting three major US cities) and only had fleeting time to tend to the blog(s).

However, Day Five is off to a good start, with Deborah Lipp, of the Ultimate James Bond Fan Blog, contributing a post on "The Genius of Ken Adam": "Bond films, as designed by Adam, look like you are walking into a heightened world, someplace a little more alive, a little more exciting."

And then, we have "Beyond Repulsion," a piece on David Cronenberg's long-time designer Carol Spier, over at Jeff Ignatius' Culture Snob. Of their collaboration, Jeff writes that it has yielded "a physicality that's unparalleled in cinema":

And then we have my own post, on Amelie, whose production designer Aline Bonetto reliably provides a series of "objects and spaces that can convincingly yield pleasure and reveal character":

Day Six (Saturday, May 24)

Things may be beginning to wind down, but today we're treated to at least two powerhouse posts.

First, Bob Turnbull, of Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind makes his second contribution to the Blog-A-Thon with "A Potpourri of Production Design," which features appreciations of eight different films: Playtime, Deep Red, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Songs From the Second Floor, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Heaven Can Wait, and Say Anything. Some incredible stuff there:

And then we've got Weeping Sam of The Listening Ear, also joining us for a second go, and also doing a big production-design round up, with stills from The Pornographers, The Apartment, Inland Empire, and some films of Ed Wood's.

Plenty to delight in here as well:

Day Seven (Sunday, May 25)

The last day of the Blog-A-Thon opens with Richard from Bastard In Love browsing the Film Stills LiveJournal community and giving us a link to someone's astonishing collection of screencaps from The Color of Pomegranates (production design by Stepan Andranikyan). Just stunning:

Also today, I'm contributing my my fourth and final post, moving on to Asia to examine the work of Wong Kar-Wai's longtime production designer William Chang. In Chungking Express (1994), Chang memorably evokes the crowded, "hyperactive" look of contemporary Hong Kong:

And joining us for the first time is Bob Westal (Forward to Yesterday), on Fritz Lang's 1922 film Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. In "Playing About," his appreciation of the film's four art directors, Bob examines the film's Expressionist use of "sheer artifice":

Then we have "Cruel Production Design," by Pacheco of Bohemian Cinema. Pacheco writes on the movie Cruel Intentions, providing some lavish screenshots of "the expensive suits, clothes, and homes of the spoiled brats on screen."

And then we're joined by Oggs Cruz, of "Lessons From The School of Inattention," who provides a thoughful write-up on 1985's Scorpio Nights (directed by production-designer-turned-director Peque Gallaga). Scorpio Nights, Cruz writes, uses its production design to generate an "unsurmountable atmosphere of fetishistic, fatalistic and erotic danger."

And closing things out [possibly?] we have Jason Bellamy, of The Cooler. In his piece, "Messaging Through the Medium: The Royal Tenenbaums," he writes on the Tenenbaum house and notes that while it is "pure fantasy, the temporary stuff of movie magic," it also "feels lived-in to a degree that many sets don't."

Includes, as a bonus, scans of the detailed drawings that Wes Anderson provided to production designer David Wasco.

If you're just now coming to this Blog-A-Thon, feel free to consider participating -- I'm likely to do an update wrapping late-comers into the fold if there's interest. Or just post a link in the comments thread, below.

I had a great time working on this, and seeing what people came up with. Expect a full wrap-up post a bit later (likely tomorrow).


J.D. said...

Hot damn, this is an awesome idea! Can't wait for it!

jpb said...

Thanks, JD! Hope you'll participate! I'm putting your name on the list of potential contributors, so you should receive an e-mail a day or two before the official starting bell...

Comb & Razor said...

i can barely express how much i am loving these... keep 'em coming, all!

Jana said...

here is my contrib:

weepingsam said...

I have a post: Princess Raccoon, as think I mentioned when I heard about this blogathon.

jpb said...

Thanks for your contributions, Jana and Sam!

Deborah said...

I just found this. I'll be blogging about production design sometime between now and the end of the blog-a-thon at The Ultimate James Bond Fan Blog. Needless to say, Ken Adam will be prominently featured.

jpb said...

Glad to hear it, Deborah; certainly the production design of the Bond films is often inspired. You can leave a comment here or send me an e-mail at "projects" at "imaginaryyear" dot com when it's up and ready.

Deborah said...

Here's the link:

Jeff said...

On Carol Spier in Cronenberg movies:

Martin Rayala, Ph.D. said...

I am seeking the help of production designers, game designers and other immersive designers to help create a vision for schools of the future. What would schools look like if the teachers and students worked with production designers to make schools the most exciting places to be?

Richard said...
from film stills, the color of pomegranates

Bob Westal said...

I'm a bit late to the party, but my post is up re: Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler

jpb said...

Jeff, Richard, Bob—thanks for your contributions!