Emerging from the background

July 02, 1995|By David Kronke | David Kronke,Special to The Sun

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.

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