The set up

Film set designers come from a range of creative backgrounds, but share a passion for bringing a script to life. Yolanda Zappaterra focuses in on Ken Adam and his peers.

Hollywood’s full of stories about its power to persuade. Like the one about Alfred Hitchcock trying to calm a hysterical Anthony Perkins on the set of Psycho with the words “Anthony, it’s not real, it’s just a film.” Or the one that has a smartass film student at a seminar informing Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid director George Roy Hill that Bolivia has no llamas, as depicted in the film, and being curtly told: “It does now.”

That one is cited by Christopher Frayling in Moonraker, Strangelove and other celluloid dreams: the visionary art of Ken Adam, a book accompanying an exhibition which opens at London’s Serpentine Gallery this week.

Spanning Adam’s 45-year career in films, it should prove to be one of the gallery’s most popular shows yet; Adam is without doubt one of the world’s leading production designers, the man who gave us James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger, Dr Strangelove’s chillingly convincing Pentagon war room and countless fantastic James Bond sets, including the rocket launcher hidden inside a volcano in You Only Live Twice, the Fort Knox vault in Goldfinger and the huge tanker that swallows up three nuclear submarines in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Adam has described the role of production designer as “setting a style and visual progression and physically realising it”, which perhaps explains why so many production designers start by studying architecture. Dennis Gassner, who was an architecture student at the University of Oregon and is the production designer for films as diverse as The Hitcher, Waterworld, The Grifters and The Truman Show, believes that the move from one to the other is about “time and fun; it takes years to create a masterpiece like Bilbao’s Guggenheim. With film you can build masterpieces that don’t have to last but still have a great visual impact and presence. It’s a lot quicker and a lot more enjoyable.”

Gassner’s entry into the role is the stuff that dreams are made of; Gassner learned “the basic elements of film-making from graphic design work”. A friend gave him the plum job of designing the dossiers received by Captain Willard as he travels downriver to find and kill a certain Colonel Kurtz. The film? Apocalypse Now. That led to five more Zoetrope films with Dean Tavoularis: “I’ve patterned my working life on Dean, focusing on projects that are good stories with good people,” says Gassner.

The idea of the mentor seems to be a common theme; certainly one that Jeannine Oppewall, production designer behind the sumptuous look of both Pleasantville and LA Confidential, subscribes to: “One thing I learned from watching Charles work is that he only accepted projects whose interests overlapped with his own. I’ve tried to do the same, as I feel that I bring the most to a party that I am really interested in attending, if you see what I mean.”

The Charles in question is Charles Eames. Armed with a degree in medieval literature from Bryn Mawr College, where she studied art history, philosophy and entomology, Oppewall took up a friend’s offer to visit the LA office of Charles Eames. “Since we had studied Eames in a modern art and architectural history class, I assumed that the man was dead. Not so. When I walked in the door of the office, I knew I wanted to stay. And I did, for about seven years. Charles told me that he could teach someone how to draw, but he could not teach them how to think or how to see. Everything I know about design I learned from the master.”

Kave Quinn, production designer on all the Danny Boyle/Andrew MacDonald films, including Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary, agrees that the ability to see the project is paramount. “Production design is the film’s creative concept. As I’m reading a script I try to see a room’s look in my mind, and often have one artist I use for inspiring the look of the film, though it may not be anything as obvious as colour, texture or light, but subtle variants and ideas suggested by those things. On Shallow Grave it was Dennis Hopper for his sense of isolation, on Trainspotting the raw quality of Francis Bacon,” explains Quinn.

Oppewall also says it begins and ends with the script: “I read the script until I feel immersed inside its world, then I begin to search for the environments needed; places in which I can begin to imagine the scenes taking place, places I can compose within the lens of the camera. It involves a lot of research and instinct. For example, Pleasantville called for the creation of an idealised small town in mid-century America, so I started from original research – my own experiences and memories of small-town America. The library, for example, has a frieze running around it in which are carved the names of all my favourite authors. And it also features a decorative detail I remember from my childhood – an open book with the torch of knowledge behind it. The town was supposed to be generic, in a way, but it is also very personal. That is to say, a different designer would have created a different town.

“I began the only way I know how to begin any given project – building by building. When you have drawn up enough little buildings , you can then begin to assemble them into the configuration that suits the story best.

“As the film goes from black and white to colour, someone suggested calling a few really old production designers to find out how they designed for films that were shot in black and white. I decided not to do that, largely because I need to learn everything by myself so the knowledge is internalised somehow. So I walked around for months with two point-and-shoot cameras on me – one for black and white and one for colour. I would compare the two sets of photos to see how the same patterns and colours would appear in black and white. It was enormously educational: things that look great in colour have absolutely no personality in black and white and vice versa.”

With his graphics background, Gassner takes a different approach: “After reading the script and building a vision in my mind’s eye of what the words say, I design an image for the movie, a symbol that helps describe the essence of the film and creates an identity for it. Then comes the research, followed by the imagery – sketches, moodboards and so on – then the application and execution. It’s a fairly standard way of working,” he explains. “Films are living things; they’re made through human interaction that’s refined and honed through instinct before they’re ready for human consumption,” he adds. “The most important thing is how much fun you can have – and that to me is the essence of film. It’s an incredibly hard business, when you’re on a 20 hour shoot overseeing 300 people it can be overwhelming, so you need to enjoy it.”

Moonraker, Strangelove and other celluloid dreams: the visionary art of Ken Adam, is at the Serpentine Gallery until 9 January 2000. Adam will be discussing his work with Christopher Frayling in a D&AD President’s Lecture on Thursday 2 December. For tickets call 0171-840 1111. Dennis Gassner’s work can next be seen on the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou; Jeannine Oppewall’s next film is Snow falling On Cedars, and Kave Quinn’s The Final Curtain

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