Pretty Pictures

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Pretty Pictures

Production Design and the History Film

By C. S. Tashiro

A designer and filmmaker shows how production design can support or contradict narrative structure, or exist in an entirely parallel realm of meaning.

1998

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 252 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-78150-4

Theories of film have traditionally dealt with either narrative or industrial issues, with the consequence that the physical content of the graphic frame has often been ignored or relegated to the sidelines. By contrast, C. S. Tashiro foregrounds the visual aspect of cinema in this book, drawing on his experiences as a designer and filmmaker, as well as on contemporary theory, to show how production design can support or contradict narrative structure, or exist in an entirely parallel realm of meaning.

Tashiro looks at cinematic production design from a broadly interdisciplinary perspective, encompassing art and architecture theory, audience reception, narrative theory, and phenomenology, to arrive at a more encompassing definition of the process. He builds his argument around studies of several prominent history films, since design is central to historical representation, and explores the most pertinent issues raised by the topic, particularly commodity consumption. In his conclusion, he also offers possible solutions to some of the social problems raised by design.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Design
    • 1. What Is Production Design?
    • 2. Circles of Feeling
    • 3. Imaging
  • Part II. History
    • 4. Historical Design
    • 5. Realist History
    • 6. Designer History
    • 7. Didactic History
  • Part III. The Perfect Image
    • 8. A Few Words about a Hat
    • 9. The Politics of Consumption
    • 10. Productionism
  • Notes
  • Film List
  • Bibliography
  • Index

I can remember, almost to the day, when visual design first caught my interest. It was a chilly Sunday in 1972. Bathed in the golden light of a late fall, Cape Cod afternoon, I was sizing up a shot for a Super-8 film, in which one character was lying in wait to surprise another. When the second appeared, they were to have a fistfight. I had never had any luck in the past staging this kind of material. Fights had appeared across my cinema with staccato regularity, but they had all shared a desultory limpness that betrayed youth and obvious conceptual failure.

The scene was staged outdoors, on a sandy spit of land punctuated by bits of tall beach grass. By luck or intuition, I got the idea of placing the camera with the waiting character in one of the stands of grass. As soon as I looked through the viewfinder, I knew that this angle would work. The graphic impact created by the slightly off-center angle, the backlighting from the setting sun, the blades of dried grass intruding between the camera and subject created an immediately striking image—not the images of violence that I had created up to that point, but an image that in its formal qualities was violent (or at least striking). And just as I knew the shot was right the instant I saw it, I also knew that I would no longer be able to use the camera with the same casual incompetence that had marked my previous efforts.

As my filmmaking progressed, this happy accident changed into conscious plan, with two results. First, I ceased paying much attention to the literary content of most of the films I attended, except as it was embodied in the image. Filmgoing became a largely formal experience in which I pillaged the work of professional filmmakers for visual ideas. So, while I developed a taste for high-art auteurs, it was less because of their films' subject matter than because of the relative freedom these directors exhibited in exploring the potentials of the image. The existential inquiry of The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1956), for instance, one of the favorite films of my adolescence, interested me far less than the striking images made possible by its medieval setting. With notable exceptions, this freedom with the image has been largely absent in Hollywood films, with their neurotic insistence on narrative-before-all.

The second result of my interest in visual design was more concrete. As I became more ambitious about my films' appearances, I began to haunt local thrift shops and antique dealers with an ever-more critical eye for the right costumes and props to dress my backyard epics. An area such as New England, with a past perhaps more glorious than its present, provided ample opportunity to treat history as a mine to yield precious, strange artifacts. While this process succeeded in making the surfaces of my films consistently attractive, something else happened as well: the realms of production and consumption merged. One of the purposes of production design, even at the homespun level, is to discriminate and select in order to create a plausible background to the narrative. Once this habit of enhancing a film's spatial reality is established, it is easy to start to view all space as something to be dressed and improved. So, I might say with little exaggeration that that shot in 1972 began not only my career as a designer, but also my adulthood as a consumer.

The curious part of design, whether of film or life, is that it works from deficiency. Curious, because if we think of design at all, we probably think of it in terms of richness. Yet like most aesthetic terms, richness is a relative effect, created not so much by a glut of detail as by selective composition leading to maximum impact. Film design works from the difference between the physical world as it exists and the requirements of a particular narrative. This is another way of saying that the real world is lacking, is not good enough to provide an idealized, designed image. If the space in which a film is shot does not meet the story's needs, it has to be "designed" to fit the bill, so that, for example, the television antennas in the background of a period shoot have to be moved or avoided, and so on.

The second deficiency of film design derives from the image itself. The photographic image presents a compelling illusion of three-dimensional space. It nonetheless remains a two-dimensional surface that must be organized to accentuate depth cues in order to maximize that illusion. The greater the success in creating this illusion the more difficult it becomes to juxtapose shots in time, since the rapid alternation of space runs counter to daily, sensual experience. Stephen Heath's classic essay "Narrative Space" describes this phenomenon in terms of the need it creates for a unifying agent to cover these sensory disruptions. He finds this glue in the set of desires and expectations which narrative creates. These emotional interests allow the viewer to overcome or ignore the alterations to real space and experience.

The problem with Heath's argument is the limiting effect it has had on discussion of the image. Just as narrative directs attention to parts of the image at the expense of others, assuming that narrative has this capability has channeled discussion of the image toward its narrative function, regardless of whether or not such a discussion reflects the experience of a film. I would like to try to get around this scenario. I do not pretend to be indifferent to story and character, both of which figure in the following discussion. I merely question whether narrative has the power to focus my attention, channel my desires, and shape the way I view events consistently, whether the expectations a story may create can overwhelm interests I may have outside a film. While I cannot know if my reactions are typical, I am willing to insist that such a narrative-based definition of the image does not answer to my experience, is as needlessly coercive and limiting as narrative itself, and probably does not describe most spectators' relationship to the screen.

Despite the contributions Heath's essay has made, we may have to return to the theorist on whom he relies, Rudolf Arnheim, to avoid this prejudice toward narrative. Arnheim's Film as Art is one of the few works that confronts the representational inadequacies of the film image as a fundamental fact to be overcome. For Arnheim, the art of cinema comes not from a faithful mimicking of reality, but through the artist's triumph over the two-dimensional nature of the image. While we may no longer feel the need to defend cinema as an art in the manner that interested Arnheim, his basic observation remains as relevant to cinematic design as when he wrote it. Designers always have to overcome deficiency in order to create effective externals. The result may be the formalist play Arnheim advocated or the convincing duplication of spatial reality he disliked. In both cases, narrative enters as a set of principles to guide the design, not a set of laws to straitjacket the way we perceive it.

This supposed service to a story produces a fundamental tension in the design profession, a constant veering between artistic expression and the demands of the narrative. The first chapter of this work discusses the ef fects of design in terms of this tension. While I begin with production designers and their stated goals, for the purposes of this discussion, I view "design" in the sense of the total cinematic image. My discussion therefore encompasses not just the contributions of production designers, but also of cinematographers, directors, other visual technicians, and ultimately, the viewer. For it is in the heads of spectators that designed images come together, frequently in ways that have nothing to do with narrative.

The approach I have taken toward the image in Chapters 2 and 3, while acknowledging the power of narrative, focuses on the social, historical, and formal dimensions of design. These are what we bring to the image, a range of experience and knowledge that the film can exploit in order to function in narrative terms. By directing attention to alternative aspects of film design, I hope to establish a vocabulary that does not depend on narrative motivation. Such a discussion helps to fill in gaps of rational discussion left by the privileging of narrative. It cannot account for the pleasure we may derive from design.

The first three chapters deal with general issues about design; Part II specifically examines period design. Historical films provide useful examples of design because they obviously rely heavily on stylization. At the same time, despite this reliance, they rarely become as openly stylized as, say, the musical. This oscillation between realism and stylization provides a neat, condensed example of design's general tension between visible expression and invisible neutrality. Chapter 4 maps out some of the issues specific to historical design. Chapters 5-7 apply these observations to six films in detail. While these films were selected to provide a wide range of approaches to the historical image, I do not pretend to have exhausted the topic.

After examining some possible reactions to these films and their visual design, in Part III, I take the discussion into the larger social arena. To a certain extent, this final section is written to myself, in an effort to under stand the interrelationships between my filmmaking, filmgoing, and taste in commodity consumption established in my adolescence. In order to balance this personal motivation with a more general discussion of the issues, I have chosen in Chapters 8 and 9 to discuss a particular consumption phenomenon in which I did not participate. I hope by this removal to perch myself between subjective expression and objective observation. My goal is neither to condemn nor to praise, but simply to understand in order to move on to something else.

Why this need to move on? I can answer that question with an observation not about film, design, history, or commodities, but about the state of academic media criticism. An uninitiated reader reviewing the bulk of academic criticism might be forgiven the impression that the people who write it hate cinema, or at best bear some kind of grudge against it for the pleasure it has provided them. At the same time, it is difficult to believe that critics would return repeatedly to a medium they despise only in order to point to the same villains and structures of dominance over and over again. They must enjoy something. The question then becomes, what perverse process makes us translate pleasure into displeasure?

Pleasure is blessedly irrational. All of the rational systems brought to bear to explain it—psychoanalysis, cultural theory, traditional aesthetics—fortunately fail to pin down a phenomenon that exceeds verbal description. Pleasure is the body's recognition of sensual truth. It is scarcely inferior to the mind's satisfaction at a logical proof or a penetrating insight, though it may be considerably more difficult to accept. Yet pleasure can be understood only by being accepted. At least one explanation for the disastrous academic alchemy that turns the gold of fun into the lead of drudgery is the insistence on imposing rationalist values on materials frustrating for their elusiveness, independence, and amorality. Put simply: the academic attitude toward mass media seems to be that if it is enjoyable, there must be something wrong with it.

Each critic must find his or her own values. For me, I prefer to admit to pleasure, to being able to enjoy the most reactionary texts (without "subverting" them), to recognize that I can be a willing participant in these cycles of power. I admit to this pleasure in order to develop a more affirmative, honest relationship to mass media. Design remains a powerful force in our lives. It obviously provides a great deal of gratification. That this pleasure frequently serves dominant interests in our society does not make the enjoyment less true. On the other hand, our satisfaction does not make the accusations of exploitation less accurate. We must therefore beware that in the effort to reclaim pleasure from moralists of the left we do not slip into supine exploitation from the right. For this reason, in Chapter 10, I suggest an alternative approach to these issues. This strategy acknowledges the problems and pleasures of design, confronts the inadequacies of either too negative or too positive an attitude toward consumption, and advances production in the service of personal needs and desires as a viable alternative. If this study opens up this possibility, it will have achieved some degree of success.

By C. S. Tashiro

Charles Tashiro is an independent film maker and scholar.

"The book is extremely original and demonstrates the author’s deep understanding of many of the theoretical issues related to production design. Tashiro asks all of the hard questions and is not timid about supplying answers. Those answers will certainly stimulate discussion.... To my knowledge, no one covers the subject the way Tashiro does."

—Charles Affron, author of Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative