Top 10 Production Designs of All Time

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00:00   |   Apr 03, 2019


Top 10 Production Designs of All Time
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  • Production design demands nothing less than the creation of worlds.
  • Apart from the actors, the cameras and the lights,
  • design controls everything else that appears on screen.
  • Turning words and fantasies into physical reality.
  • These are our picks for the ten best production design films of all time.
  • (Music)
  • here, we're going to spend our first two slots exploring what we think are two very
  • important poles on the spectrum of design.
  • From heightened and stylized, to understated and naturalistic.
  • And to the former, flashier side of production design, we find sets and
  • decor that focus on maximum visual impact.
  • Even if that means looking style.
  • The design grabs your attention, allowing it to directly participate in
  • the telling of the story, now that you're no longer looking past it.
  • Here, we think of The Red Shoes, work especially Brazil.
  • And then of Kubrick can lean this way, like in A Clockwork Orange.
  • As can Martin Scorsese, although only some times.
  • We imagine Tim Burton probably sees his everyday world through some kind of
  • heightened lens.
  • And we especially love what he and his designers came up with, in Charlie and
  • the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd.
  • However, as far as heightened design goes,
  • there is nobody who takes it quite to the level of Wes Anderson, whose design is
  • great in The Royal Tenenbaums, even better in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and
  • absolutely off the charts in our first pick, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
  • >> Because so much of the movie takes place in this hotel, our first task
  • was to find a great old hotel and to then build the production around that.
  • >> So we look to all over Central Europe, anywhere where
  • there might still be a great old grand hotel that was just sitting there empty,
  • waiting to be used by us.
  • Which turned out didn't really exist.
  • >> Along the way we stumbled across a department store that was empty.
  • >> The production took it over, and
  • the interior of that shopping mall has become the interior of the hotel.
  • >> Pulling always ultra specific references from kodachrome,
  • postcards, Wes' imagination and the painting of Gustav Clint, Grand Budapest
  • was the second collaboration between Wes and production designer Adam Stockhouse.
  • Always real, often handmade, the entire world of Grand Budapest is styled
  • around a particular frame rather then vice versa.
  • Resulting in an ultra composed living breathing world of fictional
  • Eastern Europe, pre and post war.
  • In this multi era decoration,
  • is perhaps one of the most compelling testaments to the power of good design.
  • Here, we can see on full display the exact same spaces used to entirely
  • different effect.
  • Different decor communicates wealth and whimsy, but
  • also decline, sad practicality and the bygone.
  • The character of the world shifted dramatically via color, and furniture, and
  • density, and design.
  • At the center of attention and in your face, isn't the only way for
  • production design to have an effect.
  • The design of the world still works on you in the background.
  • You've probably seen these frames before, and the design of the space almost
  • certainly made you feel a certain way, even though you're probably only paying
  • direct attention to it for the first time just now.
  • Imagine how much different this will feel with a lesser desk, or a different set of
  • drapes, or a plainer carpet, or wallpaper that wasn't peeling just so.
  • None of the examples are particularly hype, they all feel like they belong to
  • the worlds they're in, and yet they too are design.
  • Some of our favorite films that employ naturalistic design principles to huge
  • effect, include the Three Colors trilogy and its subtle, believable color motifs.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild, Tom Ford's work on Nocturnal Animals and
  • A Single Man, and the impeccable design of Tree of Life.
  • Room gets tons of mileage out of the intimacy of its tiny spaces.
  • But for our second pick, we want to focus on Beginners.
  • >> (Inaudible). That's nice.
  • >> Any brothers for you.
  • Yeah?
  • >> Yeah.
  • >> Who is t hat painting?
  • >> I don't know, it's just a painting on the wall.
  • >> And these?
  • >> They're just photos, Pop.
  • >> But how do they relate to the exhibit?
  • >> They're just personal photos, they're not art.
  • >> Beginners spends much of its screen time existing within a space,
  • that is saturated in the history of a character.
  • In this case Oliver's father, Hal.
  • And this is not an accident.
  • These characters are artists and museum directors,
  • people who've dedicated their lives to the arrangement of design in space.
  • But unlike Grand Budapest Chain Valentino's work,
  • almost never asked you to focus on anesthetic or a designed frame,
  • in a way that points to its designedness.
  • Instead, decor almost always seems to be an outgrowth of personality and
  • individuality, every single piece of furniture in the house home,
  • a testament to a lifelong journey of learning who he is.
  • And then, to an effect just as astonishing as Grand Budapest's we see the results of
  • the passage of time on a space, as it is emptied out after his father's death.
  • We see his personality cast in relief, and
  • it is heartbreaking to watch his humanity leaving the world.
  • On completely opposite ends of the design spectrum,
  • both films develop their own thesis about how human change,
  • drives the shape of the world's we inhabit through the aesthetic.
  • (Music)
  • Now that we've sort of traced the boundaries here, it's time for
  • us to break into the various genres.
  • And first on the torture table is horror,
  • from the grinny minimalism of Eraserhead to the brilliant Bates Motel in Psycho,
  • to the unbelievable textures and personality of the house in Crimson Peak.
  • The Cell is endlessly imaginative in all its different looks,
  • whilst Suspiria put a whole new pallet on terror.
  • And then of course, there is the overlook hotel.
  • Good God is that place perfect.
  • But the only thing that could displace The Shining on this list,
  • a landmark in cinema, and horror, and production, and
  • design, would be The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • (Music)
  • Dr Caligari is perhaps the peak of stylization in design.
  • The crowning jewel of German expressionism, the work of Reimann, Rohrig
  • and Warm, distorts its entire world beyond anything remotely resembling reality.
  • Favoring instead the jagged, gnarled, horrific convolutions of a world gone mad.
  • In this tale of madness and mental institution, no angle is square,
  • no wall is plum, everything seems to be just the wrong size and
  • the shadows are painted directly onto the set.
  • Caligari is innovated in how explicitly it's willing to express the mental
  • interior, in its external design.
  • Paving the way for contemporary innovations like Batman Returns,
  • Edward Scissorhands and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
  • It broke every rule imaginable, and
  • landed itself in the history books in the process.
  • After horror, we turned to visions of the future in Sci-Fil.
  • And there we find sleek scandinavian modernism with
  • a gorgeously minimalistic robot-based men in Ex Machina.
  • We find unbelievable scope especially in model form in Metropolis.
  • We find more of Terry Gilliam's madcap bric-a-brac insanity in 12 Monkeys,
  • and a sleek, corporate-ish dystopia in Minority Report.
  • We find zany, colorful, cartoonish fun in The Fifth Element.
  • Vicious dieselpunk violence communicated almost entirely through vehicles,
  • in Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • And a bleak, grimy interstellar tanker in the world of Alien.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, showed us a sleek, sterile,
  • technological future unlike any we had ever seen before on celluloid.
  • But for our Sci-Fi pick, there are two films that we think have done it in a way
  • that borders on genius, and we're not going to even try to choose between them.
  • They are Blade Runner and Her.
  • (Music)
  • vision of the future in Blade Runner,
  • imagine something radically different than had ever come before.
  • Compared to the monolithic sterile and
  • unifying visions of a singular future aesthetic that preceded it,
  • Blade Runner is messy, polycultural, economically stratified.
  • Overflowing with the competing design aesthetics of different influences.
  • Its design is built amidst the wreckage of decades and centuries past.
  • Her, as KK Barrett takes a different direction completely,
  • envisioning a future that fetishizes the retro.
  • Recognizing that in the right context, the retro can look futuristic too.
  • Its world looks mostly like our own with a few key additions and subtractions,
  • that allow it to feel ever so slightly other.
  • It is possibly the most naturalistic vision of the future ever put on film, but
  • so emotionally intelligent in that achievement.
  • Recognizing that future consumers won't want to be sold a future, but
  • a more comfortable, quiet link to an idealized past.
  • Both of these films don't just look gorgeous and completely unique, but
  • they base their design decisions on a few key assumptions about how culture might
  • develop, based on some brilliant insights into how it works today.
  • (Music)
  • By the inviolable logic of genres,
  • Sci-Fi must always be considered adjacent to our next category, fantasy.
  • And here, is pretty much just open season for production design, I mean just take
  • a look at the magic they conjured up for the Series of Unfortunate Events.
  • And 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for The Wizard of Oz, the Holly Mountain and
  • Pan's Labyrinth, the Gorgeous World of the Subconscious and What Dreams May Come.
  • An entire hidden world of witches and wizards and the Harry Potters.
  • And a southern California meets Verona Italy, Romeo and Juliet.
  • However, we're world building is concern,
  • sometimes the obvious pick is the right pick.
  • And here, both of those picks belong to the world of The Lord of the Rings.
  • >> It's amazing how authentic, genuinely authentic it feels,
  • that you start to believe that it could possibly be history.
  • I guess the way that we try to hint at the depth,
  • which is all that the film could really do, was partly in our design process.
  • I didn't want movie design.
  • I didn't want fantasy movie, Hollywood sort of style of design.
  • I wanted something that felt authentic.
  • >> The Lord of the Rings trilogy,
  • is perhaps one of the most impressive acts of world building ever brought to film.
  • The design brought to life dozens of different cultures, habitats,
  • biomes, ruins and nations.
  • With unique looks for different races, for good and evil at multiple scales.
  • But production designer Grant Major, didn't do this without help.
  • The concept of the film came from Tolkien's original illustrators,
  • drawing from a history of visual material that was tied to the novels.
  • The result blends the historical, the mythical and
  • the utterly imagined into what really feels like an entire new world.
  • (Music)
  • There is of course one genre so essential to the production design can, and
  • it's practically a cliche come Oscar time.
  • We are of course referring to the period of Peace.
  • We are talking gorgeously ordinate Elizabethan and
  • Victorian Costume Dramas like the Leopard.
  • Room with a View and Howard's Inn.
  • The two tiered world of Titanic.
  • The gorgeous Russian aristocracy of Anna Karenina, and
  • the purposeful elaborate punk monarchy of Marie Antoinette.
  • Amadeus is delightfully over the top.
  • Dangerous Liasons, oozes tasteful design without the excess.
  • And God,
  • does Barry Lyndon make us feel some kind of way about paintings and drapes.
  • In fact, it would almost certainly run away with this slot in the world were our
  • pick, Fanny and Alexander didn't exist.
  • (Foreign)
  • >> It really was hard not to
  • hand this slot to Ken Burns' peerless work on Barry Lyndon's spectacular interior.
  • But slightly closer to the stylized end of the spectrum, Anna Asp's Fanny and
  • Alexander, stretches the period decor 18 different ways to a new effect each time.
  • It twists and turns the over-intricate palatial decor of the period into
  • all kinds of different niches.
  • Comfortable and austere, homey and dour, sweet and lonely, overlooked and eerie.
  • Each set decorated with care and specificity,
  • without ever feeling out of place.
  • It dramatically expanded the possibilities of an era,
  • in a way that really imbues each and every physical space with endless feeling.
  • (Sound) With that having been said, period pieces are so essential to
  • good design that we aren't just dedicating one category to them, but four.
  • And for our second one,
  • we're looking before the Elizabethan era to that early period piece.
  • Here, we find Gladiator.
  • In Kingdom of Heaven, and the amazing, fantastical hybrid creativity of 300.
  • There are some unbelievable takes on the Middle Ages, including our favorite,
  • Hard to Be a God.
  • And then there's the East, with ancient Japan being just barely surpassed by a few
  • spectacular works in ancient China.
  • Crouching Tiger,
  • Curse of the Golden Flower,
  • and our pick, the absolutely poetic and
  • ever-favorite, Hero.
  • (Music)
  • Hero is another example of stylization at it's best.
  • This time driven not by the possibility of insanity, but of embellishment and
  • fabrication in story telling.
  • Each iteration of the story giving it's own monochromatic treatment.
  • Augmenting the spot and policies of the Qing Dynasty with minimal accents,
  • often only simple fabric to maximum visual impact.
  • Shing Sha Ho and Shing Shoo Yi's,
  • simple often repeating design elements make a huge splash.
  • Often circling back around with a slightly different color treatment,
  • to embu revised versions of the tale, with an entirely different feeling.
  • It speaks volumes to the power of a singular design concept,
  • placed so far forward in the foreground, that the audience must respond to it.
  • (Sound) Moving back to the other side of the Elizabethan era,
  • we find ourselves right around the first half of the 20th century.
  • Being transported back in time to the worlds of There Will Be Blood,
  • Gone With The Wind, The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane, The Handmaiden,
  • The Conformist.
  • The Last Emperor, Schindler's List, Atonement and Phantom Threat.
  • But we are so blown away by the immersive believability of The Godfather's design
  • of the 40's and 50's, that the only film that manages to convince us even more
  • is it's sequel, The Godfather, Part II.
  • >> The Godfather really kind of set the tone for taking that kind of
  • movie out of the old days, of the old Paul Muni movies, and
  • Edward G Robinson movies, and took it into a whole other kind of level of reality.
  • >> Expanding on the foreboding,
  • gorgeous world of 40s power from the First Godfather, and
  • the fearlessness involved in sometimes cluttering up with Chinese takeaway boxes.
  • The second installment in the Godfather trilogy manages not one but
  • two incredible periods across three different countries.
  • Every single set shimmers with a period appropriate naturalism and
  • never showy but ever appropriate amount of detail, that honestly makes us feel like
  • Cople had somehow had shot this thing through a portal into the past.
  • Nothing ever looks paused, or recreated, or overly restored,
  • even as entire turn of the century's city blocks were entirely created from scratch.
  • Dean Tabulero's work on The Godfather II,
  • is a high watermark any career characterized by peerless taste.
  • Recreating decades that many still remembered not as
  • a series of off limits historical exhibits and backdrops, but
  • world's filled with the kind of life characters could reach out and touch.
  • Moving forward into the second half of the last century,
  • we find our last period P stop.
  • Pursuing Gorgeous Look at the 50s and the Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
  • 60s, in Catch Me If You Can.
  • The 70s in American Hustle, and the 80s in Everybody Wants Some.
  • We find Zodiac, and Selma, and A Serious Man.
  • In fact, there are so many films set in these decades,
  • that are very nearly perfect in their design that we couldn't just pick one, or
  • two, or three to talk about.
  • So instead feast your eyes on a four way tie montage in honor of what we think
  • are the very best.
  • Revolutionary
  • Road, In
  • the Mood
  • for Love,
  • Inside
  • Llewyn
  • Davis, and
  • The Master.
  • (Music)
  • Finally, our tour of period pieces deposits us in the present,
  • with a look at the best of contemporary design.
  • Not just designing within the current period, but
  • attempting to capture its essence in its design.
  • Today, The Florida Project, The Lobster and
  • Lost in Translation, all show us different sketches of our world.
  • The Social Network is flawless in designing a clash in the upper echelons
  • of our society.
  • And Playtime, explored the gorgeous alienation of it's time in an Uber
  • stylish send up of modernity.
  • But for our last pick, we think nothing has quite combined humor, humanity,
  • loneliness and character like the idiosyncratic design of Roy Anderson's,
  • Living Trilogy.
  • (Music)
  • Every single one of the over 100 videttes of The Living trilogy,
  • is fabricated entirely from the ground-up for its whole precise camera angle.
  • He actually puts the camera there first, and then builds the set around it,
  • incorporating detailed seamless backdrops, puppets and miniatures.
  • Sometimes in an act of dissatisfaction, scraping the whole thing to start from
  • scratch, which means that this inside a film studio, and this, and this, too.
  • His design specificity is borderline neurotic but back, you that is work.
  • The elaborate plan and this of at all, makes details like the particularly bright
  • yellownes of a chair or the strange placement of the pipe, almost worth
  • marveling over an occasionally laughing at in their own right.
  • The effect is one of hyper-reality.
  • It is the world over-curating and distilled down into extra detail.
  • It feels like a generic nowhere with splashes of specific everywhere.
  • Embedded in the ennui and
  • existential angst of his idiosyncratically dreary design, is
  • a canvas on which his personal philosophys on modern life can shine through.
  • It is a sad, ashen, lonely landscape of sets on which even the smallest display of
  • genuine humanity stands out and shines,
  • which is why we think it's one of the best examples of production design of all time.
  • So what do you think?
  • Disagree with any of our picks?
  • Did we leave out one of your favorite movie worlds?
  • That's just life,
  • I guess, filled with many wonders and over before you reach most of it.
  • Well.
  • Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe for
  • more Cinefix movie lists.

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Movies are directed and shot and edited and choreographed, but we can't forget that they're also designed. World building can be clean and simple or massive in scale, but equally important in every movie. These are our picks for 10 of the best production designs in movie history.

The Picks

10 - Heightened - The Grand Budapest Hotel
9 - Naturalistic - Beginners
8 - Horror - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
7 - Sci Fi - Bladerunner and Her
6 - Fantasy - Lord of the Rings
5 - Period - Middle - Fanny and Alexander
4 - Period - Early - Hero
3 - Period - Early 20th Century - Godfather Part 2
2 - Period - Late 20th Century - 4 Way Tie!
- Revolutionary Road, In the Mood for Love, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Master
1 - Contemporary - Roy Andersson's Living Trilogy

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