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Untold Tales of Hollywood #16

As you can see above and below, I’m still using Jack Palance‘s likeness for Conan’s father.

And that was as far as I got with the Conan the Barbarian “storyboards”.

I became intrigued by what Ron Cobb was creating as production designer. It looked like he was having way more fun than I was having.

Here, I probably should define the term “production designer”. A production designer on a film is in charge of everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors. He or she is in charge of designing all of the sets, costumes, make-ups, special effects make-ups, set dressing, props, the special visual effects and floor effects. The production designer is the eyes of the director.

A little cinematic history: The term “production designer” was invented by David Selznick for William Cameron Menzies in 1939. Menzies had directed a third of Gone With The Wind but Victor Fleming, his co-director (who also directed The Wizard of Oz that same year), refused to share the directing credit, thrusting producer Selznick into the middle of a dilemma. Menzies did much more than art direct GWTW — the title of “Art Director” was not enough for or fair to Menzies. Selznick solved this problem by giving Menzies a credit that read “Production Designed by William Cameron Menzies” — which was absolutely true. Menzies storyboarded GWTW in full color.

(Above) Some Menzies Gone With The Wind storyboards. Menzies directed the famous Burning of Atlanta sequence. Some GWTW trivia: Part of what got burned in that sequence were once the gigantic native gates from King Kong.

There’s a photo of someone holding up one of Menzies’ storyboards and adjusting the tilt of an actress’ hat to match Menzies’ drawing. Menzies was unbelievably hands-on with GWTW.

So, prior to Gone With The Wind, the visionaries who designed films were called art directors. My two favorite old school art directors were Menzies and Anton Grot, who designed the Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

(Above) Anton Grot design for Captain Blood.

When I decided to become a production designer, Menzies and Grot became my heroes. We shared a similar background; we had all been storybook illustrators prior to getting into film design.

(Above) Rudolph Valentino bookplate designed by Menzies.

(Above) Menzies design for Valentino’s The Son of the Sheik.

Later, that changed. From the 1930s to the mid-1970s, most art directors had architectural backgrounds. They would begin as draftsmen, progress to set designers and then, if lucky after about ten or twenty years in The Biz, they might get to become art directors. If they were very lucky, after years of being an art director, they might get the chance to become a production designer.

What changed all of that?

Two films: Star Wars and Alien.

George Lucas had illustrator Ralph McQuarrie essentially design Star Wars. Ralph didn’t get the Production Designer credit but believe me — McQuarrie designed Star Wars.

(Above) Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars design (more at starwars.com)

Alejandro Jodorowsky was set to direct his version of Dune. For that film, he had assembled an art department Dream Team: H. R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Chris Foss. Right when the funding for Dune fell apart, Jodorowsky’s pick for Special Effects Supervisor, Dan O’Bannon (Dan did the computer effects for Star Wars) got a phone call from director Ridley Scott. Scott informed Dan that Scott was going to direct Alien, a screenplay written by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Dan mentioned that it would be a shame to break up the Dune art department. Would Ridley consider keeping them on for Alien? Scott agreed and Dan convinced Ridley to also add Dan’s close friend Ron Cobb (Ron had also worked on Star Wars, designing creatures for the cantina sequence, as well as the spaceship in Dan’s first film, Dark Star) to the art team.

Star Wars and Alien were huge hits. This allowed a crack in the door for guys like Ron Cobb and me to become production designers. We didn’t have to wait twenty or thirty years to become one. It was clear we could draw and design movies that garnered positive responses from movie audiences. Anything we could think of that we wanted on the screen, we could draw. If we needed some of our designs drafted in more proper architectural form, we’d just hire the guys to implement that from our designs. When I production design a film, I lean heavily on my art director, assigning him or her the duties of scheduling and budgeting. This gives me more time to spend on the film’s designs.

I should mention that there are three kinds of production designers.

1) Guys like Menzies and Grot (and later, Cobb and me) who came from an illustration background — guys who can really draw.

2) Trained architects who are especially good at designing things related to architecture — like sets. Examples would be most production designers working in The Biz.

3) The third kind of production designer can’t (or doesn’t) draw and has never been trained as an architect — but they have strong visual ideas and a great knack for visual metaphors. A terrific example of this kind of production designer is Jurassic Park‘s  Rick Carter. If Rick doesn’t draw, how does he get his design ideas across to other people on the film? Rick makes visual collages that express his ideas from photos and art he finds in books, magazines and other forms of research. Then he hires illustrators and set designers to make them all real and functional.

All three types of production designers are valid. There are brilliant examples from all three backgrounds.

After Conan the Barbarian, I rose to the position of production designer very quickly (less than two years). At that time I was reputed to be the youngest production designer in the history of film (I doubt that record still stands — but it might). Once I achieved that title I was typically overseeing the work of about 1250 people on each of my films. I discovered the job to be primarily managerial — making sure that everyone was not deviating from my vision. For the most part, the only time I actually had to design the film was on weekends.

Ron quickly began to trust me as a designer and he began to let me design elements for the film he didn’t have time to design.

Like John Milius’ approach to writing Conan the Barbarian (John’s a real history buff), Ron’s approach to designing Conan was historical — and ingenious. Ron’s concept was this: OK; we know what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts looked like 2000 years ago. We know what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts looked like 3000 years ago. Working backward, as if we were animating the reverse evolution of Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts, we could visually guess what Egyptian architecture and cultural artifacts would have looked like 4000 or 5000 years ago. We did that with many ancient cultures, envisioning what they looked like prior to their presence in their know history. In essence, we were un-designing history and making the Hyborian world of Conan feel very real.

It was a variation on what I learned from Russ Manning when I was assisting him on the Tarzan of the Apes newspaper strips. We were working on a sequence with strange bird-like humanoid creatures. In the sequence Tarzan had been captured and tied up by them.

“Bill,” Russ instructed me, “make sure that when you draw those ropes that you make them as realistic as possible. That way, if the reader believes the ropes — something the reader is familiar with — the reader will more easily believe our story’s fantasy elements.”

1 thought on “Untold Tales of Hollywood #16

  1. Wow! That Grot design looks like it could be the Peter Lore film, M, or you might expect to see the vampire Nosferatu to stroll beneath that lamp. And the Menzies set for Son of the Shiek is fantastic. The guy rushing through the door on the left will shortly be pursued by ghouls, a griffin or perhaps Medusa. It’s got a real Harryhausen vibe at least to my mind.

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