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What, exactly, is 'art direction?'


What, exactly, is 'art direction?'

Joseph Gordon Levitt in Inception, whose talented design team was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Art Direction, bringing to life a complex and beautiful visual universe in which characters can enter the dreams of others.

Photo: © Warner Bros Pictures
Question: What, exactly, is 'art direction?'
Here's a simple explanation of what art direction is when it comes to film, a comparison to the role of set designer in theatre, as well as a look at who receives the actual Oscar® nominations or awards for Best Art Direction. I also provide a quick overview of the several job titles most typically included within art direction, and discuss what they accomplish on film.

Perhaps you're looking at that list of this year's Oscar® nominees, and wondering about that deceptively simple phrase known as 'art direction.'

When it comes to the Academy Award nominations for art direction on film, the award nominations actually honor a combination of two different roles within the film -- those of the production designer, and the set decorator.

The production design is the designer who typically oversees the overall look, feel, and style of the film from a "big picture" standpoint, essentially envisioning the 'world' of the film. The set decorator, meanwhile, works to design and populate that world, bringing the sets to life to help to fulfill that vision.

Creating Sets -- and Worlds

The production designer is almost always a single individual, while set decorators may work individually, or almost as frequently, in teams of two or three. The production designer and set decorator(s) work together symbiotically to create the world of the film.

In theatre, the set designer envisions and creates the entire world of the story onstage, from set walls and backdrops, to furnishings and down to the smallest details.

On film, the production designer envisions the world of the story, and then works with the set decorator to bring that vision to fruition. The set decorator 'dresses' a multitude of sets and locations (sometimes a huge number, depending on the complexity of the film), from the furnishings and knickknacks, to the very lights on the walls.

Art Direction Titles and Credits

Complicating the matter slightly, however, is the fact that many times, the 'art direction' person or team credited in a film is not actually included among the Academy Award nominees for Art Direction on that film. For instance, among the 2011 Academy Award nominees for Best Art Direction, while production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas was nominated for Inception, along with set decorators Larry Dias and Doug Mowat, the credited art direction team of Luke Freeborn, Brad Ricker, and Dean Wolcott was not included in the nomination, which doesn't quite seem fair to me. The team was, however, included in the film's Satellite Award nomination for Art Direction & Production Design (which included production designer Dyas, but not set decorators Dias and Mowat.

I'd like to see the industry eliminate some of these gray areas and confusing aspects by standardizing the titles, and by also being more inclusive in the awards process. It seems to me that the Oscars® really ought to include the art direction team as well as the Production Designer and Set Decorators. Meanwhile, it doesn't seem quite fair to me that set decorators are not honored by awards such as the Satellite Awards. Can't we all just get along?

(Sorry. I'm back.)

Iconic Art Direction on Film

Regardless of the occasional opportunity for confusion where job titles are concerned, the works of many production designers, art directors, and set decorators have become iconic. Who can forget the gorgeous designs for the world of The Wizard of Oz? Together, the production's designers (ranging from rumored but uncredited production designers Malcolm Brown, William Horning, and Jack Martin Smith), Art Director Cedric Gibbons, and Set Decorator Edwin B. Willis (among others) created a world that is still breathtaking today. I love the perfection of such details as Dorothy's homely bedroom, Professor Marvel's rundown campsite, Munchkinland's flower babies, and the Wicked Witch's wonderfully forbidding castle.

Now flash forward sixty years to the opposite end of the spectrum, with the equally beautiful look and feel of the world of The Matrix. This film, with its grunge-noir production design by Owen Paterson, cybercool art direction by Hugh Bateup and Michelle McGahey, and distinctive set decoration by Lisa 'Blitz' Brennan, Tim Ferrier, and Marta McElroy, has become instantly recognizable in its own right. From the sterile monotony to Neo's office sets, to the glamor of the underground club, to the grungy hyperclarity of the Matrix world, each setting beautifully creates a mood for the action within, and is still memorable over a decade later.

Other Awards for Art Direction

Art direction is not only honored by the Academy Awards each year, but is also honored annually by The Art Directors Guild. As with most other major film critics' awards, meanwhile, the BAFTAs divide up their categories, nominating production designers and set decorators individually.

The next time you're at the movies, try to notice the way the colors and textures in a film's setting affect your perception of the characters, or influence the emotional impact of a scene. As you develop an appreciation for the art direction in film, you may find watching movies to be a richer, deeper experience than ever.

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