This documentary explores the art of Production Design: the Hidden Art of Hollywood. Using interviews with top designers, art and plans from their workshops, and the films themselves this ...
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This documentary explores the art of Production Design: the Hidden Art of Hollywood. Using interviews with top designers, art and plans from their workshops, and the films themselves this documentary explores the influence of these artists on the iconography of our culture. Heirs to the history of art, they are the architects of our dreams...the Masters of Production Written by
For reasons which quite elude me, there are a large number of people who claim to be movie-lovers yet who are actively hostile to the technical aspects of the film-making process. One well-known bitchy film critic has repeatedly asserted that the Academy Awards ceremony would be improved by having the "boring tech awards that nobody cares about" (his words) presented off-camera. I guess people like him want to believe that the Emerald City of Oz is a real place, instead of a set that somebody designed and a lot of people built. It saddens me, angers me and baffles me that more people are interested in the "red carpet" part of the Oscars (in which a bunch of overpaid airheads flaunt their face-lifts) than in the behind-the-scenes magic that is a vital part of movie-making.
People such as the above critic will be bored by 'Masters of Production'. However, if you (like me) are passionately interested in every aspect of film design and production, then you will be utterly fascinated (as I was) by this tele-documentary, which includes some gorgeous clips from classic Hollywood films. (Full disclosure: I've recently worked on a project with Hugh Munro Neely, one of the filmmakers who created this documentary.)
A major flaw of documentaries like this one is that they can't always get legal access to the clips they want ... or must pay too much money in order to obtain those clips. Consequently, what we see here is skewed towards the clips that are available, rather than a full history of the subject. 'Masters of Production' tells us, quite accurately, that the greatest production designer of all time was William Cameron Menzies ... but then creates the impression that Menzies's career consisted solely of 'Gone with the Wind'. We see nothing of his brilliant work from 'Thief of Bagdad', 'Things to Come', 'Kings Row' or 'Invaders from Mars'.
We get a brief clip of the delightful 'Ascot Gavotte', possibly the most art-directed number in 'My Fair Lady'. I would like to have seen more of this, and a few clips of the stylised exterior sets from 'West Side Story' would have been nice too.
We get a few sound bites from Richard Sylbert (to whom this film is dedicated), and some clips from perhaps the most famous film he production-designed: 'Chinatown', with its faux 1930s setting. I've long considered 'Chinatown' to be a deeply overrated film, for several reasons. As far as its production design goes, 'Chinatown' has the same flaw as many other films with period settings: everything is too clean, and all the actors display lots of orthodontia.
I was more impressed with Sylbert's comments on 'The Graduate', another film he designed. According to his quotes here, an incredible amount of thought and effort went into such minor details as the size, shape and colour of the front door on Benjamin's (Dustin Hoffman's) house. Indeed, some of the best production design work avoids calling attention to itself. When I first saw 'The Graduate', I assumed that the interior sequences in Benjamin's house and in Mrs Robinson's house were shot in actual locations: now I realise how much painstaking work went into the design and creation of what were, in fact, movie sets.
Also impressive here is the fact that 'Masters of Production' gives some tribute to Cecil B DeMille, a director who is currently very unfashionable. As this documentary accurately notes, DeMille (unlike most directors) was deeply and passionately involved in the design aspects of all his films. We see here a brief clip that purports to be DeMille directing a sequence from 'The Crusades': actually, this is from a promotional trailer, with DeMille enacting staged dialogue. Given that one of the producers of 'Masters of Production' is DeMille's grand-daughter, I'm surprised and disappointed that so little footage from his films is on offer here.
We also see a brief clip from 'Frankenstein': the thunderstorm sequence in which the Monster is brought to life by Dr Frankenstein's elaborate lab equipment. I regret that this documentary didn't identify the designer of that equipment: Kenneth Strickfaden, who parodied his own mad-scientist apparatus decades later in 'Young Frankenstein'. Perhaps I'm being too critical: this documentary was created for a one-hour time slot on educational television, and I suppose it's inevitable that many details of this subject would get left out.
if you're one of those Munchkins who doesn't want to know that there's someone behind the curtain, manipulating all the magic that you see in front of the camera, then give this documentary a miss. However, if you are a true movie lover, passionately interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of movie-making, 'Masters of Production' is an utterly fascinating and too-brief overview of that subject. I'll rate this documentary 8 out of 10.
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