Art Direction In films

If you are a movie buff who loves analyzing films or just someone passionate about filmmaking, you must have wondered how everything in a film feels so real. The sets, the location, everything is made to look authentic, just as if it was a real place. Do you know what this art is called? It is called art direction in films. 

From making viewers go back to the 70s era to the audience feeling that the scene of Titanic is actually from the real ship, all these beautiful elements that bring life and authenticity to a film are placed by an art director in the process of art direction in films.

Remember the stunning visuals of HBO‘s immensely popular series Game of Thrones? The costumes, sets, makeup, and location made it look so authentic. Did you know what made it possible to create the epic world of Westeros and Essos and brought life to it?

The answer is Art Direction. Just like the name, it involves the art of designing a film set and ensuring that it replicates the exact visualization of the whole film with consistency, authenticity, and accuracy.

Art direction in films defines the visual appearance and uniqueness of the film

Popular Hollywood art director Hauke Richter, best known for his brilliant, raw, and artistic art direction in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th seasons of the fantasy series, revealed the challenging design process of the Primetime Emmy award. 

In an old interview, Richter said, “We normally sit down and break down the whole job. For a season of Game of Thrones, which is a mighty show, you have something in the region of 100 different sets to create. That can be anything from tiny set-ups or set-ups which involve very little art direction.” 

“This might be in a forest but will require other aspects like ‘snowing up’ the forest, or the greens people have to cut branches away so that horses and riders don’t get stabbed by branches when they’re riding through the trees. Things like that are small but important,” he added. 

Now that we have seen the show, we love how the filmmaker, production design team, and art directors made the location and sets look so real. What we don’t know is the technique, methods, creativity, and consistency required for the process.

From the classic Titanic to The Aviator, it has been time and again proven that art direction plays a vital role in filmmaking and is as important as screenwriting, screenplay, and production.

What is art direction in films?

What is art direction in films?
Image Source

Managing creative processes that produce visual outputs such as film sets during filmmaking is called art direction. The process involves implementing and executing the creative intent of the film’s Production Designer and director.

If a film’s art direction is good, it will automatically give the film its unique visual identity. Be it a large-scale location or a small film set at the studio, art direction involves analyzing, visualizing, and implementing little details that make a film visually authentic and appealing to the audience.

Art direction also includes selecting the perfect locations to make the film and theme more convincing and real. For example, if a film is set in the backdrop of the 90s, it is the responsibility of the art director to ensure that the sets and location actually remind people of the 90s.

 What the actors are wearing, their hairstyles, and every visual element should be designed according to the 90s. In simple words, art direction is the act of managing the overall aesthetics and look of a film.

It is the job of an art designer to manage the process of art direction in films. The art director, along with the production designer, creates and designs film films and the overall visual look of film production such as managing the artists, locations, visual elements, etc.

An art director is responsible for all of the artistic and visual designs used for production on a film set. This process is called art direction.

Art directors usually work under the production designer and their key job role is to execute the director’s vision of the film and bring that authenticity to the film set through his design techniques. They are also responsible for the budget and management of artists/workers on a film set.

Who is an art director?

Who is an art director
Image Source

An art director is a person who is responsible for convincing audiences that the world created by the production designer at a film set or location is absolutely real. Where the film is getting shot, what’s the theme, what’s the backdrop, everything is closely monitored and executed by the art director to make the film as authentic and real as possible.

The key responsibility of an art director, who closely works with the director, is to keep the art elements consistent throughout the film production and execution to ensure that the visual and pictorial representation of the settings is perfect.

Other members of the film production crew like the Costume Designer, Stylist, Set Designer, Scenic Artist, Matte Painter, Sketch Artist, Draftsperson, Illustrator, etc, are supervised by the art director to make the film set to look exactly how the director has visualized it.

By collaborating with the film directors and understanding how the sets of the film should look, an art director ensures that all the locations along with the look and style of the artists are bringing out authenticity. The art director also supervises set designers and assistant art directors to ensure that the visuals of the film match the vision of the production designer and director.

From facilitating the production designer’s creative vision and imagination for all the different locations and sets of the film to making it visually authentic and unique to help to maximize the money allocated to the department, an art director plays a key role in the making of a film.

Traits and qualities of a good art director:

Creating an overall aesthetic, real, and authentic sensibility for a film is not an easy job. From managing costumes, locations, construction of sets, and budget, to executing the vision of the production designer, an art director has to wear many hats during the shooting of the film. 

However, these are some of the key qualities that an art director must have:

-Artistic ability: He should be able to create fine works of art and make the film a visual treat for viewers by distinguishing between each visual element beautifully and artistically. The best example of this is how Titanic’s team used archival photographs and blueprints to match the ship’s interiors to the original.

-In-depth knowledge of films: A good art director must have strong knowledge of films. For example, an art director must thoroughly understand the pre-production, production, and post-production process and all the elements involved in them.

-A detailed sense of film history: To make a great film that is visually appealing and convincing, one must have a sense of film history and understand how previous films have made an impact by different art direction techniques.

-Understand the importance of making a film aesthetically appealing: One of the must-haves in an art director is the ability to understand the importance of making a film a visual masterpiece that is aesthetically appealing and feels real and magical at the same time.

-Can influence viewers through his art: A good art director knows how to use his artistic ability to influence viewers through his art of bringing authenticity to the film sets and location. For example, if the audience is convinced that the hospital that they are showing in a film is actually a hospital and not a film set, the art director has managed to convince them through his artistic ability.

Art direction in films: The process

The art direction process of all films, especially big-budget, large-scale films with ace actors and filmmakers commences 6-7 months before the first shoot schedule of the film. Art directors start exploring the locations, fixing dates, setting shots, and analyzing weather conditions, labor work, and numerous other factors that may affect the sets or location.

For example, for an outdoor shoot, they have to ensure that there is no rain predicted during the time of the shoot or the sets can get spoiled or shooting can be put to a halt. They identify all props or special items that the script requires and at the same time, manage the budget.

During the pre-production stage, the art directors are also responsible for managing and casting the animals that are a part of the film, the vehicles that are needed, and the delegation of special effects like car crashes and explosions. 

They need to prepare and construct the locations before the first day of the shoot and ensure that the sets look real and authentic.

Art Directors continue to oversee and monitor the construction, dressing, and striking (dismantling) of the remaining sets and locations. Post the completion of the film, it is the responsibility of the art director to clear all the bills related to the sets and locations and ensure that all locations are cleared.

Hollywood movies that bagged the Academy Award for Best Art Direction:

From Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, these 10 films won the prestigious Academy Award for Best Art Direction:

Avatar: Renowned filmmaker James Cameron‘s Avatar, a visual treat for all the cinemagoers, won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction, and the movie was praised for its amazing visuals and authentic and convincing art direction that left viewers spellbound.

The Aviator: Martin Scorsese’s epic biographical drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction.

Batman: Who doesn’t love the art direction in DC’s blockbuster film Batman? The authenticity of Gotham City and everything happening there made the film bag an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. 

The Art Director of the film, Nigel Phelps said, “On Batman, our vision of Gotham City was influenced by the tone of the ‘Dark Knight’ comics, and also Andreas Feininger’s photographs of New York buildings and the work of Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu. (Blade Runner was consciously avoided as a reference; no one was allowed to watch it while we were designing the film and neon was shunned altogether!)”

Black Panther: Marvel’s Black Panther also won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the stunning and convincing visuals of the film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: One of the evergreen classics and a cult film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by David Fincher won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Visual Effects.

A look at Hollywood’s most memorable movie sets:

The era of black and white films was iconic and so were their film sets. They actually defined art direction and are a master class for the budding art directors in Hollywood who want to make it big in their field. 

Here are 5 movies and their movie sets that changed art direction in Hollywood forever and inspired generations with their artistic methods and techniques. 

Titanic: It was not easy to recreate the famous RMS Titanic that sank in the north Atlantic ocean. Did you know that the art directors created a ship that was only 10 percent smaller than the real one? 

Also, it was created on a huge hinge that helped it become completely perpendicular during filmmaker James Cameron’s filmmaking as it sucked in thousands and millions of gallons of ocean water into an 800-foot-wide water tank where it was placed. The film was shot in Rosarito, Mexico.

Art Direction In films: What, Where, How?
Image Source

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Directed by ace Hollywood filmmaker Wes Anderson known for his visually appealing sets and unique filming locations, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film with one of the best sets in the history of films. 

To make the scenes look convincing and authentic, the art direction team transformed the sets two times- first for filming the shots set in the backdrop of the 1920s and then to shoot the scenes that were set in the backdrop of the 1960s.

Art Direction In films: What, Where, How?
Image Source

Harry Potter: Did you know that more than one intricate set was used in each of the Harry Potter films to ensure that the iconic scenes that we now love could come to life? According to statistics, more than 588 sets were built at Leavesden Studios in a decade for the Great Hall to be created

Yes, the same place where your favorite Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson explore their magical powers. It was shot at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London and Leavesden, U.K.

Art Direction In films: What, Where, How?
Image Source

Batman: Released in 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman became a cult classic not only because of top-notch actors like Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson but also because of the other main character of the movie that stole all the limelight—Gotham City. 

Famous Art Director Anton Furst, who won an Academy Award for his work in the film, took almost all of the studio’s 95-acre backlot to create the Batmobile and the Manhattan backdrop.

Art Direction In films: What, Where, How?
Image Source

The Lord of the Rings: Another film that not only gave us a dreamy franchise but also one of the biggest and best Hollywood movie sets of all time.

Production Designer Grant Major apparently planted real vegetables and flowers on the sets a year before the filming commenced to give it an authentic village feel. Now that’s some real passion and conviction, isn’t it? It was shot in the Waikato region of New Zealand.

Art Direction In films: What, Where, How?
Image Source

It is often said that filmmaking is the art of convincing viewers that they are watching a real story. The trick is to create an illusion that will make the viewers feel that they are a part of the film and all the elements—the characters, sets, location, costumes, everything is real. 

This art of conviction is called art direction and it is as important as the screenplay, screenwriting, and filming of the movie.

If we use techniques like 3D Filmmaking, VFX, and CGI to create an illusion of another world, then art direction is the technique of creating an illusion of the actual world. Remember how it was so hard to believe that Titanic was not actually shot on the real ship? That is what defines perfect art direction in films. To convince the audience that it is all real.

Art direction not only adds authenticity but also clarity and definition to the film. After all, we all watch cinema for tangible visual aesthetics.

In order to be a good art director, one must be extremely detail-oriented and remember how each set was designed, the purpose of constructing it, and the theme on which it is based. 

From the costumes of artists to the decoration of the interiors, it is the art director’s job to create, maintain, and keep consistency all throughout the shooting of the film.

Tagged in:

About the Author

Arshiya Bhalla

Arshiya Bhalla is an online journalist, content creator, and blogger. She was an Entertainment writer for three years and has been a popular movie critic. Her passion for movies and the Entertainment industry inspires her to write on films and filmmaking.

View All Articles