building worlds

Images from movies and television shows are everywhere. We see them on billboards and posters, in magazines and newspapers, online and on our TV sets. We watch trailers and commercials designed to evoke emotion, catch our attention and make us want to take time out of our fast-paced lives to see the latest and greatest in screen entertainment. We quote the most popular movies and shows, we buy merchandise related to them, and we schedule our lives around show times. Rarely do we stop to think about all of the work that goes into creating these works of art.


Although not usually intended to hold our attention, production design (or art direction, as it is often called) is one of the most important components of successful TV and film fiction. The production designer envisages every space used in a film, taking into account practical as well as aesthetic mattersdeciding how locations should be dressed, devising sets and back-lots, facilitating stunts and special effects. Set design and decoration play at crucial role in setting the tone and feel of the film or show. Designers mostlythough, as we will see, not invariablywork to establish a credible and visually stimulating world in which audiences can easily immerse themselves.


Ironically, one of the ways in which we can identify a great art director is by his or her ability to go almost unnoticed. We look on a designers work and simply believe that the place we are shown exists: it is so credible and engaging that we feel it must be a real place. In other words, we think little of good art direction when we see it on screenexcept, of course, in period or science-fiction pieces, and even here it is lack of credibility that is most likely to call attention to itself. Even the most fanciful environments will draw us in if the art director has done skillful work, and the director and lighting cameraman have treated this work sympathetically.


But this isnt the whole story. Sometimes art directors have the opportunity to create environments meant to strike viewers in a slightly different way, appealing to their sense of knowing irony rather than their desire simply to be involved in the world they see. There could be no subtler example than some of the designs for the 1960s British hit series, The Avengers, created by Harry Pottle [fig. 1]. The Avengers was a genre-bending espionage series that invited flamboyant and often surreal design. However, unlike his psychedelia-influenced successors in the later 60s, Pottle seldom opted for broad visual humor or pure absurdity. He was a master at creating environments that trod the knife-edge between realism and send-up, echoing the fact that The Avengers scripts could veer from noir-esque menace to light comedy in the course of a single scene.