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Set Design

Many people assume that the term set design refers only to the way in which constructed sets are created—for example, building a mansion-sized living room for a television show or creating a friendly looking set of tables and chairs for a panel of experts in a corporate video.

But this notion misses out on a large percentage of the world that filmmakers work in. Often we are working in real locations and it might seem that we have much less control over the design in that environment—but that’s not true. We will discuss location scouting from another point of view in Chapter 5, Directing, but it is important to recognize how the choice of any set—whether real or constructed—influences the audience’s view of the script.

Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark film The Battleship Potemkin is a highly effective piece of propaganda that is meant to help audiences understand just why it was necessary for the Russian people to overthrow the ruling tsars and their police force, the Cossacks, and take control over their own country. The logline for this film is the following:

As discussed in Chapter 2, Loglines for Our Films, the large set piece in the film is a massacre of innocent civilians of Odessa, who are greeting the battleship in their harbor. This scene directly addresses the last line of our logline, in which we are shown how everyone is mistreated by the rulers.

Since this is, in essence, the core of the entire film, it was important to find a location that could be used to show the relationship between the good people and the evil Cossacks. Eisenstein used the steps of Odessa effectively to show the underlying theme, and that location could then be designed to capture that meaning. The analysis for this scene describes a growing build:

The build in this scene is very methodical. First, there is an indiscriminate massacre of civilians, with a resulting mass chaos that is captured in both open (FIGURE 4.7) and busy shots (FIGURE 4.8). Then, we focus on the story of a mother trying to stop the violence, as she carries her trampled boy up to the Cossacks. Finally, there is the moment when the soldiers fire on the baby carriage, bringing the scene to a close.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 The Odessa Steps were used to show the massive chaos when the Cossacks begin firing into the crowd. Note the erratic open spaces and the crowd, which seems to extend back forever.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8 As the chaos grows in the scene, Eisenstein filled in many of those empty spaces.

There is a real arc here and I’ve charted it out in FIGURE 4.9. It addresses the major LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS of the scene as well as the overall analysis of the scene—just how bad are the Cossacks anyway? When the audience learns that the Cossacks really are bad, it advances the logline of the film—providing the feeling that it was necessary for the Russians to overthrow the tsars.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 The analysis of the Odessa Steps scene in The Battleship Potemkin involves asking just how bad the rulers really are.

The three LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS of the scene (and audiences all over the world feel this when I show them this scene) come as the police attack more and more people—at first the mass, then the mother and her injured son, and finally the baby in the carriage.

At the point of the scene’s second LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, as the mother approaches the Cossack soldiers to ask them to stop fighting, there is a shot in which the shadows of the soldiers loom over her (FIGURE 4.10). The steps in the shot provide the long shadows that loom over the vulnerable mother and son, giving the viewer a sense of the Cossacks’ power over this woman.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 As the desperate mother pleads with the soldiers, the elevation of the steps is used to great effectiveness.

While this point has been made in many other places in the scene, this is a powerful visual statement and, because Eisenstein held for a very long time on this shot, the audience has time to truly understand and be affected by it.

Another example where the set helps to create emotion and reveal a change with an important character appears in Citizen Kane. Kane is trying to build on his power by challenging the political boss James Gettys in an election for governor. Kane, who has already begun alienating his friends and his wife by this point in the film, is still attempting to fight corruption and threatens to investigate Gettys if he is elected.

We should remember the logline for this film, for it tells us about the changes that this character goes through—Kane’s arc in the film.

At this point in the film, Kane is successfully battling Gettys. The ruthless man, however, knows about Kane’s extramarital affair and threatens to expose him if he doesn’t withdraw from the race. Kane refuses and Gettys exposes Kane’s liaison, ruining the campaign for Kane and further distancing him from his original goal: to do good for people. His wife leaves him and Kane is one step further down the road to his complete alienation from all of the things that made him a sympathetic character at the beginning of his career and at the start of the film.

The production design of the film has been growing steadily more opulent as Kane’s wealth and distance from his origins has increased. The design is instrumental in helping the audience feel that Kane is losing “sight of his original humanity.” A series of shots in the area of the film that focuses on the campaign shows this change. His friend and colleague, Jedediah Leland, is shown campaigning for Kane in a small alleyway, surrounded by the working men that Kane says he is fighting for (FIGURE 4.11).

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 In Citizen Kane’s campaign sequence, Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland stumps for him in a dank alleyway, surrounded by working men and women in common clothes, and fire escapes draped with drying clothes.

CITIZEN KANE © RKO Pictures Inc. Licensed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This image is then followed by a massive campaign rally in which Kane’s image is dwarfed by thousands of identically and well-dressed (though completely hatless, as was polite for well-bred men when they were inside) politicians (FIGURE 4.12). The use of lighting, set decoration, and wardrobe is so completely different from Leland’s earlier speech, that we are forced to feel that Kane no longer speaks to the concerns of the “working man” to whom Leland was preaching.

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 Kane’s separation from his “common people” is stressed with sets that are enormous, enabling the filmmakers to show the impersonal, using row after row of drab similarity.

CITIZEN KANE © RKO Pictures Inc. Licensed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Later in that campaign rally scene we are taken high above the crowd, to a boxed area where Gettys himself looks down on the assembly, as Kane talks about his commanding lead in the polls (FIGURE 4.13). Gettys simply turns, puts on his hat, and walks into the darkness where he has set a trap for Kane that will ensure that Gettys maintains his hold on power.

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 Boss Jim Gettys watching Kane talk about bringing him down. This shot occurs moments before Gettys himself brings Kane down.

CITIZEN KANE © RKO Pictures Inc. Licensed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Each of these shots is meant to create contrast: The earlier rally is held outside, surrounded by evidence of the “working man”; the later rally is held in a vast arena, devoid of any personality. The earlier rally is completely asymmetric in its set and shot composition; the later rally is constructed very classically, with a symmetrical set and receding sight lines.

The contrast between the shots, using the sets that were designed and dressed, builds the arc of the story, as Kane’s reach for power begins to create his own undoing. They perfectly mirror the film’s story, of course, but the changes help us to feel the changes in Kane’s character as well. Those differences, however subtle, affect the audience in ways that cause them to lean forward and notice them. It is a perfect description of using production design for LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS.

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