Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Little Worlds: The Best in Art Direction: 2009

I have a deep passion for art direction: how a film creates an alternate world by means of actual constructed structures, painted mattes, or CGI. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of a film to depict a little world that takes us places we’ve never been to before, or takes us places we’ve been to before but shows us a different perspective. The best art direction – whether it is rendered by means of CGI or an actual constructed set – can totally transport you elsewhere. Apropos of the title for this blog, I offer this tribute to some of the most artistic and memorable little worlds depicted in 2009 films. Please feel free to post observations about your favorite little worlds from this past year’s films.

The Two Worlds of Coraline from Coraline

Coraline’s real world and the world through the door in the wall are both whimsical yet creepy at the same time: the decrepit house, the bleak hills, the 1950s minimalism of the button-eyed world, the skeletal trees – the garden that bursts into a riot of fantastic vegetation.

South American Plateau from Up

As in both Conan Doyle's novel and the movie version of The Lost World, there’s a jungle world on top of a plateau. In Up I love the minimal depiction of the rock formations and the surrealistic vegetation. I especially like the austere setting of the rocky ground through which old man and pudgy boy drag their irksome burden.

Cinema le Gamarr from Inglourious Basterds

It’s a cinema created by a movie-lover for movie-lovers, the kind of cinema you’d love to go to – but not on Operation Kino Day. Outside, there’s the bright marquee with the Art Deco lettering, the facade curving out from the other buildings into a quiet Parisian street. Inside, there’s the spacious lobby, the brass railings of the stairway curving up to the mezzanine, and the compact theater with the amply large screen. It’s a classic setting for a shocking and dramatic sequence – death by cinema.

H. G. Wellsian World from 9

There’s much artistry in the depiction of war machines like the Martian tripods in War of the Worlds, firing cannons and launching elaborate weapons of mass destruction. Before the war, the futuristic factories producing these machines look like illustrations from an H. G. Wells novel. Ruins of massive sculptures and palaces accompany the rise of a fascist regime. When the war is over, London is a dark, hazardous jungle of metallic rubble under a scowling gray sky.

Grungy Spaceship Elysium from Pandorum

Picture the noisome caverns of The Descent only on a space ship. This mammoth, lost ship has many dark, sticky levels; lots of random wreckage and tubes hanging down; deep pits leading to who knows where – and you never know where the cannibalistic zombies are going to pop up and do their Donner Party thing. It’s a massive set constructed in a sound stage in Germany; thus, it is one of the best non-CGI worlds in film this year.

Alien Suburbia from Planet 51

Here the denizens of the tranquil 1950s-era suburban utopia are green beings on a planet that's not Earth, and the invading alien is a goofy American astronaut in the big white spacesuit. In this play on classic 1950s science-fiction films, the green people's home town is a colorful, comfy little burg with diner and comic book shop, but the shapes are all curvy and evocative of Dr. Seussian surrealim, and, of course, not far outside the town is the stark "Nevada" desert with the secret anti-alien base under a ramshackle gas station - another standard sci-fi setting.

Cormac McCarthy’s Post-Apocalyptic America from The Road

It’s a stroke of genius using shots of Mount St. Helens destruction and making it even gloomier by muting colors and toning up the gray. Perhaps the year’s best cinematic image shows Man and Boy walking down a crumbling two-lane blacktop through a thicket of telephone poles leaning at conflicting angles. This is a very convincing, very grim world in shambles.

Na’viworld from Avatar

Once Jake Sully goes traipsing through the jungle, I was transported into a wondrous world. I love jungle adventures! And this jungle is full of strange luminescent plant life and weird flying lizards that spin around like whirligigs. From the massive Hometree to the dizzying Floating Mountains, it’s a visually striking world – the perfect setting for action and adventure. Didn’t much care for the Sacred Willow Tree.

Steampunk London from Sherlock Holmes

The dank alleys, the gray river, the steel-hulled boats, the massive iron chains, the modernistic emerging structure of Tower Bridge – all these elements make Sherlock Holmes’s world a rich, detailed setting for unspeakable evil and endless fisticuffs.


Daniel said...

What a terrific post. Unfortunately only now have I fully understood the title of your blog, and I love it. This reminds of that meme I started earlier this year about favorite periods and places.

Of these I would say Avatar and Up provided the most ravishing landscapes for my eyes, but I loved the historical richness of Basterds and Holmes,and the trippiness of Coraline (especially in 3D). I don't think I really got my outer space fix this year, but Moon was a nice little journey way up there.

Richard Bellamy said...

Daniel. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I presented these films in the order in which I saw them, in no sort of ranking, but Avatar and Up also happen to be two of my favorites as far as art direction goes.

As for the title of my blog - a clarification of this was part of the motivation for this post - and I'm glad you like the title.

I got the idea for this title from something I had read in a film history book - about how the studios of the 1930s created multiple little worlds in sound stages on Hollywood lots - and I liked that concept since I've always enjoyed movies for their power to fabricate worlds convincing enough to transport you there - even though on some level you are aware of the artifice. Thus, the title.

Daniel said...

It's an awesome title, and few people are able to articulate the power and scope of art direction as well as you!

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, Daniel. Hopefully, 2010 will offer us some visual epics we can feast our eyes on. 2009 was lacking in that department.

Craig said...

Very nicely done. I love Shosanna's theater in "Basterds," so much that it's painful to see it destroyed. And to realize how high the stakes were for her to have destroyed it.

Richard Bellamy said...

Craig, thanks for the comment. Yes, it's a beautiful set - so lovingly created. In comparison with the vast CGI world of Avatar that set is small but it is a masterful creation for its sense of solid reality.

Wilde.Dash said...

I like the list, but i must say i'm surprised not to find Where the Wild Things Are or Fantastic Mr. Fox included in an art direction round up. Antichrist, too, was chock full of atmosphere. Otherwise: good calls. Coraline and Avatar are absolutely stunning.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment - Wilde.Dash. I haven't seen Mr. Fox yet.

I wasn't stunned by Where the Wild Things Are. There were some nice contrasts between natural seaside settings and whimsical CGI images but not enough to boost my lack of enthusiasm for the film as a whole.