A movie's creative team is often thought of as a troika: director, writer and cinematographer. But the creative equation doesn't add up unless you include a fourth member: the person who designs the actual look of the film. That significant yet often invisible contributor is the art director, whose influence on a movie is so indispensable that if you took them out of the picture, the Wizard of Oz would just be some movie about a girl and her dog.
Nashville writer Cathy Whitlock first learned about that anonymous yet powerful influence when she worked as an interior designer in New York. Clients often asked her to redo their homes to mimic the interior of a popular film —Mimi Rogers' stylish pad in the thriller Someone To Watch Over Me, for instance.
As a designer, writer and movie addict, Whitlock filed that observation away and eventually turned it into an obsession, writing about film and style for various outlets, including Traditional Home, Huffington Post and her own blog, Cinema Style.
Finally, she decided to write a book. It took five years of research, but Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction is the gorgeous result. More than 400 photographs chronicle the evolution of movie design over the past 100 years, with a chapter for each decade.
Whitlock toiled away at research in studio archives and the Oscar library, but the turning point came when the professionals signed on to help. "The Art Directors Guild was a huge part of the project," Whitlock says. "The guild contributed a lot of the photos, and also opened doors."
Whitlock got access to many of the great art directors in film history, and in some cases the trove of photos and drawings the artist's families had collected. She spent hours sorting through an attic-full with the widow of Oscar winner Richard Sylbert, whose credits include the striking '70s noir classic Chinatown.
The guild's president, Thomas A. Walsh, wrote the elegant foreword for Whitlock's book and showed her around one of his current projects — Desperate Housewives. "He took me on a golf cart tour of Wisteria Lane," she says, laughing.
The text is fun and informative, but the real treasure here is the bounty of amazing pictures. All the eye-popping classics are there — Metropolis, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, along with more recent stunners like The Dark Knight and Avatar. In some cases, Whitlock includes the beautiful drawings that a designer used to create (and sometimes pitch) a movie.
She also raises philosophical questions of film design. Should the setting be a character in the movie, as some would say, or is a design most effective when it's so seamless that the audience doesn't notice it at all?
Either way, very few people will ever remember the art director's name. Whitlock opens the book with a line from The Wizard of Oz that gets quoted a lot but seems particularly apt in this case: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."