Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and production designer Giuseppe Bassan brought Dario Argento’s stunning gothic fairy tale, Suspiria, to life. Set inside an ominous dance academy, the film’s lurid color scheme and surreal set design was inspired in part by Disney’s 1937 animated classic Snow White — particularly the film’s “Technicolor grandeur.” Tovoli discussed his approach to Argento’s masterpiece in a 2010 interview with American Cinematographer magazine:
I decided to intensively utilize primary colors — blue, green and red — to identify the normal flow of life and then apply a complementary color, mainly yellow, to contaminate them. A [horror] film brings to the surface some of the ancestral fears we hide deep inside us, and Suspiria would not have had the same cathartic function if I had used the fullness and consolatory sweetness of the full color spectrum. To immediately make Suspiria a total abstraction from what we call “everyday reality” I used the usually reassuring primary colors only in their purest essence, making them immediately, surprisingly violent and provocative. This brings the audience into the world of Suspiria.
La belle et la bête
Production on Jean Cocteau’s lavish retelling of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1757 fairy tale, La belle et la bête, started after the Second World War, which presented the filmmaker with innumerable problems. Materials were scarce, so Cocteau was forced to use several different film stocks to complete the picture. The crew often worked by candlelight as electricity was inconsistent. But the hurdles worked to his advantage, and Cocteau’s version of La belle et la bête is pure visual poetry. Inspired by the works of Flemish painters like Johannes Vermeer and the engravings of Gustave Doré, La belle et la bête’s mythical interiors have the “soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.”
The Holy Mountain
The Holy Mountain is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s singular vision — an elaborately designed world created by the director, who also acted as the film’s writer, producer, editor, composer, and costume designer. The movie’s psychedelic, occult set pieces are its crowning glory.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s expressionist mise-en-scène features painted shadows, paper set pieces, and jagged architectural elements. Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig created the disorienting design, which mirrored the warped psychology of its characters.
The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes is a magical concoction: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s inspired direction, Jack Cardiff’s lively cinematography, and Hein Heckroth’s unforgettable set designs. The atmospheric, otherworldly dance scenes were shaped by Heckroth’s artworks. With collaborator Ivor Beddoes, Heckroth created 130 oil paintings and nearly 2,000 storyboard sketches while drafting the look of the film. Those images were transformed into an animated movie, which helped filmmakers work out the choreography and camera movements, making The Red Shoes a painting in motion. Technicolor co-founder Herbert Kalmus considered The Red Shoes a perfect example of the three-strip color process. Cardiff altered the bold process by using filters and adjusting the shutter speed and lighting to create a truly unique look.
Juliet of the Spirits
Legend has it that for his first full-color feature, 1965’s Juliet of the Spirits, Federico Fellini took LSD — which might explain the film’s dreamy landscape. “Sometimes… you get your best look at an artist’s style when he’s indulging it,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 2001 review. “Juliet of the Spirits… is the work of a director who has cut loose from the realism of his early work and is toying with the images, situations and obsessions that delight him.”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
David Lynch on the look and symbolism behind the Red Room in Twin Peaks:
Everyone wants to know, what the “red room” in Twin Peaks stands for, which also appears in the movie again. I don’t know that exactly myself. I can remember well, when I had this idea, but I don’t know why. Looking at it from a rational point of view, I know I have used a similar pattern like that on the floor in Eraserhead before. Everything else, however, was a pure matter of inspiration: the red curtains, the stylized design, the dancing dwarf. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t describe what they mean, for intuition is irrational. The difference between reality and fantasy has never been clear to me anyway. I’ll probably be very surprised, when I find out, what it really is, some day.
In Lynch on Lynch, the director revealed:
I was leaning against a car — the front of me was leaning against this very warm car. My hands were on the roof and the metal was very hot. The Red Room scene leapt into my mind. “Little Mike” was there, and he was speaking backwards. . . . For the rest of the night I thought only about The Red Room.
Survive Style 5+
A wild visual cacophony of Japanese pop culture that evokes the blurry ethics of advertising, created by an advertising and music video director.
The Brothers Quay Short Films
The Quay brothers discussed the origin of their fondness for “oneiric imagery and antiquated objects” and how it became part of their set design in a 2007 interview:
Timothy: If you’ve been trained as animators or in graphic design and illustration or painting, you rely on a peripheral world. We’ve never asked our puppets to talk. So in that sense it frees them, therefore frees the imagery and you, individually, have to read it. You’re not being told to think. It’s for you to interpret. In that sense, it’s more like ballet, where a choreographer choreographs rhythms, but there’s never dialogue. So it gets much closer to the world we inhabit. Stephen: Are you talking about the visual textures? Timothy: It was our mother who took us to flea markets. We were always drawn towards texture, towards the organic, nothing shiny and computer-like. It’s in our side of the family: there are cabinetmakers, there were tailors on one side. And I think wood, the organic, is really crucial; found objects, dispossessed objects. Stephen: And that they possess memory. History is something they’ve brushed up against, and they hold all of history in their bodies. And for us it’s a way of wanting to release that side of their history, if possible.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
This spot could be reserved for any one of Terry Gilliam’s carnivalesque, imaginative epics, but the director’s fabled 1988 film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, has the fascinating distinction of exceeding its budget by some $23 million.
One woman’s wounded psyche is reflected in the crumbling interior of her claustrophobic apartment, the walls of which eventually come to life and try to consume her.
Phantom of the Paradise
The Dissolve’s Keith Phipps discusses some of the design elements in Brian De Palma’s cult horror opera, 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise:
Jack Fisk, a still-active production designer who’s frequently collaborated with David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Here, he creates the film’s expressionistic world via outrageous sets, like Swan’s intimidating office and The Paradise itself, with its twisty corridors and hidden spaces. It’s a good thing, too, since De Palma was clearly working with a limited budget. The film unfolds in just a few places, but those places are memorable and, true to form, De Palma’s camera seems to find every inch of them, making what could have felt dinky and claustrophobic seem like a real, and dangerous, place.
The recent Scream Factory Blu-ray release features an audio commentary track with Fisk for more in-depth design info. Fun fact: Sissy Spacek, who later starred in De Palma’s Carrie, worked as set dresser on the film with Fisk, who was her boyfriend at the time (and is now her husband).
Blood and Black Lace
In 1964, painter and cinematographer Mario Bava directed a landmark movie in the giallo genre — a violent and stylish type of Italian thriller popular during the ’60s and ’70s. Blood and Black Lace presented a startling vision of the uncanny, set in a grandiose fashion house where scarlet-skinned mannequins helped set the tone for the psychodrama.
“I got the best art director in the world, Enrico Sabbatini, and I think a lot of the effectiveness of that film comes from his efforts,” director Radley Metzger said of the set (and costume) designer behind 1969’s Camille 2000. Metzger’s glossy and erotic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias exudes a pop art, avant-garde aesthetic.
The Brides of Dracula
British film studio Hammer is known for their lush, gothic horror tales from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hammer Films rights and archive consultant Marcus Hearn believes the opulent palette of Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula features some of the studio’s greatest designs (including several incredible and convincing matte paintings):
The Brides of Dracula is the best of the Gothic horrors. It’s an erotic, elegant film with incandescent photography, a beautiful leading lady and Peter Cushing as the definitive Van Helsing. A treat from beginning to end.
Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls is one of the best looking films lost in the ether of the public domain. A church organist’s life is transformed after a car crash and an encounter with a ghoulish figure. Dramatic black-and-white photography and inventive camerawork capture the breathtaking set pieces (a ghostly pavilion and majestic church). It’s an impressive creative feat for a director whose previous experience was limited to industrial and educational films.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director Wes Anderson on finding the perfect location to create the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place:
We found this department store in this town called Gorlitz, which is in Saxony. Half of it is in Germany and the other half is in Poland. It’s on the border and it’s about 20 minutes from [the] Czech Republic, so in a way it’s really right where our story would be if there was such a place. … This department store that we found, we made into our hotel — the big entrance hall of our hotel — and then we found everything else from the movie within a certain radius of that department store, and we discovered all sorts of things and people as we traveled around, figuring it all out. We made a pastiche of the greatest hits of Eastern Europe.
I thought we were going to find the perfect hotel and that we’d just do it there. We didn’t. We looked for a very long time and we found all kinds of great parts of hotels and ideas, but we didn’t find the right one. In fact, the more we looked, the more we wanted to use things from multiple places. So eventually, we … decided we’re going to do a miniature. We set to work on designing it.
Illustrator Ulrich Zeidler created the above concept environments for the film.
Master visual stylist Tarsem Singh introduced us to the dark and twisted mind of a serial killer in The Cell — the look of which was inspired by the works of artists like Odd Nerdrum and H. R. Giger. “I come from a very visual background. As a boy, I spent a lot of time in Iran. I watched a lot of TV there, but I didn’t speak Farsi very well,” Singh explained in a 2008 interview. “So I was always watching Get Smart or films or things like that, and judging them just by the visual storytelling. And of course Indians tend to love color, and somehow all that hodgepodge is coming out in my work.”
The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry cardboard twee.
Howl’s Moving Castle
The artistry and craftsmanship of the Studio Ghibli canon is legendary. Co-founder and Howl’s Moving Castle writer-director Hayao Miyazaki visited France to study the architecture of Colmar and Riquewihr in Alsace when designing the environment for his 2004 animated film.
The Films of Georges Méliès
It seems natural that Méliès was a stage magician before entering the world of cinema. The French film legend owes a lot of his fantastical allure to the special effects he helped pioneer, but his background sketching set designs shaped the theatrical inventiveness of his film interiors.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick on designing the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange:
I had seen an exhibition of sculpture which displayed female figures as furniture. From this came the idea for the fibreglass nude figures which were used as tables in the Milk Bar. The late John Barry, who was the film’s Production Designer, designed the set. To get the poses right for the sculptress who modelled the figures, John photographed a nude model in as many positions as he could imagine would make a table. There are fewer positions than you might think.
Salvador Dalí designed the surreal dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The original scene ran several minutes long, but was trimmed due to time constraints. Hitchcock later dismissed the movie as “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis,” but the bold Freudian symbols that appear in the film are unforgettable.
Messiah of Evil
Part Lovecraftian nightmare, part zombie film, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Messiah of Evil uses mural art (created by Katz’s college roommate) and architectural fragments to eerie effect.
Once upon a time, before Tim Burton discovered CG, he was spending only $1 million on a movie budgeted for $15 million using old-school special effects like stop-motion animation and prosthetics because he wanted to recreate the look of the B-films he loved as a child. Those were better days, children.
Oh, that wacky Elfman family. Richard, of the Elfman clan, fused black-and-white photography, animation, raucous musical numbers, and expressionistic sets (painted by wife Marie-Pascale Elfman) for 1980’s weirdfest, Forbidden Zone. “Surprisingly, very little of the budget was spent on the cast, since many cast members were friends of people involved in the production, and were happy to be involved in it,” writes Skizz Cyzyk. “Everyone involved in Forbidden Zone loved working with Villechaize, who would often spend weekends helping to paint the sets.”
“French director Laloux enlisted the services of Czech animators for Planet, and their spare but vivid images reflect period psychedelia and the globular, hypnotically repetitive fancies of Pop Art,” writes Gary Dauphin for the Village Voice.
The Black Cat
The first film in a series that featured the titans of monster movies past, Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the real star of 1934’s The Black Cat might be the incredible futuristic mansion made of glass and steel. It looked like nothing else created during the time period.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) made only one feature film during his lifetime, which met with disastrous reviews. But no one can deny the bizarre charm of the movie’s set pieces, created by production designer Rudolph Sternad and art director Cary Odell.
The making of Dune was recently told from the perspective of the film’s original director, Alejandro Jodorowsky, in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. After the Holy Mountain filmmaker’s failed attempt, David Lynch was brought on board. The production crew numbered 1,700 people, who built 80 sets on 16 sound stages.
Ruslan and Ludmila
Ruslan and Ludmila is adapted from the work of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and directed by Aleksandr Ptushko (described by many as the “Soviet Walt Disney”). The film’s gorgeous matte paintings and practical effects are absolutely captivating.
Barry Levinson’s 1992 fantasy comedy Toys looked to the art world for its design influences — including the works of René Magritte, the Italian Futurists, and the Dadaists. Art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) designed the ambitious sets.
“I’m still convinced that there’s no better German film than Nosferatu, his silent film,” director Werner Herzog once said of F. W. Murnau’s Expressionist vampire classic. Armed with a single camera, cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner was instructed to follow writer Henrik Galeen’s detailed instructions on angles and lighting while filming.
Cinematography pioneer James Wong Howe employed fish-eye and wide-angle lenses during the filming of John Frankenheimer’s science fiction drama, Seconds, to elevate the anxiety.
Andrei Tarkovsky on how he viewed the mysterious “Zone” in 1979’s Stalker — a space of consciousness manifest:
In a way, it’s a product of the Stalker’s imagination. We thought about it this way: he was the one who created that place, to bring people and show them around, to convince them of the reality of his creation. Hence, the objects in the water, the fire he lit that was burning unbeknownst to them. I entirely accept the idea that this world was created by the Stalker in order to instill faith — faith in his reality. It was a working hypothesis that we used to create this universe.
From BOMB Magazine‘s 1997 interview with director Peter Greenaway, regarding space and architecture in his films:
I think the prime interest is just the new ways of conceiving the notion of cinema. The cinema of the future is going to look much more like the pages of an encyclopedia. It’s going to be much more concerned with interactions, rather like sophisticated forms of vernacular advertising which are now extremely adroit at putting image and text together. The cinema of the future is going to embrace these notions and continually develop that sophistication of the comic strip which already influences the Internet page. All the film we’ve seen so far that have been influenced by the comics are in some senses remarkably naive. They haven’t taken what the comic book can really offer us, which are ideas of changing aspect ratio, of interaction of text and image in very sophisticated ways. This vocabulary has been developed all over the world in terms of the American, French, and the Japanese comic books, but they have not been embraced in cinema. So there is maybe another example of a local vernacular developing itself slowly to become a major language. All these pursuits are very much alive for me.
“The director’s job is to create a good atmosphere. I think it’s his role to liven up the atmosphere, so that the shooting goes smoothly.” — nonagenarian director Seijun Suzuki
Hour of the Wolf
A spare set befitting of Ingmar Bergman’s psychological horror tale — the title defined by the director as:
The time between midnight and dawn when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most palatable. It is the hour when the sleepless are pursued by their sharpest anxieties, when ghosts and demons hold sway. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.
Only God Forgives
A Nicolas Winding Refn fever dream.
Roger Vadim’s 1968 sci-fi camp classic Barbarella boasted an outrageous display of futuristic fashion and design, influencing generations of fictional space travelers and filmmakers (just look at The Fifth Element).
The Double Life of Véronique
A beautiful example of the domestic as fantasy from director Krzysztof Kieślowski, aided by Sławomir Idziak’s stylized cinematography and use of color filters.
“It’s Paris of the Modernist imagination.”
The Films of Guy Maddin
Maddin’s dreamy sets rise above mere pastiche, offering a rich palette of personal obsessions.
The Films of Kenneth Anger
Interiors with no true exits.
IMDb reveals that “publicity for [Logan’s Run] stated that the sets built for this movie were the biggest and most expensive made at the MGM studios since the great musical spectacles of its halcyon days.”
The Doom Generation
The characters of Gregg Araki’s ultraviolent teen sex odyssey find sanctuary in surreal hotel rooms and a getaway car that is reminiscent of a poster-laden bedroom, decorated with personal iconography.
The Company of Wolves
Director Neil Jordan on his sumptuous adaptation of an Angela Carter short story: “The visual design was an integral part of the script. It was written and imagined with a heightened sense of reality in mind.”
Jim Jarmusch on designing his films:
Every tiny detail of a film — the design of a cup on a table, all that. I have the ability to create that world, so I’m very fanatical about it. My films are made by hand. I write the script, I’m there to get the financing, and I put together the whole crew and production. All my films are produced through my own company, then I am in the editing room every day, then I’m in the lab, then I’m out promoting the film, so that’s about three years’ work for each film.
On the making of Eraserhead:
It was necessary to find the “decorations” for it: the picture of a nuclear explosion which hangs on the wall; the matted substance which lies under the radiator, “a kind of sticky, oily hair stuff” found at a “kind of oil well over on Robertson Avenue.”
Director Satoshi Kon discussed the importance of dreams in his work in a 2006 interview:
What fascinates me in dreams is the idea that they emanate from our subconscious. I think that there are many possibilities to interpret dreams but a great deal of mystery always remains. When a dream is explained to us, it’s necessary to know the personal context of the subject. For example, what his childhood was like, his adolescence, his interpersonal relations. You’ve got to understand all these elements in order to tally up the dream and to decode it. At the cinema, that can’t happen because the approach demands the introduction of too many elements. In order for viewers to identify with this dream, I chose a parade which makes one think automatically of other common dreams and unconscious states. There are very old characters like objects that are discarded by people today or religious symbols that people have forgotten. I think that even nowadays, people have forgotten the importance of dreams.