Recreating bygones worlds and getting them right is an immense challenge for production designers. Our colleagues discuss their methods of research and their inspirations on period pieces.
"I think this authenticity must have its roots in the directors’ vision, in the writing, the casting and the crewing."
"Zooming in from big picture aspects to tiny details, and zooming back out again in order not to not get lost in details, is standard process."
"Engage with and collaborate with people from that community from the beginning of the project and throughout."
"It is our job as designers to keep the balance between historical accuracy and aesthetics"
November 8th, 2018
How do you conduct historical research?
"I did a Fine Art degree focusing on performance art. Left Newcastle + moved to Glasgow. I could always make things, so I subsidized continuing art by working as a scenic in theatre. I got easily distracted, moved to Sheffield + worked in a school and as a youth worker. Designing had always been a part of working with people, teaching always involved thinking about the environment. I collaborated on performances, theatre and site-specific work in social, educational and professional settings". Jacqueline Abrahams' credits include the films "The Lobster", "Lady Macbeth", "The Look of Love" and recently "The Mountain".
Can you start with an admission? Only I’m not completely sure I understand the context of designing let alone researching for it. So the “how to” might need a wee bit of deconstruction before attempting to.
Firstly, there’s the unknown. Unlike researching for a novel, themed restaurant or battle re-enactment, film research initially happens without knowing the intent of the director, producers, the location or budget. Imagine Lars von Trier’s "Dogville"…
Secondly, there’s the definition. Shall we say that historical research is that which explores events set in the past, and by that we could mean any past that isn’t now? + that such research is condensed in that it relates to a script and not an epoch. Could I add here that I feel anything I’m not familiar with needs research, and that I approach all such research in the same way, historical or other.
Thirdly, it’s useful to mention time, and how long you have to conduct this research before the interview, which can often be within two days of receiving a script.
Fourthly, we are going to need to mention the words ‘authentic’ and ‘accurate’.
+finally a mention of geography, or, where are you and is there wifi?
Attempt 1a - or If I were Teaching Production Design
I read the script. I re-read the script and take notes. These notes may take on the form of a single word, emotion or quotation from the text. Go and look at paintings, visit collections + research library’s. London has a wealth of resources, so I go armed with pen, book + phone noting down artists, events + miscellany. I visit Gallery bookshops and art bookshops which are brilliant for throwing new people/ideas into the mix. All these are noted down to explore later online. I go on-line, but armed with names + references so I avoid wormholes, and I slingshot between images and sites, amassing jpegs to sort later. These I sort into folders of themes, tones and character. I re-read the script + re-visit the reference folders and edit. Now it’s normal to upload them onto dropbox and wait.
Attempt 1b - or Beware of Algorithms
I read the script. I re-read the script and take notes. These notes may take on the form of a single word, emotion or quotation from the text. I have an interview in a days’ time, so jump straight on-line, fall into a number of wormholes, lament the complete absence of ugliness and presence of bikinis on pinterest + end up on an educational site for children - How Did Those Tudors Live?
Attempt 2 - or How many liberties can we take?
I think there is a tension between fiction and history in Film/TV. The fabricated and the real. Real life tales can be dull and pedestrian, I mean who wants a drama without any dramatization? The BBC has several articles about such matters online. They speak of duty + responsibility in the dramatization of history, which I guess as the nation's subsidized broadcaster isn’t surprising. The Guardian, in Peter Bradshaw’s review of "Overlord". also alludes to the issue of responsibility and its absence in the film. This is contentious, seeing as evidently, the population form their understanding of the past from what they see in TV + Film. The head of BBC programme acquisition admits that ‘liberties’ are taken to make the characters more interesting and the story more compelling. They say that dramatists should have the freedom to fictionally interpret the past. You think they might be alluding to six-pack threshing-dude in "Poldark"? Which announced its 5th season. I’m not sure what is weirder, the fact that IMDB has the 100 Sexiest & Hottest TV Lead Men of 2018 or that they look like tinder profiles.
So how far do/can/should one go in this liberty taking? As far as the audience will accept? Further than the competitors? Enough to attract attention? Enough to hold attention? Man that could be far…
There is a complaint online, that "The Crown" episode of Elizabeth getting ready for her coronation fails to cover the radical formation of the Welfare State. It doesn’t, the complainant laments, speak of the ordinary man. But is Netflix the guardian of British history any more than Amazon is of the high street? "The Crown" has certainly helped increase UK tourism, so maybe it’s the guardian of something. "Game of Thrones" was responsible for a growth in tourism of 386% in Iceland, + that commentator of all things cultural, TripAdvisor , says that 1 in 5 global travelers visited a location because they had seen it on TV. So critics may have been annoyed at the historical inaccuracy of Wolf Hall, but visits to Hampton Court are up, unlike Lagos whose visits are down. I wonder if, with this taking of further liberties in order to entertain, the onus for authenticity will fall on the production design? I mean someone has to imbue the piece with some historical accuracy or authenticity? I am always reminded by directors of ‘authenticity’ and the need for everything to be ‘authentic’. So much so that filming in ‘real’ places is often preferred, borrowing ‘real’ things from a ‘real’ person in their ‘real’ house. Is the concern that a design team could never create a reality as real as the real one? But what if that reality was guessed? I think this authenticity must have its roots in the director's vision, in the writing, the casting and the crewing.
I often consider the reality of designing historical dramas, especially on location where stately homes are listed and restrictive in what can be moved, removed or added. It’s like the house is a brand of history that can’t be tampered with. Yet I also wonder at the accuracy of their styling, their representation of this history. Odd to imagine a drama set in a museum dramatization of the past…
Attempt 3 - or We are on a Tight Budget
All of the above. Only this time the reference fades like that weekend break to Lithuania, or was it Latvia, as the harsh reality kicks in of how you can either find, or afford, any historical furniture for a 7 week hire period. Imagine Lars von Trier’s "Dogville"…
Jane Bucknell is a Maori production designer from New Zealand. Her work includes films, TV and commercials. She recently represented her country with the short film “My Brother Mitchell” at the 2018 ImagineNative festival in Toronto.
I think as indigenous people we are very aware of the power of the story and how it shapes and informs our worldview. For many Māori, film is an important extension of our deep oral knowledge transfer traditions, stories to be shared with dignity and protected through our collective kaitiakitanga (guardianship).
There have certainly been inaccurate film portrayals of Māori people and culture, and this still continues today, however less frequently as there exist many more Māori owned and operated production companies and Māori heads of department. This is a massive subject and I don’t feel that I am the right person to unpack all of the reasons why, but I can share a few ideas.
Māori hold a very different world view to the dominant western culture, it is deep and complex. This means that some films are made in a very immature way, without the correct consultation or understanding of our Māori culture. These films or TV shows are usually made in a conventional non-Māori way, and often with key creatives being non-Māori. Perhaps this is so that our culture and stories can be accessible to a non-Māori audience.
On one hand the films could be seen to be giving some recognition to the social existence of our Māori people and stories on screen, that historically we have been denied, and on the other creates dangers for our colonized reality to be overlooked and our unique Māori worldview and concepts to be homogenized for ease of consumption.
If I were asked to recreate the history of a culture or community that was not my own, I would first ask why someone from that community is not doing my job? Personally I feel uncomfortable about telling other cultures or communities stories for them. And yet we have probably all been in this position at some time, I know I have.
I am inspired by family photographs, historical photographs, the clothing, textiles, tattoo traditions, the art, the food, the transport, the materials used to build with, the techniques and tools used to acquire resources, the games played for entertainment and the music, dance and spiritual or religious culture of that time. Just talking to people, elders, family members. Reading history books, visiting historical places of significance.
I guess I’m someone who wants to have an overall sense of the time period to inform my decision making when designing a small part of that world.
There are many beautiful, honest and authentic films being made today by Māori film makers that portray our stories and culture from a Māori point of view. Māorilands Film Festival held annually here in Aotearoa is one place you can find such films.
I recently had the privilege of attending the 19th ImagineNative film festival in Toronto, Canada to screen a short film that I designed. ImagineNative festival is the largest Indigenous film festival in the world and I recommend anyone interested in indigenous films to attend. For me it was a wonderful experience of being surrounded by film makers sharing in a collective experience of being indigenous. In my opinion the films that show at ImagineNative play an extremely important role in dispelling harmful dehumanizing historical stereotypes of Indigenous people that were created and perpetuated by a non-indigenous viewpoint – or lens.
My advice to non-indigenous production designers would be to engage with and collaborate with people from that community from the beginning of the project and throughout. Get to know the people, the places, the stories. Try to cultivate an understanding of who these people are and why - from their own perspective and without judgement. Employ a knowledge keeper or cultural consultant.
I know this can often be seen to be time consuming or costly but will result in providing your work with a depth and authenticity that will resonate with the audience and show integrity.
Reinhild Blaschke is a Berlin-based arthouse production designer. She has worked with directors such as Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec. Period films she has been involved include "Gold", a Klondike Western shot on location in Canada, 2012, and "What might have been", a coming-of-age story set in the late GDR, 2018. Presently, Reinhild is carrying out research for a political vampire comedy set in the late 1920es.
When I am engaged on a period project I start my research very traditionally, in a way that involves a lot of meticulous preparation. Zooming in from big picture aspects to tiny details and zooming back out again, in order not to not get lost in details is standard process. That’s if there is the necessary time for this level of dedication, and am included early in the project. Not all of the information I need can be found on the internet, which means I sometimes also collaborate with libraries and archives, both public and private, depending on the job. In my experience the more unusual and more specific, and sometimes really surprising and exciting information is often to be found in books. Being physically surrounded by a lot of books also does help in the initial stages of the work where everything is still very vague. The sense of presence provided by books assists me in developing a sense of reality about what’s to come. Another great source for authentic information are contemporary witnesses. Interviews and casual conversations lead to another kind of visual imagination than photographs or paintings.
Subsequently, in the actual phase of really working the designs, ninety percent of all that beautiful, accumulated knowledge is wasted, as we seek to keep the essence of it only. However, we need to have all the results from our research available as some kind of well built, comprehensive vocabulary. And more than that, this vocabulary needs to go beyond regular forms of expression, and include some strange imaginary codes that might be flown in from somewhere in outer space.
Films ideally are made fearlessly and with joy. This includes making mistakes, as it is often only through mistakes that new perspectives can arise and original inventions can come about. This is a principle, which of course works not only for period films but just as much for contemporary film.
Merlin Ortner is a German production designer and art director for film, TV and commercials. Merlin studied physics, then graphic design, founded the graphic design agency "Dreamwalkers Design", sold Furniture, and finally graduated from the Weissensee School of Art. His latest art direction projects include "Suspiria" and "The Young Karl Marx".
When I read a historical script, the images that come to my mind really depend on the period the script is about. Obviously we have a clearer vision for what has taken place in the 20th century because of the documentation through photography and later films. If the script goes much more into a distant time like 1200, things change, because here we can only use books and the fine arts for our research purpose.
But both are most intriguing and for me the most fun part of pre-production. We have to travel into a time we might not have seen ourselves. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of people who actually lived in the period. We need to be careful not to put our own mindset of how we live today in the time of the protagonists of the script. So the images that comes into my mind, reading a historical script will first of all be biased by my knowledge of the time, mixed with my current state of living. To get a clearer vision on the the period we need to dive deeper into research.
Usually I try to find literature about the time before I go to search for picture material. That will most likely be novels taking place or written in the period. I like to have other written points of view than just the script. After that I will often go to libraries looking for photos and pictures of the time in general.
Of course I will also look for movies taking place in the period and documentaries as well as go to museums. In feature films I try to use the internet as last resort, as it is the easiest approach. I say that even being a total “techie” who have been using the internet since 1992.
Personally I go very deep into all details. Only when all the details are right are we able to create production design which is believable. And most importantly, design that will get the viewers into a state where they will forget they’re actually watching a movie and start believing they’re living in that period instead.
In the design process I try to integrate all info by creating very detailed concepts and mood-boards. This is important for all departments, not only the art department but also camera and costume. They often benefit from our research since we discover how things where lit back then as well as what people where wearing. Sometimes the director even rehearses with his actors in the art department offices on the weekends to get them into the mood, because of all the printouts on the walls about the period.
Ironically, sometimes certain historical details who might be correct can feel wrong in a movie. A classic example is white paper, which we always turn a bit yellowish, as people are used to seeing aged paper in period movies. Even if a certain period was quite “dirty”, it sometimes feels wrong to over-patinate or age sets. Here I think it is our job as designers to keep the balance between historical accuracy and aesthetics. So I would strongly avoid always sticking to the “this is right for the period” mindset, and instead have an open mind to work around this issue from time to time.
For example, let’s say we’re shooting in a medieval setting but the director wants to have modern approach on this theme, we can sometimes forget the historical accuracy completely to make the movie a whole. Make it super exciting for the viewer to watch and at the same time still stay in the period. So here we could for example bring in elements form the 20th century, without anybody would noticing it right away, but to give the design a certain special touch.
Both approaches are a thrill to work on and I would not prefer one over the other. In general, working on a period movie is a constant exploration process. For me, the most satisfying moment working on a period movie is standing on a lit set, with the cast in place, and having the feeling that I just actually traveled in time. That means that everything we have planned for months has worked out. Those are the moments where we know that we would do this job for free, and we know how privileged we are working in an area where we can be explorers and designers at the same time.