Picture vehicles are often essential to cinematic storytelling, but rarely receive their due recognition. Our colleagues discuss the role vehicles play in the production design process and share their design experiences.
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Charlie Lagola

"I take a keen interest when a character I am designing for needs a little statement about who they are through their vehicle"

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Sara K White

"The way we interact with our cars can be so intimate that I think of picture cars as equally critical to every other set in the conveying of tone, theme and character"

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Dawn Snyder

"Every nuanced bit about that vehicle is important"

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Susie Cullen

"The colour palette of the vehicles on set also adds to the overall world we are creating"

June 28th, 2021

How do you incorporate picture vehicles into your design vision?

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Charlie Lagola

Charlie Lagola has been working as a production designer for a little over 30 years on feature films and episodic television. Recent credits include: "All Rise" (CBS) , "The Good Doctor" (ABC), "Bluff City Law" (NBC). Currently designing a new pilot for NBC in Atlanta.

Picture Cars.... My experience, strength and hope. Or maybe two of those three.

I personally have a love for cars in general. I grew up in a town resplendent with motor heads and muscle cars. I’ve never recovered from the attachment of a car as a piece of my personality. Maybe because of that, I take a keen interest when a character I am designing for needs a little statement about who they are through their vehicle. I am certain many of you, my peers, feel that a piece of their story is illustrated by what the character is driving.

That brings me to the the first feature film I designed, "American Blue Note" (1988), about a lounge band that traveled around to gigs in the NY and NJ area. The film takes place in the late fifties and the cars were written into the script in this way:

PROMOTER
The band is pretty good, but do you have a car?

JACK (Peter MacNichol)
Thank you, and yes I have a car.

PROMOTER
You got the gig

Evidently if you didn’t have a car, you couldn’t get to the gig in the fifties. Who knew?

"American Blue Note" was a super low budget film where the art department consisted of 4 people. Like a shorthanded hockey team, everyone got to do everything. There were a handful of street scenes to be populated with people and vehicles from the fifties, and there were two particular cars that had to be matched to the owners of those cars.

Jack: the band leader, slight of stature, sax player, unassuming, a quiet nature to him more about reading books than understanding cars.

Tommy: Slick, handsome, dashing, a daughter’s mother’s fear.

Ok... so... now what. The style conversation was that Tommy had to look faster and cooler than Jack. Jack would have a car that is basic get-around and style doesn’t mean much. Tommy, on the other hand needed a vehicle as extension of his slickness. He’s a guy that would rather wear cufflinks than use buttons.

I can’t remember how, but I found this guy in Ft. Lee NJ that I’ll never forget, Mickey Dezuzio. I was probably looking through the yellow pages (hello 1988) for classic car mechanics and happened upon him. Mickey owned about 20 cars all from the fifties. I have no idea how I managed it but I convinced him we really needed his help to make this low budget movie, and let me borrow from his fleet all that I wanted, whenever I needed, for about 200 bucks. Not kidding! So, we used his fleet for all exterior scenes for the whole movie. What a break.

Flash forward to a movie called "The Funeral", made in 1995, set in NY/The Bronx in the mid 1930’s, Directed by Abel Ferrara.

Decisions on many things we place in front of the camera can have many different motivations. During prep, with all of our printed photos laid out on the walls of the art department, Abel, who had never made a period movie before, made it clear to me that whatever we put in front of the camera was up to me, he did not want to think about it.

Just a few days before shooting, he brought our lead, Christopher Walken, for a tour through the art department so he could see all that we had planned and how we were doing mid ’30’s all on locations in the city.

There were at least 6 hero cars in show for various characters. Some older and poorer, some newer and slicker. I had posted up pictures of cars from 1928 to 1937. Mr Walken pointed out this obvious shift in design that happened about 1934 from a boxier look to a more streamlined look for the silhouette of the cars.

Mr. Walken, in the kindest way, suggested that we use the more streamlined look for all the picture cars as a style choice, regardless of the year and make of the car. Boom! I was immediately struck with a change of direction for the whole movie. Style first. Not only did we follow that direction for the cars, but that idea mushroomed across the look of interiors, props, and costumes. To this day, I think that comment helped us make a better looking movie.

I thought I’d throw in the story of how it came to be that Viola Davis had a Lexus as her vehicle for the six seasons of "How To Get Away With Murder".

First of all, it was a current day show. Annalise Keating is a successful attorney and professor. Copy that. She has style and class. Copy that.

The show is an ABC network show, which of course we all know is a business in search of revenue. Yes of course.

However it happens in offices somewhere we don’t often get to visit, deals are made for that age old financial stream called product placement. Somewhere in the process a deal was made that Lexus would provide that hero car in exchange for some screen time. In addition to seeing the car, there was an addendum that if the logo on the car and Ms. Davis appeared in a shot together, a sum of money was actually paid to network in exchange for that exposure.

In my opinion these business realities are real and advantageous to our employers, studios and networks. There certainly was nothing wrong with Annalise having a Lexus, and in fact pretty darn on target for that character, so, win-win!

Lastly, I must mention the immense value of a crew position called Picture Car Coordinator. I have been blessed on a few shows where picture cars were so plentiful and styles and types often so specific that without a good person being that of a partner, the job would have been not only harder to deal with but also the quality of the art direction would have suffered.

I always welcome our picture car coordinator into my office, sit, show pictures, email me, show me. My advice, never underestimate the value of a terrific person out there scouring the land for the special vehicle that you as designer know is really needed.

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Dawn Snyder

Dawn Snyder’s first entertainment industry job was as a tour guide at Universal Studios in the 1980’s. A few connections later, and she landed her first film job on "The Best of Times".

After many years of working in feature film art departments, Dawn went on to production design primarily for television, winning an Art Director’s Guild Award for "Arrested Development". Her TV credits include; "Roswell", "Psych" and "Rush Hour". Dawn has been an active member on Board of the Art Director’s Guild in Los Angeles.

Initially, when I received this topic to write on, I wanted to search for that evidence that picture vehicles were, in fact, part of the production designers’ design purview.

My memory reached back to a book I read on William Cameron Menzies and the all- encompassing design work he accomplished for “Gone With the Wind”. Prior to his global vision, someone known as an ‘art director’ had typically helmed any film art department.

When I began working in the film industry back in the mid-1980’s, those who did the work of a production designer in television were still credited as art director and would be for the next decade or so.

This is all a preface to how, even to this day, TV production designers are sometimes seen by the EP’s as an ‘art director/production designer’ hybrid . . . and, as a result, the otherwise typical design landscape can be a bit murky.

As I see it, our job is to support and create the world of the script, and (my favorite part) to flesh-out the characters. Just as important as the house they live in, establishment they work at, the furniture they sit on, is the vehicle they drive . . . it’s an expression of their ‘character’. And as such, selecting a characters’ vehicle allows the designer an opportunity to give the audience another glimpse into what makes this person tick. Every nuanced bit about that vehicle is important; the body-type, the style, the color, the age of the vehicle, the interior, what’s hanging (or not hanging) from the rear-view mirror, what’s inside it, and does it have a logo or graphic of some sort on it? All these items are important in both the storytelling and the character-building of the script and its components.

For those projects that have a Batmobile or the Enterprise, the set design could, in fact, be informed by the vehicle design. The creative statements that proliferate from a Batmobile are so clear and empower many subsequent design choices.

For an indie film I designed many years ago, the character of Frank Keane, played by the Irish actor Robert Carlyle, is introduced to the audience while driving his bread truck. On the road we see a 1940’s era small delivery truck; we read from the graphic that it belongs to a bread baker, we spy the racks of bread in the back as we catch a glimpse of the driver. On his dashboard we see mementoes, and quickly learn that Frank is indeed a 3rd generation bread maker who immigrated to Los Angeles. In this first introduction, a rich history was conveyed to the audience regarding Frank Keane by his vehicle alone, for the film "Marilyn Hotchkiss; Ballroom Dancing & Charm School".

And the moral of the story is . . . keep claiming your design territory!

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Sara K White

Production Designer Sara K White's film credits include Gillian Robespierre’s daring comedy "Obvious Child", Silas Howard’s powerful trans family drama "A Kid Like Jake", Sîan Heder’s maternal treatise "Tallulah" and Cary Murnion & Jon Millot’s dystopian drama "Bushwick", all which have premiered at Sundance. Her recently completed work includes Vincent D’Onofrio’s period western “The Kid” for
Lionsgate and Tom Perrotta’s TV adaptation of “Mrs. Fletcher” for HBO. She was excited
to introduce HBOMax’s “The Flight Attendant” to the world in Fall of 2020.

I grew up driving an ’89 Honda Civic, traveling hundreds of miles at a time to see friends, go to college, and it was in that car that I arrived to New York City many years ago. To this day there’s a picture of that car, Bluebell, framed in my house. I think the way we interact with our cars can be so intimate that I think of picture cars as equally critical to every other set in the conveying of tone, theme and character. It’s such an easy way to give the audience a short hand for the important aspects of a person’s values and lifestyle.

In “Tallulah,” our lead character Lu lived out of her van, named Jim, so it was a key set for us. After we found the perfect ’83 Dodge Ram Wagon, we ripped out the seats and rehabbed it based on research into van dwellers, then layered in elements that reflected her anti-establishment views and her attachment to adolescent angst. It was a fully encapsulated set piece, with an entry, kitchen, and bedroom. And like any well-dressed set, giving that environment to our actor was also a huge help in settling them into the world.

It’s just as important to have a car that sparks envy or conveys evil when layering subtext into a scene. And I won’t be the first one think of picture cars as a go-to for reinforcing the era of a film, or how adding a tank or burning car in the background of a shot can quickly turn an everyday environment into a dystopian nightmare. Often, maintaining the palette of a film during a street scene can only be done with picture cars.

It’s important for me to get my picture car coordinator up to speed early in the process to get cars selected and wrapped or painted in time. Then it’s on to the scenic, props or dressers to add finishing touches - the name of the carpet cleaners on the side of the van, the over-the-top stereo system, or notes from a lover stashed in the cupholder.

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Susie Cullen

After completing college in Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design, Ireland, Susie began working on films for many International Designers. She has since designed Feature Films, TV dramas and Commercials in Ireland and abroad. Her credits include BBC's "Little Women", "Mrs. Wilson" and Netflix's "Fate, The Winx Saga".

“Picture Vehicles” is an area with which I have a ‘love hate’ relationship.

The role of the picture vehicle varies from project to project. Sometimes they are another very important character in the story. Other times I want them to sink quietly into the location, subliminally filling the world without drawing attention to themselves. I want them to act as another layer of detail which helps sell our world.

They can really add to the back story of a character when carefully chosen. What would this character drive? Is it the family car showing all the stains and stuff of a busy family or is it a show piece owned by a rock star? Is it a design classic owned by a gallery owner / collector etc. etc? Is it a bold muscular vehicle owned by a baddy?

On period jobs a selection of period cars on location or set can really help sell an era. Again, I feel the trick is to avoid the iconic cars of the time but to use the more mundane everyday cars to tell the story, subtly enhancing the set rather than drawing attention to themselves.

The other thing which can be tricky with period vehicles is that they are often owned by collectors who have restored them to perfection when what we really want are vehicles which look like they are in everyday use for that era. , a bit dirty and real working looking vehicles.

The colour palette of the vehicles on set also adds to the overall world we are creating. If the project has a tone, whether period or contemporary, we would try and keep the range of colours of vehicle within that palette.

Picture vehicles often involve a whole host of practical requirements, doubles for rigging on low loaders, doubles with engines and all toxins removed for dropping over cliffs or submerging in tanks, doubles to be chopped up for particular shots. Matching every inch of upholstery and interior trim , hubcaps to dents and dings etc. They can also account for a substantial chunk of budget, once all the requirements are accounted for. That is usually the “hate “ bit of my relationship with picture vehicles.

Like every item that goes on a set, vehicles need the same level of consideration to help enhance the overall look and feel.