Long Before Computers, How Movies Made Us Believe Once upon a time, scenery and special effects were crafted entirely by human hands. NPR's Susan Stamberg reveals some of the surprising secrets behind Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Zhivago and other classics.
NPR logo

Long Before Computers, How Movies Made Us Believe

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133209042/133264858" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Long Before Computers, How Movies Made Us Believe

Long Before Computers, How Movies Made Us Believe

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133209042/133264858" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hollywood is rolling out the red carpets for award season. The grand finale will be the Oscars at the end of February - real red carpets in a world where movie designs often involve the clicks of a mouse, computer-generated imagery that creates scenery and special effects.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has this look back to an earlier day, which demanded handmade solutions to film design challenges. And there's a new book out tracing a century of Hollywood art direction.

SUSAN STAMBERG: You want movie magic? Look at "Dr. Zhivago."

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere My Love")

STAMBERG: The Russian Revolution, hot passion in a very cold place.

Ms. CATHY WHITLOCK (Journalist-Interior Designer-Author, "Designs on Film"): I can remember seeing that film years ago and freezing in the theater.

STAMBERG: Cathy Whitlock is author of "Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction."

Ms. WHITLOCK: You just felt the coldness of that whole set. And ironically, that was filmed in the summer in Spain on a sound stage.

STAMBERG: Production designer John Box had to create an ice palace. An onion-domed love-nest was built. Then Box and his crew made it icy.

Ms. WHITLOCK: And they would literally spray all the architecture, the chandeliers, the interior furniture with hot wax, and then they'd pour cold water on it to create that ice effect.

STAMBERG: White wax solidified, glistening in places with handfuls of marble dust.

(Soundbite of song, "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails")

Mr. FRED ASTAIRE (Actor-Dancer-Singer): So I'm putting on my top hat, tying up my white tie, brushing off my tails.

STAMBERG: More glisten and gloss was created by 1930's production designers for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. The black-and-white films had art deco set designs and streamlined dance floors, fashioned at RKO with an early form of plastic.

Ms. WHITLOCK: The floors were made with a material, which was new at the time, called Bakelite. The dance floor was very hard to maintain. Of course, all the high heels were constantly scratching the floors. They had to go back and re-polish them between takes. So it was a high-maintenance material.

STAMBERG: Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did backwards, and in high-scuffing heels.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Theme from Chinatown")

STAMBERG: "Chinatown," director Roman Polanski's 1974 classic about bringing water to Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of movie, "Chinatown")

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (Actor): (as Jake Gittes) Mulvihill, what are you doing here?

Mr. ROY JENSON (Actor): (as Claude Mulvihill) They shut my water off. What's it to you?

Mr. NICHOLSON: (as Jake Gittes) How did you find out about it? You don't drink it. You don't take a bath in it.

STAMBERG: "Chinatown's" production designer Richard Sylbert made water and its absence the movie's visual motif.

Ms. WHITLOCK: You had to have parched landscape. You had to have colors that reflected this parched landscape - you know, hay, straw, orange-red, brown. You became thirsty watching that movie.

STAMBERG: The only green spots in "Chinatown" are places where rich people live, those powerful enough to bring water to their property. Everyone else suffered through the drought under a sky that's always white, no clouds.

Mr. THOMAS WALSH (President, Art Directors Guild): Yeah. They would have shot to the south whenever possible, in overexposed sky.

STAMBERG: That's Thomas Walsh, president of the Art Directors Guild. He says film designers are narrative artists who translate the screenwriters' concept into visuals you can shoot. Art directors and set designers will go to extraordinary ends to make a scene look authentic.

For the 1976 film "All the President's Men," about the uncovering of the Watergate scandal by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, production designer George Jenkins recreated The Washington Post newsroom.

Author Cathy Whitlock says Jenkins and his team did their research at the paper's real offices in Washington, D.C.

Ms. WHITLOCK: They literally itemized, measured, photographed, detailed every square inch of that newsroom. It was really incredible. The Post sent them boxes of trash - a lot of papers, government directories, mail - things that they could use for authenticity to spread across the desk on the Burbank sound stage.

STAMBERG: Tom Walsh, the Art Directors Guild chief, says his people spent lots of time foraging for artifacts to make the magic of magic look real. Walsh calls them all cultural anthropologists - nice title.

Mr. WALSH: It is. You know, we have a lot of descriptions. I mean, also barkeep and, you know, department shrink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALSH: You know, you - it's a long list.

STAMBERG: But we digress.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Wizard of Oz")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actor-Singer-Dancer): (as Dorothy Gale) Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

STAMBERG: So in the Golden Age of Hollywood, how did they make the yellow brick road for "The Wizard of Oz"? Not with bricks, natch. Can't dance on bricks. They painted brick shapes onto a flat floor. And the color?

Mr. WALSH: The story that I've heard is that the initial yellow that they used looked green in the camera test. Ultimately, they actually went down to the local hardware store and bought their industrial yellow paint, and it seemed to work just fine.

STAMBERG: In the Land of Oz, the Emerald City had colored horses: White, then purple, then bright-red, then yellow. How'd they do that?

Ms. WHITLOCK: The horses were colored with Jell-O crystals.

STAMBERG: And Cathy Whitlock says they had to keep re-coloring them, because between takes, the animals would lick off the sugary Jell-O.

(Soundbite of music, "Gone with the Wind (Tara's Theme)")

STAMBERG: Then there's the poor, starved Civil War horse pulling Scarlett O'Hara's wagon in "Gone with the Wind." William Cameron Menzies was the production designer.

Ms. WHITLOCK: Woebegone was the horse. And you remember the scene where she was going back to Tara and they were going over the bridge, and they were beating the horse and it just collapses? And they had to find a new horse, because the original one, that was supposedly thin, had gained weight and his ribs were no longer visible. So they had to paint dark shadows to make the horse look gaunt.

STAMBERG: They burned Atlanta in "Gone with the Wind." Or to recreate the burning of Atlanta, they burned leftover sets from "King Kong" and "The Garden of Allah" on a lot in Culver City, just blocks from where I'm speaking. It is said the flames were 500 feet high sometimes, and Culver City residents kept phoning local police and fire stations in great alarm.

(Soundbite of music, "Gone with the Wind, Tara's Theme")

STAMBERG: Imagining for the movies, "Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction." The book is full of tales of the fakery and fun involved in getting us to sit in front of screens, sometimes in dark movie theaters, and really believe.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Culver City, California.

(Soundbite of music, "Gone with the Wind, Tara's Theme")

MONTAGNE: And you can see the designs, those paintings and drawings behind some classic films, from "Cleopatra" to "Dr. Zhivago," at our Web site, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.