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Long Before Computers, How Movies Made Us Believe

Many of today's blockbusters wouldn't exist without the aid of computer generated imagery — think Avatar or Lord of the Rings. But movie magic long predates computers — once upon a time, long before the digital age, scenery and special effects were crafted entirely by human hands.


In her new book, Designs on Film, produced with the Art Directors Guild, journalist and interior designer Cathy Whitlock explores the past century of art direction and the creative effects that have lit up the silver screen.

Tricks Of The Trade

Take for example the cinematic magic of the film Dr. Zhivago. The epic saga of love and war during the Russian Revolution is set against the snowy backdrop of the streets of Moscow and the steppes of Russia.

"I can remember seeing that film years ago and freezing in the theater," says Whitlock. "I mean, you just felt the coldness of that whole set — and ironically, that was filmed in the summer in Spain on a sound stage."

Dr. Zhivago production designer John Box and his crew used visual tricks to transform the set into an authentic Russian landscape. To create Zhivago's abandoned country estate that had frozen inside and out, Box constructed an opulent ice palace. (You can see the sketch for the ice palace in the photo gallery above.)

"They would literally spray all the architecture, the chandeliers, the interior furniture, with hot wax, and they'd pour cold water on it to create that ice effect," Whitlock says.

The hardened white wax — glistening with water and sprinkled with marble dust — created a frigid and striking cinematic scene.

Without digital effects, art directors relied heavily on their own creativity, and new materials. The art deco designs of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies of the 1930s featured streamlined dance floors fashioned with an early form of plastic.

"The floors were made with a material, which was new at the time, called Bakelite," Whitlock explains. "The dance floor was very hard to maintain, of course — all the high heels were constantly scratching the floors."

As the saying goes, Rogers did everything Astaire did backwards and in heels — and much to the chagrin of the set crew, they were high-scuffing high heels.

"They had to go back and re-polish them between takes," Whitlock says. "It was a high-maintenance material."

In Chinatown, Roman Polanski's 1974 classic, a private detective becomes mired in the battle for water rights in drought-stricken Los Angeles. The film's production designer, Richard Sylbert, made water — and its absence — the movie's visual motif.

"You had to have parched landscape. You had to have colors that reflected this parched landscape — hay, straw, orange-red, brown. ... Watch[ing] that movie, you became thirsty," Whitlock says.

Shot under a cloudless white sky, the only green in the film's landscape occurs on lawns owned by rich people. You had to have money and power to be able to bring water to your property.

The Art Of Authenticity

"Film designers are narrative artists who translate the screenwriter's concept into visuals that you can shoot," says Thomas Walsh, president of the Art Directors Guild. And art directors and set designers will go to extraordinary ends to make a scene look authentic — especially when their job is to re-create something that actually occurred.

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 and his crew meticulously re-created the Washington Post newsroom. The team did their research at the paper's real office in Washington, D.C., Whitlock says.

"They literally itemized, measured, photographed and detailed every square inch of that newsroom. It was really incredible," she says. "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."

Walsh says art directors spend countless hours foraging for artifacts to make the magic of movies look real. They're "cultural anthropologists," he says.

Yellow Brick Road: Neither Yellow Nor Brick

Sometimes just looking real is all that matters. In one of the most famous imaginary places — the land of Oz — the yellow brick road was not made with actual bricks, nor was it originally yellow. The path in The Wizard of Oz was painted onto a flat floor to make it a smoother surface for dancers. And the color?

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

So the problem of coloring the yellow brick road was solved, but what to do about Emerald City's magical, colorful horses? Thanks to Jell-O crystals, Oz's horses were white, then purple, then bright-red and yellow. But the solution wasn't foolproof — between takes, the horses would lick off their sugary coatings and had to be colored all over again.

Another horse transformed by movie magic was the poor starved Civil War horse pulling Scarlett O'Hara's wagon in Gone with the Wind. As it drags O'Hara back to her plantation home, the horse collapses from exhaustion.

"The original [horse] that was supposedly thin had gained weight, and his ribs were no longer visible," Whitlock explains. "They had to paint dark shadows to make the horse look gaunt."

Another special effect in Gone with the Wind required the burning of Atlanta. William Cameron Menzies and his team burned leftover sets from King Kong and The Garden of Allah in a lot in Culver City, Calif. It is said the flames were so high — at times up to 500 feet — that the local fire station received multiple calls from panicked Culver City residents. The magic of movies, designed to fool the eye with fun and fakery, to get audiences to truly believe.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.