The Film Business

Art Departments and the Importance of Research in Pre-Production

Gathering visual research is a powerful way to define the visual concept. Within the first several weeks of pre-production, the walls of the art department quickly become plastered as a repository of photocopied and color printed images: icons, indexes, symbols, and metaphors of the visual concept for the film. We surround ourselves with these images and live within them while we design. The Internet and public libraries are inexpensive ways to accumulate data, and are also more visually comprehensive for research data and imagery than one might guess. Most of the research done for the TV movie The Lost Battalion (2001) was downloaded from the World War I archives of the University of Kansas to my PC terminal on location in Luxembourg City.

Rare portraits of Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon and First World War hero, and specific photographic references to his carrying cages, and a typical message tube strapped to his ankle, were pulled from the University of Kansas historical archives website (see below). No book was able to provide this kind of indispensable, arcane information. Most research is found through the normal channels mentioned and can also be bought from private photographic collections, as is the case for the below collection, which shows several images taken in San Francisco in the 1940s.

Cher Ami, pigeon carrier cages and message tube—examples of hard-to-find Internet research images.

In Los Angeles, if actual video and DVD rental for hard-to-locate film research is required, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee located in North Hollywood is available for a nominal fee. Its catalogue of films includes animation, film noir, sci-fi, exploitation, documentary, live entertainment, foreign, silents, serials, and black films—titles and genres not available at Netflix. As the front page of its catalogue boasts, “We’ve acquired three centuries of movies in 33 years!”

A designated research budget can buy 30-minute increments of research time (in 2014, at the time this edition was compiled) at the 20th Century Fox Studios Research Library, the Warner Bros. Research Collection in Burbank, the Lillian Michelson Research Library now located at DreamWorks, and the Margaret Herrick Library at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. These research facilities tend to be expensive, but they are also extraordinary source centers of rare, well-archived images either custom-burned onto CD or beautifully photocopied at the customer’s request. Several of the images used for this book came from those collections.

Typical research images Murder in the First, a 1940’s period film

The Fox Studio Research Library is unique among the studios and popular with art department research teams for the scope of its available material. For example, it provides assistance for all types of projects throughout the production process, features a collection of more than 40,000 non-fiction books on all topics, more than 100 current periodical subscriptions, computer workstations with high-speed Internet access and powerful graphics capabilities including color copier/printer/scanner/CDRW, online services including Nexis, Reader’s Guide, and New York Times archives, and supplies art department creatives with 2D and moving picture, visual reference materials. Like most research libraries you can also phone or email your research requests.

During the earliest stages of pre-production, the art department by default becomes the center of visual source materials for the entire production. Gathering research during pre-production is a time to steep your psyche into the era presented within the pages of the script, and it is a time to become as deeply knowledgeable about the historical context of your film to help resolve whatever questions that might arise. In the case of Cher Ami, the World War I hero pigeon, several downloaded photos in-hand were undisputed evidence for which pigeon to cast in the starring role based on the original bird’s feather markings. Our relentless drive to produce critical data and visual information makes the art department the premier place to answer these questions. Historical dramas, in particular, demand tremendous detail and scrutiny through research sourcing and data gathering. Linda Berger, assistant art director and key art department researcher for Forrest Gump (1994), recalls a landmark experience in her early career.

Interview with Linda Berger

Linda, on Forrest Gump you were the Assistant Art Director and managed the research for the film. Would you tell us a little bit about that?

I was one of the first people hired onto pre-production. The vision of Rick Carter, the Production Designer, was very clear and straightforward: the film was a character-driven piece and needed to feel real and human, not like a documentary, although the fictional story clearly had its basis in historical events. It needed to be infused with the humanity of the time we were portraying— meaning, because we were creating history that was relatively recent, we needed to be true not only to that history as it really was, but to History as people who actually experienced it or remembered it in their mind’s eye. With that concept in mind, I built the beginnings of a huge research library. It was truly exciting for me. Kacy Magedman, art department coordinator, and assistant coordinator Anna Hayward did a great deal of footwork for us all along the way. And we kept adding to it, and it eventually filled a room with file cabinets and stacks of information. I focused on sources of recent history like prominent newspapers and Life, Look, Time, and Better Homes and Gardens magazines. Time was a great source for Vietnam research, and the others provided a rich diversity of pop-cultural images. And, of course, Lillian Michelson was a tremendous help to me.

In Washington, DC, I also found police newsreels about the 1960s anti-war demonstrations and other rallies that had taken place at the Lincoln Memorial where our staged film rally would take place. Also, at hippie campsites in and around DC and the Jefferson Memorial, where the protestors had stayed overnight, I learned about the kinds of buses that had come from all over the country to bring protesters to the city. Period newsreels were a wealth of information showing signage, buttons, graphics, and banners, as well as style of dress. There was also loads of information to be found about TV trucks and cars, sound and TV equipment, TV cameras’ scaffolding and staging, as well as research on police cars and equipment; a lot of it very surprising and sobering. Every image was used as a “true image”—we didn’t guess about what we would see—down to creating signs, for example, and we tried to re-create them in their original materials such as cardboard from the backs of cardboard boxes with the folds still attached and poster paints or canvas. Paramount Sign Shop was tremendously helpful. They did the bulk of the work preparing the signage. They reserved a whole crew of sign writers to work on well over 1,700 images including signs, banners, and so on. Robin Miller, our brilliant Prop Master, created armbands, buttons, and many of the bumper stickers—all based on much of the research we did together.

Much additional info in DC came from tech people I talked to at the networks who did on-the-spot reporting at the time. We were also able to track down some of the original photographers who had gone to some of the actual rallies and were able to purchase their personal photos of the events. These were extremely valuable. Other research came from the Library of Congress, which helped us understand the importance of getting it all historically correct. I was able to hire a great researcher in Washington, who culled through all kinds of police reports and records to help me find information that shed light on a lot of historical background information about the Vietnam era as well as Watergate. And Rick Porras and Steven Boyd, working then in Bob Zemeckis’ office, spent weeks during pre-production in Washington going through film archives for images that would be seen in the film, such as the images of Kennedy, Johnson, and many others. They brought back many clips that were also of great use to me for research as well.

With all of those wonderful places as a springboard, we began to create an outline marrying our historical and current events timelines with the one emerging for Forrest and Jenny, the two main characters. Their childhood and adulthood events needed to mirror or coincide with cultural history in order to remain true to Rick’s visual concept of “real and human.” Rick loved collages as a way to find the essence of character and asked me to create a visual timeline for Jenny’s character, for example. It took up one entire wall in the art department. It was dedicated to everything that might have been present in her daily life and overall life history, such as magazine ads, book images reflecting the lifestyle of the 1950s through the 1980s, and even her route through her drug use, reflected in her character in terms of the times in which the story was being told. Along the top of her personal historical timeline were the years broken down into months of the year and decades; along the side of the chart, there was a section designed for specifics such as hair, dress, school, entertainment, furnishings, cultural interests, etc. Everyone used the wall containing the story of Jenny’s life. Joanna Johnston, Costume Designer, in particular found it very valuable. Once I had collected enough information, I began to make large books, and these were available for everyone to look through and use as research. There was a Washington history Vietnam War Rally research book, the largest and heaviest of all of them, and others ranging from the Southern US, the Vietnam War, to the strip clubs and discos, and the New York City of the 1970s. Art Directors, Jim Teegarden in LA and Leslie McDonald down in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, used these books and added even more research.

I had the great good fortune to go to Washington and supervise the creation of the Lincoln Memorial Rally and campsites and Watergate events with Robin Miller. I’ll never forget it. It was such a wonderful and inspiring creative experience. The day we shot the rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Eric Roth, the Screenwriter, remarked to me—and I’ll never forget it—that the way it all looked and felt that day was as he had imagined it in his mind’s eye. That was a truly gratifying moment for both Rick and me. I’m very proud of what we were all able to accomplish there.

Excerpt from The Art Direction Handbook for Film & Television, 2nd Edition by Michael Rizzo © 2015 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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