From studio set, location to computer desk: The world of art direction

IANS
New Delhi Published: Jan 17, 2021, 10.24 AM(IST)

Art direction Photograph:( WION Web Team )

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The art director created a location, and the ambiance the writer imagined, in a studio set measuring just a few hundred square meters.

The silver screen was the term that described the cinema experience in the dark of a cinema hall. The two people who conceived and executed this magic were the writer and the director. A writer dreamt up a story and its background, as in where it all happened, and the director executed those dreams of the writer. But, the one who really made it possible for the two was the art director.

The art director created a location, and the ambiance the writer imagined, in a studio set measuring just a few hundred square meters. However huge it may be, the art director made you believe that what you were watching on screen was taking place in Shimla or on the Hooghly River in Bengal or a palatial bungalow of a rich man, or even a cruise liner or a warship! The breed called art directors could get into the writer`s mind.

There was a popular trend of mythological and fantasy films. Gods flew under a blue sky on their vehicle of preference, a bird or a mammal or an animal or Lord Maruti carrying a mountain on his little finger or a Sheikh traveling on the magic carpet. This was sheer magic for a certain class of audience, though for such films, the art director was incomplete without the cinematographer. No computer special effects in those days, not even fancy cameras. It was sheer mastery over the medium.

In the film "Tere Ghar Ke Saamne" you watched Dev Anand singing "Tu kahan yeh bata" in search of his lady love, Nutan, on some hill station on his scooter. You would believe it to be a hill station though it would really be a set in a Mumbai studio.

Watching Rajesh Khanna sing "Chingari koi bhadke" to Sharmila Tagore in a boat over the Hooghly river, it is so convincing you would not be convinced if told that it was shot in a suburban studio of Mumbai.

There are numerous such examples where the art department of a studio showed its mastery. Those were the days of heavy cameras and other equipment, and the idea of going on actual locations was not very conducive to filmmaking. Also, there was the problem of getting various permissions to shoot on public roads, besides getting police protection to control crowds that thronged shooting sites. Yet, despite all these, one may have noticed huge crowds in a film sequence, which the maker could not avoid. In those days, if a filmmaker ventured out, it would be at some crowd-free location like Juhu Beach or Powai Lake to shoot songs or at Chena Creek near Thane for an action sequence.

Deserted areas were much preferred and Worli Sea Face, Haji Ali Circle, Asiatic Library were the popular locations on a Sunday or at night for shoots.

For a Bombayite, watching these sites in old films is a nostalgia trip. Especially, comparing them to their present state.

When the equipment got lighter and more manageable, and with the arrival of the new breed of directors, much inspired from Hollywood films, the film shootings moved out to what was described as `actual locations`. Directors started scouting for virgin locations never seen on screen and, for many Mumbai folk, not seen in the real life either! The advent of the Steadicam camera, which could be carried by the cinematographer, made sequences like following or chasing a character easier.

The filmmakers had set ideas for establishing the city of the story`s origin. For a Mumbai-based film, the Gateway of India, Mumbai Central or Victoria Terminus stations (renamed CSMT after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj). Delhi used to be established by India Gate, which has now been replaced by the Metro and the huge Maruti idol at Karol Bagh, and Howrah Bridge represents Kolkata.

Come 1980s, most directors preferred actual locations for all scenes save for songs. A director may have shot his film in a slum or a bungalow, but he had the freedom to shoot the songs anywhere on earth. There were makers like Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra who made exceptions for their songs and chose colourful orchards abroad.

Kashmir was once the favoured location for a film to depict romance and to shoot songs. The changing situation in the eighties and the nineties closed that option. Producers shifted their sight to locations like Vrindavan Gardens in Mysore and the hill station of Ooty. However, Vrindavan Gardens looked the same in all films, so had a limited utility.

Ooty was witness to a number of films. But the South had its own regional film industries and the treatment the Hindi makers (North film industry, as they identified it) faced were many -- such as no cooperation and cost discrimination when it came to local staff and facilities. Probably, why the Hindi makers looked towards foreign countries. Also, by that time, some European countries had started offering facilities and subsidies with the idea of seeking exposure to their country.

Not that Hindi films were not shot abroad. Producer Pramod Chakravorty made "Love In Tokyo" in 1966 while Pachhi made "Around The World" and Shakti Samanta made "An Evening In Paris", both in 1967. These were followed by Ramanand Sagar`s "Ankhen" in 1968 and another Pachhi film, "International Crook", in 1974. While both the films by Pachhi failed, the other three were big successes. They had plausible themes.

The trend did not last long since the nation was short on foreign reserves and there was a limit to what could be spent abroad. There was a law that a business could spend only a certain percentage of its foreign earnings abroad. The only foreign earning the producers had was through the sale of overseas rights. And that too the buyer operated from India, not abroad.

Then the economy opened up and so did the floodgates for shooting abroad. Every Tom, Dick and Harry travelled abroad to shoot a film even if the film had no such story or justification. There were more examples of such causeless ventures than those that merited to be shot abroad (actually speaking, none did).

I remember one such film where Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra are in the US on some bridge over a river, contemplating suicide. Somehow, the attempt fails and before the tendency to die reoccurs, both fall in love! Now, this could have been done on any of the hundreds of bridges in India with the same routine being followed. This is just one example, there are many.

Then, there was a phase of spy films. Indian actors playing RAW agents went on a rampage in Europe and the Middle East in a kind of free run that Ian Fleming`s 007 paled in comparison! Some stories were so convoluted that an Indian actor would lead a police force abroad with locals as subordinates!!

Now, the makers are back to terra firma, the homeland, though this year there has been very little shooting activity. But, that combined creativity spurting from the triumvirate of writer-director-art director has been taken over by the action composer and the computer-generated special effects.

Now, the films are made more on a computer desk than they are made on studio sets!



 

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