The silent film director Karl Brown was just a teenager when he went to work as D.W. Griffith’s assistant in 1914. He would later write a book, “Adventures With D.W. Griffith”, about his experiences as both a participant and a witness to both the birth of feature films in the USA and the beginning of what would become the Hollywood Art Department. Before ‘Intolerance’, the sets for Griffith’s films were created by his Construction Foreman Frank ‘Huck’ Wortman from rough sketches or picture postcards. When he decided to recreate Babylon, Griffith knew he would need an actual designer to envision the huge set. He found Walter L. Hall, a British scenic designer who had come west from New York.
Walter L. Hall drawing for the Babylon set for the D.W. Griffith film 'Intolerance'.
The thing that Brown found so intriguing about Hall was not just is abilities, but his method of work.
“I had seen all kinds of theatrical sets . . . but I had never seen things during the drawing board stage. Hall combined the great gift of an imaginative creative artist with the needlepoint accuracy of a fine architect. There was no tentative fiddling around: a bold stroke here, and half an arch was on the board. Another stroke and the entire arch was there.”
Wortman, too, was amazed at the man’s ability but questioned the technical accuracy of the elevations he saw on the cardboard. His skeptical attitude was probably not helped by the fact that neither man had ever seen Hall use a scale to draw with, much less a straightedge or a T-square.
“‘You want a scale?’ Hall drew a swift straight line at the bottom of the design. He ticked off sections of his line with pencil strokes. ‘There. There’s your scale, in feet.'”
When Wortman doubted the accuracy of the marks, Hall snatched a piece of paper and drew a line and quickly drew two thin small marks across it. “‘That’s an inch. Measure it.'” Hall demanded. Wortman pulled a metal rule from his pocket and set in on the paper.
Brown would write, “It was not only an inch but it was a finer, closer inch than the one shown on the steel scale. For the scale’s markings had definite width, while Hall’s hairline marks split these widths exactly in the middle.”
“‘How did you learn all this?’ I asked him one day. ‘Learn? Learn this? Nobody can learn this. It’s something you have to do.'”
“‘It must give you a great deal of satisfaction to be able to do anything so wonderful so easily.’ I remarked enviously”
“‘Satisfaction? Chained to a drawing board hand and foot, day in and day out. . . It’s a dog’s life, Brown – a dog’s life.'”
“‘Then why do you do it?'”
“‘Because I must, can’t you see that? Because I must!'”
“‘Don’t you like drawing?'”
“‘I hate it.’ He said vehemently. ‘It’s the most demanding, the most merciless work a man can do.'”
The finished Babylon set from 'Intolerance'