Beginnings – A Conversation With Production Designer Nigel Phelps

(Ed. note – This is the first in a series of interviews with Production Designers, discussing their first job experiences and earlier films in the entertainment industry.)

NigelPhelpsNigel Phelp’s career began in London where he was studying to be a fine artist. When his school grant ran out, he took a job as a storyboard artist.  Not long after, he was introduced to Production Designer Anton Furst who hired him as a set illustrator for the film, Company Of Wolves. That film led to Furst hiring him to work on Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam epic, Full Metal Jacket.

Commenting on the production years ago, Anton Furst related that Kubrick was happiest when he was shooting with a very small crew. Phelps revealed the reality of that preference.

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Stanley Kubrick with Matthew Modine on the set of Full Metal Jacket outside London. (Warner Bros.)

“Stanley was very fiscally responsible about the expenditures. He knew where every dollar was spent, so that meant that the Art Department was a very tiny group. There were only four people in the entire department which included a single draftsperson. We didn’t even have any PA’s.  There were only a half dozen people in Production as well. We went three months without a construction manager because Stanley had heard that TV shows were able to build scenery much cheaper, so he wanted us to go around to scene shops in London that built sets for TV programs and commercials.”

“For the first three months our Art Department were two Land Rovers, each one towing a little Porta Cabin behind it that was about big enough to get two drawing boards in it. Since it was my first big feature I just figured that was what was typical for an Art Department.”

Hired initially as the Assistant Art Director, Phelps said Kubrick was very good to him and later gave him a bump to Art Director.

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Question – Where was the production located in London?

Nigel Phelps – “The center of production was Stanley’s house in north London, so our shooting radius was within 40 miles from that point. Most of the film was shot at the Beckton gasworks, except for the ending. For the ending scene, they built a set back at the studio, at Pinewood.”

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The main set, the shelled city of Hue, was recreated at the defunct Beckton Gas Works outside London, England where the company was free to dress and add to the existing ruins. (Warner Bros.)

Beckton Gas Works

Q. – Who was the Set Decorator on the film?

N.P. – “Stanley wouldn’t let us have a Set Decorator. We had to do the buying ourselves over the weekends in our free time. When it became obvious that we weren’t going to be able to shop the entire movie from London markets, he let us send a buyer, Barbara Drake, out to Thailand for a few weeks, and she filled two shipping containers and sent them back to England. So that’s how low-tech the decorating process was.”

Q. –So there was never a Set Decorator on the picture?

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The gas works “Hue” set displaying the palm trees imported from Morocco. (Warner Bros.)

“No, just set dressers and a prop master.  Stanley made a deal with the Belgian Army to get the tanks we used. And Stanley did this personally, as he was the producer on the film. We got a load of palm trees from Morocco and they drove them up through Spain and France.”

Q. – Did you have a researcher on the film?

N.P. – “For research, we only had about three or four books and they were on old China. That’s all we could find in England. But Stanley had a couple hundred black and white 8 x 10’s from the U.S. State Department and that was the bulk of our research. I was the only person in the art department who had actually been to Southeast Asia. We did have some good technical advisors because there were quite a few Vietnamese refugees in London at the time.”

Q.- When you were working with Stanley, did he have very specific ideas about what he wanted to shoot or did he look to you to feed him images or ideas?

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Sketch of the courtyard set for Kubrick by Nigel Phelps

Lusthog Squad / Pagoda Courtyard set    (Warner Bros)

N.P.-  “It was a bit of both. Stanley did have a few photos, like the one of the courtyard, and he just wanted them duplicated as accurately as possible. When you did any sketches or concept drawings he would look at them and want to know how far away things were in the picture, how tall walls were, he was absolutely thinking about things as if he were seeing them through a lens. So not knowing how to do lens projection at the time I had to figure out a way to do that for myself, so that when I drew a perspective sketch I could work backward and draw a little plan and elevations to show him what the actual sizes that it would be.

Photo of U.S. Marine Corps base gate set in London.

Phelp’s illustration of army base gate for film set.

And then after you made the sketches, we’d make a model and then that would be photographed and you’d make 20-inch black and white prints of the photos and that’s what Stanley would really look at. He wasn’t very trusting of sketches.

Q. –What scale would you build the models in?

N.P. – “There were a lot of models. Mainly they were 1/4” or 1/2” scale.

Hue street scene set

Notes on building on a budget:                                                                                                  “What you’re seeing here is the entire build for the Hue scene.
There were just four shops in the foreground. There was no reverse scenery at all.
The background scenery ended to the left and there was nothing beyond the Billboards to the right.”        Nigel Phelps                    (Warner Bros)

Q. – How did you manage to work with such a small crew?

N.P. – “If I remember correctly, we worked six-day weeks. But on Sunday we were also expected to go to London markets to look for any set dressing.”

Q. –I’m still amazed you did that picture with such a small Art Department, even working a seven-day week.

N.P. -“The demands weren’t the same then.  You weren’t expected to produce nearly as much artwork as you are now.  It was a completely different level. Now you’re expected to do artwork and models of everything, with jam on it.   But back then you didn’t. You didn’t do endless options and you didn’t do concepts of all the sets either. There were just a lot fewer people involved in the process than there are now.  I wish I’d known then what a unique experience it was. I took it all for granted. It was an amazing process.”

Q.- Now, the Gotham set for that first Batman movie was huge. How many people did you have in that art department?

Phelp’s initial concept drawing for Flugelheim Museum

N.P. –  “I think there were about a dozen of us. Three or four full-time draftsmen, and another few for part of the film and a P.A. (production assistant). We didn’t have Art Department Coordinators at that time (in the business). I worked for the same Production Designer, Anton Furst, on Batman, and we didn’t do illustrations for all the sets on that film either. I was the concept artist for all of the sets and I did the sketches for all of the matte paintings as well. Julian Caldow did the vehicles. There were only two versions of the Batmobile ever drawn. And they were the same except one had a roof and one didn’t, sort of emulating the original TV show vehicle.”

Drawing of Flugelheim Museum interior

Flugelheim Museum set under construction

Panorama of finished backlot set. Gotham City Hall and Flugelheim Museum. Cathedral steps in the background.

Gotham City Hall plate and matte painting design

 

”But I have to tell you that Judge Dredd (1995) was even a bigger than the one we did on Batman. It was massive. It was also the first time that I had worked with concept artists, and amazingly, this group are still some of my closest friends; Matt Codd, Simon Murton, Julian Caldow, Chris Cunningham, and storyboard artist Robbie Consing.

Judge Dred

Illustration by Simon Murton

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Judge Dredd / Lower Megacity One (Matt Codd)

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Judge Dredd / Mid Megacity One (Matt Codd)

[Ed. note – Sylvester Stallone had insisted on constant script changes to make it more comedic. He was not thrilled with the end result but he and story creator John Wagner regularly praised the production design and the sets. Judge Dredd was Phelps’ first feature as Production Designer].

Q. –I wanted to ask you about the Trojan Horse on Troy (2004), I thought that design was brilliant, because you usually see it created as this finely crafted giant piece of sculptural furniture that would have taken years to build, and your version was this massive, somber effigy made from destroyed ships ribs, and it actually looked as if it had been hastily built from battlefield debris. It was so evocative of the whole story.

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Replica_of_Trojan_Horse_-_Canakkale_Waterfront_-_Dardanelles_-_Turkey_(5747677790) 2N.P. – That was really the result of a collective design,  The inspiration for that was a picture someone had given me a sculpture of a gorilla. that had been made out of rubber tires, and it was beautiful and expressive, and it occurred to me that that would be the right direction to take for the design of the horse, to take abstract shapes and fashion it from discarded ship parts. It ended up being about 40 feet tall.

Q. –That (Troy) was a massive set too. Were the buildings and temples on the far hills forced perspective miniatures? Surely those weren’t full size.

N.P. -Oh yeah, those were full size. That was a huge set. The studio wanted us to shoot as much as we could in Malta. We had found a great location in Morocco but it was dangerous to go there. So, we found a location in Mexico, at Cabo San Lucas which was amazing because it had these huge sand dunes that came right down to the ocean, and so we built a couple of massive sets there. So the streets of Troy behind the gates was done in Malta, but the actual gates and the walls of the city were built in Cabo San Lucas.”

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Some of Phelp’s sketches of Troy

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The Troy set that was built in Malta

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The company built over 400 feet of gates and adjoining walls at the Cabo San Lucas location. A hurricane destroyed a large part of the set which had to be rebuilt to complete shooting. (Warner Bros)

“We had greensmen working for six months to dress the battlefield and clear it of scrubby undergrowth.”

R. D. Wilkins

Traditional Skills For A Digital Age

On April 8 and 9, I’ll be teaching two new classes at the Art Director’s Guild in Los Angeles. The classes are free to ADG members.

April 8 – Back Projection and Scaling From Photographs

Prerequisite: none. Class size limit: 12

Tools needed: notebook, calculator (does not have to calculate feet or inches, one on a phone will work fine)

The technique of ‘back projection’ was developed as a way of extracting necessary information from photographs for use with rear projection systems to build set pieces that would match the scale and perspective of the projected ‘plates’.

You’ll learn the basics of this system to find sizes, camera heights, focal lengths of lenses and more.  You’ll learn additional methods of basic photographic scaling that you can use to work from printed images, books or even your computer screen. You’ll leave with a set of tools, including digital calipers, and the knowledge to be able to use this practical and valuable skill.

 April 9 – Architectural Moulding

Prerequisite: none. Class size limit: 20

Tools needed: notebook

Curb your fear of moulding! This class will examine the history and development of architectural moulding in the western architectural tradition and trace their roots from ancient cultures. You’ll learn the 8 basic shapes that make up most profiles, understand the transition from Greek to Roman moulding, learn the proper names of mouldings from their beginnings, and learn the correct use of moulding profiles by architectural period and style.

You’ll learn what’s wrong with your moulding catalogue and also get a list of moulding catalogue profiles by date so you can classify them by their period.

And,  I’ll be bringing in many of my 18th and 19th century British, American and French moulding planes and you’ll see a demonstration of ‘sticking’, or creating traditional wood mouldings by hand.

Now In Print – The Art Of The Hollywood Backdrop

The Art Director’s Guild sponsored a book signing event at their gallery space in North Hollywood yesterday, with co-author Karen Maness on-hand to sign copies of the new book, The Art Of The Hollywood Backdrop.

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The book is a cooperative project between the authors, Karen Maness and Richard Isackes and the Art Director’s Guild. With a focus on hand-painted rather than photographic backings, the book traces not only the history and development of backdrops through Hollywood films but the artists who have developed the techniques used and who have passed along that knowledge to successive generations of scenic artists.

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The event was well attended by not only Guild members but by members of the Strang family and the Coakley family of J.C. Backings, the two families which have not only dominated the field in Hollywood but have been the biggest promoters and curators of the art form.

The Coakley family and fellow artists of J.C.Backings

The Coakley family and fellow artists of J.C.Backings

 

 

Co-author Karen Maness graciously signed books all afternoon.

Co-author Karen Maness graciously signed books all afternoon.

This is a big book, and I say that in every sense of the word. Larger than a quarto format at 11 x 14 inches, the hard-cover and cased edition is 352 pages long and weighs in at 13 pounds. Filled with crisp images of both black and white and full-color backings, the photos show the backings not only in a straight-on form but in the environment that they were meant for.  It’s filled with stills from the original films as well as set stills showing them in relationship to the sound stages and the companion scenery.

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dsc_0032This book will definitely appeal to film lovers who have very little understanding of film scenery and stagecraft as well as film professionals who have many films to their credit.

It is available for order through the publisher’s website and will soon make it’s way into bookstores. If you are still making that holiday gift list, this is definitely a book that will have huge appeal to anyone who loves movies. Read an excerpt here, and you can order the book here from Regan Arts.

 

Se Vi Piacciono I Film Epici, Ringraziate Gli Italiani. ( If You Like Epic Films, Thank The Italians. )

Per E.M.A. Un’artista di talento e amica.

Traduzioni:  Sara Trofa

 

L’Inferno  (1911)

Original Poster for the film

Locandina originale del film. Original Poster for the film

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The American director D.W. Griffith is often credited as being the creator of the feature-length film. It was actually the Australians who made the first feature film in 1906 which was called The Story Of The Kelly Gang.

La creazione del lungometraggio viene spesso attribuita al regista americano D.W. Griffith ma di fatto furono gli australiani a realizzare il primo lungometraggio nel 1906 dal titolo The Story Of The Kelly Gang.

But in 1911 with the release of L’Inferno, the Italian industry created not only the first epic film but the first international blockbuster as well.

Nel 1911, con l’uscita de L’inferno, l’industria italiana creò non solo il primo film epico ma anche il primo film di successo internazionale.

Taking over three years to make, the film took in over 2 million dollars in the United States alone. As its extended length meant there could be less screenings per day, it gave the theater owners an excuse to raise the normal prices of admission. It remains the oldest feature film to still exist.

Esso richiese più di tre anni per la sua realizzazione ed incassò, solo negli Stati Uniti, più di due milioni di dollari. La lunghezza del film implicava meno proiezioni al giorno e i proprietari dei cinema ne approfittarono per aumentare il prezzo del normale biglietto. L’inferno resta il più vecchio lungometraggio esistente.

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L'Inferno - 1911 - Blasphemers - Balls of Fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credited to three different directors, the film is a live action adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sets and visuals were closely based on Gustave Dorè’s engravings from his 1857 edition of the poets work which was, and still is, the most iconic representation of the title. Using fantastical, extravagant sets and special effects, the film must have been as terrifying to audiences in 1911 as any horror film of present day. Winged devils, brimstone hail, choking fires, it’s likely there were at least a few trips to the hospital by cast members who spent much time on the production. L’Inferno  remains the oldest feature film to still exist.

Attribuito a tre registi, il film è un adattamento animato della Divina Commedia di Dante. Gli elementi scenici furono basati principalmente sulle incisioni di Gustave Doré dell’edizione del 1857, le quali ancora oggi sono la rappresentazione più iconica della Commedia. Considerati i fantastici e stravaganti set ed effetti speciali impiegati, il film dev’essere stato per il pubblico del 1911 tanto terrificante quanto lo è per noi oggi un qualunque film dell’orrore. Con diavoli alati, grandine di zolfo e fuochi soffocanti sul set, è probabile che i membri del cast impegnati nella produzione siano finiti all’ospedale almeno un paio di volte. L’Inferno resta il più vecchio lungometraggio esistente.     

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Left, one of Dorè's illustrations, on the right, Lucifer's depiction in the film.

A sinistra, una illustrazione di Doré. A destra, il ritratto di Lucifero nel film. Left, one of Dorè’s illustrations, on the right, Lucifer’s depiction in the film.

 

Cabiria  (1916)

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It would be the feature Cabiria five years later that would be the most influential silent Italian film of the period. Directed by Giovanne Pastrone, the film was shot in Torino (Turin) and featured massive period sets as well as elaborate and imaginative miniatures which recreated the eruptions of Mt Etna in Sicily. It follows the story of a young girl, Cabiria, who is saved from the disaster caused by the eruption only to be captured by Phoenicians and  sold into slavery in Carthage.

Cinque anni dopo, il film Cabiria fu il più influente film muto del periodo. Diretto da Giovanni Pastrone, il film fu girato a Torino con imponenti scenografie d’epoca ed elaborate e immaginifiche miniature che ricreavano l’eruzione dell’Etna in Sicilia. Ne derivò la storia di una ragazza, Cabiria, che viene salvata dal disastro dell’eruzione solo dopo essere stata catturata dai Fenici e venduta come schiava a Cartagine.

Foreground miniature of the eruption of Mt. Etna

Primo piano della miniatura dell’eruzione dell’Etna. Foreground miniature of the eruption of Mt. Etna

The sets include a massive exterior and interior of the Temple of Moloch which includes a huge bronze statue of the god. During the sacrifice scene, the chest of the statue opens and dozens of children are thrown into its fiery belly one at a time, it’s mouth belching fire as the door swings shut on each sacrifice.

 

Il set includeva una riproduzione esterna ed interna del Tempio di Moloch con una enorme statua di bronzo raffigurante la divinità. Durante la scena del sacrificio, il petto della statua si apre, dozzine di bambini vengono gettati nella sua pancia infuocata tutti in una volta e un fuoco scoppia al richiudersi della porta dopo ogni sacrificio.

 

The exterior set of the Temple of Moloch

Set esterno del Tempio di Moloch. The exterior set of the Temple of Moloch

 

In one scene, the Roman navy assaults the city of Syracuse, a massive set and staged battle that would presage the scenes of the siege of Babylon years later in D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance. While Pastrone’s film doesn’t have the same intercutting as Griffith’s, many of the lighting effects are much more dramatic than Grifffith’s.

In una scena, la flotta romana assalta la città di Siracusa, un imponente set con una battaglia di scena che presagisce le scene dell’assedio di Babilonia anni dopo in Intolerance di D.W. Griffith. Il film di Pastrone non ha lo stesso montaggio incrociato del film di Griffith, ma parecchi dei suoi effetti di luce sono molto più drammatici rispetto a quest’ultimo.

Syracuse set walls

 

scene from Cabiria

 

Pastrone would be the first to put a camera on a dolly and execute the long, slow tracking shots throughout the film that would be so influential to every feature afterwards. In fact for many years any dolly shot or one involving movement was known as a ‘Cabiria shot’. The film was also the first to incorporate flashbacks as a story device.

Pastrone fu il primo a mettere una videocamera su un dolly ed eseguire nel film quelle lunghe e lente carrellate che sarebbero poi state così rilevanti per ogni film successivo ed è per questo che per molti anni qualunque ripresa con un dolly o in movimento veniva chiamata ‘ripresa Cabiria’ (‘Cabiria shot’). Cabiria fu anche il primo film ad incorporare il flashback come espediente narrativo.

cabiria set

The film’s elephants made a huge visual impact on Griffith, and he would insist there be plaster elephant sculptures in the Babylon sets for Intolerance, despite the art department’s insistence that elephants did not exist in ancient Babylonia.

Gli elefanti nel film furono di così grande impatto visivo su Griffith che egli volle avere a tutti i costi degli elefanti di gesso sul set di Babilonia per Intolerance, nonostante l’insistenza del dipartimento artistico sul fatto che non esistessero elefanti nell’antica Babilonia.

 

French poster for the film

Locandina francese per il film. French poster for the film

Cabiria would be the first film to be screened at the White House by then President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.

Cabiria fu il primo film ad essere proiettato alla Casa Bianca dall’allora presidente Wilson Woodrow nel 1914.

 

While the films may be be very dated to our 21st century eyes, you can’t help but be impressed with the scale of the sets of these pre-computer age features.

Il film potrà essere datato ai nostri occhi del XXI secolo ma è ancora impossibile non restare impressionati dalla portata dei set di questo film precedente all’era dei computer.

 

 

 

 

 

Calculating Reflections – No Computer Required

It doesn’t happen often, but you occasionally have to calculate reflections.  A scene will be staged in a way that the camera is seeing the action in a mirror and it’s immediately clear that the shot will determine how the set is staged and dressing placed.

On one production I was asked how long it would take me to render a digital model with true reflections so they could determine whether the character would be able to see the other person from where he was seated.

I told them it would probably take about  an hour to texture the model and do the render they wanted, or I could figure it out with a pencil and it would only take about 2 minutes. They thought I was kidding.

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You’ll want to have the plan view and an elevation. Line them up so that the plane of the mirror is along an identical line. It doesn’t have to be in any certain scale as long as they are both the same size. It can be a printout or just a quick drawing on grid paper, as long as the mirror is correctly placed and sized.

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Cover the drawing with trace, being sure to extend it twice as far over the line of the mirror plane.

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Now draw lines from the vantage point through the edges of the mirror on both the plan and elevation.

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Draw a heavy vertical line through the mirror plane. Then fold the trace along this line.

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Since the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence, the reflected view is easily seen once the trace is folded back over the drawing, and it’s clear the person in the chair would have no way to see the person standing at the door.

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You can now pivot the ‘mirror plane’ down until the person is in view, although it will be clear that in plan the mirror would be at a strange angle from the wall.

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Superdome To Be Converted To World’s Largest Soundstage

Superdome-world's biggest stage_rdwilkins

With film production reaching ever larger numbers in Louisiana, adequate stage space has been a constant complaint from film companies looking to shoot in New Orleans. Now that the New Orleans Saints have moved to their new state-of-the-art sports facility in Metarie, the Superdome’s future looked dim.

The city has announced today that the facility will be remodeled as a soundstage and will by 2017 be reopened as the largest film production stage in the world.

Plans call for up to 12 films to be able to be shot simultaneously with new sliding curtain walls to divide the space as required. As a single stage, the dome will be large enough to conduct aerial dogfights inside. The film Apollo 11 is scheduled to be the first production shot here as the new floor will now retract to expose a deep tank for a 800 foot floor-to-perms height which will allow the rocket launch footage to be shot without worrying about bad weather.

Ernest Fuertmann, the projects manager, has announced that filmmakers can certainly take advantage of the bad weather when they need it as the dome’s roof will be configured to open for full sky exposure. The dome will also have the ability to become a giant water tank and will be completely filled with water for the 2018 remake of Red October.

During the news conference, Fuertmann said future plans include numerous subterranean levels which will house blocks of 3-story facades of every major city in Europe.

Exhibition Of German Expressionist Film Artwork Now At LACMA

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At the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art now until April is a special exhibition of artwork and posters from the German Expressionist period of the silent film era, 1919 to the mid 1930’s. Produced in association with  La Cinémathèque Française and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, the show features over 150 pieces of artwork from classic films of the German UFA studio.

Along with many posters are a large number of original set and costume design drawings which are seen together for the first time here. Most of which have not been on display here before and others only seen as small images in publications.

Of course artwork from the most well-known films are there; The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Nibelungen, but there are many others from more obscure films as well including Robert Hearlth’s original schematic of the forced perspective backings from Der Letzte Mann which were such a sensation.

One of Ernst Stern's drawings for Waxworks, which indicates the set design, platforming, camera position and lighting.

One of Ernst Stern’s drawings for Waxworks, which indicates the set design, platforming, camera position and lighting.

A watercolor and charcoal drawing for one of the sets for Dr. Caligari by Walter Röhrig

A watercolor and charcoal drawing for one of the sets for Dr. Caligari by Walter Röhrig

It was common during this period of German cinema for Art Directors to work in teams of two or three people, dividing the design duties among themselves as matched their individual abilities. A perfect example of this is the work of Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut on Fritz Lang’s The Nibelungen. Here is a drawing by Hunte of the dragon by the waterfall.

Gouache painting of the dragon for Die Nibelungen by Otto Hunte.

Gouache painting of the dragon for Die Nibelungen by Otto Hunte.

Being the more technically trained, Kettelhut elaborated on the design by drawing the technical requirements of the dragon to carry out the action called out in the script.

Technical drawing of the Dragon by Erich Kettelhut

Technical drawing of the Dragon by Erich Kettelhut

Kettelhut carefully described how the giant action prop was to be built and operated both with stage requirements as well as the on-board personnel’s responsibilities.

drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

Enlargement of Kettelhut’s drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

The size and depth of the recessed path required for the props operators.

The size and depth of the recessed path required for the props operators.

Kettelhut called out the length of the neck as well as the tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out "only rubber!" for the mouth area.

Kettelhut called out the length of the neck as well as the eye detail, tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out “only rubber!” for the mouth area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the scene from the film where Siegfried finds and kills the dragon. The effect is quite crude by our modern film standards but must have been thrilling for a public new to such spectacles. Imagine the lot of the half dozen stagehands stuck inside the big, airless prop as it bellows smoke from inside it. Notice the large forest and mountain sets created for the film, truly epic efforts for the time.