The Original Pre-Viz Tool – A DIY Lens Angle Calculator


Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.

Some of my collection of traditional studio lens angle templates. The ones on the left are for long lenses while the ones on the right are wide-angle lens. The third from the left is a zoom lens template.



Pre-vis Before Previs

Before the term “Pre-visualization” ever existed, there was the lens angle template. These were a staple of any Hollywood studio Art Department and were used when laying out a set to determine camera angles, backing sizes needed, rear projection screens and planning back-projected set illustrations for the producer and director to approve sets long before there were 3D computer programs.

There was a time when a basic knowledge of optics and lenses was considered mandatory and was necessary not only because the Art Director would design the sets to be shot in a specific way but this information was needed when designing effects shots such as forced perspective sets, glass shots and the like.

Todd AO template

A template for a 100mm to 300mm zoom lens in the Todd AO format. Todd AO was an early 70mm film format with an aspect ratio of 2.20.

The templates were for a single lens, usually a prime lens, and were made using 1/8″ or 1/4″ thick plexiglas. The projection lines were scratched or engraved into the acrylic, sometimes by a Set Designer but other times they were made by the studio sign shop. Some of my examples are obviously done with a hand held engraving tool while others have been done with a lettering template and have inked letters.

Todd AO lens template

Each template had two sets of projection lines, one set for the horizontal plane (for use with a plan view) and another for the vertical plane, for use with scale room elevations. Most are made for use with 1/4″ scale drawings but they are accurate for any orthographic drawing because the angle is unaffected by the scale. Most will have markings to note the distances from the lens entrance pupil in 1/4″ scale.

angle of view

The “Quick View”

By the 1990’s, there were so many different formats and lens combinations most of us in the Art Department in Hollywood carried thick manila envelopes of acetates of the various focal lengths, but I always seemed to be missing one that I needed and I found some were inaccurate from being cloned so many times. In 1998 I designed a device that had all the available formats and prime lenses  so you could just dial up the one you needed. I redesigned it in 2008 to include the digital formats but sold out of them a year ago.

I stopped having them made since they were expensive but hated to see them become obsolete since they are still so useful. For a director, they are the perfect way to see if a shot is possible at a location or see the limitations of a particular lens on a set when you can’t rely on wild walls.

Making A Quick View

Yours won’t be on Lexan like the originals were but will be sturdy enough plus cheap enough to replace if it’s damaged or lost. Download the files below and take them to your nearest copy center and have both the dial and the nomen printed on clear acetate. They don’t have to be printed at exactly 100% but they should be at the same scale to each other. Then you just line up the center marks and use a compass point or push pin to pierce the centers, creating a pivot point in place of the brass rivet as in the photo above.

The diagrams from the original instruction manual will explain how to use them. You’ll note that I’ve added a feature that wasn’t on the originals, a protractor which will tell you the angle of a selected lens.

Quick View II User Manual_2

Quick View II User Manual_3



The World’s Oldest Film Scenery?

The title ends in a question mark because I’m not sure I have a definitive answer yet on my search for the the oldest existing scenery from a film. So, I’m asking everyone out there to help me with this quest.

The stage of the oldest intact film studio in Sweden, and maybe the world. photo by Reinhold Fryksmo

The stage of the oldest intact film studio in Sweden,  and maybe the world. photo by Reinhold Fryksmo


Let’s use this as a starting point: in Kristianstad, Sweden there is what is reported to be the oldest intact film studio from the silent period. Inside the studio museum (Kristianstad Filmmuseet) is a display in what was the original glass-walled studio space. It is dressed as a set from the 1909 film, Fänrik Ståls Sägner, one of three films made at the Kristianstad Biograf-Teater that year. The scenery appeared throughout the film apparently as the same space was used for a number of different scenes. The main element is a multi-panel theatrical style flat painted with a Trompe-l’œil design. If this is truly the original set piece then this is in excellent condition for a 105 year-old flat.

A closer look at the flats. photo by Lotten Bergman

A closer look at the flats. photo by Lotten Bergman

So is this the oldest film scenery in existence? I’d love to hear from other Art Department people out there from around the world with older examples.

Atmospheric Theaters – When The Theater Was Part Of The Show


In the United States the period of the ornate Movie Palaces lasted from around 1915 to the 1940’s. In that short period thousands of ornate theaters were built all over the country. Of the several genres of architecture that were created during that period, the Atmospheric theaters came the closest to blending the new media of film with theaters’ stage drama roots.

Architect and Designer John Eberson

Architect and Designer John Eberson

The Atmospheric movement was created by John Eberson, a stage designer and architect who immigrated from Europe. Having studied electrical engineering in Dresden, he took an apprenticeship with a theatrical designer in St. Louis and worked as a set designer and scenic painter. His first theater design was for a ‘picture house’ in Hamilton, Ohio. By 1926 he had perfected his ‘atmospheric’ concept with the creation of the Majestic Theater in Houston, Texas. Earning the nickname “Opera House John”, he would design over 500 atmospheric movie palaces by the end of his career.


Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

For the average American, spending an evening in one of these theaters was as close to a trip to Europe as they could ever hope to have. Usually designed with European themes, Eberson’s designs featured large coved ceilings that gave the illusion of sitting outside in a courtyard with facades on either side. The ceilings were painted sky blue and a projector called a Brenograph was used to project moving clouds and stars on the deeply coved ceilings.

Eberson's drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Eberson’s drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Most of the facades detail and ornament were executed in traditional staff of plaster and hemp fiber, painted and gilded.

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

As with most popular trends, the atmospheric theme was quickly picked up by others and expanded throughout the country where the palaces were built even in small rural towns. One such theater is the Holland Theater in Bellefontaine, Ohio, built in 1931. The theater is the only known theater with a 17th century Dutch motif and features a twinkling star ceiling and turning windmills. Turned into a 5 screen multiplex in the 1980’s the theater was hut down in 1998. In 2009 the theater was reopened as a live theater venue and the interior is slowly being restored back to it’s original look.

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it's painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it’s painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades


Wayne Manor Was A Remodel – Delineating Set Walls on Drawings

Often when sets are designed there is either an advantage or a mandate to using existing flats for a set’s construction. Sometimes a standing set is revamped or stock set walls are pulled from storage to either save money or time or both, particularly in Television where there is never enough of either.

Universal Studios was famous for revamping sets to the point that some sets were merely repainted and dressed for a TV series when a show required numerous sets. I spent my first years in television at Universal and the Production Designers there were experts at reusing stock units from the large stock sheds on the lot. In recent times some designers resist the idea of reusing scenery but audiences rarely ever notice when they are seeing a stock set. The practice was much more widespread in the early days of TV when there were actual studios in existence who saw the value in having large amounts of stock scenery and made efforts to catalogue and maintain it.

The problem from a Set Designer’s perspective is how to delineate the different walls on the drawings to communicate what is what. Each studio had a slightly different nomenclature, as I learned on my first show at Universal on Murder She Wrote. One day the foreman called from the stage. “Where the hell are all these stock walls you’ve got on this drawing?” he asked. I was confused until I realized they used a different delineator symbol than what I’d always used.

Some of the nomenclature was universal (no pun intended). A thin line on the plan meant the wall was existing and standing in place. it was rarely dimensioned on the drawing. A thick line at most studios meant it was a stock wall and was accompanied by it’s stock number. At 20th Century Fox, this line was also pochéd (shaded). A hatched line denoted new construction except for drawings done at MGM and Universal Studios where it meant the wall was stock. A thick line to these art departments denoted a new wall.

At 20th Century Fox Studios when they were planning a television version of Batman in 1965, the producers were on a limited budget to make the pilot. As the show required numerous sets and the Batcave interior was going to take a big chunk of the construction budget, they cruised the stages on the lot to see what sets might be standing that they could reuse, particularly something that would stand in for Wayne Manor as the script called for a well-appointed mansion.

According to Ed Hudson, long-time manager of the Art Department, the producers heard that the TV series 12 O’clock High was going to be using one of their main sets less, a reproduction of an English Tutor mansion that stood on Stage 18 and was used as the headquarters of the squadron. The network had decided the show didn’t have enough action scenes to keep the young crowd engaged and planned to shoot more of the show ‘in the air’ with scenes in the planes and less talkie scenes on the ground.

Shown below is a copy of the original plan and elevations showing the various wall types, dated September 1965. For those of you wondering, the Bat poles are at Elevation H.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

Once the network accepted the pilot, a permanent set matching it was built on Stage 24. With minor alterations, the original set was duplicated as seen in this November 1965 drawing below. Note that the walls drawn as ‘standing’ on the other plan are hatched for new construction.

Batman_Wayne Manor2_copy

The exterior of the house was an actual location, a house at 380 South San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena. It’s my guess that the location was chosen after the interior set was built.

Having a standing set influence the look of another permanent set is more common than you would think. The set for the 1993 comedy The Nanny, was a reused and slightly revamped stock set from a show called Sibs, which had been shot on the same stage and never made it past the pilot stage.

When the 2010 NBC series Parenthood started, the main characters house was based on a home in Malibu canyon where the exterior shooting was planned. The site was surveyed and had been reproduced on stage by the time the deal between the homeowner and the studio fell through. With no time to redesign, the producers were stuck with the houses look. When the exterior of the house was duplicated on the backlot at Universal the next year, it was a close copy of a house that was never shot for the series.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot.   photo by NBC Television.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot. photo by NBC Television.

One thing that producers aren’t is psychic, much to their dismay, and you never know if you have a hit or a flop on your hands until the public sees it, and even then you can’t be sure. When the pilot for the original Batman series was tested it tested worse than any other show the network had done. Considering shelving the series, luckily they decided to air it since so much money and already been spent on the show, not knowing it would become a cultural phenomenon.

The HMS Bounty And The Blockbuster That Was Never Made

The Bounty in 2010. photo by Ebyabe

On October 29, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the U.S. east coast, a distress call went out to the Coast Guard from the crew of the HMS Bounty. The ship was four days into a bid to avoid the ship being destroyed in harbor by the storm. The captain had decided that the best way to save the ship was to go to sea and sail around the hurricane. Now being swamped by 30 foot waves, the crew was forced to abandon ship. The captain and one of the crew were lost at sea before the remainder of the crew were rescued by Coastguard helicopters. Hours later I saw a photo of the ravaged ship as it went down, its’ mast tops shredded and its’ yards torn away.

The HMS Bounty goes down off the coast of North Carolina. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski/ /U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

I looked at it and remembered climbing the shroud lines up to the main mast top and looking out to sea almost exactly 18 years before while surveying the ship for a film. It was to be a remake of the classic Errol Flynn pirate film, Captain Blood, and it would have been the most expensive film made to date. But the films fortunes were as bad as those of the Bounty turned out to be.

The HMS Bounty’s Rebirth

The ship was commissioned by MGM in 1960 for the 1962 film Mutiny On The Bounty starring Marlon Brando. Built in Nova Scotia, it was the first large vessel built using original ship’s plans. To make allowances for shooting and to hold a larger crew, the ship’s deck length was increased from nearly 91 feet to 120 feet with the beam, masting and rigging increased in proportion to the new hull length. Once the film was completed, the studio had planned on burning the ship but Brando protested and the Bounty ended up in Florida. It went through several owners before Ted Turner bought the ship and in 1993 donated it to an educational foundation where it was sent to a new home port in Falls River, Massachusetts.

dock in 1994

Bounty in dry dock in 1994

When we went to survey her in 1994, she was on the rails in dry dock, a number of her futtocks were in need of replacement but we were assured the work would be completed in time for filming. Three of us crawled all over the ship the entire day, taking measurements, hundreds of photographs and video to document the existing structure for as-built drawings. Since the story of Captain Blood takes place in the 1680’s, over 100 years before the original Bounty, the ship was to be converted to an earlier vessel which meant applying a different stern, rigging and bow.

The ship still had most of it’s original fittings including the brick oven and the hand grained paneling below deck. Other than the repairs on the futtocks, she seemed still intact after over 30 years of sailing.

View from the main mast top. Photo- R.D. Wilkins

View from the main mast top. Photo- R.D. Wilkins

The Bounty's brick oven. photo - R.D. Wilkins

The Bounty’s brick oven. photo – R.D. Wilkins

The crew mess area. photo - R.D. Wilkins

The crew mess area. photo – R.D. Wilkins

hand-grained partitions below deck. photo-R.D. Wilkins

hand-grained partitions below deck. photo-R.D. Wilkins

Survey photo of the fore bits. photo - R.D. Wilkins

Survey photo of the fore bits. photo – R.D. Wilkins

The great wheel and binnacle. photo - R.D. Wilkins

The great wheel and binnacle. photo – R.D. Wilkins

View of the stern from the main top. photo - R.D. Wilkins

View of the stern from the mizzen top. photo – R.D. Wilkins

Drawing done from survey measurements in 1994. R.D. Wilkins

Drawing done from survey measurements in 1994. R.D. Wilkins

Period rigging details

Period rigging details for Bounty conversion.

Captain Blood Sails Again

Back in Los Angeles, design work proceeded under the leadership of Production Designer William Creber, who had been nominated for Oscars three times before. The Set Decorator was Eddie Fowlie, David Lean’s right-hand man who had done props and sometimes effects as well for the classic films, Lawrence of Arabia, and fulfilled five different roles on Doctor Zhivago as well as other films. When asked by the studio which credit he wanted for Zhivago, he first replied he didn’t care but decided on a special effects credit since it had involved the most work. He later wished he had picked another title since the effects were so good they were virtually ignored. It appeared to all that the film was made in snow in winter when it was actually shot in Spain, with thousands of tons of cheap marble dust used as snow. The beautiful winter ice palace interior was actually carefully applied paraffin. He had come out of retirement to do the picture, leaving his home in Spain. We were all a bit in awe of both of them, particularly Eddie given his pedigree with Lean. The director had just had his last film explode at the box-office and was the hot ticket in town. The scripts scribes were equally hot commodities and had recent successes of their own.

The plan was to do a remake of the popular Errol Flynn film from 1935, even though the common thought at the time was that pirate movies didn’t make money, (Jerry Bruckheimer would prove this wrong a few years later.) Popular yes, profitable no, This was mainly because of the cost involved in making them. Besides being a period film, it would involve creating a huge 17th century battle, creating at least four different period sailing ships and recreating a large section of the town of Port Royal. The initial projected budget suggested that it would be possibly the most expensive film made to date. That being the case, there were only a few stars that the studio was willing to gamble their money on, and the first choice was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Proposed artwork for a promotional poster for the film.

Proposed artwork for a promotional poster for the film.

I was eager to quiz Eddie about his time with David Lean but he seemed a bit aloof and obviously did not suffer fools gladly. So, I thought I would offer something he would find useful. I brought in a rare out-of-print set of books from my library of which part was an inventory of ships of the period. One section listed every piece of equipment you could find aboard with illustrations and measured drawings, a Set Decorators dream. He looked up at me over the top of his glasses when I entered his office. “Eddie, I thought these might be a good reference for you”, I said as I laid the books open in front of him.

His jaw dropped slightly as he silently thumbed through them for several minutes. Without looking up he said, “Where did you get these wonderful books?” Then he said it reminded him of how he had done the props for Lawrence Of Arabia. He had an illustrator do a drawing of each piece he needed. The he posted them on his wall and would bring the various local artisans to his office, point to the drawings and indicate how many he needed.

I realized why you could never make a film like Lawrence today the same way and why the Art Departments of the period were so small. Today something like a camel’s saddle would be drawn in multiple versions by several illustrators, modeled in Rhino or Modo by as many as three different set designers, rendered, redesigned, remodeled, re-rendered, finally approved by the director, and only then would a set of working drawings be made. Eddie just found a person who understood what it was he wanted, gave him a sketch and told him how many he needed. But this was a time when directors hired people they trusted and let them do their job. They understood that THEIR job was defining the story and script and concentrated on camera placement and performance and didn’t involve selecting drawer hardware.

After that Eddie would chat about he times with Lean in the afternoons at tea time, which didn’t involve tea for Eddie, who preferred beer. He’d found a local shop in Santa Monica that carried imported beer, so each day when we’d walk to lunch, ( those were the days when we actually stopped for a proper lunch and didn’t eat hunched over our desks ) we would buy him two cans of his favorite beer.

drawing for 18 pounder cannon tubes. At over 9 feet long, these were even shorter than the largest guns.

Drawing for 18 pounder cannon tubes. At over 9 feet long, these were even shorter than the largest guns to be made.

drawing of gun equipment

drawing of gun equipment

One day one of the producers was talking about the ship cannons and I showed him a mock-up of the cannon shot for the large 32 pounder cannon. He frowned as he took the 6 1/2 inch diameter ball and said it seemed puny. I walked him around the corner to where I had taped a full size silhouette of the gun that fired it, which was over 10 feet long and more than 4 feet high. He was shocked. It was then that I made the mistake of mentioning that the opening battle scene was based on a real battle, the Battle of Sedgemore in 1685. He looked surprised and said, “you’re kidding?” I said that not only was that based on history but the main character was also based on a real man named Henry Pitman. “That’s fantastic!” he said. I’m sure in his head he could see that sought-after card ‘based on a true story’ in the title sequence at the front of the film.

This revelation caused a lot of excitement and they asked me to do a little presentation for the director and producers about the real events behind the film. A few days later when I began the presentation, the enthusiasm quickly died. As I told them the real story it became readily apparent that serious liberties had been taken in Sabatini’s original book and worse, the events portrayed in the script didn’t match the real story either. The carefully crafted battle scene that took place at night in the swirling snow had actually happened in the middle of July where heatstroke would have been more a likelihood than frostbite.

It was then that I realized two important truths about the film industry;

1. – Working on a film about a subject you know a lot about is usually a very frustrating and ultimately disappointing experience.

2. – If someone, other than the Production Designer, says they want to know what it really was or looked like, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll change what they already have in their mind.

Most people just want research that is going to confirm or validate what they already have in the script or the image they have in their head. Maybe that’s human nature but it’s the same reason composers hate the temp music used during editing. After months of hearing a tune connected to a picture the director will end up wanting something “just like that tune”. It’s almost routine for a director to question a designer’s design choice by demanding to see research. And then when the image which validates the design is produced, the director will insist, “well, I still want my version instead.” Research that doesn’t validate their own ideas is worse than useless to them because it just points out their own ideas are many times based more on Hollywood clichés than reality.

Everything was proceeding nicely when we be can to hear rumblings that Schwarzenegger was thinking about pulling out of the movie. It was rumored that he had an extended ski trip planned that conflicted with the schedule. Someone else suggested that he was worried he would look ridiculous in 17th century knee breeches. For whatever the reason, a week later it was confirmed that he had pulled out of the picture. The momentum slowed to a crawl. With a picture this large, particularly a picture partly shot at sea, the weather plays a large role. If the schedule was pushed we would be into hurricane season in the tropics and that was something the studio didn’t want to contemplate. Another actor would have to be found and fast.

Because of the estimated budget, the studio sent a list of just five other actors that they considered to be enough of a box office draw to make the film feasible. I leave it to you to guess who those five were. As the week went by, each actor on the list passed until there was just one who had yet to decide.

In my naiveté, I had regularly been collating and forwarding research from my library that I though would be useful but never got a response about it. As each script revision happened it became apparent that it was being tailored to Arnold’s action hero persona with ever greater feats of daring and super-human agility. That last Friday, I got a call from the director’s assistant. She asked if I could send her additional copies of the all the research I’d been sending over to the director saying that the originals had been ‘lost’. The director was scheduled to leave on a plane for Paris that evening and wanted to take the research with him. It turns out the actor who was the film’s last hope was interested, but only if it was going to be a historically motivated picture. I wasn’t sure how they were going to explain why the script was so different from the research.

I don’t think I need to tell you what the actor’s decision was.

The Motion Picture Art Director – Yesterday And Today

Back in the 1940’s the Art Director’s Guild, known then as the Society Of Motion Picture Art Directors, created a chart outlining the exciting responsibilities of an Art Director, which is posted below.  In 1994 I created a revised version which, I thought, seemed like a more accurate representation of the job. Looking it over today I think a newer version is in order. Your suggestions are most welcome.

The responsibilities of the motion picture Art Director of the 1940’s.

The Art Director of “Today”

What’s Wrong With The Film Industry?

Photo by Mike Finklestein via Flickr

Following the ouster of Rich Ross as chairman of Disney Studios, UCLA Professor Emeritus Howard Suber posted a recent article about an influential investor who wrote a report to the Paramount Studios board entitled, “What’s Wrong With The Film Industry?”

Here are some of his main points:

-The constant turnover of the production head of the studio is disastrous.

-The conflict and turnover caused by the buying and selling of companies causes          confusion, uncertainty, and weakens morale in the production areas.

-Authority is not clearly defined.

-Overhead is indefensibly high.

-Budget estimates are not complete or accurate when shooting begins.

-Budgets are a joke, since they are exceeded with impunity.

-Shooting schedules are disregarded; scripts are not ready when shooting begins.

-The write-off on stories and contracts is enormous. Screenplay costs are excessive.

-Producers hold exorbitant contracts, and there is no relationship between a producer’s salary and the box-office success of his pictures.

The analyst concluded that it would probably be a smart move to put someone in charge as Head of Production who actually had extensive film-making experience.

The analyst was Joseph P. Kennedy, father of J.F.K., who was involved in both Pathe and RKO. The report was written in 1936.

It’s hard to know whether to be surprised, disheartened or amused that so much hasn’t changed over the last 76 years. It will be interesting  ( or gut-wrenching, depending on your mental vantage point ) to see where it all leads us.

Will the continuing tide of runaway production be Hollywood’s final undoing, or are we all on a big merry-go-round that brings us back to the same spot with a calculable regularity?

Suber writes an excellent blog entitled The Power of Film where he posts some very insightful articles. Check them out.

The Academy and the 50% Pay Cut

The performance seen that morning may not have been the best one of the year, but it certainly was the most profitable for a select group of people.

It was Bank Day, March 8, 1933. In the wake of the bank failures at the onset of the Great Depression, Roosevelt had closed the banks in order to give the government some breathing space to restructure the financial system. For Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios, it was a prime opportunity to once again lower the wage bar in the film industry.

Left, Louis B. Mayer, on the right is Irving Thalberg (Academy archives)

The talent contracted to the studio had been asked to assemble in the largest screening room on the lot (now the Cary Grant Theater). Mayer entered, red-eyed, unshaven and looking morose. He proceeded to lay out the current status of the film industry as he saw it. He told the assembly that every studio in town was on the verge of shutting down and that the industry as a whole could come to an end. Mayer said that they needed to institute a 50% pay cut for two months for those making more than $50 a week. Those making less would take a 25% cut. He said he wouldn’t be able to institute the cuts unless the assembled group would agree to it. Mayer said, “I, Louis B. Mayer, will work to see that you get back every penny when this terrible emergency is over.”

One writer stood and said he was confused at how it had come to this considering the number of successful movies the studio had recently released. The actor Lionel Barrymore chastised the man for not being a team player and lead the entire group in eagerly agreeing to the wage cuts.

All over town at the other studios, coincidently, the same scene was taking place as assembled studio employees were told the industry was on the verge of complete collapse if they, too, didn’t take a 50% pay cut. And, as at MGM, the employees were told that the pay-cuts had been recommended and approved by the Academy which gave it, they hoped, the imprimatur of the group that supposedly had the best interests of both the employees and owners.

A young story editor named Samuel Marx followed Mayer and another exec as they walked back to their offices after the meeting. Mayer seemed to not know the story editor could hear him as he turned to the other exec and asked, smiling, “How did I do?” It had been a carefully crafted performance.

The original entrance gates at MGM - Lugo Cerra collection

It had also been no coincidence that all the studios had decided on insisting on a 50% pay cut. Jack Warner would later admit that the studio execs had gotten together and decided among themselves on the pay cuts and only later claimed that it had been voted on by the entire Academy. MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, argued that the cuts would hurt moral. He couldn’t have been more correct. Mayer had pointed out that the executives themselves had taken a 35% pay cut for one year. But this did not include the huge bonuses paid out to a small handful of people. 20 to 25 percent of the net profit on the studio’s pictures was divided annually among them.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had its’ beginnings on January 1927, when Mayer invited 36 of the most influential players in Hollywood to a dinner at the Ambassador Hotel where he proposed the organization.  The non-profit organization would both create standards for the industry as well as be an advocate for those in the industry, arbitrating contracts between the studios and talent.  And, it would be a good public-relations move for the studios and be a way of increasing public interest in Hollywood.

It was the role of labor-arbitrator which was the most questionable. As an organization which had been started by and heavily influenced by the studio heads, it was ridiculous to think that it could be an impartial body in labor negotiations. In actuality, the organization’s role of supposedly advocating for film industry employees, would help prevent unionization of the studios by the talent for a number of years. Mayer and the other studio heads weren’t as concerned with having to pay the talent more as much as they were concerned with losing complete creative control over their films.

The first Academy Awards banquet in 1929 - Academy archives

The Academy Awards themselves were an afterthought. Mayer himself conceived of the awards as being a way to curry favor with the talent. He later said, “I found the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”

For the studio talent, the 50% cuts the studios now asked for were galling and weren’t made easier by the Academy’s ‘approval’ of them, particularly because this was not the first time it had happened. The Academy had also ‘approved’ cuts in 1927 and 1931, and just the year before, Mayer had asked his employees to take a cut again, which the actors patently refused to do. In the economic crisis of the bank collapse, Mayer saw the opportunity to again roll back wages.

Thalberg’s warnings had been prophetic, and the grumblings about the Academy’s worthlessness as a labor arbitrator were evident to all. The screenwriter Brian Marlow turned to a friend and said, “Okay, then, the obvious conclusion to this crap is our need to have a union.” While many of the studio workers were organized under I.A.T.S.E., the creative talent had no representation. The writers, in particular worked under particularly egregious conditions. With no protections, writers could end up having to either share their credits with another person who had contributed very little to the script, or could end up getting no credit at all and finding that the script was credited to the producer’s relative.

Within a month, many screenwriters and actors decided that the Academy was not truly looking out for their interests and formed what would become the Screen Writer’s Guild, (a precursor of the Writer’s Guild of America), the Screen Actor’s Guild, and in 1937, The Society of Motion Picture Art Directors would be formed. Mayer promptly forgot his promise to return “every penny” of forfeited wages and would see record personal profits in the next few years.

It was later estimated that the cuts saved the studio nearly $800,000, much of which went to executive bonuses. The impact on Mayers’ personal finances was soon evident and he became the first man in America to make one million dollars a year. For nearly a decade he would be the highest paid man in the country.

For further reading:

  • “Lion Of Hollywood –  The life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer” by Scott Eyman
  • “The Inquisition in Hollywood -Politics in the Film Community”  by Larry Ceplair &   Steven Englund
  • “Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints” by Samuel Marx

No Dogs or “Movies” Allowed

‘[ In the early 1900’s] some citizens of Hollywood regarded the activities of the motion –  picture people with dismay, feeling as though their respectable town had been overrun by gypsies. Film people were called “movies” by Hollywood residents, who were unaware that the term referred to the product, not the personnel. The word conjured up the right sort of vision; it was vaguely suggestive of irritating insects.’

“The Parade’s Gone By” p. 37

Early motion picture personnel were at the bottom rung of the ladder as far as the locals were concerned. Apartment buildings often had signs posted declaring neither persons owning animals nor those having employment in the film industry would be rented to. The iconic  and once luxurious Garden Court Apartments, which stood on Hollywood Blvd., held out against admitting actors until 1918.

The town was flooded by young people, believing it was easy to break into the glitzy new industry as ‘extras’. Thousands arrived, particularly young women who were shocked to find that not only had thousands of others had the same idea but the studios were not centrally located and were actually many miles apart making it difficult just to visit the various casting offices in a single day.

The town soon began publishing notices around the country, trying to impress on young wanna-be actors as to the reality of the situation and discouraging them from coming to Hollywood without a contract or contacts. Hordes of youth faced starvation, poverty, and sometimes even suicide.

1920 notice published in other city newspapers by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce

By 1922 there were over 30,000 people in Hollywood seeking extras work. The oversupply naturally led to exploitation of young women and the industry soon had a PR nightmare on their hands. Some officials were calling for government regulation which is the last thing the production companies wanted. Republican Party leader Will Hays, creator of the infamous Hays Code, would try to alleviate the situation by creating Central Casting as a way to control the pandemonium which was occurring daily at the studio lots. It gave the process legitimacy but it failed to stem the flow of eager youth into the once-sleepy town.

Central Casting Office in 1929

Art Directing Bomb Targets

Remnants of “German Village” and observation bunker – HAER archives , HAER UTAH, 23 DUG, 2A-2

In the middle of the Utah desert there stands a brick three-story copy of an early 20th century German tenement building, a relic of World War II and a secret program that involved the RKO Studios Art Department.

Stories about Hollywood’s creative elite being involved with the military during World War II are part of its history and mystique. But it wasn’t until recently that I had found much information about any exploits involving Art Directors or Art Department personnel in the war effort beyond work on films contracted by the government.

Remaining structure from 1943 – U.S. Army photo

While I was doing some research for a documentary, I was looking through past articles in the German magazine Der Spiegel and my eye caught a story entitled,  Angriff Auf “German Village”. Curious as to why part of the title was in English, I scanned the article and saw the words “RKO Studios.” The story recounted a secret U.S. government program designed to test the effectiveness of firebombs by building a mock German and Japanese village in the middle of the Utah desert. The top-secret program would involve the help of a number of renowned architects and the RKO Studios Authenticity Division. What was the “Authenticity Division”? My interest was piqued.

Once the United States entered the war it became apparent that in the event that gas and biological weapons were used, there had to be a place far enough away from populated areas to test these and other weapons. Roosevelt set aside over 120,000 acres in the Utah desert as land for weapons testing near the Dugway Mountains. By mid 1942 The Dugway Proving Grounds was open for business.

The U. S. Army had made it a point early in the war to not target civilians during bombing raids but was now facing pressure from the British to do so. After being bombed continuously themselves, as far as the British were concerned, the ‘gloves were off’.

Churchill pushed Roosevelt to deliver 500,000 top-secret ‘N’ bombs, which contained anthrax. He surmised that with the munitions he could wipe out at least half the population of the 6 largest German cities in one week. Roosevelt blanched at the idea and his Secretary of War argued that the U.S. didn’t want to help perpetrate an atrocity on the level of Hitler’s own terrible acts. Roosevelt instead offered to provide a more effective firebomb to help in Churchill’s aim of destroying Berlin. Previous attempts with the weapon had been ineffective because of the predominately masonary construction of the tenement buildings in the city center.

Fire Hazard map of Hamburg produced by the British in 1944. The red areas show the areas most susceptible to fire

Fire Hazard map of Hamburg produced by the British in 1944. The red areas show the areas most susceptible to fire


Like nearly every major corporation, Standard Oil was contracted to work for the military during the war and began developing an improved incendiary bomb. In comparison to high explosive bombs, incendiaries were designed to start fires. Standard Oil had designed the M-69 bomb, which contained a jellied gasoline, making it harder to put out a fire it started.  When white phosphorous was added, it made a deadly combination of which even a pea-sized glob could burn a human limb down to the bone in moments.  The substance burned furiously even when submerged in water.

Roosevelt ordered it to be tested immediately and suggested that exact copies of German and Japanese houses be built to test them on.

HAER drawing of original village plan in 1943 – HAER UR-92 sheet 1

At some time in early 1943,  RKO Studios was approached by the Standard Oil Development Company to authenticate and design furnishings for the German Village portion of the test area. Many people have attributed RKO being sought out because the studio had produced Citizen Kane, but it would be years before Kane was considered the masterpiece it is today.

What is more likely is that  RKO was approached because someone at Standard Oil had been to the movies recently.

L.A. Times newspaper ad from the film – Feb. 24, 1943 – L.A. Times archive

On January 6 of that year, the studio had released a picture entitled, “Hitler’s Children” which was immediately a blockbuster and would become the biggest success of the studio to date. The film, based on a book, recounted the story of a young German-American girl trapped in Germany and forced to participate in the Lebenborn program, where young girls were encouraged to become pregnant out of wedlock to provide future soldiers for the Reich.  Because the film had a patriotic purpose, that of showing the horrors of life in Nazi Germany, the ethics board approved the film even though it contained such racy material as the lovely starlet Bonita Granville’s blouse being torn from her back and then whipped. It made for great box-office receipts. Made for around $200,000, the studio knew they had a winner the opening weekend. The Pantages Theater in Hollywood reported that “records for initial attendance were smashed to smithereens.” The film would end up making back nearly 13 times the original investment.

film still of young stars Tim Holt and Bonita Granville – RKO Pictures

The film’s director, Edward Dmytryk was one of my Directing instructors at the American Film Institute. While discussing the huge bonuses being handed out by the studios,  he recounted that “Hitler’s Children” was so successful the studio gave him a $5000 bonus. While paling in comparison to today’s bonuses, the sum was quite a substantial one at that time.

Because the movie dealt with domestic life in Germany and involved creating typical German interiors, the studio would have been an obvious choice for the job of recreating accurate dressing of civilian apartments. The Art Directors on the film were Albert D’Agostino, who was the Supervising Art Director for all RKO films, and Carroll Clark. It’s not known if they were the individuals actually involved in the government program.

photo of completed village in 1943 – U.S. Army

A local Utah contractor had been hired to build both villages, which were side-by-side. With a mandate of less than two months to complete the buildings, the contractor pleaded for help with getting manpower and was allowed to use inmates from the Utah prison as construction workers.

photo of completed Japanese homes 1943 – U.S. Army

The Japanese Village was designed by the Czech architect Antonin Raymond who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He had set up his architectural practice there and would become known as the father of modernist Japanese architecture. Intimately familiar with the typical wooden structure of Japanese houses, he provided construction drawings and suggestions for building materials.

The German Village had been designed with assistance from the famous architects Erich Mendelsohn, Konrad Wachsmann and others from the Walter Gropius group at Harvard.  The structure was designed as a duplex unit divided into 6 apartments, all having a second floor and an attic, which was the most flammable part of the building.

construction details of German tenements – U.S. Army

The structure was mostly masonry and the floors of this type of building were not only more massive, they contained a 3 1/2 inch cinder infill that made it very difficult for a fire to burn more than the upper floor and attic. Because of this the first floor was left unfurnished and only the top floor was dressed.

The list of furnishings needed to dress the buildings for the tests was staggering considering they had to all be built in a very short time. Over 760 pieces of furniture were called for as well as over 700 mattresses, pillows and drapes and over 900 tatami mats were needed for the Japanese buildings.

Every tatami mat in San Francisco and Hawaii was rounded up and sent to Utah. When these proved insufficient, others were constructed using Mexican ixtle fiber as a substitute. A shipment of lumber from Murmansk was captured and used to simulate Japanese building materials and rattan was used in place of bamboo.

German tenements after first bomb test – U.S. Army

The German Village was a block of 6 rowhouses built back-to-back to mimic the German ‘mietskaserne’ or ‘rent barracks’ which were the typical low rent living quarters in the large cities such as Berlin. Normally 5 to 6 stories high, the ones built at Dugway were only two stories plus the attic area. The attics were the only portion of the brick buildings that were mainly wood and were the target of the incendiaries.

One side was built with the western German style of slate over boards while the other side’s roof was covered with tiles over battens as was common in Berlin. Douglas Fir and Southern Pine were used to simulate the typical German Kiefer wood for the flooring, roof joists and beams. Because the tests needed to be as accurate as possible, soldiers were assigned to constantly spray the exposed inner framework with water to keep the wood’s moisture content from falling in the desert’s low humidity.

photo of existing attic in 2007 showing scorch marks from original tests. U.S. Army

The furnishings design had been contracted to a New York designer and much of the furnishings were built there. But the sheer number of pieces involved required several other entities, including the RKO prop shop, to create pieces as well with the RKO staff approving the designs and construction materials. Samples of German drapery and bed linens were tested for flammability and similar fabrics were procured.

Once the furnishings were completed and had arrived at the site on May 14, two  RKO staff members supervised the installation based on the interior layout created by the art department. The small rooms were filled to match the congested look of the average German tenement apartment with beds, sofas, cabinets, cribs, table and chairs and the furnishings were completed with the addition of cushions, bed and crib linens and window dressings.

dressed “German” apartment before tests

The black and white photographs taken of the rooms on May 16, 1943, the night before the tests began, look much like set stills that the RKO employees would have taken of hundreds of other sets before. The villages had been completed in 44 days. Bomb tests were begun the next day and were repeated for nearly four months. Each time the structures were quickly repaired and refurnished.

dressed “Japanese” house

Unfortunately there is nothing in the Standard Oil report that names personnel involved with the project.  In the acknowledgement the credit reads – “RKO Studios – Authenticity Division”. So the question is, who were the two individuals from RKO who supervised the final set dressing and who were the other members of the Authenticity Division at RKO?  Several days of research including an afternoon at the Motion Picture Academy library turned up nothing on an ‘RKO Authenticty Division’.

page 16 from Standard Oil Report

What I think most likely happened is that the technical writer who prepared the report, called the studio to find out who to attribute the work to. When he was told the “Art Department”, they most likely assumed the person at the studio was mistaken as the work involved more than artwork, and thus created the title “Authenticity Division” as this more clearly described their contribution. Who exactly those individuals were will probably never be known.

2007 photograph of interior of the existing building – HAER UTAH, 23 DUG, 2A-10

You can learn more about “German Village” at the following site:


Historical American Engineering Record – HABS/HAER

U.S. Army – Dugway Proving Grounds

Tom Vanderbilt: Survival City – Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America, New York , Princeton Architectural Press (2002)

Standard Oil Company: Design and Construction of Typical German and Japanese Test Structures at Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah (1943)

Mike Davis: Angriff auf »German Village«, in: Der Spiegel 41/1999

Karen Weitze: HAER No. UT-35-A. und HAER No. UT-92. Historical American Engineering Record, German-Japanese Village (1995)

An article outlining the results of bombing on German cities: