Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. . .

It was in the 1920’s that the Art Director first gained a prominent position within the industry. Suddenly directors were forced to consider designed sets that were made to either strongly suggest camera position or to lock one in, as with forced perspective or foreground miniatures.

Men who were trained architects and designers who had been sucked into the studio system had to deal with people who were jealous of this new intruder into the filmmaking process, and did all they could to minimize their influence.

Joseph Urban (1872-1933) was a trained Viennese architect and theatrical designer who had not only designed numerous buildings throughout Europe but was well-respected for his theatrical designs for the Ziegfield Follies. Convinced to come to Hollywood by Randolph Hearst to design a Marion Davies picture, Urban soon found he was unwanted by studio carpenters who were used to building whatever they felt like rather than working from drawings. One carpenter distrusted his designs for a Spanish house and brought in his own reference to copy. Urban had to gently point out that the man’s pictures were actually of a French chateau.

Photo of Joseph Urban

Photoplay Magazine in October of 1920 described a meeting Urban had with one director who described a Buddist Temple that he wanted constructed for a dream sequence.

“You build it right there, about three feet high”, the director told him. “I wheel it up or push it back –  she gets big or she gets small, just as I place the platform; you know what I mean?

“Yes”, murmured Urban, “I know. You want a rubber temple.”

Urban would go on to serve as Art Director, Set Designer and Set Decorator on nearly 30 pictures, as well as simultaneously having a successful architecture career on the East coast.

You can read more about him here:

He Had To Draw

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'