Design Plus: The Art of the Movie Set

An exhibition of Wes Anderson movie sets in London provokes thoughts on the crucial role of design in cinema.

by Mark Tungate , Adforum

Being a fan of both Wes Anderson and extravagant set designs, I got a little excited earlier this month when I heard that some of the sets and puppets from the director’s new animated tale, Isle of Dogs, were about to go on show in London. 
And, yes indeed, you can go and ogle the sets (for free!) at a creative and event space called The Store X (180 The Strand) until April 5. The highlight, of course, is the titular island of trash to which the dogs are exiled by a canine-hating mayor. Although the story is set in Japan, the film was shot at 3 Mills Studios in East London.
Anderson’s films are well known for their precise symmetry and lovingly detailed sets, The Grand Budapest Hotel being one obvious but by no means solitary example. However, it wasn’t Wes who got me interested in set design (or production design, which embraces the entire visual look of a movie) as an art form. That was a man named Bond – James Bond.



Like many kids, I was wowed by the over-the-top interiors inhabited by Bond’s enemies, notably the volcano rocket silo in You Only Live Twice and the submersible base in The Spy Who Loved Me
Those – and others like them – were designed by the same man: production design genius Ken Adam. Not only did Adam design the sets for all the most over-the-top Bond movies (from Dr. No to Moonraker) he also created the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He won an Oscar for his work on the 18th century interiors of Barry Lyndon, also directed by Kubrick. He died in 2016, at the age of 95.
Since reading an article about Adam in a movie magazine years ago, I’ve been highly sensitive to great sets. I recently went to see the movie Call Me By Your Name (excellent, by the way) partly because a number of people on Instagram remarked on the beauty of the Italian villa in which the drama plays out. Indeed, the villa is almost a character in the film.
The real-life 17th century Villa Albergoni is in Lombardy. When the movie’s director, Luca Guadagnino, visited it on the advice of a friend, he found it melancholy yet beautiful.  At the start of the shoot it was also, according to interior designer Violante Visconti di Modrone, “mostly empty”. I was delighted to find full details of her work in a recent New York Times article.
Although I don’t actually dream of living in a movie set, the villa is currently for sale, so if you’re sufficiently wealthy you could buy a slice of movie history. Superhero fans are less fortunate, however: I recently learned that Tony Stark’s ultra-sleek pad from the Iron Man movies is a CGI creation.