Section 1: “The Set and the Scene”
This section summarizes the objective of the assignment.
(Section 2, “The Assignment,” explains your work in more specific detail –with examples.)
The purpose of this assignment is for the student to evaluate, in detail, how a particular motion picture set determines, frames, and enhances a film scene.
The assignment asks the student to isolate a single set from a motion picture and look at the set critically, analyzing it from the standpoint of film’s design in order to judge how well (or how poorly) the set accomplishes its purpose.
First, the student will choose a set from the list of films below, or suggest a choice of his or her own (ideally a film the instructor might reasonably know).
Remember that a film set — if it’s designed properly — is created as an environment in which to best play a scene, or scenes. Properly designed sets never simply express the designer’s personal taste, or mirror current trends in interior decoration or fashionable design — unless, of course, one of those approaches is dramatically appropriate. While a set can certainly be conventionally beautiful (like the ballroom of the Titanic), it can just as easily be sinister (like Jabba the Hut’s throne room).
Next, the student should consider the nature of the scene or scenes to be played on the chosen set, and describe how well the set supports and enhances the story and emotion.
The student must not simply describe the work, and compliment the design and designer. The student should specifically identify any opportunities that he or she feels were properly explored — or not. Colors, textures, or materials may, upon reflection, be judged right — or wrong. Architectural elements may create a correct, or incorrect, emotional feeling. Perhaps the set looks too clean and new — or, conversely, it may have been over-aged and distressed to the point of absurdity.
Next, the student should write a short description explaining how the set fits into the design of the film as a whole.
Finally, the student, having looked at both the pos and cons of the chosen set, should attempt to create an alternate design for the set. This concept should be different from what’s in the film. It need not fit into the design of the rest of the movie. The point is simply to suggest an alternate set concept — derived from the student’s imagination. The student’s proposal must not simply be different, however — the concept should support both the action and emotion of the scene, but in a new or different way. This alternate idea should demonstrate that the student understands the basic nature of the film at hand, and of film design in general.
Section 2: The Specific Assignment
A — First choose a set from the list below
— Or something of your own preference. For our purposes, we are interested in sets in which human actors (or cartoon characters) interact in a scene. Possible scenes might include something like a love scene or a fight scene, for instance, but not a car chase (unless the film is CARS).
FOR EXAMPLE: I’m choosing Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) bedroom, which is upstairs, above his “Cafe Americain,” in the film CASABLANCA.
B — Describe the set
Write a paragraph or two describing, in detail, the chosen set. It should be a good enough word picture that someone who had not seen the film could form a reasonable mental picture of the set. Go on to describe how the set physically accomplishes its purpose in support of the action of the scene, and thus how the set fulfills it’s emotional purpose.
FOR EXAMPLE: This room is where Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) renew their love. It’s unclear if they actually make love, but there is certainly the time, the possibility, and the mystery. The room itself is dark and mysterious. Light comes mostly from the window, so we have little idea of the furnishings. There is a sofa they sit on to talk; otherwise there’s very little else to be seen other than the simple window treatment through which romantic light comes.
C — The set in relation to the film
Go on to describe how this set fits into the visual continuity of the picture as a whole. Be concrete. Use as many adjectives as you like, applying them to the architectural environment, to actual objects, to walls, cars, machines, and other physical props used throughout the film. Link those design choices to the design choices of the specific set under consideration.
FOR EXAMPLE: The darkness of this set is the reason that it fits so well into the film’s visual continuity. As dark and mysterious as Rick’s bedroom is, the club and casino below are both very brightly lit. His business, his public life, on the ground floor, is there to be seen — all the criminality, intrigue, double-dealing, and so on in such a town, in wartime, is out in the open. Rick’s bedroom, on the other hand, while only a one flight of stairs above the cafe, is his private and very mysterious world. It’s clear that he has brought other women here, because we meet one at the beginning of the film. That makes the room even more erotic, more his domain, and very much a romantic mystery, like Rick himself.
D — Criticism of the set and the overall film design
However brilliant the design of the set, there’s likely something that might have been done better — or at least differently. Perhaps certain details detract, or even clash. Perhaps the design is timid, simply failing to go as far as it should have gone. Perhaps you’ll find the design misses the mark completely. Whether important or trivial, describe any thoughts or reservations. Don’t suggest an alternative approach yet; simply explain how the design might have sent the wrong message, an incomplete message, or possibly even no message at all.
FOR EXAMPLE: It seems almost sacrilegious finding fault with a classic like CASABLANCA. But, after some thought, it seems worth considering how the room might have expressed something more of Rick’s personality. It could have done more in the Arabian style, with beautiful lanterns and hangings. There could have been a desk at which Rick writes, or a wall of books. How about guns? Photographs? Rick clearly had a past life; nowhere in the film do we actually see any of it — it’s expressed only in dialogue. Maybe it should have been shown here.
E — Finally, suggesting an alternative design suggestion
For this part of the assignment, set aside the the scene as filmed. Think freely about what the scene’s about, what it requires dramatically. Imagine a different approach; possibly even an entirely different sort of set that might enhance the story in a different, and maybe even better, way. Be concrete. Describe the colors, textures, architectural style, and even the sort of lighting that you think would best enhance the scene. Don’t worry about being coherent with the look of the rest of the picture. Redesign the scene thinking only of the needs of the story and characters in this scene.
FOR EXAMPLE: In regard to Rick’s dark bedroom set, one particular revamp, adding an architectural element, might add significantly to the romance. The window might be made into an enclosed balcony. This is the sort of wooden structure that is often affixed to the side of a building, as you see in photos of north African cities.
Such a balcony is basically a wooden box, made of either slatted panels, or carved wooden screens. (In reality, they’re designed to provide ventilation, while maintaining privacy.) If Rick and Ilsa played their scene in such a structure, it would create all sorts of interesting lighting possibilities — romantic combinations of backlight or patterned front light, filtered through the screens. Lighting effects could create a sense of cars racing on the street, or searchlights crossing the city — boosting the sense of danger and eroticism.
EX. The love scene inside the car in the cargo hold in TITANIC
You might find it helpful to add frame blowups to your essay, to illustrate your points. This is not a necessity — it’s just an idea that might make your thoughts clearer and more interesting to both of us.