By Brass Tacks Production Design.
The built environment is more than just a background, it serves to aid the film’s narrative. Assigning personality to your production design can reflect the motives of their inhabitants or dictate its mood and atmosphere.
The following article reflects on Stuart Craig’s main design philosophies, focusing on how credibility and overall craft help to visually convey a lot of underlying narrative points in a production’s narrative.
But first, let us tell you a little about Stuart Craig.
Stuart Craig started his career at the Royal College of Art where he designed student film projects. He then secured a job as art department runner on Casino Royale which launched him into a 12-year apprenticeship in the art department. During his apprenticeship he worked his way up from junior draftsman to art director. It was Stuart Craig’s love of architecture that led him into the field of production design.
The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch) established Craig internationally as a production designer and he went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Awards and has won three. In 1982 he won an Academy Award for Gandhi, in 1988 for Dangerous Liaisons, and The English Patient in 1996.
Credibility in the designs Stuart Craig conceives has always been of the utmost importance to him. Throughout his career he has mixed and matched different architectural styles to help construct the films narrative. When these aesthetic elements are mixed together seamlessly, visually hinting to the audience a particular change in the narrative, whilst also maintaining credibility is an indication of exceptional production design.
When designing the magical world of Harry Potter, credibility became even more important. Producer, David Heyman and director, Chris Columbus knew that they needed to establish a world where, “Harry’s boyhood discoveries and experiences could be believable, but where just as believably snakes could talk, banks could be run by goblins, and the most popular sport was played on flying broomsticks”. From this, they decided that their main philosophy was to base everything on reality. “I think what’s good about it is that even though it’s the source of so much magic its firmly rooted in reality and I think that’s what makes the magic all the more stronger when it unexpectedly grows out of something that is seemingly so real.” – Stuart Craig (Creating the world of Harry Potter, 2009)
In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1, Stuart Craig had the hard job of designing Shell Cottage. The scene where the audience first sees Shell Cottage is a very emotional sequence as a favourite character dies. Craig’s desire was “to give the home credibility, rather than whimsy that might lessen the emotional impact of the sequence”. Stuart Craig thinks that whimsy would have been a bad idea as, “whimsy implies that ‘anything goes’ and that things are not the shape or the way they are because of necessity or an underlying logic or purpose” (Harry Potter: Page to Screen, pg.54). To give the cottage credibility Stuart Craig designed the silhouette to be a relatively conventional English cottage however when you get closer to it, you notice that it is built from abnormal materials. Shell cottage is constructed with large shells and not just shells as surface detail. The walls are built from large oyster shells, the roof is made from large scallop shells and large razor shells made for good ridge tiles.
Above: The final Shell Cottage exterior.
The changing aesthetics of Harry Potter’s, Ministry of Magic is one of the most effective and powerful visual cues of the entire film series. In Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix when being introduced to the Ministry, the audience is shown a large Fountain of Magical Brethren. The fountain holds an idealistic statue of a witch, wizard, centaur, goblin, and house-elf. This ensemble is depicted in a harmonious way; however it contradicts the truth of the narrative which is being foreshadowed.
Above: Fountain of Magical Brethren, Harry Potter: Page To Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey, pg. 390
The set is inspired by Victorian architecture to reflect hierarchy however the hints of Art Nouveau subtly penetrating the design suggest a cultural decadence and corruption of the dark forces penetrating the Ministry. This is possibly foreshadowing the coming era of fascist rule. In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1, the sculpture has been replaced by a 1930s Soviet inspired sculpture which depicts the Magical figures dominating the Muggles (Non-magical people). The statue, combined with a large, black and white poster of Cornelius Fudge (Minister of Magic) hanging over the Atrium for all to see, the snatchers (guards) wearing red arm bands, and the Undesirable #1 wanted posters of Harry Potter, reference fascist tactics and directly drive the films narrative and atmosphere.
Above: New Atrium statue.
Above: Poster of Minister of Magic.
Using inspiration from reality helps to establish credibility in production design. It can visually hint to certain movements as well as help drive the film’s narrative without the use of words.
Stuart Craig’s designs are a great example of how important architecture can be in helping to support and sometimes even strengthen the films narrative.