He turns cardboard into dreams

Dante Ferretti’s film designs at MoMA

3 minute read
Vivien Leigh in GWTW:  Tara looks real, but...
Vivien Leigh in GWTW: Tara looks real, but...

When I was a child, and in love with Hammer Films, I assumed that all of those exotic locales— Castle Dracula, Chateau Ravna— really existed. The Hammer folks, I figured, just dragged their cameras up there and started shooting.

Imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that Castle Dracula was a single small stage at Bray Studios and everything I saw was plaster and wood, a staircase and an arch, deployed in myriad ways, dressed and lit differently from scene to scene.

Who was the magician who worked this magic? Not the director. It was the production designer— in this case, Bernard Robinson.

I’ve always felt that production designers—as well as their less exalted kin, art directors— are the unsung heroes of film. A script may be brilliant, a director may be fully aware of the brilliant script’s potential, and a producer may be sympathetic. But at the end of the day, the audience must be able to accept what it’s seeing as real. If I know that Castle Dracula is a tiny soundstage at Bray Studios, all is lost.

Scorsese’s favorite

David O. Selznick may have had vision coming out of his ears for Gone With the Wind, but William Cameron Menzies convinced us that Tara was a real place— so grand at the start, so broken and sad thereafter. In its heyday every Hollywood studio had at least one great designer on its payroll: Anton Grot at Warners, Cedric Gibbons at M-G-M, Albert S, D’Agostino at RKO, for example. Even humble P.R.C. Pictures had the great Eugen Schufftan— a refugee from Hitler’s Germany— helping to create an atmosphere of doom-laden Romanticism for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard out of sets that were one step above cardboard.

Dante Ferretti has worked for some great film directors— Fellini, Pasolini, Franco Zeffirelli— but he’s probably best known in the U.S. for his long-running collaboration with Martin Scorsese. The Age of Innocence, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shelter Island, Kundun, Hugo—all have been designed by Ferretti. He has also worked with Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen), Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd) and Julie Taymor (Titus).

What all of these films have in common is a strong visual sense. They’re almost poetry in motion.

Life-sized props

The current Ferretti exhibit at MoMA pays due recognition to this aspect of Ferretti’s work by offering a smorgasbord of clips from Ferretti-designed films in one section of the gallery. This is where Ferretti’s silent moving images all come together— the beautiful watercolor sketches, the mechanical drawings so mind-boggling in their detail, the exquisitely built set miniatures.

Lest viewers come away with the notion that Ferretti is a mere dreamer, the exhibit includes several life-sized props from the films, built by Ferretti and his crew: the ornate clock-face from Hugo (a great favorite for amateur paparazzi and their kids) and those sinister phallic chandeliers from Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom. The latter look just as sinister hanging in the gallery at MoMA as they did in the film.

For anyone who loves movies, the Dante Ferretti exhibit is well-worth seeking out. You might start with a lengthy filmed interview with Ferretti and some of his collaborators, shown in a continuous loop outside of the exhibit area. It’s informative and useful as a means of navigating your way through.

What, When, Where

“Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema.” Through February 9, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd St., New York. (212) 708-9400 or

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