As in every cinematic subdiscipline, designers begin with the script and make their contributions within the limits and opportunities the story provides. The options available to them move along a spectrum from realism to stylization. (In this context, "realism" should be understood as a particular style that seeks to convince viewers they are watching events unfold in the real world.) The approach a designer takes (strict realism, heavy stylization, or something in between) is often predetermined by the genre of film on which he or she is working.
At the "realistic" end of the spectrum are stories such as war films, police dramas, and westerns. These genres derive much of their power from the illusion of occurring in the here and now. The violence and horror of the war film is most effective when viewers believe a soldier can be maimed or killed by the grenade dropped in the trench next to him, while the police drama convinces audiences that real criminals are being chased when both pursued and pursuer pound the pavement of real cities.
Such a strict notion of realism, however, is just one approach to production design. Another, at the opposite extreme, creates thoroughly unrealistic, heavily stylized environments that make no attempt to convince viewers they are watching any real, lived-in or live world. These designs try instead to create an alternative environment with an internally consistent logic that lasts as long as the film's duration. Films from genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and the musical are often heavily stylized. Fantasy and science fiction require an extreme attention to consistent, self-referring design because of the extra difficulty of creating a world that by its very nature appears odd. In musicals, the alternative reality is less one of space and technology than of psychology, as the characters live in a world in which they express themselves through song and dance.
Somewhere between these two poles of realism and stylization are genres such as the period film or the detective story. Period films are unique because the antiques they pull together to provide the realistic illusion of a particular period are by definition different from contemporary reality, and therefore provide a form of stylization. For example, the audience's expectation of realistic spatial representation would immediately mark an automobile or cell phone that appeared in a story set in 1700 as "wrong." Disbelief could not be suspended, and the reality of the fictional world could not be established. At the same time, objects that period characters might take as everyday objects, such as handcrafted woodworking tools, are unfamiliar to contemporary audiences.
Probably most famous as the production designer for Gone with the Wind (1939), William Cameron Menzies had a long, distinguished career as an art director and production designer, as well as a less well-known one as a director. As a designer, Menzies's work displays a distinctiveness unusual for Hollywood. While most Hollywood art direction and production design is unimaginative and inexpressive, Menzies had a talent for creating environments that impress for themselves, regardless of story requirements.
His work for Gone with the Wind , for example, has a larger-than-life quality in keeping with the film's inflation of a romantic melodrama to pseudo-epic proportions. The film's impossibly lush and glossy environment is historically accurate, but far too rich (and clean) for a truly realistic depiction of the antebellum South. This somewhat overstuffed environment can no doubt partly be attributed to the pretensions of GWTW 's producer, David O. Selznick. Invaders from Mars (1953), however, which Menzies directed and over which he presumably exercised greater control, has an equally assertive, if very different, physical environment. In his designs for Mars , Menzies goes to the opposite extreme of GWTW , creating images so spare they verge on the abstract. And while the camera angles in GWTW are largely the dull, actor-centered, heads-on middle-distances of romantic melodrama, those in Mars are frequently angled to accentuate visual rather than dramatic impact, relegating the actors to little more than décor.
Menzies's most famous film as a director was his adaptation of H. G. Wells's Things to Come (1936), for which he was not credited with production design. Visually, it bears greater similarity to Mars than to GWTW , possibly because both are science fiction films. Menzies's propensity for low angles that pose the actors against the set and show off the architecture is notable in both films. What is certainly as true of Things to Come as of either GWTW or Mars is the assertiveness of the physical environment. It is therefore possible that much of Menzies's reputation as one of Hollywood's preeminent production designers rests on the obviousness of his contributions. While most Hollywood films from the classical period deliberately and systematically suppressed the physical world in favor of story, Menzies managed to make viewers aware of the physical environment. His triumph was to impart a degree of individual expression to the typically impersonal world of Hollywood design.
As Production Designer: Gone with the Wind (1939), King'sRow (1942), Pride of the Yankees (1942); As Director and Production Designer: Invaders from Mars (1953); As Director: Things to Come (1936); As Associate Director and Associate Art Director (uncredited): The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Frayling, Christopher. Things to Come . London: British Film Institute, 1995.
Haver, Ronald. David O'Selznick's "Gone with the Wind." New York: Bonanza Books, 1986.
With mysteries, the primary appeal is intellectual rather than emotional. The goal of the filmmakers is to keep one step ahead of the viewer's ability to figure out
the solution. The physical environment then takes on a uniquely assertive presence, as objects themselves (murder weapons, stolen jewels, bits of clothing evidence) become a greater focus of attention than in most films. Who owns what particular object, or when it was visible or available and so on are central questions to unraveling the mystery. The British television series Poirot (beginning 1989), for example, takes the mystery genre's attention to objects to such an extreme that the series verges on the fetishistic.
Of course, there are innumerable exceptions to these generalizations. Generic precedents are at most guidelines filmmakers know about when starting a film, but which they are always free to ignore. Generic expectation is important in understanding how a designer may approach an individual project. Designers naturally stress how their choices have been shaped by an individual story; nonetheless, prior models always operate in the designers' minds as they make decisions. While the options available are vast, they are not unlimited, nor are they as wide as filmmakers would often like the public to believe.
The relationship between the look of films in the same genre becomes apparent over time, when the publicity used to distinguish one film from another has died away and nothing is left but the films themselves, For instance, Hollywood musicals from the early 1950s, despite being examples of one of the most stylized of genres, theoretically should be individually distinctive; yet they are remarkably similar visually, with spare sets, bright Technicolor photography, posh upper or upper middle class settings, and so on. Biblical-era epics from the same period manage to make ancient Rome and
Judea look remarkably the same, regardless of whether they are telling the story of Christ ( The Robe  , Ben-Hur , King of Kings , Barabbas , ), dramatizing earlier events from the Bible ( Solomon and Sheba , David and Bathsheba ) or dealing with nonreligious topics ( Spartacus ).
When a film does manage a distinctive look, it frequently becomes a model for others so that its innovative style gets lost in a sea of imitation. The highly stylized evocation of Fascist Italy created by designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti (1941–1994) for Il Conformista ( The Conformist , 1970) became the model for several subsequent fascist revival films in the 1970s. The vision of the future as a bleak, wet, trash-filled nightmare so powerfully evoked by designer Lawrence Paull (b. 1938) in Blade Runner (1982) became almost an instant cliché in 1980s dystopian science fiction. Even as highly unrealistic a period environment as that created by Luigi Scaccianoce (1914–1981) for Fellini Satyricon (1969), which consciously avoids the clichésfor depicting ancient Rome, has direct descendants in films such as Caligula (1979).
Undue emphasis should not be placed on the relationship between story and design. For while designers start with the script, there are often competing demands that emerge from the effort to serve the story. The most common factor competing for the designer's attention is the demands of characters when they work against the overall design scheme for the story. For example, the hard-edged, material glitter that structures the design for The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) gives way to fairly drab, routine materials in scenes in the police station, or in the police lieutenant's home.