Apart from a brilliant storyline, witty scripts, and enthralling performances, what makes a good film great is the fine line of being able to transport us into a different time and space, engulfing us into the plot through visual storytelling. From burned-out barbaric battlefields to pristine empires, the thrill of secret-ridden spies, gangster haunts, alternate futures, dramatic comedies, and tragic romances the world of movies takes us to a never-ending dimension of mystic charm.
To showcase a world, utopian or dystopian, the role of architecture in filmmaking has been significant since the very beginning. With limited space and budgets, production designers and architects collaborate to create a tangible imaginary world, filled with emotions taking us to a different headspace, away from the mundane reality of life. Not just a backdrop, but film sets and such production designs help add context and are one of the most important yet wildly neglected supporting actors of a film.
The Intertwined Relationship Between Architecture and Film Making
The relationship between Architecture and Film Making is often considered to be a complex and intertwined dialogue between the two disciplines that cannot be defined as a singular entity and is rather explored as the inherent architecture of a cinematic expression.
Be it through iconic cameos in international productions like the Burj Khalifa in “Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol” (2011), the Empire State Building in “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) and “King Kong” in 1933, or the Bradyburg Building in the 1982 Sci/Fi Action film “Blade Runner” along with many others buildings, architecture has played a major role in thickening the plot.
Also, acting as a silent backdrop in movies, like the Central Park in New York in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), “When Harry met Sally” (1989), and “Enchanted” (2007) or San Francisco in movies like “Superman” (1978) or “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), and “The Da Vinci Code” set through several locations in Europe, along with several other such quintessential locations across the globe the role of architecture has silently helped to piece together the “intricately woven” cinematic experience.
Here are a few of the World’s Most extravagantly designed Architectural Film Sets.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock
One of the most iconic films with exceptional screen design of all time is the Oscar-lauded film of 2014, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Set at the onset of the World War in the imaginary European country of Zubrowka, this is not just a story of murder, purple suited lobby boys, and prison breaks, rather is a story within a story set in a universe of itself that sets an unexpected tone for an unexpected story in itself.
The design of the Zubrowka and the Grand Hotel has been inspired by the town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic filled with pastel-hued buildings lining the riverfront and the Grand Hotel Pupp overlooking the picturesque town as the main influence.
The incredibly well-maintained and restored town of Görlitz in Germany was another major source of inspiration for the town center lined with the 14th and 15th-century buildings where the production team rented a vacant building called the “Department Store” which later became the interior lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel. However, transforming the 1920s hotel into a titular 1960s icon with incredible stairways, elevators and atria was a daunting task.
The authentic German artistic style “Jugendstil” was a defining influence on the hotel’s décor. Anne Atkins was the film’s lead graphic designer who devised the “day to day” Zubrowkan objects like newspapers, banknotes, police reports, and passports from references gathered while scouting for the perfect locations adding the final touch to the authenticity of the cinematic experience.
2. Midnight in Paris
Director: Woody Allen
Production Designer: Anne Seibel and Hélène Dubreuil
To tell a story of time travel through Paris, connecting the dots between 1920s Paris and 2010, Anne Seibel was given the task of showcasing the two distinct eras of Paris in a romantic screenplay through comedy and whimsy, but with no construction. Hence, she and her team began looking for existing locations which could double up by adding elements of period reference in the foreground.
Showcasing the glamorous era of la belle epoque sewn with tones of Art Nouveau in Paris to bring back the “real-time” of Contemporary Paris. One of the major challenges of recreating the facets of 1920s Paris was finding a match for the 2010 remnants of the “Moulin Rouge” which was later recreated in an empty concert hall, called “La Cigale” with similar balconies and alleyways and used custom light fixtures, drapes, and finishes to take it back to the 20s.
To recreate Gertrude Stein’s house, Seibel found another apartment with similar bones near the original historic property and modified it to make it match with the period complete with every minute detail, down to the reproductions of paintings and books of the time.
Such concern and adherence to even the tiniest details won major accolades for the film including being nominated for the Best Art Direction at the 84th Academy Awards.
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Designers: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht
One of the greatest masterpieces of silent cinema, the 1927 expressionistic science fiction film Metropolis was set in the year 2000 depicting a futuristic urban dystopia with distinct influences from various art and architectural movements ranging from Art Deco, Bauhaus, Futurism, and some Gothic influences.
The iconic contemporary cloud scraping “Tower of Babel”, the industrial workers’ production hell-hole, and super-modern offices were a few of the many ahead of time features of the film that showcased the European brilliance and understanding of architectural movements of the future heavily influenced by the newly emerging New York skyscrapers.
However, the overall play with the bold “futuristic” architecture of times to come adds a touch of curiosity, a vivid play of light and shade, and an inherently dark mysterious ambiance.
From modernist offices with huge windows to deeply industrial style kitchens, with accents of bricks, brass, and copper the interiors of the iconic sets are a mix match of industrialism, art deco, modernism, futurism, Gothic, and Bauhaus shaping an aesthetic where function and form can be integrated to include practicality and beauty.
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Production Designer: John DeCuir
The 1963 epic American historical drama based on the life of one of the most powerful women in history and adapted from the 1957 book, “The Life and Times of Cleopatra” by Carlo Maria Franzero showcasing her struggles as the young queen of Egypt to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome. This was one of the most expensive films of the time with the highest costume budget.
Its first phase of shooting began at the Pinewood Studios in England which doubled up as Alexandria, Egypt at the beginning but due to the poor weather that led to the dampening of the plastered set and the exorbitant expenditure of importing palm trees halted the schedule and the shoot was soon relocated to the Cinecittà studios in Rome.
After spending twelve million dollars the team was able to recreate Cleopatra’s world and the complete with majestic temples, intricately carved golden walls, and massive statues of mythological creatures, gilded thrones, and other custom-designed props all double the size in the sale despite the soaring increase in the budget.
The sheer scale of the construction project led to importing supplies from throughout the country.
Cleopatra’s barge was designed to replicate the opulence of the queen’s floating embassy and was gilded and encrusted with precious jewels inside out and intricately detailed to incorporate even the slightest of the detail made the scene an ultimate spectacle virtually impossible to conquer.
Production Designer: Stuart Craig
The internationally acclaimed series is based on the teenage fiction novels by J.K. Rowling and is distributed by The Warner Bros. Studio.
The story takes us through the exhilarating and eventful chronicles of the young wizard Harry Potter with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in their ultimate fight against his arch-enemy Lord Voldemort set in the magical world of Hogwarts in the wizarding world, of which every child has dreamt to be a part of.
Assisted by Stephenie McMillan, Stuart Craig has been the production designer for all the eight movies in the series and has designed the iconic sets that include the immaculately designed Ministry of Magic, the Chamber of Secrets, the Malfoy Manor among many others along with continuously evolving the plan for the majestic Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
While most iconic scenes of the film were shot in magnificent castles across England that included Madame Hooch’s flying lesson in the Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, a stroll through the Gloucester Castle that leads to the Gryffindor Common Room, and the Goathland Station that doubles up as the dreamy Hogsmeade Station in the series.
But the most highly anticipated and visited sets of the series are located in the Warner Bros. Studios that showcase most of the magical props and mythical items used in the global blockbuster. The studio is also home to the “Great Hall” which is a backdrop to one of the most iconic scenes of the films including the Yule Ball and the most memorable Battle of Hogwarts.
The studio also showcases what is perhaps the world’s most iconic and well-known landmark, the Platform 9¾ where the Hogwarts Express locomotive is stationed. The “Diagon Alley”, one of the most loved features of the films is also a part of the studio and is carefully maintained with its original design complete with the iconic shopfronts, the Gringotts Bank, Mr. Mullpepper’s Apothecary, and the dusty Olivander’s wand shop.
This is truly one of the world’s best film sets of all time and is the ultimate shrine for Potterheads from all over.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Production designer: Lee Ha-jun
Ever since it won the 2019 Oscar for the best film, the dark Korean drama that showcases class discrimination has been the center stage of the dialogue, not just for the finely spun storyline and performances, but also for the infamous Park Family residence and the lower ground Kim family apartment that was specially designed as per the film’s technical and emotional requirements.
But one of the most hard-hitting facts about the conception of these firms was to reflect the inadequacies of the society through a language of contrasts. The insides and outsides, solids and voids express the disparities in social classes and subtly set the tone for visual storytelling.
Even the main window leading to the garden in the iconic scenes is designed to make it look like a photograph on the screen.
Director: S.S. Rajamouli
Production Designer: Sabu Cyril
One of the highest-grossing films in the history of Indian cinema is the two-part series of the iconic fictional story of Bahubali set in the mythical kingdom of Mahishmati ruled by the valiant queen Sivagami Devi who tests her biological son and adopted son to find the rightful heir to the throne which unfurls the grand saga of betrayal, bravery, and drama.
While most of the film was shot at the famous Ramoji Film City near Hyderabad, one of the most striking parts of the design was the magnificent kingdom of Mahishmati set in 500 BC that included phallic statues, multi-level structures with intricate carvings inspired by the Ajanta and Ellora caves and the Mahabalipuram temple resembling the scale of Greek and Roman temples.
The sheer scale and grandeur of the sets are what take the film a notch higher and make it a memorable viewing experience where while you feel that everything is computer-generated, but in reality, the whole production is a culmination of constant and persistent efforts of various collaborators day and night.