Excellence in Movie Set Design Details

In some movies there are, quite simply, certain sets that just plain stand out. At given times, these single backdrops or interior shots can nearly eclipse the film itself. Some just blow past most viewers unnoticed while others are absolutely breathtaking. I’ll start out with one or two that are etched into my own memory. One is completely ancillary to the plot, yet adds ineffable charm and rusticity. Another is a dazzling tour de force of special effects. Both are superb.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves:[ul]While Snow White dances with the dwarves in their cottage, look carefully at the instruments being played in the background. Doc is strumming a sort of lute. Upon examination, the instrument is modeled upon a goose. From its head, a long neck carries the fretboard and strings, terminating at a bridge whereupon this bird’s feet clutches them.

Grumpy plays at an organ hewn from large logs and topped with a rank of almost totem pole-like pipes. Each of the ports on the pipes is hatched with various animals and what have you. As they occasionally stick open, Grumpy closes them with a roundhouse (almost Three Stooges style) slap.

While these elements may seem minor, I’m rather confident some set designers spent many hours making sure that all of the instruments carried forth a nature-evoking sort of theme. I’m equally positive that this small scene blows past a majority of audiences completely unnoticed. To me, it represents an attention to detail that merits applause in and of itself. To so thoroughly integrate the surrounding forest’s wildlife with an interior shot like that is a touch of genius.[/ul]
The Fifth Element:[ul]The exterior city shots of New York’s futuristic megalopolis are superb. The art pretty much outpaces the movie (most certainly Willis’ wooden acting). The commute locomotives scaling skyscraper walls and the layers of aerial traffic all lend a superb air of congestion and nearly chaotic overpopulation to the scene.

However good the exterior shots were, one interior sequence merited its own special effects Oscar. The DNA replicating machine that fabricated Leeloo’s body was simply some of the best analytical science fiction technology I’ve seen in donkey’s years. That one sequence lasted but a few minutes, yet managed to completely steal the show for me.[/ul]

Please list some of your own favorite scenes from movies where you felt there was extreme attention to detail paid by the designers.

Fellowship, Two Towers, Return (I’m certain).

There are plenty of others, but I’m tired and my brain has turned itself off for the day.

I agree with you FilmGeek. Everything from the Hobbit hole to The Mines of Moria were all as seen in my mind’s eye. However, that is grist for another thread.

Okay, got the popcorn, junior mints, let’s see how they’ve butchered FOTR… yeah, yeah, starts out with that ol’ One Ring stuff, yada yada, Big Bad Guy, epic battle, ho hum… “OHMYFREAKINGOSH, it’s The Shire!” My kids still don’t understand why I was blown away by a sleepy little town.

That and Hogwarts made for a couple of movies where, probably for the first time ever, a film actually surpassed my mental image of a place.
Another more humble set that’s stuck with me was the expanding dining room in Dark City: “By morning, they’ll be millionaires” - Kiefer S.

There’s a scene in Road to Perdition in which Jude Law, as the murderous photographer Maguire, crosses a street to reach his prey, Tom Hanks’ Irish mobster Michael Sullivan. In the background of the shot, across the street, there is a grocery store. The signage in the windows and the boxes on display are perfectly period for the 1931 setting. It’s a tiny little detail but it pleased me.

The diner in which Sullivan and Maguire meet for the first time also tickled me pink, because there is a very similar diner - now abandoned and rotting by the side of the road - near where I grew up. It was opened in 1927.

Incidentally, the Speed Graphic camera Maguire uses is also period-correct. This is a relative rarity in Hollywood, because to a layperson (like me - Gunslinger is the one who pointed this out to me) the different Speed Graphics all look pretty much the same - big boxy black things with bellows and shiny chrome flash guns.

I’d like to add:

The Wrong Trousers:[ul]Considering that everything is below scale and hand crafted, I find the Wallace and Gromit animation shorts to be of the highest quality. The street scenes, when Gromit wakes up in the trash can are impeccable, right down to the chains on the large roll-up doors.

This carries into the museum as well. We are treated to pre-historic scenes of cave-penguins and the like scattered among the exhibits. I especially like how the artists leave an occasional fingerprint in the clay as a sort of “signature.”[/ul]
1984:[ul]The remake starring Richard Burton had some really authentic looking quasi-modern-retro telecom equipment at the desks. I’d be curious to know where the designs or originals of that stuff came from.[/ul]

Having just watched a bit of it again today, the set design for HELLO, DOLLY! is simply spectacular. The attention to period detail, with well-staged business in the remotest corners of extreme long shots, is amazing.

Not so much a set as a shot, but this K-Pax shot is beautiful (I also feel it was a severely underrated movie):

Say what you will about the remake of THE HAUNTING, but those were some damn killer sets.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It’s specifically designed to take place in a non-time setting; some of it looks like it’s Soviet constructivism in the 1930s, some of it looks modern, some of it looks like it’s twenty or thirty years from now. It’s going to be decades before it starts to look dated — which is of course part of the theme.

John Carpenter’s The Thing. They found a shooting location (in Alaska, IIRC) during the summer, built their set, and then walked away for six months. They came back in the middle of winter when it had been snowed in. None of this phony shaved-plastic flakes you normally get for Hollywood snow; the place looks totally authentic, partly because it is authentic, as much as the designers could really do. A big part of the movie’s success as a story of claustrophic isolation is how you subconsciously accept the realistic setting: If it were obviously fake, on soundstages and whatnot, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as scary as it is.

Nearly every set design in Brazil grabs my attention. Ducts, telephones, “computers”, anti-terrorist teams, mobile apartments, billboards, restaurants, giant samurai, and even the sewage treatment suits.

To throw a few more out: Dark City, Legend, and What Dreams May Come. Too tired to think of more.

Wizard of Oz


Evil Dead 2

Blade Runner

The City of Lost Children: Wonderful set designs of a quasi-futuristic industrial city where many children are orphans and kidnapped by evil Krank. The interior of Krank’s home with all the inventions (including the brain the jar) is interesting. It gives an image of a ship or submarine.

Hannibal: Say what you will about this movie, but it does have beautiful shots of Flourence, Italy.

I’m going back to Zenster’s OP. Snow White, when first released in Sweden, was dubbed, of course. Most animated features get dubbed, because small kids can’t read the subtitles fast enough. Nowadays there is almost always a theatrical release in original language as well.
But the thing about Snow White was not only that it was dubbed. When She walks into the dwarves bedroom, we see all their beds with each namne carved in wood. In the Swedish version, they edited it, so it said their name in Swedish: Butter*, Toker, Kloker, Trötter, Glader, Blyger & Prosit. That attention to detail is amazing.
*Not dairy butter, but the Swedish word for Grumpy.

I must agree that the set design in LOTR and in the Harry Potter movies has been fabulous. These have obviously been crafted by people who have read the books and inserted plenty of details that will only be noticed by others who have as well.

If you are going to mention Wallace & Grommit, you certainly can’t omit Chicken Run. There are so many small details that you’ll only notice on the 30th viewing, and will probably need to use the pause button. Check out, for instance, the Tweedys’ wedding photo when the missus slams her fist down to get her husband’s attention.

One of my personal favorites as far as set design is Topsy Turvy, which must rank as one of the single most accurate-to-detail period pieces ever filmed. Portions of the film are recreations of the original performances of a handful of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operas. While the vast majority of viewers will never notice, the sets, costumes, and even the actors themselves are astonishing facsimilies of their real life counterparts from 1885.

Cervaise, good point about Carpenter’s, “The Thing.” The claustrophobic nature of being stranded in an ice-bound and isolated location made the movie twice as scary as it might have been. Cornstarch snow would have blown that all to Hades.

Badtz Maru, “Blade Runner” was quite good (I saw a director’s cut of it recently), but I throw my vote for “Alien.” Something that really stood out about “Alien” for me was how everything in the film was beat to crap. Unlike so many other space operas, where the equipment and craft are all pristine, the interiors and exteriors in “Alien” were all well worn. That sort of “industrial” appearance gave “Alien” a gritty and realistic look lacking in so many other science fiction movies.

A certain set design can really make a movie for me, and it did with Mystery Men. Champion City was so awesome. It was the quintessential superhero city. You have the Townsville-esque cluster of buildings in the center, but with blimps. And the district where the diner was, Kazakhstantown, was pretty cool. I loved how you could see the city in the background of locales in the outer rim - Eddie’s house in the suburbs, Sally’s Junkyard, and the old abandoned fairground.

Finally, that flyover shot to the asylum is one of my favorite shots in any film.

Dr. Strangelove.

There is a black and white starkness that pervades the movie. The sets complement those gray tones in a way that must be seen to be appreciated.

Ironically, what makes the sets stand out so much in their excellence is their lack of detail.

My favorite in terms of set design (though the story itself is middling), is another of Stanley Kubrick’s films, Barry Lyndon.

It takes place in Britain in the late 18th century and nearly every scene is composed as if it might be a contemporary oil painting, which I believe was his stated intent.

In several instances the scene begins with a small detail and the camera slowly pulls out to reveal a stunning composition. One example starts with the two lovers chatting under a parasol and very slowly reveals them to be in a boat on a lake, the boat only forming a tiny part of the overall scene.