Construction site

Major set building made a comeback in several big pix

Move over computers — the large and lavish movie set, built the expensive and the old-fashioned way by squads of artisans, made a big comeback in 2004.

Production designers and art directors stretched their imaginations on films as varied as the phantasmagoric “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “The Aviator” with its retro-Hollywood chic and “The Terminal” with its drop-dead realism.

Studios deny that they are writing blank checks for set decor. But pinching pennies on the look of an event film when they’ve already budgeted millions doesn’t get them far.

“It’s always a struggle,” concedes Rick Heinrichs, the production designer for “Lemony Snicket” from Paramount and DreamWorks. “The studios are always budget conscious. But that doesn’t mean they want you to compromise by doing less than your best. And I always try to stay aware that the scenery doesn’t chew up the budget.”

Popular on Variety

For now CGI is a double-edged sword. Though accepted by most production designers as an enhancement, many argue that using a lot of CGI detracts from the look of a movie, is uncomfortable for actors and — at least for now — costs more than traditional, albeit labor-intensive, scenic solutions.

“Alexander” was the biggest challenge production designer Jan Roelfs had ever faced, artistically and logistically. Sets were built simultaneously in three locations: northern Morocco, in a national park in Thailand near the Laos border, and at Pinewood Studios in England. Roelfs hired individual art directors to build each set while he jetted between them.

At Pinewood he used the skilled builders, plasterers, painters and carvers to create Babylon, the movie’s visual centerpiece. Supervisors suggested that he use CGI to fill in some parts of the massive room in the palace where Alexander looks down on the fabled city he’s conquered, instead of constructing the whole thing.

“I made some calculations for the producers to show them it would cost more doing it their way than the way I wanted,” Roelfs recalls. The end result was so impressive that after the shoot was finished the British Museum carted off pieces of the set for storage in their collections.

“I was constantly trying to watch costs, but I think we achieved amazing things with the look,” he says. “What we spent on the production is almost all on the screen — there’s not a lot of waste there.”

Powerful directors can get their way on sets. Steven Spielberg isn’t known to stint on costs, and for “The Terminal,” starring Tom Hanks as a countryless person who flies here but can’t get through immigration, he built an airport arrival-departure facility from scratch — it was the only set in the film — rather than find an existing one in which to shoot.

There was no soundstage in Los Angeles big enough for Alex McDowell’s four-football-field-sized set. So a former Boeing factory in the desert city of Palmdale, 75 miles from the center of L.A. was used. Some 650 tons of steel wsa used for its structural components.

The details were impeccable down to an arcade of 35 shops. “The ultimate goal for a designer is to be invisible,” says McDowell. “If no one understands what the designer did then it’s great.”

The idea for the life-size cross-section of the Belafonte, the boat in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” was director Wes Anderson’s inspiration. “The whole movie came from that cutout,” says supervising art director Stefano Maria Ortolani.

“We went to South Africa and bought two minesweepers” for $3 million, he recalls. “One was cut into pieces and shipped to Italy. We used it to build all the decks of the interior of the cabins. Everything was built at full scale on stage 5 — Fellini’s famous stage — at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

“Wes wanted to have everything real, no optical effects until the underwater forest at the end,” notes Ortolani. “So the movie required the skills of old-time set artists. Not all the movies will ask for such talent in the future, because they are trying to supplant them with something else. The computer operator wants to become the artist.”

Airplane hangars, yet again, were used in “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s biopic about Howard Hughes. Full-size hangars were built as sets while existing ones were used as spaces to build other sets.

“Aviator” production designer Dante Ferretti isn’t daunted by large-scale assignments — they’re almost his specialty. His last teaming with Scorsese was “Gangs of New York,” for which he designed some of the biggest sets ever constructed, re-creating a slice of 19th century Gotham at Cinecitta in Rome.

But “Aviator,” he says, was “a big, big job and very different.” His task was demanding not just in terms of scale, but in the enormous number and variety of big sets required: There were numerous airplane interiors; the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, the exterior of Grauman’s Chinese, Hughes’ home, Pan Am headquarters and a Senate hearing room. “We re-created this period, not very realistically, but in terms of dreams,” he says.

“I like to work in the traditional way,” says Ferretti. But he also integrated a lot of special effects and CGI effects into his designs. (“Aviator” was recently short-listed among nominees for this year’s Oscar for special effects.) “The danger of CGI is that everything becomes too fake — too much,” he says.

What the artists must do is find a balance in a budget. “What was great was to use all the old techniques, and the new ones as well,” Heinrichs says. “We’re very appreciative of what Industrial Light and Magic did for us in terms of digital art but also that they then respectfully stayed in the background.”