Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” revives some of Hollywood’s most glamorous locales. In exacting period detail, production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell re-create Hollywood’s richly ornamented days and nights of the mid-1920s through the ’40s.
Throughout the film, Scorsese mixes live action at historic locations, authentic sets and digital technology to achieve authentic period detail and realism. Essential to the film’s look are digital colorization effects, which imitate the colors obtained via Technicolor’s bygone two-strip and three-strip film processing. The movie’s visual style recaptures the cinematic look of the era and evolves just as film processing did, shifting from a palette dominated by red and green to one also suffused with blue.
“Aviator” is the sixth collaboration between Scorsese and Ferretti. “He’s very precise,” Ferretti says of the vet helmer. “He knows exactly what he wants, what kind of a feeling he wants for a set.”
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Prep work for the movie required attendance at film school Scorsese-style. The helmer inundated his production team with screenings and cassettes of numerous vintage pics and newsreels. Substantial, in-depth research was required to accurately re-create landmarks of the well-known Hollywood period.
“Martin wants to know the reality, he wants the news; you can make some proposals, but they have to be believable,” Ferretti says.
Some of Southern California’s still extant art deco locations can be spotted throughout the film: Bullocks Wilshire’s carport approximates a Beverly Hills hotel; the Queen Mary’s gorgeous bar is used as the site of the “Hell’s Angels” wrap party; and the interior of the restored Mann, once Grauman’s, Chinese Theater plays itself.
Sets included Howard Hughes’ film studio and screening room, replicated by Ferretti from measurements of the original site at 7000 Romaine St. in Hollywood.
The epicenter of Hollywood nightlife and a favorite Hughes hangout was the opulent Cocoanut Grove nightclub. It was also re-created and elaborately dressed for three different eras.
Exemplifying Scorsese’s insistence on realism is the scene that reconstructs the 1930 “Hell’s Angels” premiere. Each department contributed to the faithful reproduction of that historic night, reportedly the inspiration for Nathaniel West’s “The Day of the Locust.”
Rather than shooting on location and closing Hollywood Boulevard for days, the theater’s exterior was built from scratch on a Montreal soundstage. After consulting the theater’s original plans, Ferretti copied the 1927 layout, down to the height of the palms in the forecourt. Additionally, an enormous “Hell’s Angels” neon sign, 50 antique cars and more than 800 extras added to the verisimilitude.
In post-production, digitally colorized black-and-white newsreel footage of the lavish premiere is woven into the scene, maximizing production value, adding thousands of cars, extras and airplanes that hung like Christmas ornaments over Hollywood Boulevard.
A five-block miniature of the street was constructed that matches the newsreel. “All of these things, in five or six second shots, work to create an impression that makes you feel like it was back then,” says visual f/x supervisor Rob Legato. “It’s a very romanticized version, lovingly re-created.”
Props and costumes in the scene are period perfect, too. All of the principal actors’ costumes were designed by Sandy Powell and made for the production. Jean Harlow’s (Gwen Stefani) dress at the “Hell’s Angels” premiere is the only costume in the film that Powell copied exactly, using historic photos as source material. The dress is made from newly found vintage silver lame topped by a silk jacket with a white fox fur collar. Stefani’s shoes were vintage pumps — they barely survived the night, according to Powell.
In order to aid in the replication of the two-strip Technicolor process, Powell avoided using strong reds in the 1920s through 1938 period scenes. Those colors are softer, relying on peaches and greens.
As the film progresses, the costume colors become accentuated and heightened. Ava Gardner’s (Kate Beckinsale) blood-red dress and turquoise coat dramatically stand out in “The Aviator’s” vibrant, digitally enhanced Technicolor.
“He’s totally inspiring and appreciative, which is the most important thing really. You’re constantly learning and he’s constantly feeding you information,” Powell says of Scorsese.