There’s irony in the fact that while black-and-white aficionado Woody Allen imagined the lost generation in “Midnight in Paris” with painterly color, French director Michel Hazanavicius traveled to Los Angeles to render the romance of Hollywood’s silent era in black-and-white for “The Artist.”
When Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji first discussed the look of “Midnight” — which moves among the present day, the expat paradise of the ’20s and the Belle Epoque — they considered both sepia tone and black-and-white to distinguish the past, then scrapped it as “too radical, too much of an effect,” and went instead for different color palettes.
Khondji closely coordinated with the other crafts artists. “We purposely shot the modern period with a brighter look,” he says. Khondji also used half-century-old Cooke lenses to give period scenes “a static, classic look,” and applied more backlight and direct key to the heavier “almost porcelain” foundation of makeup supervisor Thi Thanh Tu Nguyen’s palette, which contrasted the look of women at Maxim’s and the Moulin Rouge.
“For the ’20s, the makeup was trendy and feminine,” Nguyen says. “The eyes were made dark, the eyebrows were drawn finely into an arch, and the lips were formed into a heart shape with lipstick. For ‘La Belle Epoque’ the skin was very pale and clear. The makeup was discreet, the eyebrows were drawn downward to give a melancholy look.”
Khondji processed the negative to shift the image “even softer” the old-fashioned way, by flattening the contrast curve with Deluxe New York’s senior DI colorist Joe Gawler. Gels and digital color timing imparted a subtle reddish glow. Yet “it’s important, even if the image is manipulated in post, to expose it properly,” Khondji says.
Costume designer Sonia Grande says she observes Paris’ past “with the same fascination that children observe an aquarium. That’s why these particular textiles, textures, precious stones and materials were chosen: fragile, delicate and vulnerable, sometimes sophisticated, sometimes with sheen.”
Knowing in advance that a Woody Allen production wouldn’t be spending time or money on post effects, production designer Anne Seibel used the night to hide the bus stops, traffic lights and signs of contemporary Paris, disguising elements that wouldn’t recede into the darkness. Re-creating the Moulin Rouge was “most difficult,” Seibel says, because the characteristic wooden floor and balconies no longer exist. “Finally I found a concert hall that is quite modern but had an old balcony.” She scouted it with Khondji, illustrating with her own drawings how it could be cheated, selling him and Allen on the idea. “Paris and its magic blessed us,” she says.
“The Artist” production designer Laurence Bennett hadn’t worked in black-and-white before, though he relished memories of Chaplin, Lumiere and Melies — and modern examples such as “Hud” and “The Last Picture Show.” During pre-production, he sought guidance — and received encouragement — from British production designer Terence Marsh.
Per Bennett, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman made a “pragmatic decision” to shoot color film and process for black-and-white. “We were going back to the origins of our craft. It was a thrill to live in that world,” Bennett says.
Realizing that designing in monochrome “has to do with the reduction of the image to simple elements,” Bennett tested patterns, textures and shapes. “Lacking color for separation, you rely on pattern and tonality to define planes within the image.”
He also built contrast between the wealthy manses of silent-era stars and moguls and L.A.’s shabby working class apartments.
In contrast to the lost L.A. that Bennett was seeking, costume designer Mark Bridges found that old fashion had become new again — or could be made to seem new by the milliners at Western Costume. “You have to create environments for the actors to live in,” he says, “so they can imagine living in the moment.”
Bridges also aimed at a delicate balance between the inherent theatricality of glamorous art-deco L.A., reflected in dress motifs and patterns reminiscent of Chrysler-building chic, and a daily realism that wouldn’t take audiences out of the story with distracting design. He used LeLuxe for ’20s-inspired dresses. “Original dresses,” he knew from experience, “fall apart.”
Makeup department head Julie Hewett, who’d first worked in on “The Good German,” used monochrome monitors to preview her work, fighting against modern fashion. “We’re programmed for full lips,” she says. “In that era, the lips were pinched and tight.” Hewett knows the silent face up close up, having worked on Lillian Gish’s last movie, “The Whales of August.” “That experience came to me on ‘The Artist,’ ” she says. “Miss Gish, doing her own makeup, with her painted pots.”
Terrific pix, period | Paris’ palette competes with L.A. duotone | Makeup magic turns Streep to Thatcher | Older crafts rise to the challenge of 3D