Flixist Film School: A Primer to Art Direction


The first question some of you might ask yourselves is, “What IS Art Direction?” Art Direction can be a very vague concept for a person to grasp, especially someone new to the film industry. To put it simply, the Art Director establishes the “look and feel” of a film, from designing sets and costumes to coming up with a style guide (usually a booklet of visual and cinematic rules for the film to follow). I’m going to focus mainly on color and lighting in this feature to serve as an introduction to Art Direction as they’re the most prominently used forms of visual direction in films and often times the simplest tools for telling a story.

The second question you might ask is, “How do I become an Art Director?” Well, you typically can’t just apply for something like that. You kind of have to snake your way through the various departments, slowly working your way up the chain, get in tight with those in charge until someone bestows upon you the magical privileges of Art Directing.

Join us after the jump where I’ll show you the answer to your third question and more…

The third question you will invariably ask is, “How can I tell good Art Direction from bad Art Direction?” Good question, Philip. Films with good Art Direction can usually be summed up in a few words. For example, if you were to judge a film’s color palette, you should be able to say something like: “The bad guys are red, the good guys are blue. Also, yellow means danger.” These aren’t absolute truths, but they’re rules that a film makes from the very beginning. It’s different for every film and usually these rules are outlined in the style guide. If a film doesn’t set up these rules, or if it sets up rules and then continually breaks them, then that is bad art direction. The rules set in place from the beginning must be consistently maintained throughout the film. If blue equals good and red equals bad, that has to be the rule the entire way through, or else you’ll end up confusing people on a subconscious level. You can’t have a film’s color guide be “Good guys are blue sometimes and bad guys are red sometimes… and sometimes people are just whatever color, randomly” because then your viewer’s going to have trouble knowing their loyalties, subconsciously, and they might possibly root for the bad guy.

I also think it’s important to mention that having good or bad Art Direction can decide whether your film is a memorable classic or ultimately forgettable. Nobody’s favorite film is likely to be one that is devoid of any kind of inspirational visuals or content. This is why filmmakers tend to do something special to set their film apart from the rest. Children of Men, for example, was a pretty unique concept in itself, but most people remember it for its dazzling continuous shot action sequences where the camera wouldn’t cut for an extended period of time (or at least wouldn’t appear to. There were carefully placed cuts). This is just one of the ways using tricks can help you create a film that is truly unique and memorable.

I’m going to start with a rudimentary example of excellent Art Direction, just so we’re all on the same page here.


Third time’s the charm…

Tim Burton directed the hilarious and quirky Beetlejuice in 1988. There are numerous lines I can recall on command and it’s a movie I hold in very high regard… but none of that shit matters. What matters is that this film is RIFE with sweet, sweet Art Direction. You can practically lap it up, frame by frame.

What Tim Burton has done here (which he seems to not do anymore and now just saturates the screen with obnoxious colors and curly trees) is clearly define the various realms in the film by picking and choosing certain colors to represent them. The two prominent realms are the otherworldly afterlife (green/blue) and the mundane mortal realm (brown/beige/subdued colors). It’s important to be able to distinguish the worlds in this movie because one represents the crazy afterlife and one represents our boring mortal realm. I would classify this as an almost child-like way of directing the art in the film, since it’s very iconic and simplistic, which isn’t a bad thing.


Another helpful tool Burton sparingly uses for his otherworldly scenes is Aerial Diffusion, in which subjects pop out from the misty, blurred background. These scenes are lit up green against a blue background (or reversed for the opposite effect, making subjects in the background pop out) which pop right out at you in a more pleasing way than the shitty 3D we have nowadays. The colors take on an almost neon appearance, so much so that you automatically perk up to pay specific attention to what’s going on. You start to get that feeling of wonder as it creeps across your mind as you watch the events unfold. So few films are able to punctuate their scenes so effectively with this technique and why Beetlejuice is a cut above the rest, visually speaking.

That would be fine if it were just lighting and color. I mean, what else do you spoiled brats need? Well, there’s also Shape and Proportion. Burton makes things as angular and not-straight as possible in the afterlife realm to give it that dreamlike quality. He did the best with the budget he had back then, and though the film has obviously aged in terms of special effects, it still holds up due to its desired effect.


To creep you the fuck out.

Besides, something tells me that facilitating Tim Burton with an over-inflated special effects budget is just asking for trouble.



Since I want to bring up one other film in this article and not just yammer on incessantly about Beetlejuice, I’ll just throw out one last interesting detail: The one thing about Beetlejuice, the one element that follows none of the Art Direction rules set before it in the entire film… is Beetlejuice himself. He’s got a mess of wild yellow hair with a black and white, vertical striped suit to keep you uneasy about his entire character. He’s the most recognizable thing in the entire film, and it makes sense, if you think about it, because he’s the one rogue element to the entire story. He throws a wrench in everybody’s plans, so he has to be the one enemy to both the dead and the living. This is why Art Direction is important.


Alright, maybe that dreadful wedding dress qualifies as a second enemy.

Now, I’d like to talk about another classic film that uses its Art Direction to great effect:


The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, is an amazing movie. It won 12 awards, it has Morgan Freeman saying “Zihuatanejo,” it features prison rape/beatings, Rita Heyworth, yada yada… This movie is the most uplifting piece of—whoa, wha, what? Huh? Prison rape?! What the hell, man, this movie’s supposed to be one of those uplifting tear-jerkers where you cry because it’s so beautiful. That can’t happen while rape is afoot.

That’s the perplexing thing: How could a prison movie be so infinitely rewatchable? Drugs? Magic? Science!? Voodoo?!? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not because of the Andy rape scenes. No, it’s all due to Art Direction.

Perhaps the most overwhelming hurdle this movie has to face is that the primary colors in it are gray; gray uniforms, gray buildings, gray people. The color gray makes a person depressed and hopeless, which usually doesn’t result in happiness. It results in liquor and razors and ropes… However, if you’ll notice, there are multiple scenes in the film that make you feel cheerful. It’s not all prison rape or people shanking each other in the groin. These cheerful scenes usually come after the hopeless scenes. It’s almost like you have to suffer through some bitterness to get to the sweetness, and when it’s time for the sweetness to come out, guess what’s on screen most of the time?


The sky. That blue, blue sky.

That combined with a reminiscent rustic quality to the set design and a touch of yellow to soften up that gray gives us that feeling of ‘freedom’ that Andy speaks of later in the film. It almost seems like an old memory. Even when they’re not outright showing the sky, these scenes take place in the sunny daytime, so it invokes an upbeat vibe. Without the sky acting as a tonal facelift, I guarantee no one would want to watch this movie. It would be useful for wrist-slitting good times… but that’s the point: It’s not supposed to be depressing. It’s supposed to be happy DESPITE the setting. What the film sets out to do is alleviate grief, which, in a prison movie, is no easy feat. Thankfully, Art Direction exists to express what a script can’t.


A technique that the film employs as part of communicating the tone of a scene is through using key lights, rim lights (backlight, hairline lights, etc.) and fill lights (reflector lights). A key light shines a light on one side of the subject as its primary light. A rim light is used to highlight the back of the subject, creating a hard edge. The fill light is used to give more depth to the subject and generally fill the darker areas with a soft light. The film uses the combination of these lights to make the tension rise as it casts a shadow of judgment on the subject (no pun intended, I’m just brilliant like that). It’s a very simple way to control the tone of a scene and one that The Shawshank Redemption uses to brilliant effect, such as in this scene with Beelzebub… er, uh, Warden Hadley.


Man that guy’s creepy…



As I said, the entire movie is predominantly gray. I’d say it’s about 80% gray while the other 20% is blue, which is used to alleviate pent-up stress caused by all the gray and is usually welcomed with open arms.


Yeah, like that. It’s no accident that the lightning accents everything with a blue light in this scene. Even though it takes place at night (as it needs to be), the sky STILL emits that blue ‘freedom’ we so desperately need at this point in the film. The same goes for the last few minutes of the film as Red makes his way to Zihuatanejo when he mentions how he hopes “the Pacific Ocean is as blue as it has been in my dreams… I hope… I hope…” It is the color that fuels all hopes and desires in the film, and without it, it would be “that much more drab and empty.” Alright, I’ll stop with the quotes…

“Andy crawled to freedom through 500 hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine… or maybe I just don’t want to.”


Other movies with superb Art Direction:


The Fifth Element – The most inspired and engrossing utopian future society I have ever seen brought to life in a film. The colors are saturated, bright and vivid. It doesn’t really follow a lot of color rules to its scenery or characters, but what it lacks in consistency it makes up for with charm and intoxicating visuals.


The Matrix – Like Beetlejuice, The Matrix uses color to differentiate its worlds. Blue is used for the real world, while green is used for the Matrix. The Matrix is clean, bright and immaculate while the real world is gritty, grimy and dark. This goes for everything from clothes to set designs. A more perfect archetype for modern Art Direction was never made.


Who Framed Roger Rabbit – Not only are there two separate realms in this movie with toons on one side of the spectrum of absolute un-serious-laugh-nonstop and humans on the side of ultra-serious-no-niceness, but the color palettes for each couldn’t be more stark in contrast. Lighting is also used to great effect as stealthy, tense scenes are lit like a classic Noir film. The “normal world” scenes are colored in a sepia tone to give you that “emotional downtime.” All cartoons in this film, with the exception of Judge Doom at the end, only serve to alleviate tension in the film. Their saturated colors and non-threatening, kid-friendly exteriors help keep the tension low so you can, ya know, laugh.


You’re gonna laugh, but… Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey – The creators of this movie get absolutely no credit for what they’ve accomplished here. Not only do Hell, the real world and Heaven all have their own unique style and color palette, but they managed to direct each of those realms accordingly. If they’re ghosts in the real world, it’s a comedic parody of Poltergeist. If they’re in Hell, it’s a nightmarish romp through every bad memory you had as a child (Triple points for each “eternity” having its own color palette). If they’re in Heaven, well, it’s really white and glossy… I can’t really commend the movie too much, though, because the fun predictably slows down around the time they enter Heaven. It picks up again later, but I almost feel like the climax was in Hell, which had to be within the first 30 minutes or so. However, the characters are unforgettable. The “evil robot uses” have to be the most hilarious riff on Bill & Ted ever as R-rated, asshole versions of normal Bill & Ted… and I know I’m going off on a tangent here, but this movie is WAY under-appreciated, and did you know they’re making a third one, okay I’m just going to end this here.

So as all of you can now see (except Dave over there with your thumb up your butt), movies would be nothing without Art Direction. The more you think about your favorite movies, the more you’ll probably recollect how their design choices filtered into your mind convincing you to like them. Art Direction is like seduction. It doesn’t communicate ideas on an intellectual level. It bypasses the conscious and permeates the subconscious, signaling certain parts of your brain, which in turn affects your overall opinion of the movie. This is just the beginning, though! Go out and learn all the many subtleties of Art Direction for yourselves!

Some books I recommend:

  • Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll – A wonderful book on camera and lighting techniques from 100 classic films that every filmmaker must know.
  • Directing the Story by Francis Glebas – Storytelling and storyboarding techniques for Live Action and Animation.
  • Dream Worlds by Hans Bacher – Production Design for Animation
  • The Visual Story by Bruce Block – Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media

Header image courtesy of me. <3